Wednesday 3 July 2013

Caine Prize Material by Nathan Hensley

The entries arrived to me in a box that had been destroyed in transit.  It was a cardboard container about the size of a small TV set -- maybe two feet cubed, and heavy.  Someone must have dropped it (more than once?) during its long journey between London and Washington, DC, because holding it together now were layers of packing tape, new strapped over old.  You could see stacked papers through a split running down the side; a corner had been torn apart.  It was a massive, imposing thing, this demolished box.  My back strained as I heaved it toward my office.

I don’t think I will ever forget opening it -- I remember feeling anxious (had all the stories arrived?) but also excited (would they be good?) and, most of all, tingly with a sense of responsibility.  (They had all arrived, and more remarkable, nearly all of them turned out to be gripping reads.)  It was humbling that these 100-plus stories had come to me at all.  What an honor, I thought, to have been vaulted into a group charged with doing the work of cultural consecration, separating “good” literature from “bad” and, inevitably, enforcing the standards that might determine what counts as good in the first place.  It is, to say the least, a big job. 

In a chapter called “Prizes and the Politics of World Culture,” literary critic James English explains that conferring global prizes like the Caine Prize always exposes a delicate problem.  That’s because “to honor and recognize local cultural achievement from a declaredly global vantage is inevitably to impose external interference on local systems of cultural value.  … There is no evading the social and political freight of a global award at a time when global markets determine more and more the fate of local [literary cultures]” (298).  The asymmetries of cultural and economic power that English references, familiar to anyone who follows debates about what he calls “prize culture,” resonated in my unconscious, even as my conscious mind paced through riveting stories of village life, urban violence, river journeys to rebel camps.  My double-consciousness was yet more pronounced when I read in the Library of Congress’s European Reading Room, which looks out on the U.S. Capitol, and whose ceiling lists the four universal elements -- air, water, earth, and fire -- as though it had the power to contain them all:

Ceiling of Library of Congress

The Caine Prize is awarded from a center of global prestige, Oxford, but lends that prestige to writing from an area that, as many of the submissions themselves attest, can seem far removed from airy cathedrals of leisure like the Library of Congress or the Bodleian.  Reading these stories produced, in me at least, a sense of disconnection between where they took place and where I was evaluating them. 

Some of the stories were funny; many found a place for redemption; others played irreverently with form; and not a few dealt movingly with feelings of dislocation I felt I could recognize, having come from no global metropolis but a California city best known for raisins.  Some of the most polished stories conformed to the mostly unwritten aesthetic rules of consecrating institutions like The New Yorker.  Others, to my mind better, took less familiar shapes, and elaborated vocabularies and images foreign to me: a plane crash caused by magic; infidelities rupturing a patriarchal North African home; a breathless ambulance chase through an urban zone; and episodic, first-person narratives of sexual violation, unconsoled by formal resolution. 

In his own blog post, John Sutherland writes convincingly of the material circumstances that make art possible.  My broken box of African writing made such material circumstances uncannily palpable.  Some stories had been printed on office paper – 8 ½ x 11 and A4 variously— while others arrived in bound and printed formats of all sizes: in literary journals from three continents, in Nigerian glossies, in a men’s magazine published from London.  Who had sent them?  From where?   From what material situations, in other words, had these documents been imagined, composed, and typed -- but also printed, stapled, mailed?  

The most important “matter” of art is ineffable: human experience, translated into form and made legible to another human being across time and space.  To access this kind of matter you can download the stories now, from wherever you happen to be sitting.  But there is another kind of matter, too, one I am glad to have accessed, if only for a time, in the piled-up jumble of these astoundingly good submissions.  I am referring to the physical fact of the stories in their material forms.  These artworks were created in any number of countries, in who knows what concrete circumstances; promoted by editors equally various in situation; received in a small office in London by staff members; reboxed there and shipped across the ocean to be handled by innumerable postal workers, dropped, and re-taped along the way.  Finally they arrived to me: a mass paper on which the experiences of other human beings have been transformed, as if by magic, into aesthetic form -- an amazing process of connection that is also, and in some final way, physical.

Whoever wins this year’s Caine Prize will experience both immaterial and material benefits: a feeling of profound accomplishment, perhaps, but also £10,000 and (we hope) exposure to a wider audience.  She or he will also visit Georgetown, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.  My colleagues and I look forward to welcoming the author in Washington and to inhabiting briefly the same space with him or her.  And I hope the winner’s journey is less bumpy than that of the document that won the ride.


English, James F.  The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural ValueCambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. 

Tuesday 25 June 2013

A private conversation with this year’s submissions by Sokari Douglas Camp, Caine Prize judge, 2013

As an African woman and artist living in London, I have always loved reading stories about the continent, and what a privilege it has been to read the stories submitted for the 2013 Caine Prize. I was taken to so many places without getting on a plane.

'Pink Head' Galvanised Steel  H 193 cm. Location  ARTZUID
 Amsterdam 22nd May - 22nd September 2013

I am used to admiring works of art, especially sculptures, all over the world. The museums and shows I frequent are designed to have character and to tell the viewer a story. As an observer, one takes in a lot when you see beautiful or ugly objects, one is able to imagine all sorts of scenarios as a result of what the artist and curators have created.  Taking the time to go to an exhibition or event is not as instantaneous as opening a book. The process of being a judge and keeping one’s opinions to one’s self has resulted in a very private conversation with this year’s submissions.

It has been captivating to read and concentrate on what characters are seeing and feeling.

Viewing works of art is often a public experience; it is in front of you, one can walk around or walk away. As I read the Caine Prize submissions in various locations - London, Venice, Amsterdam - it was wonderful to carry a story around with me, which I could dive into where ever I was. The descriptions of locations and textures were so vivid; when I looked up I expected to feel heat and to swipe at mosquitoes.

It was a hedonistic process to feel so much of what the characters felt; running on dusty roads and holding weapons bigger than a child’s hand - all from within the peaceful, wintery landscapes of the Western cities I visited.

My lasting memory of this batch of stories is reading about the predicament of so many girls and women on the continent. Is this the plight of my African sisters? Or is it the story of all women in the world? Survival for girls in so many of the stories was tough. In many ways it is a wonder that African women rise to the to the top anywhere in the world.

I salute these authors that have brought contemporary life and visions of the future into text. Beyond all else, it is great to be publicising something other than the Eurocentric view which is not everyone’s norm – not even in Europe. 

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo on her recently published novel 'We Need New Names'

Former Caine Prize Winner NoViolet Bulawayo’s searingly powerful debut novel We Need New Names has been greeted with widespread critical acclaim.

NoViolet Bulawayo (credit: Smeeta Mahanti)

She talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

Irenosen Okojie (credit: Samantha Watson)

Your novel is a powerful depiction of the fractured lives of children living in a shanty in Zimbabwe. How important was it to tell their story?

The book was written during Zimbabwe’s lost decade. If you follow Zimbabwean politics, that’s when the country really came undone for the first time since Zimbabwean independence.
For me that was really shocking because I had a beautiful childhood, so to see what was happening was devastating. My family’s still back home. We’ve heard those stories of there being no food in the stores, violence because of government elections, activists disappearing, some of them turning up dead. It just became important, especially to parallel the media narrative. I was living in the west and seeing things through the internet. I felt someone needed to tell an intimate story that showed what was happening on the ground and captured the full essence of characters. Having kids really allowed me to do that, they’re kids but disconnected from what’s going on. They still lived, laughed and played despite what was happening. It became a big, necessary project for me.

Ten year old Darling as a narrator rings authentic and true. We’re reading about these children having to cope with horrible circumstances yet because it’s told through a child’s eyes there’s an other worldliness about it. How hard was it to get her voice right?
It wasn’t hard, probably because I emerged writing through craft and the child narrator. As a creator, it’s something that I’d worked on since I started writing. When it came to Darling, I was a bit more seasoned. You have to play on your strengths and that’s what I did. I come from a culture where we just have character. Put a bunch of kids together and they shine, they survive. I had to go back to my own childhood and my childhood friends for that voice. It’s honest and that’s important. You don’t want somebody to read it and think that doesn’t sound right.

There’s bleakness in their circumstances but it’s also very funny. How did you strike that balance and was it deliberate?

I come from a place of laughter, absence of humour is not normal. Whatever we were doing, laughter was a constant dynamic in our lives no matter the circumstances. I was talking to my cousin about a recent funeral back home. And she said people were funny, even at a funeral. It doesn’t have to be depressing. I needed to make that conscious decision to remember to bring in humour. Although it was partly deliberate and partly not, that’s how I am in my everyday life. I’m not a serious person. My personality also comes through my writing, I have to be pleased. Also, I was aware that I was working from a politically charged space, very dense material. I needed to find a way to make it tolerable to read, that was important. Not just with this book. For me it’s important that whoever starts reading my work doesn’t put it down. Laughter carries you through and I have to connect to the reader. Humour allows me to do that.

The second half of the novel is set in America where Darling finds herself facing a different set of challenges. Did you draw on your own experiences?

I think all fiction is drawn from real experiences, people will tell you it’s fiction but it’s real. It’s either your own reality or somebody else’s. My moving to America is even more recent than my ten year old self.  It had to be convincing, some of my personality needed to appear on the page but also stealing from others, family, friends, people I knew. It’s interesting, when my family members read the book; I get phone calls saying so I saw such and such in the book! It’s one of those things; if it comes into my writing I don’t resist it.

What do you think the reaction to the novel will be like in Zimbabwe and what sort of dialogue do you hope it sparks?

In Zim, I have no idea. I can’t really say one way or the other but I know Zimbabweans have been reading my work. I blog, on Facebook they read bits of it. Mostly they’ve been supportive and there’s nothing like being supported by your own people. Especially now, sometimes you think they’re not reading but some of them are. In terms of reaction, what matters is that they read. I’ve written and they’ll read. Whether good or bad, as long as the work is read. My only prayer is that the work is available for people. I just went home, first time in thirteen years. I was surprised they were selling just stationery in what used to be the biggest bookstore, no books. If they’re no novels available, people aren’t accessing books and that’s dangerous. The genealogy of our literature has always been engagement. It means there’s a disconnect somewhere. I’m hopeful, people on the ground are asking me for the book and on Facebook. I’ll be releasing it in Zim so there are ways they can access it. I hope we can work something out to make the book affordable and available in libraries.

How has being a writer in diaspora shaped your writing and how do you think it’s affected your sense of identity?

It’s quite interesting that I had to leave home to discover myself as a writer. I come from a culture where I never saw writers growing up. I read books and most of the books were by western writers. But beyond that, writing was never a career option to me. You had to be a nurse, doctor, a lawyer, which I went to the US to study or an engineer. I know that being in the diaspora for me meant I was given the golden opportunity to come into myself, to study creative writing which I wouldn’t have done in Zimbabwe. I would have studied a Masters in Finance. With the cost of leaving home came the benefit of discovery. For me it was when I embraced my Zimbabweaness more. At home, it wasn’t necessary; you’re surrounded by Zimbabweans so it was never an issue. Your race is never an issue because you’re living in a space where everyone looks like you. Then going out, you realise, I’m not from here. I’m this other thing. This other thing is not always at home in a space that can be both welcoming and marginalising. Which is why I’m obsessed with my homeland in my writing. It’s certainly made me fall in love with my roots even more. I can’t find that grounding sense of identity where I am which is why when it comes to identifying myself as a Zimbabwean writer, I feel I am. I don’t just want to be called a writer. For me that identity is important, it meant survival and grounding. We’re living in a time where technology’s so prevalent. This book wouldn’t have been written without that. I was getting on Facebook, seeing people and teachers updating about what was happening back home and that fed into the whole process.

You won the Caine Prize for Hitting Budapest. How did that help as a launch pad for your career?

When the Caine Prize is mentioned, I remember I’ve spent all the money. On a serious note, it gave me confidence especially because it happened at a time when I was just starting out. In as much as I love writing and know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing but when you’re young you really think about things. You know you’re expected to be doing something that’s more secure. You live in a practical world of bills, of supporting family especially those of us in the diaspora. You have to be sensible but it showed me that I could make it.

How important do you think the Caine Prize is for profiling African writers?

It’s the biggest prize in Africa, it’s very necessary. There aren’t so many things happening on the continent itself. It’s a western prize in a sense but that doesn’t undermine it. It’s still important, whether you’re looking at people who’ve been short listed or won, they’ve gone on to do amazing things. I’d like it to be more engaged on the continent. I know there was a workshop run which is cool. It gives people the opportunity to workshop when we don’t have a strong workshop culture. But I’d like to see a Caine Prize winner do a residency in Africa. Send that person to a school to work with kids. Young people are very impressionable and I think that would make a difference.

From Hitting Budapest, the story then evolved into a novel. Tell us about the trajectory.

It’s the first chapter in the novel so people think that it actually came first. The thing is, it actually came while I was working on the novel. It was in a different form then. When I got to Hitting Budapest, the story found its pulse. Then I had to rework the book and I reworked it a million times. Moving it forward and shaping it around these kids.

What’s your writer’s process?

I don’t have a fancy, high sounding process myself.  I try and envision a story in my head. Write as much as I can inside my head. Maybe that’s because I was brought up on hearing stories. I think of a story first versus it written down. Then I’ll write it in my notebook, edit as much as I can to get the language right. Then I bring it to the gadgets. I’m laid back and I don’t write every day. Writing isn’t always writing in terms of doing the physical act, I’m processing things in my head all the time. I’m an observer of life. I think about things and my characters. So I’m always in one way or another, involved in the process. I try not to stress, I’m not a serious person. I don’t take things seriously. There are times when I look at my work and think, that’s interesting or that could have been better! I think it’s necessary to be objective but the main thing is to enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy it more if I don’t over think it. I just work from instincts. It’s interesting to hear intelligent people or critics discuss things I may not necessarily have worried about. You know things that just happened.

What sort of stories are you interested in telling?

I’m interested in stories that say something about who we are and engage with social issues. My art has to have meaning; it has to have people talking about things that matter. Like We Need New Names, there’s so much about that that I wanted to say. That’s what drives me for now, you never know what will come in future but to have a dialogue going and people talking about things.

Who are some of your literary influences?

The storytellers in my life, our literature is oral. There was a time when I read nothing but literature in my native language which was still for me a form of engagement. I learned so much about storytelling from those and about language itself. Then there were people like Yvonne Vera, Toni Morrison, Edward P Jones, the usual suspects. Young writers now are just creating brilliant work. Writers like Justin Torres and then you have people online who may not necessarily be published. I’m creating at a very vibrant time. It’s a good time to be a writer and of course I’m connected to young writers, Africans and otherwise. We’re having interesting conversations.

Which book do you wish you’d written and why?

I wish I’d written the bible! Seriously, everybody reads the bible. I approach the bible as a storybook. I don’t come from a seriously Christian background. As kids you didn’t have the whole picture and we were told these bible stories and they were just stories to us. I would have made it NoViolet’s bible. I may write a novel in that kind of style. Look me up in five or six years and see!

What are you working on next?

I’m working on recovering from writing and promoting We Need New Names. I’m working on a collection of stories. I’m not trying to force it, sometimes there’s this pressure to go straight onto the next book. In as much as I want something to come along, it will come along when it does.


Wednesday 5 June 2013

John Sutherland, Judge 2013; columnist and Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor at UCL

Why is the standard pop music track around three minutes? Because, on the old wind-up gramophone that was as long as the steel spring could keep the disc revolving at 78rpm.

Why do films have musical ‘soundtracks’ and theatrical plays don’t? Because silent films (i.e. those before 1925) had either little orchestras, or pianists. It’s another ‘cultural inertia’ which just, somehow, hung about long after its time had gone.

Why do people dress up, and behave more ‘correctly’ at the theatre than the cinema? Because, for 200 years, theatres operated under ‘royal’ licence.

My point---one I believe in fervently---is that material circumstances condition art.

Which leads to the question I’d pose here. Why are African writers so damned good at short stories? Short, where narrative is concerned, is not easy: it requires more art.

Having just read 100 entries (the bulk of them short stories) for this year’s Caine Prize I’ve been struck by this almost universal mastery (is there a word ‘mistressy’---there should be) of the short form.

Two things particularly constitute that mastery. One is the ability to grab the reader from the first sentence. I’ll give one example, from Elnathan John’s Bayan Layi:

The boys who sleep under the Kuka tree in Bayan Layi like to boast about the people they have killed.

Twenty-five words, and the hook is in the jaw. I would defy anyone not to read on.

There’s no room here to go into the intricate techniques of short narrative. But the other thing which strikes me (and, to put my cards on the table, I come from a different literary tradition) is the control of ‘voice’. One hears, rather than reads. It’s a powerful---at times overwhelming---effect. The ears ring.

Returning to my little riff on ‘material circumstances create art’ there seem to me to be two factors at work here. African writing (it’s a strength) still has roots firmly in oral traditions. If you tell a story orally, you can’t go on too long---it’s cut to the chase from those first 25 words. The other factor is that Africa, until recently, has never had the publishing infrastructure that Europe has built up over 500 years. No HarperCollins, no Viking-Penguin . There is, I think, something uneasy-making that every major work of Chinua Achebe was given the world by courtesy of a British or American publishing house. Colonialism of the imprint. Short stories can slip past that barrier.

Having thought about this year’s Caine entries (would, incidentally, there were ten ‘first prizes’) two things give me pause for thought. Large African states do now have their own publishing industries. And a surprising number of entries for this year’s Caine are from graduates (in some cases instructors) in the thriving ‘creative writing’ classes in the US / UK. 

These two factors will, I think, bring new creative pressures onto African fiction.  How that works out is for the judges in the 2023 Caine Prize to report on. 

Friday 12 April 2013

Leila Aboulela, Judge 2013; writer and winner of the inaugural Caine Prize in 2000

Today I finished reading all the stories submitted for this year’s Caine Prize. In February the postman had delivered a sumptuous box full of books, journals, magazines and photocopied sheets.  I opened it straight away. Inside was the future winner of the 2013 Caine Prize and I was going to play a part in discovering him or her.  What struck me first was the practicality of running a prize.  Each book, for example, had a typed label on the front cover with the name of the submitted story and the page numbers. A spread-sheet, three pages long, listed each entry by title, author, country of origin, publication and whether the story was included in a book, journal or as a photocopy (most of the photocopies were internet publications). Each of the five judges must have received an identical box.  A lot of hard work had gone into this, I thought. Running a prize was not an easy matter.
And would judging it be any easier? At first I dug in and read haphazardly but I had to develop some system. I decided to grade the stories.  I gave a D to those stories that should not have been published in the first place, let alone submitted. I gave a C to the mediocre ones. And I gave an A to the exceptional, outstanding ones, the kind of stories I would want to pass on to friends, the kind of stories I would be keen to recommend. As for the Bs, they intrigued me the most because here was talent that needed development, here were shy voices that needed to be raised a notch, here were first drafts that needed more work and here were flashes of brilliance bogged down by clumsy skills and what I suspected to be lack of sufficient exposure to critical reading and editorial support. Perhaps the As would forge ahead no matter what but the Bs were the ones in need of encouragement    

In conclusion, the statistics were as follows:
            A s      19 stories        18.4%
            B s      26 stories        25.2%
            C s     36 stories        35%
            D s     22 stories        21.4%

I made notes on the As and Bs and I am now looking forward to reading them again. But before I started on this next stage, I decided to jot down the top ten stories that made the biggest initial impression on first reading, the ones that stood out in my memory.   It turned out that six of them were ones I had given an A grade and four a B. Perhaps they would be the stories I would take with me to the judges’ short-list meeting, perhaps on a second reading I would swap them for others.  Have I steered away from the more brutal themes? Am I more inclined towards the domestic and emotional?  I am looking forward to discussing my choices with the other judges.  I am sure my own tastes would be challenged at times but hopefully, too, my instincts would be confirmed.

Nearly every submitted story reflected the economic, political and social difficulties of life in Africa.  The writers did not shy away from sensitive issues or gruelling realities.  But serious subject matters do not guarantee a good story.  There are other qualities that are more important – creative imagination, skills, the ability to invoke delight,  plough depth, stir drama and chart connections, a sense of place, history and culture,  characters who intrigue, an individual vision. Here are some of the notes I jotted down on the entries I judged worth re-reading, the ones that scored As and Bs

Earthy, confident writing with a sense of integrity
Poetic and strange
Chilling with a neat ending
No-nonsense rending of a familiar tale of tragedy
Spirited, universal
Vibrant, great opening line
Confident, superb pacing
Wacky, gripping,
Fluid narrative, touching
Bold…. I want to read more from this writer.
Throughout the past two months I have read approximately one hundred stories and kept company with the diverse voices of African writers. A literary prize such as the Caine confers recognition, exposure and an international stamp of approval.  African writers deserve their place in the sun.  Whatever their themes, regardless of their chosen setting,  at the end of the day it is excellent writing that makes the powerful impact, it is the cream which rises to the top.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

"The Africa I recognise and love" by Augustus Casely-Hayford, Chair of Judges 2013.

When earlier this year Ansar Dine fled Timbuktu pursued by the French contingent of the African-led International Support Mission, it seemed like UN Security Council Resolution 2085 had been fulfilled.

The bad guys were in the retreat, aid and support was forthcoming, and the ancient libraries of Timbuktu and the adobe shrines had been saved with barely a shot fired.

But then came the reports of a traumatised populous, of seemingly ransacked libraries and the abandoned carcasses of empty archive boxes. The unthinkable nightmare had occurred - retreating Ansar Dine had meted out an ideological scorched earth strategy, destroying or stealing some of the most valuable contents of the great libraries of Timbuktu.

They knew the significance of stories, of how libraries can be repositories of identity. If we needed reminding, it showed us again what we had learned from previous conflicts across the continent; the importance of narrative, of stories that can be used like weapons to bind peoples together more powerfully than any contract, as ideological rallying points and totems. It is as true today as when Timbuktu was home to one of the great medieval universities of the world.

In the wake of the liberation of Timbuktu, there are renewed hopes that the stories of archives emptied in the fog of war might not have been wholly accurate. They have been counteracted by new stories of salvaged manuscripts being secreted south, or even carried north to be buried in the desert. The only thing that is clear is the importance of words, the power of ancient stories, the potency of new narratives and the way in which they are charged.

Gus visited Timbuktu when he presented the "Lost Kingdoms of Africa" series for BBC 4. 

For Africans, fighting for the right to tell their stories is something that has been hard won – whether in the form of the establishment of ancient libraries, or the challenging of colonial regimes or repressive governments, words have been our allies.

It is one of the reasons why I have been a long-term Caine Prize groupie.

Over the last decade, I have read the short-listed stories, speculated on who the winners might be and, after the announcement, I have followed the subsequent writing of contributors over the years.

The true impact of this prize is difficult to calculate.

Over its lifetime there have been seismic shifts in publishing economics, distribution mechanics and international book-culture – and African and diasporic authors have been profoundly impacted - but the Caine Prize has stood as one of the few positive constants.

Looking back, the direct benefit to many of the shortlisted authors and eventual winners is clear to see, but I would imagine that Sir Michael Caine (after whom the prize was posthumously named) would have been equally proud of the more ineffable by-product, of simply reminding us of the important and particular contribution of African and diasporic writing to contemporary literature.

As I have begun to read this year’s submissions, I am once again made vividly aware of that particular voice. This is not just cutting edge writing of real quality, but at its best it offers a unique window onto Africa as it confronts the stresses and profound changes that the 21st century has bestowed upon the Continent. Caine writing does not describe the Africa of 24 Hour News, but it somehow captures that little heard voice of the loving, laughing, crying, complex Africa that I recognize and love.