Tuesday 25 November 2014

Una Well Done O. Bye Bye by Zukiswa Wanner

In April this year, a list of the top 39 writers from the African continent under the age of 40 was released at the London Book Fair.  There too, the baton was handed over from Bangkok to Port Harcourt as the UNESCO 2014 World Book Capital. The Africa39 writers would attend Port Harcourt Book Festival in October to celebrate this double achievement for the African continent. It seemed like a match made in book heaven.

(Bloomsbury, 2014)
In my mind (as one of the 39), I started having ideas of my time in Port Harcourt with the other 38. I would eat native soup while asking Taiye Selasi where I could buy a jacket like hers; practice my very rusty French by asking Richard Ali Mutu to top up my champagne glass; possibly photograph Lola Shoneyin, Hawa Golakai, Okwiri Oduor, Nana Brew-Hammond and Shafinaaz Hassim in one of those girl-power poses with fireworks in the background. All this of course happening at the opening night cocktail event at the Governor’s mansion who I had read was a lover of literature and studied it in university.  My grandmother used to accuse me of always having my head in the clouds. She was right.  Twenty three of the 39 writers turned up in Port Harcourt so obviously the festival was never going to live up to my imagination. It appeared the festival organizers did not try to either (in their defence, they had no idea of my lofty expectations).

Africa39 (for photo credit see Brittle Paper blog)

I tend to like planning ahead so the first thing I did on arrival after check-in at the hotel on Sunday night was to ask for the programme. I was informed I would receive one in 15 minutes. By Monday breakfast, I still hadn’t received it so was unsure what was happening. I went to some of the young organizers and again I was informed I would get it within 15 minutes. It didn’t happen then.

Small tale of cocktails  
Having finally found out that we had a free day which I spent gisting with Hawa Golakai, Ukamaka Olisakwe and Chibundu Onuzo. We parted around four so we could shower and dress up for the welcoming cocktail party by the pool.   Ja. Ok. So it wasn’t at the Governor’s mansion but that wasn’t going to deter any of us from wearing the special dresses for this do. Hawa and I even wore heels. Me. In heels. And when we came downstairs – fashionably late 30 minutes from when the cocktail party was to begin – the cocktail party hadn’t started. We spotted Abubakar Ibrahim wearing a t-shirt and told him to return to his room and change into something better. We weren’t going to allow him, however brilliant and good looking he is, to be an Africa39 Brand Eroder (thanks Bibi Bakare for this lovely phrase). We shouldn’t have bothered Abu. The organizing staff who attended the event were mostly in their festival t-shirts.
There were no fireworks at the cocktail party.
No cocktails or mocktails either.
Just sodas.
And a goodie bag. With the programme (yay, finally); two hard covers entitled Port Harcourt By the Book and NIGERIAN LITERATURE: A coat of many colours , the festival t-shirt, a festival-branded flask, a pen, a notebook (all of which I was very grateful for). I also received a self-help book from Joel Olsteen which, I suppose, was the World Book part of the World Book Capital. I gave it to the woman in Housekeeping the next morning. She gave me extra water bottles for the rest of the week.

The Programme
There were seven events that the Africa39 writers were expected to take part in. This may sound like an intense schedule for a six day festival but it wasn’t really. After the opening ceremony with Bishop Matthew Kukah as the Keynote Speaker (this continent needs more conscientious clergy and humans like him) on Tuesday, our next event was at the University of Port Harcourt on Wednesday. Bless editor of Africa39 Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. She somehow managed to facilitate a discussion with all 22 of us (Igoni hadn’t arrived yet) while holding the attention of the audience of students and literature academics. There were two more Meet the Author occasions with all of us on Thursday and Friday at Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre and at Alliance Francaise respectively.  There were also two Meet the Author panels at the main venue where writers were split into groups of 11 per panel.  As these panels were never more than two hours, none of the writers ever had occasion to talk for longer than ten minutes. Tragicomic this because writers couldn’t share their wisdom. To be fair though, anyone who isn’t a writer but has attended more than one literary festival, should be able to regurgitate writerly wisdom to FAQs.

Caine Prize Deputy Chair Ellah Allfrey facilitating a discussion with Africa39 writers
(photo credit: Brittle Paper Blog)

Audience Member:  How do I become a writer?
Important Writer (takes microphone. Clears throat. Pregnant pause so perhaps profound answer?): Read. Read a lot. And write.
AM: You story talks about a prostitution/homosexuality. Don’t you feel that your harlot/gayism writings go against our African culture?
IW (thinking she/he is Jesus and can answer a question with a question): Which and whose African culture?

The only panel which seemed to have substance because of time permitted was the one on the Caine Prize. On panel were three past winners: Rotimi Babatunde (2012), Tope Folarin (2013) and Okwiri Oduor (2014). Ellah Allfrey led the discussion. Questions that have been making rounds on social media on the validity and the Africanness of the Caine Prize were ably dealt with by the panelists.

Caine Prize 2014, 2013 & 2012 winners - Okwiri Oduor, Tope Folarin and Rotimi Babatunde
(Photo Credit Brittle Paper Blog)

It was fun to hang around with writers I had known and admired from afar and meet new ones during the Port Harcourt Book Festival.  For this I shall always be grateful to the organizers for inviting me. Some members of the organizing committee also took time out of their schedules to show us around Port Harcourt after hours.

Communication between the organisers and the writers could have been better. Some authors came with their books but were never told where to have them for sale. Too often too, we were told to wait in the lobby to go somewhere at a certain time only to find ourselves there for a pretty long time. I also couldn’t help thinking when I checked out that, with a hotel bill of about 175 thousand Naira for each writer who attended, perhaps we could have been better utilized. Panels should have been smaller.  Some writers could have done schools outreach. We would have interacted more with people from the UNESCO World Book Capital better beyond Hotel Presidential. 

As it was, what I took away from the Port Harcourt Book Festival was a warm welcome from Nigerian writers including those who were not part of Africa39; the lingering taste of suya brought from outside the hotel gate; the hospitality of Sarah and Favour in the main restaurant; and from the organizers to my fellow 39ers and me, a sarcastic ‘una well done o. bye bye.’

Thursday 6 November 2014

Surgical Anatomy - the bare bones of storytelling by Stanley Kenani

Caine Prize One Day Short Story Surgery in Port Harcourt

A day before the start of the Port Harcourt Book Festival, 14 writers came to the Niger Delta from all parts of Nigeria. Fifteen writers were selected from a list of 46 eligible applicants. One, however, could not make it at the last minute. So, these participants gathered in one of the conference rooms of the Presidential Hotel for a day-long short story surgery.

The short story surgery participants at Port Harcourt (Photo credit: Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya)

The team of facilitators comprised three people: the lead facilitator was Caine Prize Deputy Chair, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and the two co-facilitators were Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (shortlisted in 2013); and Stanley Onjezani Kenani (shortlisted in 2008 and 2012).

Facilitator Ellah Allfrey and the two co-facilitators, Abubakar Ibrahim (left) and Stanley Kenani

What, you may ask, is a short story surgery?

In its typical sense, a short story surgery is a step-by-step strategy that allows students to cut open their drafts and mess with the guts, adding or removing chunks to a piece. It is a tool that appeals to kinesthetic learners – and to everyone who thought writing was boring.

But that is not what we did in Port Harcourt. The surgery was of a different kind.

From the start we were worried about the methodology, about what to put in and what to leave out. The task was not made any easier by the fact that participants were of varying degrees of aptitude. There was a temptation to throw in everything: opening, voice, setting, point-of-view, character, dialogue, details, ending and many other aspects of the craft. But people spend years studying all these. A day was therefore far from enough. Besides, those with more polished skills could get bored if we dwelt on the basics.
Olufemi Terry

After some email exchanges and a Skype conference call, the co-facilitators agreed on the way forward. We started by workshopping Olufemi Terry’s "Stickfighting Days", which was awarded the 2010 Caine Prize. We divided ourselves into three groups, and each group analysed the story based on a key element of the craft: setting, language and character. 

"Stickfighting Days" is published by 
New Internationalist in the 2010 Caine Prize
anthology, A Life in Full

Perhaps no story could have been more suitable for the occasion. "Stickfighting Days" drew mixed feelings from the participants. There were those who liked how the story handled each aspect of the craft examined. Overall, students liked the cinematic feel of the story, and the fact that from its opening, “Thwack thwack”, we dive straight into action. But there were also those who questioned everything...

Character: Why are all the characters alarmingly violent? A participant went so far as declaring: there is nothing I like about this story – so violent!

Setting: Why doesn’t the author name the country in which the story takes place? “That could have made me understand the story better,” said a participant. I was in the camp of those to whom the naming of the place did not matter. “This makes the story universal,” said a participant who shared similar views. “The setting could be Nairobi, Mumbai, Lagos, Cape Town – anywhere. They have rubbish dumps in all those places and more.”

Language: Why are characters using language such as ‘psychologically,’ yet they do not seem to have had the benefit of formal education? And what was the original language of the characters? English? Yoruba? Zulu? Against which others argued: does that matter?

The second part of the surgery involved discussing the stories of the participants themselves. Everyone had read these stories ahead of the surgery, and co-facilitators had made notes on each. Again participants were divided into three groups, and, with the author in a gag, each story was discussed in turn. Here, participants became surgeons: they tore into the stories as diplomatically as possible, providing vital constructive criticism in the process. Co-facilitators ended the day by providing one-on-one feedback to the participants.

According to the Director of the Caine Prize, Dr Lizzy Attree, the Port Harcourt One Day Short Story Surgery is a one-off event, for now, and was devised with the Port Harcourt Book Festival as part of the celebration of their 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital status.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Outstanding line up at Nigeria's 2014 Ake Arts and Book Festival

One of Africa’s largest literary events, the Ake Arts and Book Festival, will run over five days from 18th-22nd November in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. The theme of Ake’s second ever festival is ‘Bridges and Pathways’, with discussions focusing on ‘building bridges between Africa peoples, especially along language, ethnic and gender lines, and charting new paths with the aim of creating synergy and cultural cross fertilisation on the African continent.’

The exciting line up includes several writers who have been part of the Caine Prize journey over the years, including Caine Prize Patron, Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; three Prize winners, Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Olufemi Terry (2010) and Rotimi Babatunde (2013); three shortlisters, Florent Couao-Zotti (2002), Mukoma Wa Ngugi (2009) and Abubakar Ibrahim (2013); and several workshop participants, including Ayodele Morocco-Clarke (2011), Bryony Rheam (2014) and Clifton Gachagua (2014); and former judge, Bernardine Evaristo (2012). Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree will also feature in the programme, in the panel discussion entitled “What are publishers looking for?”

The festival will involve 13 panel discussions with stimulating topics ranging from "Writing Back/Writing Forward: Representations of Africa in New Fiction”, chaired by Lizzy Attree, to “Slave Narratives and the Burden of Memory,” featuring the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who has recently won the prestigious Forward Prize for the best poetry collection of 2014, for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion, based on dialogue between a mapmaker striving to impose order on an unfamiliar land and a Rasta-man who queries his project.

The books up for discussion at the Festival
Other activities include master classes on science fiction writing, comic drawing and documentary making from distinguished professionals; art exhibitions; drama displays; documentaries; poetry readings; school visits; and book chats. Ten books have been chosen for discussion, giving the audience the chance to interact with the authors. One of the books up for discussion this year is Children of Paradise written by acclaimed British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright Fred D'Aguiar, the novel explores the events surrounding the Jonestown tragedy.

The festival will also screen a new documentary, made by Yaba Badoe, about the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo.  The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo celebrates Aidoo and her work as one of Africa’s foremost women writers, and brings it to new audiences.

Yaba Badoe's documentary about Ama Ata Aidoo will be screened at Ake Festival
On the sidelines of the festival, an annual multi-lingual, cross cultural literary journal called Ake Review aims to create a platform for showcasing and discussing current trends in African arts and culture. Kola Tubosun recently interviewed Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree for Ake Review about how the Prize has developed over its fifteen year history – A Prize is Only As Good as Those Who Enter.

With the extraordinary line up of authors, and broad ranging topics for discussion, participants are in for an exhilarating few days in Abeokuta this year.

Saturday 12 July 2014

The African Short Story in Question by 2014 Judge, Nicole Rizzuto

Professor V.Y. Mudimbe
In a foundational essay in African literary studies, the critic V.Y. Mudimbe once posed the provocative question, is African literature a myth or a reality? (“African Literature: Myth or Reality?” African Literary studies, The Present State/L’etat présent, ed. Stephen Arnold, pp. 7-11. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985).  His answer is equally provocative: there is no real, true nature of African literature we can locate that exists in itself. This is not because, as some have argued, African literature is a copy of literatures from elsewhere, a “belated” cultural form that imports techniques of expression and modes of thought from outside of the continent.  Some such arguments have viewed the oral tradition, not the literary, as the true form of authentic African culture. Mudimbe, however, wants to question the oppositions posed between the indigenous and foreign, authentic and inauthentic, the oral and literary. 

The critic asserts that the reason there is no such thing as an essential nature to African literature is that African literature, like literatures from anywhere, cannot be separated from the multiple contexts in which it emerges and to which it also responds. These contexts—publishing houses both large and small, literary journals, school classrooms, academic conferences, and now fanzines, blogs, even twitter feeds —are always in the process of establishing and re-establishing procedures for measuring, classifying, and defining what African literature is. The Caine Prize for African Writing is another such context. The selection of short stories submitted for the prize this year is a testament to the capacity of contemporary writing to make us rethink assumptions that underlie such procedures of judging.  
The short stories—nearly one hundred and fifty of them received this year—challenged the very concept of what an African short-story is, if we understand by this term a category defined according to dominant taxonomizing conventions: the national, regional, or continental origins of a work’s author; the institutions and media through which it is published, diffused, and marketed; the topics it treats; the formal strategies it employs; the genre it embodies.  These works possessed an astonishing range of subjects and styles, and were written and published across multiple regions, nations, continents, and platforms. They created literary worlds that were just as diverse, extending from the prosaic to spectacular, the quotidian to the magical. 

Rotimi Babatunde

 In these worlds, a household pet becomes an     esteemed and then disgraced local politician 
  (Rotimi Babatunde,” Howl” in A Memory This 

Diriye Osman,
Photo credit
Boris Mitkov

The Sleeping Beauty fairytale is queered through the staging of a love story between a young refugee from Somalia living in Moi’s Kenya and his kindergarten classmate (Diriye Osman, “Fairytales for Lost Children” in Jungle Jim). 

George Makana Clark

A man searching for redemption confesses his sins of “trafficking in human souls” and traveling to the edge of the Portuguese empire and the coastal city of Luanda in the 18th century with his father and an abducted infant  (George Makana Clark, “The Incomplete Priest” in Ecotone). 

Leonora Miano

A new kinship formation emerges when a teacher becomes a surrogate parent to a young woman thrown out of her house, accused by her mother of being a witch (Léonora Miano, “The Open Door of Paradise” in Transition). 

Annie Holmes

And a teenager steals away with her girlfriend for sex during a family send-off for her brother, whose fate in the Rhodesian Light Infantry she worries over as his departure approaches (Annie Holmes, “Leaving Civvie Street” in Queer Africa).


Taken as a whole, but also viewed individually, the stories not only stretched generic categories such as modernism, realism, and naturalism, but also troubled attempts to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic spheres, the literary from the political, historical, environmental, or economic. Their plotting, focalizations, narrative voices, rhetorical devices, and structural features call into question the idea that there might be any single definition or model against which the African short-story might be measured. They give us a view into an African literature of the present and future in ongoing conversation with, and re-imagination of, literary and historical pasts.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

A world in itself by 2014 Judge, Gillian Slovo

I went to France last weekend, to celebrate the wedding of the son of two of my closest friends to his long time girlfriend. Neither the bride nor groom nor any of their close families are French but they chose to have their ceremony in a garden in a French village because the location held special meaning for their growing love.  And, continuing on this theme, they designed their wedding ceremony as a way of joining their different identities.  She comes from a devout Catholic family and he comes from a long line of secular Jews, and theirs was a wedding of deliberate inclusion. It took place in a French garden, under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish canopy, with a contingent of Norwegian women relatives wearing drakter – the long robes that they don once a year to commemorate their community’s past – and the whole ceremony was presided over jointly by a male Catholic priest, and a woman rabbi.
Helon Habila

As the ceremony unfolded I was reminded of my fellow judge, Helon Habila’s thoughtful blog for the Caine prize where he talked about what makes tradition.  Helon quoted TS Eliot’s assertion that tradition cannot be inherited but be must be made by great labour.  I thought about the ramifications of this as I stood witness to two young people who were using their wedding to begin to carve their new tradition out of their different pasts.  As I thought about this, some of the multi-stranded stories that I had the privilege to read as a Caine juror came back to me.

I thought about the stories we had shortlisted – and how much I was going to enjoy reading them again for the final stage of the judging process - and then I thought about the stories that we had reluctantly to leave out of our shortlist.  I thought about Annie Holmes’s "Leaving Civvy Street" from the Queer Africa collection.  It’s a story set in the former Rhodesia and peopled by white characters we used to call “old Rhodies”.  Although I am not Zimbabwean, these characters were so familiar to me from a now mercifully changed South African past so that while I was reading Annie’s story I was simultaneously re-visiting my own past and seeing it with new eyes.  

Mukoma wa Ngugi
(photo credit:
David Mariampolski)
And then I thought about Mukoma wa Ngugi’s "Wounded Men": the life, in a few pages, of a boxer who crossed continents only to end up dying a typical Kenyan death. I am a novelist, accustomed to the long form, but what Mukoma wa Ngugi did for me in such a short number of words was invite me into a world of men that was unfamiliar, but which I understood as I watched it unfold on the page. And from wa Ngugi I re-visited a different story: Maurine Ogbaa’s "Chariot" that summoned up a world of women struggling to retain their identities, and make their own lives, in near impossible circumstances.

What all of these stories, and the ones we selected for our shortlist, did for me was to immerse me in worlds that I knew to a greater or lesser extent but that I came away, having read the stories, knowing from the inside.  I didn’t worry about which country, or which tradition, I was reading: instead I found myself gripped by the characters, their histories and their immediacy.  Each story a world in itself and which, like the couple whose wedding I went to celebrate, were using their pasts, their presents, and their imaginations, to create narratives that continued to intrigue me long after I had turned the last page.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Tradition and the African writer by 2014 Judge, Helon Habila

What is African literature, who decides what it is, who reads it, who reviews it, who is African? These are questions that have been asked ad nauseum over the years. It is a question that I believe the Caine Prize for African Writing has been helping us answer over the last decade and a half.  Not by ivory tower literary critics, but by writers, story by story, sentence by sentence.

This year we have looked at stories as diverse in style and theme as one can imagine, many of which didn’t get shortlisted (at a point we despairingly asked the Director, Lizzy Attree, if it is possible to enlarge the shortlist to six instead of five). There was “Howl”, from A Memory This Size, about a learned dog, by former winner, Rotimi Babatunde, written in the folkloric tradition; there was “Calculus in the Afternoon” from Kwani?, by Mehul Gohil, raw and heartfelt and beautifully written about an Asian/African student in Australia; and there was the faultless and humorous “Bury Babu on Sandy Bay” by Achmat Dangor; there was a strangely beautiful detective story “Eloquent Notes on a Suicide” by Blessing Musariri; there were fantasy stories about people disappearing into their computer screens, about strange visitations by even stranger beings; there was a lot of sex, gay and straight, and yes, this is all African fiction…

Looking at this diversity and profusion of style and theme it feels strange to remember that there was a time, and not too long ago, when some theorists tried to limit what can or cannot be called African literature; some said a work can never be African literature unless it is in an African language – and actually, people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o still believe so. I wonder what people like Obi Wali, the arch-proponent of ‘African literature in African languages only’ would say now if they were to hear that there are writers who write their novels in languages like Flemish and Italian and who unapologetically refer to themselves as African writers. Clearly there is more to it than language and style – it is most importantly about tradition.

Stories like “Chicken”, by Efemia Chela, is clearly aware of this sense of tradition. It opens with a family oriented, very African feast, and then moves on to a theme of exile and loneliness in another land; and to such “unAfrican” themes as lesbianism and the selling of the narrator’s eggs for money – perhaps the furthest it can get from the family oriented opening section. But of course the story is about survival away from the community, a bildungsroman if you like, about the African traveling and surviving in the wider world, about the African writer embracing other themes and acknowledging that the traditional  “African issues” alone no longer suffice to define African writing.  

Tendai Huchu’s story of Zimbabwean exiles in London, "The Intervention", told with humor and lightness of touch, dealing with a serious subject matter, continues what I call the “post-nationalist” theme. By placing the African outside the boundaries of the continent, the story is challenging the literary pass-laws that sought to restrict where African literature can go. Not only that, it is also thematising and interrogating the notion of that most colonial of constructs, the “nation”, itself.  

The other stories on the shortlist, Billy Kahora’s "The Gorilla’s Apprentice", Okwiri Oduor’s "My Father’s Head", and "Phosphorescence" by Diane Awerbuck all contribute to, and widen our understanding of what African literature can be.

Here one is made strongly aware that a new generation of African writers is announcing itself with fanfare.  But we must always remember that any new generation is nothing but an offshoot of that which came before it. This new African literature is a culmination of certain historical moments in Africa; it owes a lot to the overseas scholarship students in the 60s and 70s; the anti-intellectualisms of the military dictatorships in the 80s which led to the brain drains of the 90s; all these led to a re-interpretation of the word nation, to a larger understanding of the idea of tradition.

And so even though less and less emphasis should be laid on the word ‘African’, and more and more on whether a story is good or not, still, we must remember at the bottom of it lies a certain tradition. The “literature” of Africa predates and supersedes the invention of Africa, it was there in the Sundiata epic, in the Chaka epic, in the ritual plays and Ijala chants of the Yoruba, in the folktales and songs and historical narratives of the griots. It transcended city borders and languages and political leanings; it defies simplistic definition. The geographical term “Africa” cannot contain or limit it, it can only aspire to describe certain salient aspects of it.

Of course every writer is free to decide for himself or herself what they want to be called. A lot have already declined the term “African”, preferring only to be called “writers”. There are also those who question why their books should be in the African authors section, calling it a “ghetto”.  These writers have already accepted and internalized the perception of Africa as a ghetto. For me, where a book is placed in a bookstore is less important than what is in the book; if it is a good book, people will make a beaten path it. Things Fall Apart is a fixture in the “Africa” section, and yet that doesn’t stop it from selling over a hundred thousand copies yearly in America alone.

Of course with some of these authors it becomes a matter of personality, or as TS Eliot calls it in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, “emotions”. They think: how dare you place me in the same section as these other writers, clearly I am more talented, I am more complex, I am more European than African. I was born in London and went to Cambridge and Oxford and I live in Rome, surely I can’t be an African writer? Again, I say, it is a matter of choice.   You are not African because you are black, or because your parents came from an African country, again to quote Eliot:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense... This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

I don’t aspire to write like Achebe, or Ngugi or Bessie Head, but understanding them and the history and aesthetics that shaped their work improves and also shapes my work. This is not mere copying or imitation, it is not indulging in what Eliot calls mere “archeological reconstruction”, it is having a sense of tradition. The beauty of it, as Eliot again points out, is that a contemporaneous work always alters the meaning and the perception of works that came before it, for in a canon no work is greater, none is better, they just make use of different materials.  

The best metaphor to describe this idea would be that of a building, built over many generations, each generation doing its own part. Some clears the site for the building, another generation lays the foundation, yet another generation raises the walls, another comes and lays the roof, and so on, with plumbers and electricians and fitters and furniture builders, all doing their part. But what is important is that none is more important or less important that the other. They all build with the same keenness, the same purpose; they simply use different materials and different skill sets.

But of course in this age of superstar writers and commodification of literature it makes sense to try to stand out, to be different and thereby raise the value of ones stock. But again, a word of caution from Eliot (I am quoting him for the last time, I promise): “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, in her brilliant essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” shows this awareness of an obligation, a duty to what she calls the community, or the “village”, and goes on to say that whatever she writes if it means nothing to the village, then it is worthless. We all have to decide who and what that village or community is for us. This is not a circumscribing of freedom, but actually a setting free, for no artist is ever free who is without a sense of belonging, a sense of history.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Podcasts of 2014 Shortlisted Stories

This year the Caine Prize has commissioned podcasts of the 2014 shortlist, to run alongside the pdfs of each story that are uploaded for audiences to read in the run up to the announcement of the 15th Caine Prize winner on 14 July. Click the links below to listen to the stories.

Diane Awerbuck (South Africa) "Phosphorescence" in Cabin Fever (Umuzi, Cape Town. 2011)

Read Phosphorescence
Listen to Phosphorescence read by the author, produced by Daniel Breiter at For Music Lovers, Cape Town.

Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia) "Chicken" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
Listen to Chicken read by the author, produced by Daniel Breiter at For Music Lovers, Cape Town.

Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe) "The Intervention" in Open Road Review, issue 7, New Delhi. 2013
Read The Intervention
Listen to The Invervention read by the author for Open Road Review.

Billy Kahora (Kenya) "The Gorilla's Apprentice" in Granta (London. 2010)
Listen to The Gorilla's Apprentice read by Ery Nzaramba, produced by Alex Feldman at Pixiu, London.

Okwiri Oduor (Kenya) "My Father's Head" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
Read My Father's Head
Listen to My Father's Head read by Njoki Wamai, produced by Alex Feldman at Pixiu, London.

Taxi to Chitungwiza by 2014 Judge, Percy Zvomuya

Harare skyline
The life and fate of Chitungwiza, it seems, is to forever skulk in the shadows cast by Harare’s miniature sky scrappers and lead-soaked fumes. Chitungwiza’s small-time status is undisputed; in official and semi-official literature, it is routinely referred to as Harare’s dormitory town, though it is populated by a million people. It is just 30km removed from Harare, although it seems doubly-detached; the ever present air of fatigue, inertia and desertion that now hangs over Harare is thicker and more toxic in Chitungwiza. 

Percy Zvomuya

It was while on the way to Chitungwiza that I experienced one of the most literature affirming moments I’ve had in a long time. It was literature’s eureka moment, if you will, the football equivalent of which is hugging a stranger when your team eventually scores the winning goal in the last minute of extra time.

I had boarded a commuter minibus taxi and sat in the third or fourth row, two people to my left and someone else on my right. About the people on my left I don’t recall a thing; about the person on my right, I remember almost everything: sex, height, and the conversation we had.

I had hauled out of my satchel sheets of paper on which was printed “The World’s Longest-Held Prisoner,” a short story by Libyan writer Omar El-Keddi; the story is one of 140 short pieces of fiction submitted to the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Almost instantly I had become aware that I had company. The man to my right was staring intently at the sheets of paper in my hands. He meant it to be unobtrusive but his interest in the papers in my hands was obvious. 
Nelson Mandela

It could have been the startling title which caught his attention. Southern Africa has its fair share of famous political prisoners; there is Robert Mugabe; late nationalist Maurice Nyagumbo; and, most celebrated of them all, is, of course, St Nelson Mandela. (With the World Cup a few weeks away, the saint is now in heaven where he is probably pondering football tactics with St Luke. It goes without saying that he is putting on an Argentina shirt since his own team Bafana, perennial underachievers, didn’t make it to Brazil, but that’s a story for another day). 

Or maybe it was the easy, unheralded way the story begins: “After failing his middle class exams, Saleh al-Shaybi decided to join the army. He saw his fellow villagers and men from the neighbouring villages return with new clothes, pockets filled with cash, wrists weighed down by watches, smoking cigarettes from full packs and lighting them with gold lighters. He decided to follow in their footsteps, and wrote down ‘please take me' on his application.”
Whenever I flipped a page, leaving my neighbour behind, he would remonstrate. After twenty or so minutes, in which I had turned a couple of papers, him always in tow, he took down the details of the story.  He would go on the internet, he said, download it, and read it for his own pleasure and at his own pace…

Later, finding my way through the inertia of Chitungwiza, I pondered the communion I had partaken in with the stranger. Even though reading is a profoundly solitary exercise, this was the closest that we had come to exploding that piece of wisdom.