What Price the Caine Prize?: Is So Much Glitz and Publicity for an Individual Short Story Akin to Condescending Acceptance That This Is All That Today's African Is Capable of? an Unwitting Condescension? (Arts)

Article excerpt

This could have been a short story about a youngish man called Helon Habila who has just returned home to Lagos as a naira millionaire in search of a computer.

But it is not. This is about how Habila's new-found wealth may get in the way of Africa producing another Chinua Achebe in the near future.

Habila, 34, is this year's winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, a British award of $15,000 for a short story of between 3,000 and 15,000 words by an African writer.

Habila's Love Poems, a tale of pseudonymous poetry writing by a reporter imprisoned without charge during General Abacha's rule, was a good choice from a shortlist of five that was uneven, underwhelming and unsatisfactory. Mixed race was the dominating theme, with two stories -- the Mozambican Mia Couto's The Russian Princess and the Somalian Nuruddin Farah's The Affair -- featuring black men in two different eras who want to go to bed with white women. Farah's was particularly badly drawn.

Another Mozambican, Lilia Momple, tells a touching, autobiographical story in Celina's Banquet about a "mulatto" girl in colonial Mozambique whose headmaster bans her from attending the school graduation banquet because of her black blood. And there are childhood memories of a physically, if not emotionally, violent kind from Hassouna Mosbahi of Tunisia in The Tortoise.

Now in its second year, the Caine Prize continues to raise troubling questions. Why is there such a grand prize for a single short story? Why all this fuss for a story that an author doesn't even have to bother writing a collection for?

It is a mere happy coincidence that Habila's winner comes from one: his handwritten by candlelight Prison Stories, published by Nigeria's Epik Books.

This focus on the African short story is nothing new. And that is what is disappointing. I, for one, am fed up with seeing black writers herded into anthologies of short stories. The latest British example, The Picador Book of African Stories, contains three from the shortlist. Picador's African book is exactly half the size of the publisher's collection of short stories and extracts from Indian writing, also recently published. For some reason, the Indian book does not have "stories" in its title. That book is entitled "literature". With the concept of an African literature, one gets to the heart of Western thought on African intelligence.

We are not supposed to read. We are not supposed to write. And we are certainly not supposed to have, or compose, "literature" or "philosophy", because we are not supposed to be thinkers. Our minds are forever empty of thought. The Caine Prize is supposed to come our of the African "story telling tradition". A tradition which, I believe, has never lost in Western minds that aura of "now gather around children...once upon a time...".

The debate on what was more worthy, belonging to an oral tradition or belonging to a literary -- ie written -- one, was always futile and stupid. What does it matter? Who cares.

Those who believe that having a literary inheritance is superior, should sit back and think of all the poison, justification for deep prejudice, and sanctioning of criminal acts, against black people that many works of European and American literature made possible, promoted, and still sustain today. …


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