Monday 25 June 2012

Maya Jaggi, Judge 2012, Cultural journalist and critic

I was in the Arctic last week to interview one of Africa's leading novelists. Nuruddin Farah - who now lives in Cape Town - was in Norway's far north to tell a gathering of Ibsen experts by the sea about the impact of the great Norwegian playwright on his fiction. Henrik Ibsen's dramas spoke across centuries, continents and languages to a Somali would-be writer already disturbed by the constraints on women in his own society.

Africa's stories, such as Farah's, now captivate readers around the globe, much as Ibsen's plays have done. They reveal truths to them, not only about aspects of the immense African continent, but about their own lives. As Wole Soyinka responded when I once told him of some critics' surprise at the universality of his writing: "The universal always comes out of the particular, whether you're French or Russian or Nigerian. I'm surprised they're surprised."

As a critic (and previous Caine prize judge in 2006), I don't prescribe - or proscribe - writers' subject-matter. Writers are often chosen by their subjects, rather than the other way round. More at issue are the language, artistry and imagination with which those subjects are handled. As this year's shortlist illustrates, far from being a throat-clearing exercise for the heroic task of the novel, a fine short story can contain a universe.

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