The Caine Prize: Is It the Foreign Gatekeeper of Africa's Fiction?

By Brown, Ryan Lenora | The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Caine Prize: Is It the Foreign Gatekeeper of Africa's Fiction?


Brown, Ryan Lenora, The Christian Science Monitor


A teenage boy confronts a father wasting away from an unknown disease in a South African township in the early 1990s. A blind Nigerian girl stifles a flicker of hope that she will be healed at the hands of a Lagos mega-church preacher. An Indian South African couple tip-toe along apartheid's racial boundaries at a gala in a white Johannesburg hotel.

These are some of the shards of modern Africa on display in the stories named Tuesday as finalists for this year's Caine Prize, an annual short-fiction award for English language African writing. Drawn from a record 153 entries hailing from 17 countries, the five finalists are writers of diverse trajectories -- from a duo of internationally acclaimed Nigerians to a South African-Australian lawyer whose nominated story is her first published work.

"To me this isn't just the best fiction Africa has to offer, it's some of the best fiction the world has to offer," says Irish literary scholar Coilin Parsons, one of the judges of this year's competition. "These writers are a reminder that there's a huge production of literature going on in Africa that can and should be part of the global conversation."

The Caine Prize, awarded annually since the year 2000, has been the advance guard of recognition for some of the continent's most storied contemporary fiction writers, including Kenya's 2002 winner Binyavanga Wainaina -- named one of Time Magazine's "Most Influential People in the World" in 2014 -- and the Nigerian novelist and essayist Chimamanda Adichie, who was a finalist for the award that same year.

But as the London-based award has risen to become one of the most globally visible platforms for African writing, it has also become a lightning-rod in debates over who should be the gatekeepers of the continent's literature, and churned up heated discussions about what makes a writer "African enough" to represent the continent on the world stage.

"Of course when you have a panel of judges, many of whom are not African, determining the face of African literature, it's going to introduce a kind of discord," says Dan Ojwang, an associate professor of African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Three of the five judges this year have African backgrounds.

"This is a very legitimate question to ask, and one that gets us thinking about Africa's continued marginality in the world of publishing and literary production. But we must also remember that in that regard the Caine Prize is only a symptom -- it certainly isn't the cause."

Many past winners seem to bear a complicated relationship to the prize. In 2014, more than a decade after his own victory, Mr. Wainaina slammed African "literati" for being "way too addicted to the Caine Prize" at the expense of local literary magazines and awards. Ms. Adichie grumbled in 2013 that the prize had been long "over-privileged. …

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