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Buzzworthy: African writing and the Caine Prize

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing was announced May 1. This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing about the Caine Prize, including reviews of the shortlisted works. Thanks to zunguzungu for the idea and for organizing this year’s reviewers!

African literature doesn’t have many global-buzz-making events. There’s a handful of writers who reliably make big news when they publish, among them Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, and now Chimamanda Adichie. But when you look at the publicity apparatus for writers from Africa it’s mostly up to individual publishers, literary prizes, and Oprah.

As a result the Caine Prize stands out as perhaps the only well-oiled publicity machine dedicated to writing from Africa. In fact publicity is one of the rules of the prize: “Every effort is made to publicize the work of the shortlisted authors through the broadcast as well as the printed media.” So far it seems to have worked impressively: a respectable number of the African writers who have come to global prominence in the 21st century (Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Brian Chikwava, and Olufemi Terry) were Caine Prize winners. (The list of prominent shortlisted authors is equally impressive.) Wainaina took advantage of his early win to help found the Kenyan literary journal Kwani?, which in turn has helped launch the careers of a number of Kenyan authors – including one of this year’s shortlisted authors, Billy Kahora, who edits the journal.

One game-changing feature of the Caine Prize is that, unlike the Booker and Commonwealth Writers prizes, it regularly accepts work published in Africa. The significance of that move can’t be understated. As Aaron Bady points out, most of the canonical works of what audiences in the West consider African literature were published by a single British company: Heinemann Educational Books. The Caine’s decision to accept work published in Africa means that global attention and hard currency can more easily flow to African publishers, who are often desperately in need of both. [In contrast the Noma Award was given only to work published in Africa, but it did not attract the same cachet as the Caine and remained essentially an industry award.]

But even though it’s a British award the Caine Prize dramatically affects the intra-African dynamics of African writing. In other words it’s not just about Western audiences. To take just one example, in Kenya there’s been a hugely acrimonious divide between the literary establishment – which has its own writing prizes, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize and the Wahome Mutahi Literary Award – and the Kwani? scene. A major cause of this divide has been resentment on the part of the literary establishment that Kwani writers like Wainaina represent Kenya on the international literary stage, simply because they were favored by a British prize and an American donor agency. While there are also a number of substantive literary issues and outsize personalities at stake in this fight [to be discussed in a later post], the central issue is which writers get to speak for Kenya in the world and who gets to anoint them.

Lastly (for now), there’s the more abstract question of how the Caine Prize frames the works that it recognizes. The Prize bills itself as an award for the best writing in English by Africans. As such it promotes the idea that literature in Africa is essentially a competition among individuals to produce work of superior quality. So then what of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s assertion that literature is the expression of a community’s collective identity? Or Achebe’s belief that a writer must be a teacher? What about the half-century of scholarly work about African literature that emphasizes its roots in oral (i.e. communal) traditions and missionary education?

Let me be clear: the Caine Prize is a worthy institution. It makes African writing present to a potentially global public in a way that no African institution can match. However we readers should be acutely aware of how it promotes, not just individual authors, but a framework of literary individuality. And we need to be aware that this approach stands in painful contrast to some of the most hopeful and utopian thinking about what African literature could be.

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