Is the Caine Prize for Emergent African Writing, or the Best African Writing?
Aaron Bady Reflects on Africa's Top Literary Prize
This essay has been adapted from a piece originally published in the second volume of Oduor Oduku’s KUT Anthology.
It’s hard to tell the story of contemporary African literature without talking about the Caine Prize for African Writing. It’s the biggest and most prominent prize for African Literature—or at least the best publicized—and in the 17 years of its existence, what it means to say “African Literature” has changed quite dramatically, a transformation the Caine Prize has in part reflected, and in part helped to produce.
This is easy to see at the level of the individual writers: few of the people that the prize has recognized and celebrated had, at the time they were selected by the Caine judges, achieved much public recognition. The prize tends to change that. After Leila Aboulela won the first Caine Prize in 2000, her novels began appearing and haven’t stopped since. Helon Habila won in 2001 for a short story that would anchor his first novel Waiting for an Angel, published a year later, and perhaps the two most prominent writers in Kenya, today—Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor—won the prize in 2002 and 2003, respectively. We had to wait until 2011 for Wainaina’s One Day I will Write About this Place and until 2013 for Owuor’s magnificent novel, Dust, but (at least in retrospect) the Caine Prize marks the moment when most readers heard their names for the first time. (Indeed, the year after Wainaina won the Caine, he and a group of writers in Nairobi founded Kwani?, still the most prominent literary publication in East Africa; in their first issue, they published the short story that would win the prize for Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor the next year).
The Caine Prize, in short, is an important institution in promoting African writers. This is not to say that we would never have heard of Brian Chikwava, Segun Afolabi, Mary Watson, or Monica Arac de Nyeko if they hadn’t won the Caine Prize (between the years 2004 and 2007, respectively). But for them all, the prize marks the transition from relative obscurity—having published a few scattered short pieces, here and there—into relative success: they each, shortly, became a writer with a book. Obviously, they wrote the books themselves—and this is, of course, the main thing—but it was the Caine that helped these books be recognizable as African literature, and to make them marketable as such. With the exception of the 2008 winner, Henrietta Rose-Innes—who may have found South Africa a more hospitable publishing climate, having already published several novels—the list of winners tells the same, uniform story of How to Become An African Writer: write some stories, win the Caine Prize, then publish a novel. E.C. Osondu and NoViolet Bulawayo won in 2009 and 2011, and their first novels were published in 2015 and 2013, respectively; the other winners—Olufemi Terry, Rotimi Babatunde, Tope Folarin, Okwiri Oduor, and Namwali Serpell—all have novels in varying states of progress.
For individual writers, then, the Caine Prize can have very concrete results: it gets the attention of agents and publishers, the money gives writers some breathing room, if they need it, and the exposure often gives writers the opportunity to network with a variety of people they might not otherwise have encountered. Despite being a tenured professor at the University of California, Namwali Serpell, for example, had had no success in finding a publisher for her first novel until she won the Caine Prize a few months ago. Almost immediately, Random House snapped up the rights to The Old Drift, before she had even left London. This is a well-established pattern: when Okwiri Oduor’s novel is published—and when it is, we will be glad it is—the Caine Prize will have played a role in helping get it to print.
The Caine Prize also has a less concrete effect: it recognizes writers for whom recognition can be difficult to come by. Writing is a slippery and uncertain vocation at best (and a hellishly unrewarding path at worst); prizes can make it real and give it substance, converting an eccentric and immaterial activity into something that seems almost respectable. For family, colleagues, and skeptical friends—as well as, perhaps, creditors and employers—a prize which can be weighed in English pounds has a way of transforming a foolish dream into something you can hold in your hands. Especially given how stretched thin literary publishing in Africa was in the early 2000’s—and in many respects, still is—these have been and still are very good things for African writers, precisely the kind of vital sustenance that writers (on any continent) need to continue. It is hard to complain about it.
And yet, when people talk about the good things that the Caine Prize does for African writing, they tend to tell the story the way I’ve told it, as the story of individual writers, individual achievements. In “emerging markets,” writers lack the connections and material conditions to succeed, so the Caine Prize gives them a boost at a key moment in their development, allowing them to establish themselves and their careers to take off.
We tend to tell this story, in other words, about writers at a very particular moment in their development, about writers who are constrained by under-development, and to fetishize—in strangely Rostow-ian terms—the moment of “takeoff.” It is about writers in obscurity becoming celebrated, about making that jump. It makes sense, then, that the prize focuses on short stories, effectively confining itself to writers who have not yet published a long work, whether because they had not yet produced one or because they had not found a publisher who was interested. Established African novelists do not, as a rule, win the Caine Prize; it is a prize designed for and aimed at writers in a stage of emergence.
At the individual level, it is hard to complain about the steady, annual boost for new and unknown talent; the prize has had real, practical consequences for real, working writers, and one must give it its due. But then we must ask a follow-up question: are these writers and these stories also the best in African literature?
If we go beyond the individual level, the Caine Prize is a more problematic entity. After all, if the biggest and most prominent prize for African Literature is a prize designed to shepherd the best young and unknown African writers into prominence, can it also be a prize for the best African short stories, full stop?
After all, if the prize is meant to foster emerging writers, why was Segun Afolabi shortlisted last year, after having won the prize in 2005? Why has Tope Folarin been shortlisted this year, after winning the prize in 2013? The return of familiar names has, for many, marked a shift in how the prize has been administered; many of us had assumed that former winners were not eligible; since they had already enjoyed their takeoff, shouldn’t the prize go to a more deservedly unknown writer?
Some would prefer the Caine function as a prize for the best short story, full stop; last year, for example, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire suggested that that shortlist represented the Caine Prize “coming of age,” that the prize has moved beyond spotlighting new and unknown talent to focus on rewarding the best work of the year. This was also how the Caine Prize’s own press release framed the issue (“In a sign of the established calibre to be found in African writing and as the Caine Prize matures in its sixteenth year, the shortlist includes one past winner and two previously shortlisted writers.”) But does that mean that an emerging writer was kept off the shortlist to make room for Afolabi, a respected writer who already has the Caine Prize, an agent, a press file, and a published novel and short story collection? A lot of stories were written that year, by people you’ve never heard of. Why not let one of them have a shot? Even if you decide that Afolabi’s story was better, say, than Pemi Aguda’s “Caterer, Caterer,” it would be hard to deny that winning would do much more for her (or for any writer in her position) than for him. The same is true this year with Tope Folarin: another Caine Prize will do little for him that the first one didn’t do.
But once you start down this line of thinking, you find yourself asking another question: if the prize is for the best short story, why have writers like A. Igoni Barrett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, or Taiye Selasi never been shortlisted? These are not beginning writers; these are writers on top of their game who have all written powerful work over the last few years. Before Barrett’s Blackass was published, he was a short story writer, and his Love is Power or Something Like It is one of the great short story collections I have read; Adichie’s novels are great, but she’s at her best as a short story writer (I would humbly suggest); Makumbi won the commonwealth prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly,” and it’s a fantastic story; and Selasi’s “Driver” and “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” are quiet demonstrations that Ghana Must Go was just the opening salvo of remarkable career.
I could go on, easily, but I think it makes the point: there are so many well-established African writers whose short stories don’t make it on the Caine list, and the reason is not quality. Afolabi and Folarin have been on the shortlist for a very simple reason: their publishers submitted their story to the competition, and the others probably didn’t. There are a variety of reasons why writers do and don’t put their work into the ring for this particular prize competition, but the result is this very mixed bag: because the Caine Prize judges only select from the pool of stories that are sent to them, the shortlist places the “best” new writers alongside the “best” old ones. Afolabi ends up alongside F.T. Kola, then, whose lovely “A Party for the Colonel” was her first publication. Last year’s winner, Namwali Serpell, might have allowed the judges to have it both ways: while she’s relatively unknown as a fiction writer, she’s an accomplished literary critic who has already written the book on uncertainty in literature, and if she’s an “emerging” writer because she hasn’t finished her book of essays (Faceless Books) or her novels (The Furrows and The Old Drift), she’s also already a tenured professor at the University of California, and this isn’t her first time to be shortlisted. In terms of the Caine Prize, she’s both emerging and emerged: if she hasn’t yet published a book, her name is not unknown.
Is African literature still “emerging”? When the South African writer Ishtiyaq Shukri asked that his work be removed for consideration from the inaugural FT/OppenheimerFunds “Emerging Voices Award,” he explained his objection by pointing out that the award is “just for people from poor countries.” Indeed, this award defines “emerging” in very concrete terms: only artists from “emergent market countries” are eligible, which the organizers take to be “defined by the World Bank Atlas Method (i.e. those with a GNI per capita of less than $12,746).”
This cut-off is so starkly arbitrary as to be more than a little bit silly: Chile, Argentina, Poland, Hungary, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Croatia, and Venezuela would all be just slightly too wealthy to be included in this rubric, strictly speaking; among the nations that are deemed to be poor enough, we find Brazil, Kazakhstan, Panama, Turkey, Malaysia, Mexico, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Romania, and China. The idea that China and India are “emerging,” while Equatorial Guinea is too rich to be included is… an interesting conceit. But the fact that two Argentine artists were longlisted demonstrates that this rubric is not being strictly applied. Instead, the prize divides the world into three regions of underdevelopment—Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific—and these regional associations are clearly the primary qualification. Eastern European poverty does not, quite, qualify those countries for the prize, while nations who have managed to break out of “emergent market” status are nevertheless grandfathered in for inclusion.
Shukri’s statement of “thanks, but no thanks” could easily be applied to the Caine Prize:
I oppose such ghettoised categories because, however euphemistic the terminology and well-meaning the intentions, they overlook the reality that southern countries are already home to artistic brilliance of the best kind—despite their GNI. They simplify a complex world, so that excellence in “developing countries” is rendered as invisible, as rare, and as exceptional as poverty and human rights abuses in supposedly “developed” ones. To contrive “special” categories for artists in poorer countries, and to use their GNI to justify such tokenism is not praise, but diminishment. Some will think me sensitive. I am. Consider the meaning of emergent: fledgling, embryonic, infant, in the early stages of development. Is the implication that in creative terms we are children? Is that what the broken egg shell on their website is meant to signify which—let us note in passing—is not how human beings are born, but oviparous animals like insects, birds and reptiles?
If the Caine Prize helps apprentice individual writers into the profession, it only does this at the individual level. At the level of the literature as a whole, in fact—to the extent that it makes any sense to talk about African literature as a totality—it may do precisely the opposite, producing the conditions for a stagnating field. By focusing on emerging writers who write short stories, the most prominent prize for African literature therefore tends to privilege and promote writers only at the earliest stage of their career, celebrating them when they are relatively less accomplished. In this way, by drawing annual attention to African literature only, always, and still, as a story of transition, the Caine Prize contributes to making that the endless single story of the literature. To the extent that short stories are a warm-up for writing novels, in other words, the Caine Prize celebrates and rewards potential and promise more than accomplishment and arrival; the highest prize for African literature is a prize for writers who have not yet “emerged.”
In retrospect, this approach made sense when the Caine Prize was founded. Generalizing about Africa as a continental unit is always treacherous, but for those who did, the view of the field in the late 1990s was gloomy. At “The Time of the Writer”—two conferences of African writers held in 1997 and ’98, in Djibouti and South Africa—there was no celebratory talk of renaissance, literary or otherwise; despite the end of Apartheid, Africa as a whole was not an optimistic panorama; as Pius Adesanmi would summarize the conference for Research in African Literatures, in 2000, the “frightening realities on the continent” were still the “simulacra of revolution that have yielded the most grueling absurdities like one-party states.”
Writers were under siege, like the continent as a whole: the beautyful ones were (still) not yet born.
Has that changed? In some ways, certainly, it unquestionably has. There are still frightening realities, one-party states, and a dearth of free spaces for literary expression in Africa—as there are in many places in the world—but it’s much easier to be optimistic. Perhaps it is too easy: all the talk of “Africa Rising” can effectively paper over growing and glaring disparities of wealth and opportunity; waves of democratization a decade ago, in a great many one-time one-party states is hard to argue with, but new regimes of violence and dispossession have taken their place, too. In any case, whether or not the Afropolitan is all it’s cracked up to be, Africa is less exceptional, today, than it has ever been, less structurally excluded and more globally integrated, for better and for worse. The same is true of its literature: the global profile of African writers has never been greater. And if triumphalism is dangerous, excessive gloom is risky, too: If it was hard to see the better, in the late 1990s, one must struggle, today, to see the worse: African literature is thriving.
Yet if “African literature” is having a renaissance, does it need a prize for emerging writers? What happens to the Caine Prize after African literature has emerged? If “African Literature” is no longer a field to be helped through its transitions, but has become a body of work that stands on its own two feet, does the prize need to evolve?
It’s in this context that the Caine Prize’s problem has become glaring, the way it is trying to do two irreconcilably different things. But if it wants to foster new and “emerging” African writers—to help unknowns become knowns, and help to bridge the gap between the obscure toils of unread writers and the potential audiences that might potentially read them—can it also claim to reward and celebrate the best writers from the African continent? If its winners are the best unknown and emerging writers, does this qualifier mean they are not the best, full stop?
On Monday, July 4th, the winner of this year’s Caine Prize will be announced. It’s exciting, an opportunity to celebrate underappreciated writers. Read the stories; they’re good. Read the reviews and interviews; they’re also good! But no matter who wins—will Tope Folarin be the first repeat winner? Or will it go to a writer no one had heard of before?—the one certainty is that the conversation about the Caine Prize will continue.