Almost every aspiring and established African writer of English expression will tell you of the London-based Caine Prize for African Writing. Fourteen years old this year, the prize has been associated with the most exciting contemporary voices of African Literature, despite its narrow focus on the short story. African Literature super-star Chimamanda Adichie was shortlisted for the prize in 2002 and attended its first ever workshop in 2003 in South Africa. Her friend, Binyanvanga Wainaina won the prize in 2002 and went on to found Kwani?, the Kenyan-literary establishment that publishes Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who won the prize in 2003.

The most exciting African writer of the moment, NoViolet Bulawayo, whose debut novel We Need New Names has won the PEN Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction, the Etisalat Prize for African Literature among several international prizes including being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won the prize in 2011. In fact, Hitting Budapest, her 2011 winning story is the first chapter of the novel. She recently told a Ugandan audience that Hitting Budapest was her first ever published story.

Ironically, the prize is most criticised by its former beneficiaries. Helon Habila, who won the prize in 2001, in 2013 lambasted NoViolet Bulawayo’s book as perpetrating a certain image of Africa, which he blamed on the prize itself. He described the Caine Prize aesthetic as of suffering and pain. Habila was one of the judges of the prize this year. Back to 2013, Chimamanda Adichie mentioned in an interview that she does not look to the prize to learn of the best African fiction. She looks to her inbox. She runs an annual workshop in Lagos, and selects participants from all over Africa, but primarily from Nigeria.

Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, one of the most exciting writers around, and winner of several prizes, including the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, which she won while living in America. But she was criticised by previous winner Helon Habila (Nigeria) for perpetrating a certain image of Africa, which Helon blamed on the Caine prize itself.
Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, one of the most exciting writers around, and winner of several prizes, including the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, which she won while living in America. But she was criticised by previous winner Helon Habila (Nigeria) for perpetrating a certain image of Africa, which Helon blamed on the Caine prize itself.

Much of the criticism of the prize centres on the substance of the stories that win it. The most virulent critic of the prize is Nigerian-American writer Ikhide Ikheloa who in 2011 wrote that “many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize”. The Prize derives its name from Sir Michael Harris Caine, former Chairman of the Booker Group plc. who is said to have had a lot of interest in African Literature. Indeed the prize is sometimes called the African Booker.

Less talked about is the fact that some former winners of the prize have found their way to the West, after winning it. As Carmen Cain wrote about the 2013 Africa Writes conference, which is associated with the prize, conversations around the prize do not attempt to shift the centre of the universe to Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina went to Norwich, and eventually directed the Achebe Center for African Artists at Bard College, before he relocated to Kenya after winning the prize. In the years following Habila’s winning of the prize, he taught at a Western university. The lone Ugandan winner of the prize, Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007) lives in Holland. NoViolet Bulawayo won the prize while living in America. Few of the past winners of the prize have resisted the urge to shift to the diaspora, even if for a short time.

Africa Writes is the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, and the UK’s biggest celebration of contemporary African writing
Africa Writes is the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, and the UK’s biggest celebration of contemporary African writing

The diaspora privileging of the prize almost came into sharp focus in 2013 when Tope Folarin, an American-Nigerian, who was born in America and had not been to Nigeria since he was a baby, won the prize. His story was set in Texas and was published by Transition, a magazine based at Harvard, even though it was originally founded by an Indian-Ugandan in Kampala in the 1960s. But the noise regarding Tope’s Africanness was muted because the Prize probably has the widest definition of an African, for purposes of eligibility. The rules state that ‘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.” Tope’s winning of the prize did not break any rules.

Tope Folarin’s win in 2013 brought the question of diaspora privileging into sharp focus, but the win broke no rules
Tope Folarin’s win in 2013 brought the question of diaspora privileging into sharp focus, but the win broke no rules

The prize has made efforts to root itself on the African continent. Since 2003, annual workshops are organised in various African countries and writers given opportunities to write, share with their fellow writers and animateurs and mingle with shortlisted writers from a previous year. This year’s workshop was held in Zimbabwe. From this workshop, an annual anthology is published by New Internationalist, but also by six co-publishers on the continent. These steps, to root the prize processes on the continent are beginning to bear fruit judging by the numbers of shortlisted writers from the continent, compared to those in the diaspora.

According to Lizzy Attree, the Prize Director, in 2001, all the shortlisted writers for the prize lived on the continent. In 2003 and 2011, four of the five shortlisted writers lived on the continent. This year, it has happened again. Four of the shortlisted writers live on the continent, including the winner, Nairobi-based Kenyan writer Okwiri Oduor (for My Father’s Head). Notable about this year’s shortlist is that two of the shortlisted writers, Okwiri Oduor and Efemia Chela were published by Short Story Day Africa (SSDA), on emerging winner and third place winner of SSDA’s Famine, Feast and Potluck competition respectively. Rachel Zadok, the founder of SSDA was herself part of a previous Caine Prize workshop.

Numerically, the diaspora may still be dominating the Caine Prize statistics in terms of getting shortlisted and winning, and eventual recruitment of continent residents who win the prize, but this is happening despite the prize’s effort to grow strong roots on the continent. The Caine prize has directly and indirectly led to the growth of continental initiatives like SSDA that are now part of the network that is producing and promoting more African writing talent that eventually gets recognised by the prize.

Writers Clifton Gachagua, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Barbara Mhangami and Elnathan John (shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013) at this year's Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe. Photo: Fungai Machirori
Writers Clifton Gachagua, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Barbara Mhangami and Elnathan John (shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013) at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe. Photo: Fungai Machirori

Despite apparent hostility towards the prize, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina workshop has also produced talent that has been recognised by the prize. Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, recognised as one of the 39 vibrant African writers under the age of 40, attended both the Caine and Farafina workshops. Elnathan John, shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013, is an alumnae of the Farafina workshop. As already mentioned, Kwani? is also part of this Caine ascendancy. It was started with Binyavanga Wainaina’s prize money and has since published stories that were shortlisted and won the prize. The establishment’s current managing editor Billy Kahora has been shortlisted for the prize twice (including this year) and commended once and they publish the Caine’s Kenyan edition of the annual anthology.

The Association of Ugandan Women Writers (FEMRITE), although established before the Caine Prize was founded, is another important initiative that has been part of the Caine infrastructure. Uganda’s lone winner of the prize Monica Arac de Nyeko is a member of FEMRITE, so is Beatrice Lamwaka, shortlisted for the prize in 2011. When the Caine workshop was held in Uganda, FEMRITE helped with the organisation and publishes the Uganda edition of the annual anthology. The feminist establishment has also produced various Caine workshop participants including Jackee Batanda, to mention but one.

With more involvement and activity on the continent, there is hope that there will be a time when African writers will not need to send their manuscripts outside the continent for publication and recognition. A time when African writers in the diaspora will look to the continent for publishing opportunities. When the numbers of shortlisted writers from within and without the continent will be almost if not equal. A time when the Caine prize will not be perceived as privileging the diaspora over the continent. The future is already looking bright, with all the literary activity happening on the continent today, directly and indirectly supported by the Caine Prize itself as an institution and the network it has established.

Okwiri Oduor talks to the BBC about what writing means to her, and about winning the Caine Prize for African Writing
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