Reading into the Caine Prize

Reading into the Caine Prize

Published by ama’Books of Zimbabwe and several other publishers across the world, The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by African writers shortlisted for the Caine Prize 2014 and from the Caine Prize annual writing workshop held in Vumba, Zimbabwe, during the same year.

This book could be read, arguably to establish the quality and thrust of the Caine prize, one of Africa’s prestigious writing awards. The Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer. The £10,000 prize was founded in the United Kingdom in 2000, and was named in memory of Sir Michael Harris Caine, former Chairman of Booker Group plc.
Because of the Caine Prize’s connection to the Booker Prize, the award is sometimes called the “African Booker”. The prize is currently known as the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.

The Caine was launched in the year 2000. The award has been praised for launching young African writers into their trade as most writers who have won it or were shortlisted have gone on to blossom in their writing careers. But the prize has also been bitterly attacked for being, among other things, being Eurocentric and for allegedly encouraging the production of particularly negative images of Africa.

According to the Caine Prize website, the prestigious Caine Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3 000 to 10 000 words). In their considered view, an African writer is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or who has a parent who is African by birth or nationality. There are indications that works translated into English from other languages are not excluded, provided they have been published in translation, and should such a work win, a proportion of the prize would be awarded to the translator.

Going through the list, you realise that amongst the previous winners are Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000), Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Kenyan Yvonne Owuor (2003), Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava (2004), Nigerian Segun Afolabi (2005), South African Mary Watson (2006), Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), Nigerian EC Osondu (2009), Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry (2010), Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo (2011), Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde (2012), Nigerian Tope Folarin (2013), Kenyan Okwiri Oduor (2014), Zambian Namwali Serpell (2015), South African Lindulu Malingani (2016), Sudanese writer, Bushra al-Fadil (2017), Kenyan Makena Onjerika (2018); Nigerian Lesley Nneka Arimah (2019) and Nigerian-British Irenosen Okojie (2020).

It was first awarded in 2000 to the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela for her short story “The Museum.” In its first year the Prize attracted entries from 20 African countries. “The Museum” is a story about Shadia, a Sudanese woman studying at Aberdeen, and her acquaintance with a fellow student – a Scot named Bryan. While Bryan and Shadia begin to bridge the gap in communication, this is halted when they visit a local museum at the story’s denouement, culminating with Shadia’s announcement, ‘I shouldn’t be here with you. You shouldn’t talk to me…”

South Africa and Zimbabwe are the two Southern African countries that have won the Caine more than once. It is understandable because the short story tradition in both countries is very deep.
South African author Lindulu Malingani’s won the Caine Prize in 2016 with her short story entitled “Memories We Lost” which was published in a collection called Stories That Move You in 2015. The story was described by the judges as a story that “explores a difficult subject – how traditional beliefs in a rural community are used to tackle schizophrenia. This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered and gracefully narrated, this story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”

“Memories We Lost” is a short story about a girl who acts as protector of her sister whose serious mental health problems cause consternation in a South African village.
The then US-based Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing beating over 120 writers with her short story “Hitting Budapest” from The Boston Review Vol. 35, no. 6 – Nov/Dec 2010.

Announcing Bulawayo as the winner of the £10 000 prize at a celebratory dinner held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on July 11, the chair of judges and award-winning author Hisham Matar is quoted to have said: “The language of Hitting Budapest crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language.”
The story is famed for its powerful sentences like; “My stomach feels like someone just took a shovel and dug everything out” and: “We remain standing, not because the voice has told us to stop, but because none of us has started to run….”

It was also indicated that due to the win, Bulawayo would take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC, as a Caine Prize/Georgetown University Writer-in-Residence.
Therefore, on coming across The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories recently in a bookshop, I quickly noticed that it was a massively solid book. I was immediately intimidated. I am used to reading the usually thin volumes normally associated with short books in Africa. But since these are stories from one of the most prestigious awards in African literature today, I hoped that quality would pay for the volume. I do not remember the last time I had felt like this about a book.

I then hurried to the winning story itself, ‘My Father’s Head’. I had read elsewhere that it is story filled with sad memories. I did not disagree but I discovered that the story was full of sweet sadness with more of sweet. Sad but not depressing. It is the kind of balance associated with kopjes. On the second and even third reading, I began to feel that this was about a daughter’s celebration of a father’s not so happy life. I found the language syrupy, describing expanses of time and dwelling on tiny-tiny details of life like the paw of a dog and the flutter of a butterfly. I agreed with the judges. It was right that this story won. Maybe it was not a story after all. It was life.
Among the short-listed stories, I also had lots of respect for Billy Kahora’s ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’. Loneliness of people, and of animals too? A unique and unfulfilled camaraderie between victims from different communities? This story could just have won, I thought.

Having been raised on the short stories of Njabulo Ndebele, Luis Honwana, Charles Mungoshi and other writers from the Southern African sub-region myself, I found Lawrence Hoba’s ‘Pam Pam’ a very comfortable landing pad. Due to my background, this is the story that speaks most directly to me. The sensitive child is snooping into the seemingly unusual world of the grown-ups who are also trying to come to terms with the most ‘weird’ in their midst. Muffled voice. Understatement. Power play. A surprise ending. Hoba’s deft engineering – one soft word on top of the other… and on top of the other, almost like bricks, told me that this story was not easy to write.

‘The Sonneteer’ must be the ‘craziest’ story in this book! Even now I am still hoping that somebody will agree with me. I love the deluge of sonnets towards the end because it is a clever way of flourishing out after such a deep rendition on the tumultuous Zimbabwean condition. The story ends in successive loud spurts like a gas canister unleashed onto a hapless crowd. I like stories like this one, driven by silences – especially by what characters do not say to one another. We are no longer reading but are also writing the story alongside Philani Nyoni. The language is vigorously godforsaken and its rigors remind me of the late Marechera.
Isabella Matambanadzo’s ‘All The Parts of Mi’, just like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s and Chinelo Okparanta’s are stories about betrayal, intimacy and courage.

‘The Intervention’ by Tendai Huchu confirmed my thoughts about his previous stories, especially the one which I have been struggling to translate from one language to the other. Here is a writer who has an eye for dramatic irony and the incongruence of human character. His stories challenge the reader to work from many points of view.
In ‘The Murder of Ernestine Masilo’ by Violet Masilo, the protagonist dies slowly from the first time you meet her. Her death is not shocking but why she dies is riveting. You are left with a feeling that a flower has withered before anyone could pluck it and place it in a vase. If only there was enough love…Typical character in typical circumstances.

‘Music From A Farther Room’ by novelist Brynon Rheam is a story filled with utmost colours and sounds and wide spaces. It is a piece of painting or tapestry. If it were a piece of cloth, this story would flatter in the wind like a kite, landing on its nose until somebody picks it and throws it back into the sky just in order to see it and shout like a toddler! I read it over and over for the sheer serenity that it gives me.

Had it come in good time, Barbra Mhangami-Ruwende’s ‘Blood Work’ could have been shortlisted! It is filled with a delicate tension right from the statement ‘I don’t like black people’ up to the end and you are always on the edge. I still hope that I was not being prescriptive but this looks like my favourite short story in this book, at least for now.
However, in just a few of these stories here, adjectives tend to pile on top of one another; adverbs trip over each other. Colons clog the flow of even short paragraphs, and the plethora of semicolons often cause the reader to throw up his hands in exasperation. If you are able to forgive the very few overwritten pieces, the Gonjon Book is something to carry on a journey.

Online, an anonymous reader says about the book: “Disappointing, really a collection of works by authors who happened to be African rather than African authors writing from an African experience. Many stories are very well written and engrossing (I especially liked “The Gonjon Pin”). But all writers here are clearly immersed in European ideals of modern literature – such as a common theme of existentialistic alienation, but fail to capture African ideals like living in spirit realms and valuing the traditions of the ancestors.

So as a whole the body of work possesses a dark gloomy quality, not positive or uplifting. I think that could be interpreted as a victory of colonialism. And two of the authors were white women who were included because they happen to grow up on the African continent. So it may be that the word African in the title should be in quotes.”

Memory Chirere

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