Monday 23 April 2012

Bernardine Evaristo, Chair of Judges 2012, writer and poet

The Caine Prize has been instrumental in revitalizing African fiction, through both the prize and its annual creative writing workshops in Africa. We must remind ourselves that twelve years ago it seemed to be almost impossible for new African writers to get published beyond the continent, and certainly not in the UK. I can now think of scores of fiction writers published internationally in the past decade, many of whom have been touched, in some way, by the Caine Prize and its workshops.
So this prize is more than just another award that will sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year  – it is a force for change; it heralds what is new, excellent and exciting in short African fiction, which is usually a stepping stone to the longer form – the novel. This is why the responsibility involved in chairing this particular prize is greater than usual. There are five of us judges from the Sudan, Zimbabwe, the UK and USA and we are currently whittling down the entries. Who knows what stories will gain enough consensus to make the shortlist, a consensus based on our shared understanding of what constitutes top quality literature that, in my previous judging experience, might not accommodate maverick writing and interests.
I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa - in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?
I’m also looking for stories that display a strong, original streak, a writer who has a narrative voice, command of craft and ways of seeing that are different, fresh. I’d rather a story is provocative and unsettling rather than familiar, safe and perfectly accomplished. Yet risk-takers are rare. Among the submissions I’ve encountered a lot of uninspired prose that feels so dated, so Middle England circa 1950s, even though it might have been written in Central Africa in 2012. Luckily there are a few adventurers too. But we need more experimentation and daring, stunning image-makers and linguistic explorers who might, for example, infuse English with an African language or syntax. Not necessarily pidgin, but perhaps something else, something new – the English language (and forms) adapted, mutated, re-invented to suit African perspectives and cultures.
The age-old question remains – are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships, such as the big, international markets in Europe and America? It is understandable, of course, because these are the predominant publishing outlets. Certainly in Britain the taste-makers are, almost without exception, not African in origin. I ask myself - to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost? How might this contract the imagination and reduce expectations for readers and writers alike.
For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.  


  1. Lovely, thoughtful post on the State of the Caine Prize for African Writing here by Bernardine Evaristo, chair of the 2012 Caine Prize. I have my issues with the Caine Prize folks but I must give them full credit for thinking about these things and being willing to invest in continuous improvement. I love also that Evaristo calls it the Caine Prize, not the Caine Prize for African Writing. I wish they would make that title official. Can't wait to see the shortlist ;-)

  2. Interesting. Yet it seems to me that since after the Achebe-Ngugi-Soyinka generation, African writers' grasp of the initiative to determine what goes into their writings, what constitutes African literature in effect, has continued to grow weaker. I think there is a sort of prize-puppeteering going on, reinforced somewhat by the Caine Prize, of which African writing and its would-be producers are either conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious objects.

  3. Interesting read! Almost shocked to hear the CAine Prize is looking out for Risk takers, fantasy, Horror, chick lit are definitely not what I assumed the Caine Prize was looking to see. Great to know that a lot of thought has gone into this, and as I look forward to seeing the shortlist, I hope that we will be bold enough in the near future to write our own true tales; unashamedly while stoically being true to ourselves!

  4. It's heartening to see that judges are addressing their minds to some of the disquiet that some may have harboured concerning the prize in recent years. I have no issue with the prize as currently tagged, the 'Caine Prize for African Writing - it's allowed to style itself as it pleases. Like Iquo Eke however, I wouldn't expect genre fiction (fantasy, horror, chick-lit and so on) to win the Caine. Genre fiction is not literary fiction, and the Caine ought to concern itself with literariness, even as it seeks fresh, unstereotypical stories of the African kind.

  5. Glad that the Caine prize organisers listened to the call to move away from all the gore and poverty that African writing has become synonymous with.
    As for Genre fiction, I don't understand why some feel it should not be judged on the same pedestal as literary fiction. Here, our stories, those ones told under the full moon in the villages of old, had more elements of fantasy than not. True, when someone from the west writes about dwarfs and wizards, he (the writer) takes it with a pinch of salt, as something not probable. However, in much of Africa, stories of magic and the metaphysical find more tangible acceptance.
    Would, let's say, a story of a man who meet the mythical dwarfs of the forests and managed to steal their fabled wealth giving mat be considered fantasy?
    Would a story, having all the elements of literary fiction, but set in a Lagos of 2080 be considered not literary enough because it has elements of science fiction?
    I really think fiction should be judge based on merit and not what genre they are expressed with.