The judges have read 126 entries from seventeen different countries and have already chosen a shortlist of five. Today in Oxford, The Caine Prize for African Writing will announce a winner. Past recipients of the prize have included Binyavanga Wainaina, Leila Aboulela and Brian Chikwava.
But what happens after the win? Olufemi Terry, who was awarded the 2010 prize, discusses his year as a Caine Prize Winner.
Around this time last year, I spent a week in London that has become, in my memory, a blur of sightseeing, readings and long boozy meals. I came to know and admire the four writers who’d been shortlisted along with me as we did the round of interviews and readings. The circumstances ought to have created awkwardness – we were, after all, rivals – but there was instead a genuine camaraderie.
In the immediate aftermath of winning, I was asked to give reasons for why I write, to define myself, to offer opinions on African writing. This had never happened before. Writing is a deeply idiosyncratic pursuit and one which, I suspect, few writers expend a great deal of time interrogating. That would just get in the way of the writing itself. Still, during the past year my views on writing (my own, in particular) have come into sharper focus – the tag ‘African writer’ had a lot to do with my increased self-awareness, but more on this later.
I returned to South Africa from what, it was soon obvious, had been a life-changing trip to London and immediately began packing to leave. Within three weeks I had relocated, for personal reasons, to Stuttgart, Germany. There, far away from the whirlwind of London and Cape Town, I was able to take stock.
What I had gained, in addition to prize money (which freed me from reliance on freelance assignments), was the space and time to polish the manuscript for my first novel and to try to make a living from writing what I wanted. The move to Stuttgart was fortuitous. I knew no one there, I had an office in the flat for writing and it was precisely the sort of city I needed at that moment: safe, a little dull and impenetrable because I didn’t speak the language. Cape Town had become, after more than three years, diverting and, had I stayed there, I know I would have yielded to the seduction of a (very minor) newfound celebrity and squandered my time. Life in Germany afforded me the freedom to write without distraction.
Even as I pushed on with my manuscript and new short stories, I was pressed to re-examine ‘Stickfighting Days’, the story that had made it all happen. In February 2011, I spent a month in residence at Georgetown University, much of it discussing my work with university and secondary school students. Many of them saw in the story ideas, themes and meanings that baffled me, and yet I was unable to dismiss their comments.
Wider critiques of the story amused, confounded and even irritated me. In trying to situate the dump, where ‘Stickfighting Days’ is set, many (non-African) readers assumed it was in Sierra Leone simply because that country appeared in my author biography. And I noticed that my rejection of the tag ‘African writer’ provoked a great deal of debate and some scathing responses. At Georgetown, the question surfaced repeatedly: Why do you not see yourself as an African writer? As if I should have been eager to take shelter beneath a label. I came away from these sessions convinced that I was no authority on my work, nor did I have any desire to be.
One reader commented that a flaw of the story was that it offered no hope of redemption. In another intricate critique, arguments were made to the effect that the dialogue was too stilted to come from the mouths of street urchins and that I had in some sense cheated by not providing an explanation for how the boys came to be erudite and yet live in a dump.
I recall these responses to the story because they confirmed my sense that there are a great many pitfalls that a so-labeled African writer must avoid. Among these: a preoccupation with authenticity – with subjective realness, with being African – rather than with imaginativeness or breaking new ground; retreading well-worn terrain; and attempting to redress negative news out of the continent by writing stories of upliftment. I’m lucky in that authenticity is something I gave up on achieving a long time ago; my life has been too rootless for it. And while I don’t much like international news coverage of the continent, I’d rather respond to it in a non-fiction piece.
There is, for me, no African writing, only good writing and bad writing.
And yet, winning a prize open only to African writers has been vital to my progress as a writer, in allowing me to meet readers of my work as well as offering an opportunity to write what I like. And this is for me the greatest prize: I’ve been encouraged to redefine and stretch the understanding of what ‘African’ writing is until the label has been revealed as meaningless.
Photograph by Bookaholic