I have been absent from this blog for a long time, mostly because I am trying to focus on writing my dissertation and many of “my thoughts exactly” appear in my column with Weekly Trust. But I miss blogging, and I feel like there are many things I have missed out on addressing. So, I was determined to post on the Caine Prize for African Writing before tonight’s winner is announced. (Please note that I posted this running for a plane. I will update it with more photos by tomorrow.)
I am writing from London, where I was able to arrange a long layover in between trips, to attend the Africa Writes Festival and the Caine Prize events. I will write later in my column or on this blog about the festival as a whole and you can view my photos of the event here, but in this post I will focus on the Caine Prize. I have been interested in the Caine Prize for a long time, first because it was this prize that in 2001 propelled Helon Habila, on whose novel Waiting for an Angel I wrote my (very flawed) MA thesis, to international fame and more recently because of all the discourse on social media surrounding it. Last year, I was troubled by the statement made by last year’s Caine Prize chair Nigerian-British writer Bernadine Evaristo that it was time to “move past” depictions of suffering in Africa (this is the same year bombs had started going off all over northern Nigeria), a sentiment she repeated in this year’s Africa Writes panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” in which she indicated that she made sure a story that “checked all the boxes” of African stereotypes did not make it onto the shortlist last year. (I will discuss this panel in another post) I responded to her 2012 essay in my column and on my blog here and also in a comment on Saturday’s panel, arguing that such rhetoric risks silencing those writers living in Africa, who are writing about their own experiences.
This year, I was particularly excited when the Caine Prize shortlist was announced in May. Not only were four out of the five nominees Nigerians, but also my two good friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were nominated for the prize for stories I had read in manuscript form!Their nomination felt like poetic justice, as last year their attempts to attend the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa, to which they had been invited and had tickets, were truncated (my respects to Elnathan
who has popularized this term) by South African bureaucracy. Elnathan’s visa was delayed until it was too late to attend, while Abubakar was unfortunate enough to fly into Johannesburg in the middle of the scuffle between South Africa and Nigeria over yellow-fever vaccination cards and was sent back to Lagos without ever making it to the workshop. (See my long post from March of last year for more details.) Fortunately, the Caine Prize re-invited them again this year, and they were able to attend the workshop held in Entebbe, Uganda.
That means that in this year’s Caine Prize anthology, A Memory this Size and other Stories, Elnathan and Abubakar both have two stories, Elnathan’s “Bayan Layi” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination and “A Memory this Size,” after which the anthology is named, and Abubakar’s “The Whispering Trees” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination, and “The Book of Remembered Things,” which he wrote at the workshop.
The other nominees were Chinelo Okparanta for her story “America,” Tope Folarin for his story “Miracle” and Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist, the one non-Nigerian on the list (though he does have Yoruba ancestry stemming from Abeokuta!) for his story “Foreign Aid.”
There have been quite a few blog reviews of the stories, and much discussion on social media. The Facebook group Writivism, in particular, set out to discuss all five stories before the prize was announced and express which story they would give the prize were they to have that authority. (A little after 6pm about four hours before the actual announcement, they proclaimed the winner of the Writivism contest Abubakar Adam Ibrahim). There was some amount of negative reaction from reviewers who complained that the prize was going back to pre-Evaristo days of depicting stereotypical portraits of Africa, or, in this case, of Nigeria. One blogger, Nta Bassey, borrowed from Elnathan’s “How to” format, made famous by his now completed “How to” series with the Daily Times, to satirically skewer what she saw as the continuation of stereotypical themes in the stories, in “How to Write a Caine Prize Story (Whatever that Is).” While I think her post is clever and while I understand concerns about “poverty porn,” particularly as it is produced by Western charities, I think this sort of rhetoric is problematic and often times shallow because it makes too many generalizations by theme rather than looking at the nuances and particularities of the specific texts. It is like that silly, unfortunate accusation that made the rounds on Facebook last year that Rotimi Babatunde had supposedly plagiarized Biyi Bandele’s novel Burma Boy for his then nominated (it later won the prize) story “Bombay’s Republic” because both novel and short story dealt with the experience of Nigerian soldiers in Burma during World War II–as if one author can own a whole war. As I discussed last year after Evaristo’s blog post, there is a problem in trying to police which themes are acceptable, instead of looking at the quality of how each particular story has been written. Elnathan has often addressed this problem on Facebook, twitter, and recently in his satirical “Because I Care” column in Sunday Trust, responding sarcastically to Helon Habila’s review of Noviolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names:
If white people did not split us up into funny countries, we would have been one strong large territory and so everyone writing in this territory must remember what it means to be an African writer. It means that you must carry Africa on your shoulders. It means that you must be a good ambassador and ignore all the corruption that African leaders perpetrate. Ignore the fact that we have warlords all over Africa who use children in war. Ignore the poverty and pain and refugee camps. Anyone who writes about Africa and anal rape is a bad person. Even white people are tired of it. No one wants to feel guilty about this. Moreover, Africa is rising. Thanks to the World Bank and International donors, we now have some classrooms, some mosquito nets, local NGO’s for women who get raped in war and conflict, and very rich politicians and their friends, some of who make it to the Forbes list of richest people. Why should anyone write anything bad about us?
(Interestingly, blogger Chika Oduah reads Elnathan’s story “Bayan Layi” through Helon Habila’s review to argue that Elnathan subsumes the stereotypical headline to a story of “characters who are frank in an innocent kind of way that manages not to intimidate the reader”–she reads the story as one Habila would approve of.) During the interview with his father on 6 July 2013 “Two Writers, Two Generations,” Mukoma wa Ngugi called such rhetoric “Afro-Optimism,” arguing that an insistence on focusing on “Africa Rising” narratives rather than on those that deal with Africa’s problems can stifle political discourse.
Elnathan, who made a point of not reading reviews of his work before the prize was announced, explained to interviewer Mercy Abang that the story, which some have read as stereotypical “poverty porn,” was inspired by an almajiri he used to know while he was in university:
Bayan Layi was inspired by an almajiri friend of mine, with whom I maintained contact over a period of about 6 years when I lived in Zaria. Basiru was from Sokoto and studied in a Quranic school near my house. He also, like hundreds of others did chores for students, washing plates, clothes and going on errands. Thinking of it now I wonder if that was not some sort of child labour.
Basiru was a gentle boy with the cutest, purest, most uninhibited smile I had ever seen on an almajiri. Unlike many students, I let him hang around my house and we had long conversations about his life and about mine. It was hard to estimate his age but I would say between 10 and 14.
During the “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” panel on 6 July at the British Library, he also mentioned that he had written the story following the election violence in Northern Nigeria in 2011, as a kind of explanation to other Nigerians who often talk about “the north” in stereotypical ways. There is a difference, for example, he pointed out between the thugs who take drugs (and do not necessarily know very much about the Qur’an) and are often used in election violence and the almajirai who are studying the Qur’an. There are sometimes almajirai who join the yan daba (thugs), as happens in his story, but the two, often conflated, are not the same. When the moderator Jacqueline Auma pointed out that the story felt like a universal tale about street children everywhere, Elnathan answered that the stories that feel the most universal will be those that are the most rooted in a specific context.
Tope Folarin similarly pointed to the particularity of the American setting of his story “Miracle,” which on my first reading I had thought could be set just as easily in Nigeria, arguing that it was in his interest in the diaspora community that inspired the story. The miracles that the audience in the Pentecostal church of his story are looking for are tied directly to their experience in America, as they are living in a land seen as a miracles by those in Nigeria trying to get visas (the pastor , yet need miracles once they arrive to fulfill these dreams. As the narrator of the story says,
We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians.
Folarin’s story, too, illustrates how a story rooted in a particular context can feel relevant to a “universal” audience. Abubakar Adam also explained in talks that his story “The Whispering Trees,” which one interviewer said felt the “least African” and therefore the most universal [?]of the stories, was rooted in a northern Nigerian context where the spiritual is taken as a given. Like the others, he focused on the story of an individual in a specific context, yet readers like Jeffrey Zuckerman felt it could have as well been “set in the Catskill mountains […] or in the Middle East—but its Nigerian locale gives a tinge of familiarity to a location that media reports have made wholly foreign to Anglophone culturati.” When commenters asked Chinelo Okparanta about the “realism” of the parent’s mild reaction to their daughters same sex relationship, she argued that to say there can only be one reaction only homogenizes the multiplicity that exists within the country, again arguing for the individual story. Of all of the stories, I felt that Pede Hollist’s satirical story “Foreign Aid” dealt less with an individual story than with a typed character–but that is perhaps what made it so funny. He explained during one of the events that he pushed the character a bit to the extreme so that an audience could recognize him and his problematic misunderstandings of his former home without feeling personally affronted, and as a satire, I think the story works quite well.
All of these authors have been interviewed a great deal since their nominations, including multiple interviews with BBC and other news agencies here in London since they have arrived. For those curious about their own take on the Caine Prize and their own writing, check out these interviews, some of them published before the shortlist was released:
“My Book presents Nigerian stories from another Angle -Ibrahim” with Awwal Gaata in Blueprint.
“The Reader’s Heart is the most important award to win-Abubakar Ibrahim” an Interview with Sumaila Umaisha on Everythin Literature, 19 August 2012
“Whispering for More,” an interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim by Edozie Udeze and Hannah Ojo
“Two Friends One Prize” an Interview with Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on Metropole, 1 July 2013
“I Wasn’t Expecting the Caine Prize Nomination: Elnathan John speaks on ‘Conversations with Mercy Abang.’” on Y-Naija, 27 May 2013
“This Week’s Guest: Elnathan John” in Eugenia Abu’s reading column in Sunday Trust, 2 June 2013
“Religion, Morality, and Personal Responsibility: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Rae Winklestein-Duveneck for The Iowa Review
Emmanuel Sigauke’s interview with Chinelo Okparanta for the Munyori Literary Journal, 22 May 2013
“Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Adam Segal for Whole Beast Rag
“Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Yuka Igarashi for Granta, 10 February 2012
“Cathartic Release: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Adedamola Mogaji for Saraba
“Pede Hollist, 2013 Caine Prize shortlisted writer,” on Vitabu Books.
“Tope Folarin Speaks to Nigerians Talk” by Kola Tubosun for Nigerians Talk
“Brittle Paper interviews Caine Prize shortlistee Tope Folarin” 5 June 2013
Below, I will copy the (rather sleep-deprived) column I wrote when the shortlist first came out. I didn’t join the Caine Prize blogger group because I felt I would be too biased, but I did make a few observations about the make-up of the prize:
Nigeria’s Four Caine Prize Nominees
- Category: My thoughts exactly
- Published on Saturday, 18 May 2013 05:00
- Written by Carmen McCain
The last few weeks (as usual) have been full of bad news: the cultists attack in Nasarawa, attacks in Southern Kaduna, continued attacks in the northeast leading to the declaration of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Last week in an article about Kannywood, I talked about the tensions I feel in celebrating film in the midst of so much suffering, but concluded with the thoughts that the multitude of stories coming out of Nigeria are important because they challenge what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” As the griot in the Dani Kouyate film Keita: the heritage of a griot, said “‘Do you know why the hunter always beats the lion in the stories? If the lion told the stories, he’d win sometimes too.’ [Achebe has also recounted this proverb in Home and Exile.] The logic of the proverb extends even further to the antelope, which is hunted by both the human and the lion. Because when the oppressed, those ‘antelopes’ caught between lion and hunter, tell their own stories and are heard, they have the potential to affect audiences for centuries.” As the news on Nigeria’s security gets worse and worse, there has been a welcome break in the continuing recognition of Nigerian literature on a global stage. On 14 May, the Commonwealth prize announced E.E. Sule as the Africa-region winner of the Commonwealth prize for his novel Sterile Sky (Pearson Education, 2012), a coming of age novel of the son of a policeman growing up in Kano in the midst of crisis [which I was lucky enough to read in manuscript form before it was published]. On 15 May, the Caine Prize for African writing announced their shortlist of five stories nominated for the prestigious short story prize from 96 submissions out of 16 different African countries. Four of the five nominations were for short stories written by Nigerians: “Bayan Layi” first published in Per Contra by Abuja-based Sunday Trust columnist Elnathan John; “Miracle” first published in Transition by Washington D.C. based former Rhodes Scholar Tope Folarin; “The Whispering Trees” first published in the collection of short stories of the same name published by Abuja-based Sunday Trust literary editor and writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim; and “America” first published in Granta by U.S. based Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Chinelo Okparanta. [Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid” was the one non-Nigerian offering on the list.] These four nominations come on the heels of Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde’s Caine Prize win last year for his story “Bombay’s Republic.”
I was particularly excited about my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John making the short list. Their nominations are poetic justice, following the disappointment both writers suffered in March of last year, when they were invited to the Caine Prize workshop in South Africa. Elnathan was not granted his visa in time to make the trip, while Abubakar made it all the way to Johannesburg before he was turned back by immigration officers during Nigeria’s row with South Africa over the yellow fever vaccine, despite having a valid yellow fever certificate. Both writers were re-invited to the Caine workshop held in Uganda in April of this year, and have now, incredibly, both been shortlisted for the prize this year. I am so proud. (Take that South Africa!) But beyond my personal delight at having two good friends on the list, I am also thrilled that so many Nigerians were shortlisted. It is much needed good news in a time when so much else is wrong. This Caine Prize shortlist, as well as the award of the Commonwealth prize to Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai-based novelist E.E. Sule indicates a new attention to stories coming out of northern Nigeria, which in the past has had much less global visibility than literature coming from the south. To be sure, there is something a little troubling about some of the most prestigious prizes for African writers being granted by European institutions—the NLNG is offering a welcome corrective to that—but all the same the Commonwealth Prize and the Caine Prize are doing good work by bringing attention to some of the most exciting young writers on the continent. It seems symbolic that the title story from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s collection of short stories The Whispering Trees was honoured, as it was the first book signed and published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia Publishers. [When Parresia signed The Whispering Trees as their first title, the publisher Richard Ali asked me to come photograph it.] There’s a new generation of writers and publishers bursting on scene.
Obviously, having two such good friends on the shortlist and having read both stories in manuscript form before publication, it is difficult for me to objectively review the stories this year. However, I will make a few observations from a first reading of all five stories. First, obviously the judges this year were not making decisions about the stories based on issues of representation. Not only did Nigerians dominate the list, but men did as well, with only one of the stories written by a woman, Chinelo Okparanta. Interestingly, all four of the Nigerian stories were told in first person, while Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollists’s story was told in a satirical third person. As for theme, three of the stories deal in some way with the African immigrant experience in America. Tope Folarin’s charming story “Miracle” is set in a Pentecostal healing service in the United States, although the setting could just as well be in Nigeria. Two of the other stories deal more specifically with the immigrant’s American dream. The one non-Nigerian on the list, Florida-based Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist revisits a theme that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s dealt with in my favourite story from last year’s Caine prize shortlist “La Salle de Depart,” but with a satirical eye: the trials of a returnee from America who comes for a short visit to Sierra Leone and attempts to impress everyone with his lavish gifts. Chinelo Okparanta’s story is told from the other side of the ocean, of how a woman who desires a life in America away from the judgmental eyes of her society, is able to draw from the environmental disaster of an oil spill in America to persuade a visa officer that she is legitimate applicant. While it touches on gay/lesbian issues similar to last year’s nominee Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial,” I thought Okparanta’s story this year was much more sophisticated and nuanced. Although the preceding three short stories all deal, in some way, with the immigrant experience and dreams of living abroad, the stories by Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim deal with the experiences of ordinary people living, loving, and managing in northern Nigeria. Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is a first person story told from the eyes of a young almajiri caught up in Kaduna election violence. Making skillful use of Hausa terminology and codeswitching between English and Hausa, it beautifully captures the voice of a street-child. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees” tells the story of a young man’s journey towards accepting the terrible effects of a car accident. Unlike any of the other stories this year, however, his story takes a mystical turn that reminds me of South American magical realism.
I hope to write more about these stories and other works by these authors in the future. But in the meantime, I hope readers will go to the Caine prize website [www.caineprize.com] and read the stories for themselves. Let me know what you think. A big congratulations to all of the writers who made it this year.