African Literature: Caine Prize Winner Stages Small 'Mutiny' by Sharing Bounty

By Brown, Ryan Lenora | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

African Literature: Caine Prize Winner Stages Small 'Mutiny' by Sharing Bounty


Brown, Ryan Lenora, The Christian Science Monitor


Each summer, the announcement of the Caine Prize for African Writing stirs up nagging questions. Why has a British award become one of the most prestigious honors for up-and-coming African fiction writers? And what makes one African writer worthy of representing an entire continent on the global literary stage?

So when Zambian Namwali Serpell was named the 2015 winner Monday evening, she staged what she calls a small "mutiny" in the University of Oxford's stately Bodleian Library: She announced that she would split the $15,000 (Pounds 10,000) prize with the four runners-up.

The move, she says, was a challenge to how the award pits African writers against each other "like American Idol," offering a winner- takes-all approach to celebrating the continent's literary output.

"It was quite an intriguing decision, and I have to agree that if the aim of the Caine Prize is to generate better African writing, then if you single out one person and tell them they are the best African writer for that year, it can be pretty alienating," says Wamuwi Mbao, a literary critic and lecturer at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. "Putting more voices on the stage is something we definitely need when it comes to African literature."

Ms. Serpell is not the first Caine Prize winner to express ambivalence about aspects of the very award she was receiving. 2002 awardee Binyavanga Wainaina, for instance, put his winnings towards starting a literary magazine -- Kwani? -- in his home country of Kenya, and in the years since has chided the prize for honoring only African writers who appeal to Western audiences. In 2014, he tweeted:

dear caine Prize, DO NOT EVER, claim a central space in our literature. U r good, but we are not best employee certificate program.-- Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW) October 10, 2014

"What's all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway?" Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie -- a 2002 Caine Prize finalist - - asked an interviewer in 2013. "I suppose it's a good thing, but for me it's not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa."

But what is distinct about Ms. Sarpell's criticism is that it came from the winner's podium when the media coverage of the prize is at its highest. Elnathan John, one of the finalists, who will share in her winnings, agrees. He tweeted:

Easy to bash the @CainePrize from outside. @snamwali critiqued from inside, effectively, smartly, beautifully. More effective than shouting.-- Elnathan John (@elnathan) July 6, 2015

Celebrating the short storyFor all the criticism, however, the Caine Prize still offers something few African literary prizes do -- an international platform. "The Caine Prize is as relevant today as it was at its inception," says Nigerian literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa. …

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