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

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