Tuesday 26 May 2015

Brian Chikwava on Why Being a Good Writer is Not Enough- Judging The 2015 Shortlist

What makes a winning story is a question that has been discussed often on the Caine Prize blog by celebrated storytellers and previous judges. Nathan Hensley (Judge 2013) described the tingle of responsibility of “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.”

How do you determine that from just 3000 words? “Short, where narrative is concerned, is not easy: it requires more art.” argues John Sutherland (Judge 2013) in his reflections of the judging process, but an art that he says that “African writers are so damned good at.” For Helon Habila (Judge 2014), “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.” But decides that “if it is a good book, people will make a beaten path it.”.

Leila Aboulela, 2013 judge and 2000 winner, determined the good stories as the ones that were “the kind of stories I would want to pass on to friends, the kind of stories I would be keen to recommend.” And it’s not necessarily the ones with the serious subject matters.

However after going through the most recent shortlist announcement, Brian Chikwava, having won the 2004 Caine Prize for “Seventh Street Alchemy” and returned as a 2015 Judge, learned that “being a good writer alone is not enough to guarantee a place on the shortlist. One also needs luck. Plenty of it.”

“Judging the works of other writers can be a humbling experience. One gets to observe the capricious nature of the process and it was an eye opening pleasure to read through the astonishing range of entries and try to whittle it down from the overwhelming volume of 153 entries to five depending on their ideas, execution, the quality of the writing and how that package holds together.

Based on the frequency with which they appeared across the individual judges’ lists of the favourite ten, some stories initially gave the impression that they would sail into the final shortlist. But a surprisingly different picture began to emerge after illuminating discussions on the merits of each story, which perhaps speaks to the quality of the stories. One judge's reading may throw new light on a story whose strengths weren't so obvious to begin with, and suddenly…

After pleasant agreement and disagreement it also became apparent that in some cases arguing for or against one story or another had reached its limit. A bit of horse-trading therefore seemed like a sensible way of moving forward. At this point the process can take on a political complexion so that the final shortlist to an extent hinges on how firmly held individual judges’ positions are with respect to competing considerations: whether taste, predilection, conviction and other perceived or urgent concern of fiction/writing can be traded in order to arrive at a result that leaves no one judge feeling short-changed.

Inevitably not all of the stories that we liked as individuals made it to the shortlist. I would have loved to see Cat Hellisen’s Mouse Teeth and Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Special Meal on the shortlist. They are well crafted, engaging and there is a nice freshness in the treatment of their subject matters. I also loved Jowhor Ile's Supersonic Bus.

It does make me wonder about the debates that must have taken place when my story Seventh Street Academy was selected as the 2004 winner. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during those discussions but no one wants to find out that a good outcome may not have been down to their staggering genius.”

For more insight into the judging process of the Caine Prize read Bernadine Evaristo (Chair of Judges 2012) and Samantha Pinto’s (Judge 2012, Assistant Professor, Georgetown University) descriptions of the kinds of questions that came to mind as they read the stories. 

Find out who made the 2015 shortlist here and the full judging panel here

Written by Kiran Yoliswa

Sunday 17 May 2015

2015 Shortlist: Segun Afolabi for “The Folded Leaf” (Nigeria)

The five writer shortlist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced by Chair of judges, award-winning South African writer Zoë Wicomb. “For all the variety of themes and approaches, the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics. Unforgettable characters, drawn with insight and humour inhabit works ranging from classical story structures to a haunting, enigmatic narrative that challenges the conventions of the genre.”

A previous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 for ‘Monday Morning’, Segun
Afolabi (Nigeria) has been shortlisted again for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri (London,

Bio: Segun Afolabi was born in Nigeria and brought up in the Congo, Canada and Japan. He
lives and works in London. He is the author of A Life Elsewhere, a short story collection, and a
novel, Goodbye Lucille. He is currently working on a new novel and collection of short stories.

What 'The Folded Leaf' is about: A young girl travels with her father and a group of sick children to Lagos to pray to one of Nigeria’s infamous celebrity pastors for healing.

Read it for: an expertly guided awareness of the narrator’s experience, a delicate allusion to
homosexual love, and the rise and fall of a desperate hope.


Silence. Noise. Silence again. The sounds slipping away, returning — a seashell back and forth
against my ear. I am both giddy and fearful. I have always been afraid, I know, of the night, of
silence, of losing Mama or Papa, of Bola running away, never hearing from him again. More than anything, I am afraid the pastor will see right through me to my sin, my doubt, my disbelief.

I am frightened because, in spite of myself, I want so much for something to happen. ‘Tunde, Mrs Kekere — take this,’ Papa says. ‘Sam, Bola — one one for each of you.’ He must be distributing the funds we’ve raised in church, months of donations sealed in envelopes, used partly to pay for the driver and the minibus and today’s collection.

‘Stop trying to stand,’ Tunde says. ‘He wasn’t talking to you.’
‘But I can feel something,’ Sam says.

‘Give all you can!’ a voice booms, though not Pastor Fayemi’s. ‘He sees into your hearts. Don’t cheat Him, oh!’

Read The Folded Leaf

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Caine Prize 2015 Writers Workshop by Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer based in Douala who was one of twelve selected participants of the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop.  In a recent blogpost, Nkiacha shared his experience of the workshop held in Elmina, a picturesque coastal town in Ghana from April 6th to 19th.

(Left to Right) Diane Awerbuck (South Africa), Dalle Abraham (Kenya), Jonathan Dotse (Ghana), Facilitator Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa), Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi), Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana), Jemila Abdulai (Ghana), Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria), Efemia Chela (Ghana, Zambia), Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya), Aisha Nelson (Ghana), Onipede Hollist (Sierra Leone), Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon), Facilitator Leila Aboulela (Sudan).

Arriving in Accra

An immigration officer looked at me and said,
“You’re a nice guy!” I was taken aback. Immigration officers in my country don’t lavish such beautiful compliments on anyone. They are either non-committal to you or they scold you. So I asked him,
“Why do you say that?”
“There are some people that when you see them, you begin to shiver. But you! I don’t think so. Where are you from?”
“Cameroon,” I answered.
“It doesn’t matter where you are from, you’re a nice guy.” I felt flattered. Being airport staff myself, I knew he said that from his profiling of me, with respect to fake documents or illegalities.

The second officer who stamped my Visa pronounced my town of birth with a certain familiarity that something told me that he knew the place,
“Nkiacha, born in Kumba!” I halted, trying not to think of the exaggerated infamous stories of my birth place. But as he returned my passport, he added,
“I attended CPC Bali.”
“Oh! Really! Good to know.”
(CPC Bali is one of the first Secondary schools in Anglophone Cameroon.) We spoke French briefly after that. The “nice guy” one warmed up to my chat so much he even gave me his phone number.

I left for the arrival hall. A gentleman gave me a cart, placed my bags on it and told me,
“Welcome to Ghana”. It was another commendable act of gallantry. So off I went thinking about first impressions. “Ghanaians are generally hospitable, friendly people, birthplace of pan-Africanism really.” Then a voice boomed,
“This way sir, Customs.” (Damn it.)
“Anything to declare? Currency? Goods?” the man asked, his eyes on my bags.
“Nothing. Only clothing.”
“So where are you from?” he asked, spotting my foreign accent.
He sighed.  “You people came here in 2008 and eliminated Ghana in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations,” he snapped and flung his hand away dismissively. The unexpected reproach made me laugh, as I remembered the 1-0 defeat. An eight year grudge! Does he know our team has suddenly become the dead lions?
“I’m sorry about that.”   
Okay, first impressions. “Hospitable, gentle Ghanaians, customs officer exclusive.

Accra looked like the better behaved twin of my city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The commercial hustle and bustle was palpable. There were throngs of people in every street corner and avenue. I saw a multitude of impressive buildings and neat wide roads, garnished by lots of traffic lights and a glut of cars and taxis plying them. The names of the businesses were entertainment; Downhill Virgins, Shalom fast food, Glee Oil etc. We drove past the state house and I was puzzled that it is along the road. Ours is a swanky mansion safely tucked away from public view in Yaoundé. The Accra presidency looks more statehouse like, with its pentagon like, slightly circular frame and greyish compartments and floors, surrounded by high flying Ghanaian flags. Accra is also a city with better architectural symmetry than Douala. Traffic lights at almost every junction guide movement, especially during hold ups.

Driving to Elmina
After lunch, we all hopped onto two buses and began our long drive to Elmina, the coastal town in the Central region where we were based. Brainy conversations trickled on all subjects in our bus and I was impressed by the intellect of young Efemia Chela who sat next to me, telling me about Ghanaian life.
“Oh look,” she quickly pointed at a boy selling West African garden snails in a bowl and I gasped at their gigantic size as we drove past. I was asked about writing in English and not French, since I am from a “Francophone country”. I explained that I write in English which I am more versed in and some French which I studied in school. But I am Anglophone Cameroonian, though living and working in a Francophone city. Little correction, Cameroon is a bilingual country, though predominantly Francophone.

Our conversation sort of paused when we drove past a car accident scene. Pede Hollist finally broke the silence a few minutes later,
“I noticed we were all quiet. So what inference can we draw from that?”
“It was heart breaking. But it seemed nobody died, only injuries. I saw a lady with some blood on her body,” someone answered. That was the only sad moment in our bus trip. Nature consoled us with scenic views of lagoons, fresh foliage and beautiful villages like Winneba and Anomabo, where we saw a clown who had disguised like a woman at a small beach party. We drove along the coastline, where hundreds of wild coconut trees lined the seashore and its waters breathed fresh breeze on us. The bluish green sea was quite a sight, as its gruff water currents splashed noisily against the shores, leaving behind a meshwork of brown seaweeds. After three and a half hours, we finally arrived at the eye catching, Coconut Grove Beach Resort Elmina, a plush seaside hotel built in a grove of wild coconut trees. It has entertained guests such as Kofi Annan, Serena Williams and Bono.  After checking into our rooms, we later had dinner and chatted at length, to know ourselves better.

The Workshop

There was a lot of entertainment the next day; delicious food and wine, swimming in the beautiful ocean, table tennis, crocodile viewing in the pond and horse riding. I rode a horse for my first time and saw my first donkey too. We all assembled in the conference hall at 5pm and our facilitator, wonderful Sudanese novelist and first winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Aboulela, gave us a guided imagery writing exercise to do, to send us into writing gear. We wrote and read the short pieces. From the readings and discussion of the short stories we intended writing, it was already evident how different and unique we all were. Our second facilitator, South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner joined us two days later and she was another amazing and funny writer to complete the very panafrican group of fictioneers.

So it was on. We wrote and wrote and then wrote some more. Each evening, there were readings of work in progress by three writers. The facilitators gave feedback, suggestions and positive criticisms to make the stories better. The other writers did too. Each reader had the option to either accept, modify or reject the suggestions. I worked on one short story and stuck with it all along. I judged most of the feedback to my story helpful. Apart from the facilitators, I also profited from the knowledge of writers/teachers like Diane Awerbuck and Pede Hollist. The workshop was also an opportunity for me to network with other writers and understand their different creative processes. By the time our stories were concluded, it was no surprise that the range was so wide; from realist fiction to science fiction, tragedy to comedy, stories set in the earth’s water bodies to high up in the air, aboard a plane, to be published along with the 5 shortlisted stories this year in the Caine anthology in July by New Internationalist.

We also visited some secondary schools in groups, to talk about writing and reading and to encourage the students to do so. I visited the Catholic Girls Junior Secondary School, Elmina with Zukiswa, Dotse and Akwaeke. I read to the students from my children’s short story illustrations book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and they enjoyed it. The girls showed so much interest in the book, relishing the cartoon illustrations and passing it on, so I gifted my copy to the school. We asked if they had written any short stories that they could share with us. They were initially shy but soon warmed up to Zukiswa’s arresting presence and produced three stories, read by three different authors. We were impressed by their writing skills. Akwaeke never forgot a beautiful line from one of the girls’ stories about a promiscuous female character,
“She was a rolling stone in the hands of men.” Wow! But there was a scene where a character received a “wonderful slap” and I gasped. 

Before we left, we informed the headmaster about some children’s short story competitions and urged the girls to submit their stories online.

As I embarked the bus to the airport, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, after participating in one of the prestigious creative writing workshops in Africa, in that hospitable land of Kwame Nkrumah, where many people and even the signposts tell you “Akwaaba” (welcome) and the people are always ready to make you their “Charle” (friend).

Read Nkiacha’s full post on his blog here.
Find out more about the Caine Prize workshops