This year’s Caine Prize for African Writing and the winning story will have a special resonance with writers and readers of Crossing Borders Online Magazine. Not only was the writer a past participant of the project but the book that the winning story, ‘Jambula Tree’ by Monica Arac de Nyeko, was chosen from was AFRICAN LOVE STORIES: An Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo (published 2006 by Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd). So it really is a double celebration. It has been a humbling and rewarding experience.
The Caine Prize for African Writing, popularly known as the ‘African Booker’, was set up by Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne MEP, in 2000 in memory of her late husband, Sir Michael Caine. The Prize, worth £10,000, is awarded annually for African creative writing. The winner was announced by the chair of this year’s judging panel, the Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub, and presented to the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko at a celebratory dinner held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University on Monday 9 July 2007. ‘Jambula Tree’ is a story about a same-sex relationship between two adolescent girls in Uganda and was described by the chair of the judges as ‘witty and mischievous’.
For those of you who might wish to apply, the Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An ‘African writer’ will normally be taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African, and whose work reflects an African sensibility. The work must be published first to qualify for entry and internet publications are eligible. It must be emphasised however, that poorly edited work will not stand a good chance of selection and it is therefore particularly important to ensure when self-publishing on the internet, the work must be professionally edited and typeset. For further information about how to submit your work, please visit the Caine Prize website at www.caineprize.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details on how to enter the competition.
When I first read Arac de Nyeko’s story, I was impressed by the courage of the writer in taking on the theme of same-sex relationships. I felt at the time that it was the kind of story that needed publishing. Why? Because in Africa, these are not the kind of stories that one is normally allowed to tell in public.
‘Jambula Tree’ is a beautifully crafted narrative and Monica Arac de Nyeko uses the monologue style to perfection. It is also deeply reflective concerning the concept of memory. It works on several levels to portray the inner workings of a thriving community, fraught with tensions and denials. The writer says she sees the story as a kind of dialogue with herself as an attempt at communicating a message. It is an unusual story in the African context, but is an essential read guaranteed to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. She asserted, in a British Council Colloquium in London before the announcement of the Prize winner, that she wrote ‘Jambula Tree’ at a particularly difficult period in Ugandan life: ‘the place was burning and the topic has an emotional wall around it’. Choosing to explore this theme she anticipated that people would react in a negative and hostile manner. She says, ‘We have to talk about it – open up a dialogue but sadly this does not happen’.
Entries from Nigeria featured prominently in this year’s Caine Prize, producing three of the five shortlisted writers this year. But with entries received from across the length and breadth of Africa, the Caine Prize has once again proven its pan-African credentials. The other shortlisted writers were Uwem Akpan (Nigeria) for ‘My Parents’ Bedroom’; E.C. Osundu (Nigeria) for ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’; Henrietta Rose-Innes (South Africa) with her story ‘Bad Places’; and Ada Udechukwu (Nigeria) with ‘Night Bus’. In addition, the judges highly commended Kenyan Billy Kahora’s ‘Treadmill Love’.
The range and breadth of this year’s shortlist confirms that writers are testing the limits of what subjects they can address. My impression about this batch is that the writers are skilful storytellers who explore themes that have remained largely untouched before in African writing. There seems to be a deliberate shift away from the usual stories about struggle, war, famine and politics. Instead, there is a contemporary feel about the way history and human relationships are investigated, experimenting with form in a deliberate attempt to push forward the boundaries. This is a welcome development and the Caine Prize is playing a pioneering role in prioritising narratives that explore human relationships over the stereotypical historical and political struggles usually expected from African writers.
The week leading up to the announcement of the winner witnessed a plethora of seminars and readings and questions to do with the place of the African writer and publisher in a globalised world. The lively Caine Prize Colloquium at the British Council in London opened up a dialogue between the visiting writers and a cross-section of publishers, editors, literary agents, live literature promoters and people engaged at the cutting edge of African writing and publishing. Most of the writers expressed their willingness to be published in the West as this facilitates greater exposure to a wider international readership. But they also confessed to the hurdles they experience in gaining access to this field. Similarly, other concerns which underscore the place of African readers and publishers in this chain were discussed. The Nigerian Publisher, Bibi Bakare, whose publishing house, Cassava Republic, has been championing African writers on the continent, lamented the fact that Nigerian/African publishers were ‘working at the bottom of the pyramid’. Often, African publishers, who discover and nurture writers and provide them with a platform to win prizes, lose out to well-resourced literary agents and publishing houses in the West, highlighting the unfair competition. Bakare also spoke about how the culture of self-publishing in Nigeria meant that writers resisted attempts to have their work edited and developed into what a publisher would deem to be of a good standard. I felt this situation could be improved by signing a contract with the writers that states clearly that the work would have to be edited prior to publication. It was felt that, despite the best efforts of organisations like the British Council and the Caine Prize in raising the profile of African writing, African publishes are left to fend for themselves.
Delia Jarrett-Macauley in her Feature Article, entitled ‘The Role of the Writer as a Social/Political Commentator’, explores issues to do with the writer’s agency in this edition. She said when she started writing her debut novel, Moses, Citizen and Me, she did not know it would be a political novel. As a British–Sierra Leonean writer, she was disturbed by images broadcast on a BBC lunchtime news in spring 1999 and was forced to confront the country’s complex past. She did not go looking for politics but rather through her reading and research she gradually became aware of the effects of colonialism, migration and the problems of governance. But then how does a writer raise these issues without hammering the reader? How does a writer find an idiom or an image that would connect with an international perspective with sensitivity and respect for her home country whilst at the same time telling the truth? She says she found answers by drawing analogies with Western writers such as George Orwell and his iconic book Animal Farm, and William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, by reimagining an ‘African Siza’ for an international audience as a way of creating connections and parallels about the difficult circumstances under which African child soldiers existed. She ends her article by paying tribute to the activism of African writers who risk everything to write and sometimes pay with their lives. She reminds us that tyranny, oppression and discrimination can be challenged by the pen.
Stanley A. Gazemba is from Kenya and his story, ‘Goat’s Feet’, explores what he says is ‘the mythical jinnees that occupy the imagination of most of the native Swahili people on the Kenyan coast, feeding their tales’ told at public gatherings on breezy evenings as they sip bitter coffee. In this superbly crafted narrative, Akinyin, a young woman, was posted on promotion to Mombasa from Nairobi where she encounters strange happenings. Having worked late one evening, her attempts to board local transport (popularly known as matatus) were fraught with fear and danger as she stood shivering late at night at a bus stop. She eventually succeeds in getting into a bus which she thought would take her home safely, only to discover that the driver of the bus had hooves for feet. Gripped by fear, she escapes from the bus and runs to the only lit house nearby only to be confronted by a watchman with similar features. This is an intriguing story that plays with the idea of magic realism and holds the reader’s attention right to the end.
Ken Kamoche is from Kenya and his novel extract entitled ‘True Warriors’ is about Chege, who comes from a clan of freedom fighters in Kenya and grew up under the shadow of his illustrious brother but had little of the clan’s fighting spirit. To compound this, he felt unloved by his father who suspected he was not his own child because he looked nothing like anyone in the family but his mother. This is a story about family pride and jealousies, corruption and historical struggle for freedom. Deprived of fatherly love, he allies himself with the village madman named Gitu. Although the story is essentially about one Kenyan family, the writer skilfully weaves in the political struggles of the Mau Mau against the British colonialist regime which eventually brought independence or Uhuru to Kenya. In the end Uhuru is also criticised for failing to deliver on its promises; ‘Uhuru came to the land, but it was like an evil wind blowing false promises to the poor village folk’ it shows a masterly balance of the personal with the political.
Hazel Couvaras is from Zambia and her story, ‘The Other Cheek’, is about how a woman in an abusive marriage struggles to find her equilibrium. Finding herself pregnant after a brief encounter with her brother’s friend, she was forced to marry him to avoid the shame that comes with unmarried motherhood. But things soon change from bad to worse, and the once confident and intelligent girl who had dreamed of becoming a journalist, lost all confidence and became ‘a glorified maid and child factory’. Her husband in the meantime acted as if he were her master. Desperate for help, she turned to her mother for advice but her mother repeatedly told her ‘she had to be strong’ and that marriage is about ‘turning the other cheek’. Feeling trapped and unloved, her husband came home drunk early one morning and beat her until her pain turned to darkness and she felt nothing more. This is a story that needs to be told for its sheer power to overwhelm and shock one into action against domestic violence.
Zvisinei C. Sandi is from Zimbabwe and her poetry, entitled ‘For a Little Sister, not to Grow’, is a collection of poems on youth, jacarandas and Harare. ‘For a Little Sister...’ is as much an ode for youthfulness and loss of innocence as it is about the advancement of time and aging. In ‘Jacaranda Crown’ the writer paints vivid images of the innocence of a six-year-old beggar girl juxtaposed with a picture of opening of fresh flowers in bloom, unprepared for the harsher elements of the realities of life. ‘Hararean Heartbreak’ laments the struggles of daily existence in Harare and the difficult conditions that people have to bear. The writing is measured and powerful in an attempt at communicating a message.
Batsirai Easther Chigama is from Zimbabwe and the story ‘Broken Wings’ is a narrative about unrequited love. When Matilda fell in love with Seretse she dreamed that their love would last forever. He was her definition of true love but her dreams were shattered when he soon sought and found greener pastures. She lost him to a diasporic woman. Hurt about her loss, she opts to hold on to the past in the hope of a reconciliation, while enduring ridicule from friends and family. In the end she commits her life to becoming a nun because she fears she could never love the same way twice in her lifetime. This story moves into another gear towards the end. These two people who have never communicated their feelings to each other finally do so when Seretse reads Matilda’s short story about her past on the internet. This is a powerful narrative full of suspense and longing.
David Tumusiime is from Uganda and his story ‘Seance on a Wet Afternoon’ is set in a bedroom between two lovers. A girl goes to wait for her lover and while she waits for his return, it starts to rain. He eventually arrives several hours later and they become entangled in a lovers’ embrace. This story is exceptional for its descriptive power and close attention to the use of language that heightens the narrative. The reader is never told where the story is set, or the names of the lovers, but one is impelled to read on. You will have to read this story to find out what it is all about. The writer displays a mastery of the fundamentals of storytelling.
Becky Ayebia Clarke
20 July 2007