Caine Prize Syndrome stifling African creativity

> Lovemore Mataire

Who should write about Africa? The question sounds oblique and not to the point. It reeks of serious condescension to a point of distraction bordering on the vile wish squashing Africa into a singular monologue story.

But who should be responsible for Africa’s post-colonial narrative and its trajectory given its tortured history at the mercy of other people’s gory nightmares?

Nigerian Ikhide R. Ikheloa makes a serious point in describing the post-colonial African narrative as one dreary account of the same fixed images that the continent fervently tried to un-write at the onset of decolonisation. He has no kind words for Nigerian author Chris Abani for telling lies and engaging in exaggerations about his imprisonment.

“It is one thing for Abani to tell a lie and then move on with his life. It is another thing for him to continue to perpetuate the same lie at the expense of Africa. It is obnoxious and offensive, and if he was white, it would be considered racist. Since the confrontation/intervention in 2003, Abani has gone on to conduct moving interviews and given speeches expanding in graphic detail his alleged experiences. As I said earlier, the details get more fantastic in the re-telling and details and dates change each time. It is comic really.”

Ikheloa’s gripe is not without basis. Accusations are abounding of African writers and intellectuals telling lies about the continent to their Western audiences as some kind of endorsement of the age-old racist stereotypes. It is indeed repugnant and inappropriate to judge African writing with the poverty porn hawked for profit by writers like Chris Abani and others.

The quest for immediate “international” acclaim and probably a scholarship at some such European university seems to be a spurring ingredient to the outpouring of most post-colonial narratives that sadly seem to mimic the fixed stereotypes of what Europeans think about Africa.

While the birth of the Caine Prize for African Writing competition was greeted with much aplomb by African writers as a platform for African writers’ works have access to a wider audience, its trajectory has taken a debilitating path that seriously now demands serious interrogation.

Born in London in 2000, the Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer in Africa or elsewhere published in English.

The prize money for the winner is 10 000 pounds, quite a handsome bounty for fresh voices coming out of the “cursed” continent. The award is in memory Sir Michael Harris Caine, the former chairman of Booker Group plc, which is why many people sometimes refer to the competition as the African Booker. While Zimbabwe boasts of hosting the first meeting of the book prize at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 2000 which had entries from 20 countries, the inaugural winner was Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela for her short story, “The Museum”.

The glamour and glitz that normally accompany the winner not to mention a flurry of inquiries from Western publishers has become so alluring to African writers who have since mastered how to fit within the gridlock of European sensibilities of an authentic African story.

The perennial niggling criticism of the Caine Prize for African Writing is that most of the ‘celebrated’ stories that make up the shortlist seem to be mere exaggerated representations of the African continent replete with stock figures and predictable themes that validates Mukoma wa Ngugi’s essay- Africa is not a Proverb and Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write Africa?

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular,” Wainaina rants in Granta, a literary magazine based in England whose mission is centred on the belief of the “power and urgency of the story both in fiction and non-fiction and the story’s supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.

It’s a wonder how Wainaina manages to rubbish a competition has been a participant and went on to win the 2002 award. Maybe, readers need to believe his versions for he is an insider, one who has been there and understand the musings of the judges in selecting the best of what Africa has to offer in terms of English literature in English.

One of the born-free generations of Zimbabwean writers, Tinashe Mushakavanhu questions the whole essence of the Caine Prize as it tends to give a separate label to African creativity.

“And the fact that it is the Caine Prize “for African writing” suggests the otherness of the prize’s consideration. In truth, “African” writing is only really considered a separate category outside Africa. When will Africa start owning its stories? When will African writers start seeking the validation of Africa, not London or Frankfurt?” asks Mushakavanhu.

While Heinemann Publishers meant well by initiating the African Writers series, the problem is that this sort of categorization has resulted in the compartmentalization of African literature as a commodity without value. This is so because the primary market for the African Writers Series or the Caine Prize is not Africa but “the rest of the world- Europe and North America mainly.”

One is forgiven for questioning the whole Africanness of the Caine Prize for African Writing. While the label denotes consumers of “African” consumers of “African” or post-colonial literatures, it seems the judges place a value judgement on what constitute African literature because the production, consumption and canonization is in the hands of outsiders.

It is also essential that the Caine Prize for African Writing needs to relocate from wherever it is based and come to the continent and African writers need to resist the lure of tourist resorts where they gather to discuss about the essentials of African literature.

Ultimately, African governments need to prioritise the arts industry as an essential cog in nation building and maintaining cohesion. There is need to come up with homegrown and home-based literary awards for the continent’s writers. African literature must be judged not simply on its aesthetic value but from a point of agency.    

The kind of literature in English by a horde of African writers has not done any service to African sensibilities but has further entrenched the negative depiction of developments on the continent. Of course Africa is not a paradise but it seems contemporary authors are inspired by the adage, “damn your government and your fellow countrymen and get published.”

September 2015
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