Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Mutiny at Oxford

The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. In an unusual gesture, Serpell decided to “share the prize” with her fellow shortlistees. What does this gesture mean for the prize?


Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

The annual Caine Prize Dinner had moved. A change of venue from the old Bodleian Library built in the elegant English Gothic style in 1602, where the award ceremony for Africa’s most prestigious literary prize has held over the last 15 years. The new venue is the New Bodleian, just across the street from the old one, a sprawling modern building with glass walls and electronic displays.

Perhaps it was indicative of the shift that would happen that night, 16 years after the Caine Prize came into being when the winner of the ₤10, 000 prize for short story led what was in effect a mutiny against the establishment.

Zambian Namwali Serpell, with her cherubic looks and innocent eyes, which belly an enormous self-assuredness, does not strike one as the rebellious type. And when she was announced as the winner of the prize by the enchanting Zoe Wicomb, Chair of Judges, one immediately thinks, that would be the perfect poster girl for African literature.

But on mounting the podium, overwhelmed at first by her triumph, Namwali took little time to make an impression. She did something that had never been done before. She invited the other writers who had been shortlisted alongside her to join her on the podium and declared that she wanted to “share the prize with them.”

“None of us wants to compete against each other,” she said, “we just want to be honoured.”

This she said was as a result of a pact she had made with the other writers; Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi from Nigeria and FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa. The pact that whoever won would call up the others and share the prize with them was not unanimous among the writers but it was still a powerful statement.

Namwali said she hoped it would “restructure the prize”, an ambitious statement if ever there was one.

In the last 16 years the prize has always been structured like this: Five shortlistees emerge, the five go to London, read their stories, engage in promotional activities, eat and wine and in the end, one person goes home with ₤10, 000. This year, there have been changes. The other shortlisted writers, who in previous years would have gone home without a dime, are leaving with 500 pounds as consolation. Apparently this was not enough for the shortlistees this year and they decided to take things into their hands.

The choice of Oxford as the setting for this mutiny, if you like, is telling. After all, it is here, not too far from where Namwali, made a statement that Zimbabwe’s greatest writer to date, Dambudzo Marechera made a name for himself as a self-destructive genius. He made an even more violent statement when being awarded the 1979 Gaurdian Fiction Prize when he started to launch dinner plates at a chandelier in protest over perceived wrong. It was from this same Oxford that his anarchist conduct led to his expulsion after threatening to set the school ablaze.

Namwali is by no means an anarchist. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley English Department and is on the prestigious Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 40 (And I am not just saying it is prestigious because I am also on that list), and there is a method to her mutiny.

She will share the prize money with her fellow shortlisted writers but to what extent will she “share the prize” with them?

It was only Namwali that posed beside the bust of Michael Caine, along with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, not the other writers. The media have announced Namwali winner of the prize, despite this grand stand. It will most likely be only Namwali going to  take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, as well as get an invite to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi and the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Those are some of the perks associated with winning the Caine Prize.

In reality, as some would argue, were the shortlisted writers competing against each other? Technically, not really. The prize is awarded at the discretion of the judges; the writers have nothing to do to affect the outcome of the prize, they can’t improve or enhance their chances of winning it, neither will any misconduct cost them the prize. The days of reading and public engagement in London do not in any way give extra points to the shortlistees. The judges and the shortlistees are not even allowed to interact or engage the same space in a way that could influence the outcome of the award.

When I was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, an unforeseen situation occurred. By some coincedence, the shortlisted writers and one of the judges ended up attending the same event, a public lunch that included a tour of the gallery of the British Museum. The instructions came in thick and fast. No conversation. No eye contact with the judge. No moving close to her. No gestures to draw attention. Nothing. She is expected to do likewise.

And so we spent the awkward evening wandering the gallery of the British Museum suddenly changing direction each time this judge was sighted. And she spent the evening doing the same. A beautiful woman had suddenly been made a Medusa to us.

So in reality, it is hardly a contest. The judges sit, read the stories and decide which of the stories will be awarded the prize.

As Zoe Wicomb, chair of this year’s judges said while announcing the prize, “From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading.  Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

But even she admits that the story is a difficult read saying they had to re-read it to get it, and she knew readers would have to reread it again. Not everyone will agree with the decision but almost everyone ought to respect it.

Alongside Zoë on the panel of judges are Neel Mukherjee, author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010) and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014); Brian Chikwava, author and former winner of the Caine Prize (2004); Zeinab Badawi, the prominent broadcaster and Chair of the Royal African Society; and Cóilín Parsons, Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University who has written on Irish, South African and Indian literature.

Namwali winning the prize is also a huge validation for the Africa39 list, which has identified a number of talented writers on the continent, among them several past winners and shortlisted writers for the prize as the future of writing from the continent. Namwali’s winning story ‘The Sack’ is from the Africa39 Anthology and one could see the obvious pride on the face of the anthology editor, Ellah Allfrey, who got emotional after Namwali’s triumph and unusual gesture.

How this statement will shape the prize remains to be seen, but no one should underestimate the power of idea. And with this act, Namwali has embodied an idea that some writers may have nurtured over the years.


This article was first published in Daily Trust newspaper of July 11, 2015


And The Whispering Trees Bow to You

Dear friends, old and new,
Dear fellow travelers on this gilded path
The last few weeks have been amazing and the warm cascades of support and goodwill have astounded me. And on the saddle of your encouragement, I have journeyed this far. And so I bow this day before you and say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I came here, to this sunny London, with an old friend and made some totally amazing new ones. And I wish I could say that Tope Folarin is a jerk and doesn’t deserve the Caine Prize. But he is such an awesome dude (And I use that “Americanism” deliberately) He really is. And to him I say congratulations. Pede Hollist is a fine gentleman whom I really like and respect, and his wife is such a wonderful woman. Chinelo Okparanta is so sweet; you just have to like her. And of course Elnathan John, well . . . Such a wonderful, wonderful bunch of people to be around. May our paths cross again. And again. And again.
And so the trees have whispered. And they tell me hope may be frail, like a twig, but it endures like oak. Thank you for opening your hearts to me. May your dreams blossom like daisies in the fields.

Book Talk

Ten Days at the Caine Prize Writing Workshop

This year, the prestigious Caine Prize Workshop held in Uganda, in the resort town of Garuga, hugged by the expansive Lake Victoria. 
I missed the workshop in South Africa last year because some of that country’s officials had a bad weekend and decided that Nigerians shouldn’t be allowed in on the pretext of invalid yellow fever cards. Don’t ask me what Yellow Fever is: I heard the last reported case in Nigeria was some 18 years ago. Anyway, that was how I was turned back at Jo’burg’s Oliver Thambo Airport. The climax of some four days of frustration. The trauma of that disappoint lingered for months. Fellow writer Elnathan John wasn’t even given a visa.
Fortunately, there were no such calamities this year. The Ugandans proved to be a lot more friendly and accommodating and so all invited writers, including three shortlisted writers for the 2012 Caine Prize, Kenyan Billy Kahora, Malawi’s Stanley Kenani and Zimbabwe’s Melissa Myambo alongside the winner and fellow country man, Rotimi Babatunde, made it.
Elnathan John managed to get a visa this time and we were joined by the quartet of Hellen Nyana, Lillian Aujo, Davina Kawuma and Harriet Anena (dubbed The Ugandan girls). And there was the gentle Wazha Lopang from Botswana, who sadly lost his mother while the workshop was still ongoing, and another Malawian, Micheal Phoya. A dozen writers from across Africa. And there was Ivorian writer Veronique Tadjo and English woman Pam Nichols, both working with South African universities as the two facilitators. Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree was there to ensure the smooth running of the workshop and was conferred with the title ‘Dear Leader’ by the workshop participants. She is certainly nothing like that young Asian who bears the same title.
Garuga Resort Beach Hotel is a secluded place nearly an hour’s drive from Kampala with cobbled paths and wide expanses of grass fields and is bordered by the magnificent Lake Victoria that laps the shores with restless energy, turning up bounties for the numerous birds that visit its beach.
Of course there were butterflies. Large ones. Mostly monarchs and swallow tails. And my love affair with these fascinating creatures manifested as I spent almost an hour trying to capture their image in my camera. Not much success with that, anyway.
There were lots of Geckos and storms of lake flies, irritating little insects that form low level clouds and get in one’s face. The spiders were many and very spirited. They immediately wove you into their webs if you stood or sat still for a minute. It was a perfectly inspiring place for writers to hole up.
The Caine Prize workshop is unlike other workshops I have attended before. There are no lectures. You are just required to produce a story that will be featured in the Caine Prize Anthology. You may consult the facilitators, should you choose to, to discuss your work in progress and get feedbacks. The structure is very loose and quite liberating.
I had given very little thought to the story I intended to work on at the retreat. In the days before arriving Garuga, I was preoccupied with clearing my table and finishing the novel I have been working on for over a year. I was on the home stretch and I knew if I didn’t get it off my chest, I simply couldn’t focus on anything else. So, arriving Garuga, the first thing I did was to put aside my luggage and sit down in my room to write the last part of the novel. Then I went out for dinner, to let my brain and body rest and bask in the euphoria of completing a first draft.
It was wonderful meeting the other writers, sharing jokes and generally getting to know one another.
I sure needed a lot more time getting my head out of the novel I had just written and face the challenge of writing a decent story for the Caine. I didn’t have that luxury. And so for the first two days, I wandered around with a vague idea of a story in my head, a vague character who had a name already, but with no clear idea what perspective to write the story from. That was when I realised that it was indeed possible to suffer a writer’s hangover, trying to clear your head from one story in order for another to sprout and thrive within hours.

On the shores of Lake Vicotria

On the shores of Lake Victoria

It was in these days of in-betweens that I fell in love with Lake Victoria as I sit on her shore and bask in her exultation as she bath the beach and pour forth her bounty for the waiting birds. And then the story started coming, disjointed at first. The beginning did not come until much later and having woken up on the morning of the second day still suffering that most unusual hangover, I was delighted when by evening I was feeling pretty pleased with the story unfolding in my head.
By then, early starters had done their first rounds of readings, a dinner time ritual where a number of participants are expected to read parts of their works in progress. This works were discussed critically by the entire group.
The stories touched on varied issues: politics, grief, deprivations, fundamentalism and of course love. There was even a story about a dog and one about birds doing some funny business. That was sadly put aside by the author. Essentially, the stories that unfolded were a depiction of slices of life on the continent and the promise African writing offers with these young writers.
I favoured the poolside shed for my writing. It was an airy space with comfortable seatings and easy access to the lake, whose tides could be heard lapping the shores even from there. It was a good place to be in company of other writers. Not that there was much conversation going on here. It was always pleasing to have understanding faces to smile into when one is worn out and rises to walk the beach or stare into the blue, blue water of the pool.
By the time I had my first reading at the dinner time gathering, I was quite pleased with the progress of my story. The bond between I and my characters had blossomed and the story flowed unhindered.
Finally, there was a breather. A day out of Garuga and a visit to Kampala. We went as a group, with the exception of a couple of writers who felt the need to stay back and work more on their stories.
We had some fun wandering at Kampala’s craft market, our first real contact with Uganda in the real sense. And incredible craft they did have. And we did visit the museum in Kampala and I was shocked to learn that some politician had attempted to close it down so he could appropriate the space for some private venture. Fortunately, some people mobilised to ensure that never happened.
The Baha’i Temple was another lovely place with verdant grounds and a temple seemingly rising out of the greens and pointing into the clear blue skies of Kampala. It was built in the late 50s by Iranian missionaries of the Baha’i faith that believe in the teachings of all religions and open their doors to all comers.

With Michael Phoya and Lizzy Attree at the musuem

With Michael Phoya and Lizzy Attree at the musuem

The tour ended at Kampala’s Garden City, a sprawling mall where he had lunch, a long and hearty chat and set off for the peace of Garuga and the cobwebs on our separate doors.
But the Caine Prize was not only preoccupied with holing up writers in a beach resort. There was an open day when writers from the workshop visited a school in Kampala and read and talked with the young ones. And in the evening of that same day, the public presentation of the 2012 Caine Prize Anthology was held at Kampala’s Steakhouse.
A lovely evening it was of interactions and readings by the shortlisted writers from their works that were featured in the book African Violet. The event was well attended with the British High commissioner to Uganda, Ms Alison Blackburne presenting the book to the public.
Dinner at the steakhouse, much after the event was over was ruined for me by Bayern’s 4-nil mauling of FC Barcelona in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League. A very beautiful evening dampened by a shocking football match. But that is football.
By then the workshop was coming full circle. Finished stories had to be pruned and cleaned up and turned in for the Caine Prize Anthology coming out this June.
But the experience was awesome in the sense that you discover how much the Caine Prize is doing for African writing and writers, and future writers. The stories of a continent was told; some humorous, some sad, some very revealing. Friends were made, amidst much mocking of accents. Fortunately, someone managed to convince the Ugandan girls that ‘sure’ is not pronounced as ‘Shoowah’.
And I left the shores of Lake Victoria, very sad for the parting and deeply distressed by the fate of the vanishing Lake Chad. Someday, I am going to write about that lake.


Uganda hosts 2013 Caine Prize workshop

For the first time in the history of the Caine Prize its annual workshop will take place in Uganda this month and will see the launch of the Prize’s 2012 anthology, published by the Uganda Women Writers’ Association, FEMRITE, one of eight co-publishers of the Caine Prize anthologies.

Twelve writers from seven different African countries will convene at the Garuga Resort Beach Hotel for nine days (16 April – 25 April) to write, read and discuss work in progress and to learn from two experienced writers, Véronique Tadjo and Pam Nichols who will act as tutors and animateurs.

This year’s participants include last year’s winner, Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), three 2012 shortlisted writers; Billy Kahora (Kenya), Melissa Myambo (Zimbabwe) and Stanley Kenani (Malawi) and eight other promising writers; Michael Phoya (Malawi),  Wazha Lopang (Botswana), Elnathan John (Nigeria), Abubakar Ibrahim (Nigeria) and Harriet Anena, Davina Kawuma, Lillian Aujo and Hellen Nyana from Uganda. During the workshop, the writers will be expected to write a short story for inclusion in the 2013 Caine Prize anthology, which will be published by New Internationalist on 1 July 2013 and subsequently by seven co-publishers in Africa. Each year the stories conceived at the workshops are automatically entered for the following year’s Prize.

The primary supporter of this year’s workshop is the DOEN Foundation.  Supplementary funding is provided by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, the Beit Trust and Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative from the Commonwealth Foundation.

In collaboration with FEMRITE and The British Council, this year’s programme will incorporate a schools’ event on the afternoon of 23 April, at St Mary’s College, Kisubi. The Caine Prize Administrator, Dr Lizzy Attree said, “it is important that during the workshops we take the opportunity to inspire the next generation of writers. We hope to build on our first schools’ event in Uganda and continue to increase our commitment to literacy, literature and education in Africa.”

The official launch of the Caine Prize 2012 anthology, published by FEMRITE, will take place later that day (23 April) at The Barn Steakhouse, 34 Windsor Crescent, Kololo, Kampala between 5.30 and 8pm.

The public event will include readings from the workshop participants after which there will be opportunities to meet the writers and purchase signed copies of the anthology, over a complimentary glass of wine and live music.

FEMRITE co-ordinator, Hilda Twongyeirwe stated, “We are very excited that the Caine Prize is coming to Uganda, and we would like to use this opportunity to highlight the importance of creative writing and literature to people of all ages and backgrounds.”