Tag Archives: The Caine Prize

A Tale of Two Bookstores

store front display

Image courtesy Ann Arbor Review of Books

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the bookshops and wander in to see what is available by way of Nigerian literature. During a visit to London some years ago, after several explorations that yielded nothing, I finally chanced upon a lone copy of One is Enough (1981) by Flora Nwapa in a bookshop in central London. The book was tucked away at the back of the store along with a small selection of African American and erotica novels.

I picked it up, feeling a sense of its misplacement and wondered how Nigerian literature had fallen so far from its ‘Golden Era’ — that heady period immediately preceding and following Nigeria’s independence when praise for the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola and Elechi Amadi echoed in publications like the TLS and the Observer and labelled ‘timeless’, ‘universal’, ‘excellent’ and ‘bewitching’. How had Nigerian writing fallen into such obscurity?

Fast forward just over a decade — two weeks ago I found myself walking along the high street of a small English town, when the bold red and blue of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah catches my attention from the store front display of Waterstones. Next to Adichie’s new novel is Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasie (Dare we lay claim to her?) Both beckon invitingly and I draw closer, beguiled by the prominent display.

I knew that Nigerian literature, particularly fiction from the Nigerian diaspora, had picked up in the years since I futilely scoured London bookshops. But it took encountering these books on such front and centre positioning in a town with a population of 50,000 and a very small black community to realise the milestone Nigerian literature had reached over the last decade or so.

There are disparate points of view as to why Nigerian literature is – to put it simply – hot again. A school of thought would attribute it to the re-establishment of democracy in 1999. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Nigeria had been more or less in the throes of malignant military dictatorships. These regimes felt threatened by creative and intellectual expression and had made known their displeasure. Books, like Soyinka’s The Man Died(1972) were banned, writers, poets and journalists were imprisoned — publishing went into a decline.

With the return to democracy, it appears that the collective silence of self-preservation lifted, and people finally felt free to chronicle the political and economic realities of the era. This argument further explains why the majority of the works that were published immediately after that period –Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel (2002), Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus(2003), and Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004) – are full of criticism of the former establishment.

A second school is of the opinion that Chimamanda Adichie is the big bang of Nigeria’s literary renaissance. Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for several international awards and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First book and she was hailed as the protégé of the great Chinua Achebe. International publishing houses, whose interest had been piqued by the celebrated young writer, began to look more closely at works by Nigerians in the hope of discovering the next Chimamanda. Other aspiring writers, in their turn, seeing the possibility of a writing career, became more ambitious and started to aim for the international market. Supposedly, this spurred authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Adaobi Nwaubani, Chinelo Okparanta and many others.

Another argument attributes the rise of Nigerian literature to the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was established in 2000 and won by Helon Habila in 2001. With its £10,000 prize money and exposure for winners, as well as the fact that many winners debuted internationally soon after, it has provided a platform for aspiring writers to break out into the mainstream. It has further ensured that only the best from Africa has emerged — the Caine Prize winner’s list and shortlists are a near accurate touchstone of internationally acclaimed Nigerian writing. Since the establishment of the prize, Nigeria has produced five winners, including Rotimi Babatunde and Tope Folarin, the 2012 and 2013 winners respectively. And, undoubtedly, these success stories are inspiring many to the craft.

Whatever the reason behind this growth, what is clear is that Nigerian literature has recently achieved unparalleled success. With more than 250 ethnic groups and a population of 160 million, Nigeria cannot have too many voices telling its stories to the world — offering varying perspectives and a deconstruction of age-old stereotypes.

Back at Waterstones in the small English town, I give in and enter to buy both the books. Copies of Americanah and Ghana Must Go are stacked high on the ‘New Bestsellers’ table by the entrance, alongside titles by EL James and Sylvia Day. Erotica again! Democracy and Chimamanda Adichie may have promoted Nigerian literature, but apparently, it isn’t the only genre to have made that long journey from the back of the store.

Updated version of article published on Wasafiri Blog on May 28, 2013

Author Q&A Series: Billy Kahora


Billy Kahora was one of five shortlisters for the 2012 Caine Prize, and the managing editor of Kenyan literary journal, Kwani?. He is the author of a non-fiction book titled, The True Story of David Munyakei, and is currently working on a novel, The Applications, and a non-fiction narrative on Juba, South Sudan as part of the Pilgrimages project established by the Chinua Achebe Centre. The Kenyan writer tells us here about his fascination with bad behaviour, being mentored by Binyavanga Wainana, and his stint as a quantity surveyor.

Which of your major characters would you prefer to be trapped on a desert island with?

Humphrey Karoki, the patriarch in my work in progress.

What is the first thing you remember writing? 

A pretentious rant that pretended to be a story with cardboard characters that failed to flex my puny intellectual muscle.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

I once saw my non-fiction book, The True Story of David Munyakei, with a Kenyan Minister.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel?

A million copies.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

A sustained career

Worst thing about being a writer?

People think they can get away with not paying you because you are getting free PR or marketing.

Best thing about being a writer?

Nobody gets very surprised at your strange behaviour.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

Best- My work smells of Nairobi; Worst – I’m obsessed with bad behaviour.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as a writer?

To respect time and utilise it well.

Besides good writing, what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Having a bullshit-detector to determine what’s important and what’s not.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to 10 for spelling and punctuation.

Spelling -4; punctuation -2.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

It should respect their intelligence.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

“The heart empties as the belly fills” – Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

“There is always dirt, you just have to go find it.” – Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Bad behaviour

What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Feast of Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa.

What would your 20 year old self say if he saw the writer you’ve become?

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

Binyavanga Wainana.

What’s the most memorable reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

This feels like my life.

What’s your guilty reading?

Crime fiction.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Sustaining writing for more than two or three weeks.

And the most pleasurable?

The new thoughts that come every other day

what are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Laziness. Not rewriting (I am critical of that in my own work writing too),

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

Anna Karenina – Tolstoy takes two key aspects of humanity, love and death, and does a pretty good job of writing about them.

The Caine Prize – how can it be improved? 

By bringing more local writers to the events and having a conversation with them.

How did you decide the story you would enter for the Caine Prize competition?

It was the only eligible story I had.

How would you have spent the £10, 000 prize money, had you won it?

Buy some writing time… dropped other jobs to write.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Aspects of pre-colonial life, to disprove the false perceptions that it was all peaceful, loving and respectful.

Tell us a secret.

I trained as a quantity surveyor

What’s next?

A novel.

Read Billy’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, Urban Zoning

Read others in the author Q&A Series

The £10,000 Caine Story


2012 Winner, Rotimi Babatunde with Caine Prize Founder, Baroness Nicholson

When British-Nigerian writer, Bernadine Evaristo was announced as chair of the Caine Prize, she stressed the urgent need for writing that does more than reinforce the already warn perceptions about Africa: “War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent”. She posed the question of whether too many African writers are writing for the approval of non-African literary decision makers such as International publishing companies and prize bodies, a question that had been preoccupying members of the Nigerian literati.

While one mightn’t say that the effort by the 2012 Caine Prize to find “exciting, provocative” short fiction has yielded the very best it can – the shortlisted entries still contain copious references to racism, homophobia, poverty, disease and the need for escape – the handling of the stories have been more nuanced than in previous years. Of the five stories, which I had read countless times to prepare press materials, a couple stood out in my mind. And it was with delight, if not surprise, that I witnessed the announcement of Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ as fourth Nigerian winner of the Prize – after Helon Habila’s, Segun Afolabi’s and E C Osondu’s works in 2001, 2005 and 2009 respectively

‘Bombay’s Republic’, described as “darkly humorous and soaring prose”  tells the story of a Nigerian soldier drafted to fight in Burma during World War Two, but Babatunde wasn’t preoccupied so much with the usual: The victimhood of Africans made to fight a war that they had no business with – “Colour Sergeant Bombay… would quickly find that someone had confused his nation’s frontiers with a place half the world away” – or the racism meted out to the soldiers, with propaganda making the rounds about them being tailed cannibals capable of ressurection. Instead Babatunde focused on chronicling the gradual shattering of stereotypes and assumptions, and the liberating effects of a traumatic experience on his impressionable Sergeant.

Questioned by Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Chair of the prize, about why Bombay did not return to promote the independence efforts in Africa, Babatunde replied that, the former’s illusions having been shattered during the war, he could not return to “do the usual or predictable”. Instead, Bombay’s republic ends as an allegory on a self-perpetuating leader, like Allfrey’s own “dear president Mugabe.”

As I read and enjoyed Rotimi’s “Bombay’s Republic” for the umpteenth time, two things struck me: It was quite ‘genre’, and was easily expandable. This impression was further re-inforced when Ben Okri, Man Booker Prize winner and new Vice-Chair of the Caine Prize, in explaining the importance of a short story prize, likened the prose form to a seed, while citing examples of longer works- Don Quixote and Ulysses – that began as short stories.

A self-professed history enthusiast, hence the time and place setting of his story,  Babatunde is currently involved in writing a stage play Sugar, a collaborative effort with four other writers, and a retelling of “the journey of Yoruba culture and religion, as it moved through slavery from West Africa to the Americas, a powerful story of exploitation, resistance and survival”.  It is to be produced by World Stages London next year. So perhaps in answer to Evaristo’s query – “What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?” –  the stage is finally being set for the diversification of African literature.

Also, besides being a stepping stone into longer form, the short story, in this internet age, holds infinite possibility of re-introducing the continent and portraying its present circumstances both within and without. And platforms like the Caine Prize, while facing their own peculiar challenges, create avenues for renewed discourse. And slow progress is being made, this year’s Caine anthology, African Violet, has been released in partnership with six African publishers, and is available in book stores and in e-book format.

The Ten Thousand Pound Man

Babatunde, who is also a poet and a playwright, is no ingénue, having already achieved some level of success in creative writing – his fiction and poems have been published internationally, and his plays have been staged in places like the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago.

However, on arrival in London, his manner had been shy and earnest.  There had been an almost palpable nervousness about him. When he spoke at interviews and readings, it was with a hesitant intelligence, and he was given to frequent disappearances from the group. He appeared almost incongruous with his witty, tongue-in-cheek and articulate creative alter-ego.

Instead, quite like the character, Bombay, from his prize winning story, “Bombay’s Republic”, who bore with equanimity the probing stares of white natives, Rotimi exhibited very little emotion as he was ushered from his table with Ben Okri to the podium to give his winner’s speech. He spoke of his honour at being awarded the Prize, but mostly of being in such “good company as my fellow shortlisted writers”. Faltering slightly at the end of his memorised speech, he said a simple thank you to all and came down to congratulations and picture taking.

Though he will be the last to admit that winning the Prize and the £10,000 prize money has validated him in any major way, to my careful eyes, by the end of the media circus that surrounded him afterwards, his demeanour had changed slightly. His manner had become more self-assured. He still chose his words carefully, but they were delivered with the manner of one who had realised that people were eager to lap them up. And they were; he had granted no less than fifteen interviews in about two days, some well into midnight. Yes, he admits that it has been a fascinating experience, the importance of which will take some time to sink in, but he maintains that “writing is not about winning prizes but about writing well.”

As he recalls, his first memory of writing was when he created an illustrated story book around age six, but his craft did not actually take off until the early to late nineties when Nigeria was in the throes of military regimes. It was his awareness of events and need for self-expression in the stifling political atmosphere that led him to explore world literature by writers like Leonard Tolstoy, William Faulkner. Tolstoy, he said, “showed me what fiction should be like”. Closer to home, his inspirations came from Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola. These early influences still govern his craft till today.

While he doesn’t want to be immediately catapulted from Nigeria – as in his last few days in London he makes no secret of his longing to return to his home in Ibadan, there is a limit to the level of success that he can boast in Nigeria, especially as it concerns his work with theatre. “I do not write for Nigerian theatre“, he admits. “Nigeria stages do not have the facilities to support my work”. But he insists that a major achievement of literary bodies like the Caine would be to reduce the distance to Africa, to organise awards within the continent that will be a force for change rather than, as Evaristo puts it, merely “sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year”.

The Five Shortlisters. From left: Stanley Kenani, Jenna Cato Bass, Billy Kahora, Rotimi Babatunde and Melissa Myambo

Five Strangers from One Very Diverse Continent

This year’s shortlist boasted what Jan Hart, Caine Prize facilitator for twelve years calls a “young crowd”. Jenna Cato Bass, who wrote as Constance Myburg, is a twenty-five year old South African film maker, and a publisher of pulp fiction. She infuses this cinematic element into her story, “Hunter Emmanuel”, which is set in Cape Town. In “Hunter Emmanuel” an ex-cop follows the mysterious trail that begins with the discovery of a woman’s amputated leg. Bass, a retired magician with an eccentric dress sense and a passion for collecting odd knick knacks, felt somewhat like Alice in Wonderland on this trip. She admits that it is the first time she has seen her fiction published in any media besides her own Jungle Jim, a magazine she co-founded.

I had spent two futile hours frantically scouring Google Images and Facebook to match a face to the name I was expecting on the morning when I welcomed Melissa Myambo to London. The only thing I knew about her at the time was her gender. I was later to find out that she has a loathing for having her images published online. During the process of the Caine events we took great pains to film her in profile or not at all. Chatty, and with uproarious humour, she could always be counted on to break the tedium of panel discussions with a quirky observation. And she had often maintained that “by far the most interesting thing about me is that I am aerobics instructor, and I teach Zumba dance classes”. Her story, “La Salle de Depart” was inspired by an elegant, dignified Senegalese house keeper she met during her stint in Senegal, and is dedicated to women like the latter who do not have the opportunity to see the world.

Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” is one story whose place on the shortlist I had wondered about. But to hear Billy explain this story of a drunken bank worker who manages to outwit his bosses just when they should be giving him the boot, one realises that it is replete with meaning and references that would be missed if you did not possess local knowledge of Kenya, or were not conversant with terms like “Peri-urban”. Slight, and with the mild irritation of someone who never slows down, Kahora is an editor at Kwani?, a literary outfit established by Binyanvanga Wainana, or The Bing, as Kahora fondly calls him.

Stanley Kenani has been on the Caine shortlist one too many times, he complains. He was shortlisted in 2008 and has seen and done it all before. But as an accountant for the UN, the experience was another opportunity to network with literary types. He lives a kind of sectioned existence, he explains. When he is away from “all the writing stuff” he is just a stuffy collar, who has no one to share his literary interests with; and oftentimes it is just when he is busily “crunching numbers” that his fictional characters come to tap him on the shoulder and request an audience. Writing, for him, has been a means of escape. It earned him a scholarship that has enabled him find a way out of the Malawian village he lived in till he was in his teens. His story, “Love on Trial“, is about a homosexual man discovered in flagrante delicto with his lover in Malawi. What follows is the persecution and prosecution of this character. Kenani confesses to having written this story solely for advocacy purposes: “I wanted to speak for a section of our society – gays. Some are friends, they are can’t come out or even post their pictures on sites like Facebook; and many of them are some of the best people I’ve met. Why are we denying them the freedom we have?”

The Caine Prize brought together five strangers from one very diverse continent, and positioned them as the representation of our varied literary accomplishment. The journey from their respective countries had seen their stories reviewed by twenty-odd blogs across Africa, some of them very scathingly (cue Ikhide Ikheloa and Ayo Olofintuade, two Nigerian bloggers, whose review made for many hilarious interludes among the writers), interviewed by a myriad of UK media outfits, defending and explaining their works at panel after panel discussion.

There were merry parts too: A midnight pub crawl in Soho London, the networking avenues with agents and publishers, and the upper class accommodation at Royal Overseas League, a Commonweath private members organisation, and being feted at the UK House of Lords by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, member of the House and founder of The Caine Prize. Only the baroness’ declaration that she single-handedly chose the national anthem of Kenani’s Malawi ruffled a few feathers within the group. That and the “less-than-minimum-wage” per-diem.

First published in The Guardian, Nigeria, July 15, 2012



Africa’s Leading Literary Powerhouse – South Africa or Nigeria?


African prize-winning authors

Summer 2012 and the eyes of the world turn to the city of London, England. People across the globe sit in beer parlours, shebeens, pubs, washing unhealthy snacks down with tankards of beer and cheering as the healthiest specimens of our nations run, jump and swim faster, higher, stronger.

But why stop at sportsmen? Why not pitch our countries’ plumbers against the world’s, our street-corner hookers, our brain surgeons? Why don’t Liberians sneer at Sierra Leoneans: “The barefoot kids hawking peanuts in your Kroo Bay slums are nothing compared to the former child soldiers weaving through traffic selling groundnuts in the misery of our West Point”? And why not stand our writing ‘athletes’ up against each other in a sort of literary Olympic Games and see which nation ends up on the podium?

And the last was just what we did. The rules: We sourced our data by analysing the winners of major international literary prizes, filleting out all African winners and noting their country of origin. We limited our scope – and therefore our resultset – to awards for English language literature, with a deliberate bias towards prose fiction. Where a writer has dual nationality, as in the case of Zimbabwean-British author Doris Lessing, we favoured the African nation; with Mauritian-South African novelist, Lindsay Collen, we plumped for Mauritius, as this is the country she identifies with.

The following awards were prestigious enough to make it onto our list: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the International Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Costa/Whitbread Prize (neither of which has had any African winners), the Caine Prize, the Orange Prize, and the various flavours of the Commonwealth Prize.

Divvying up the spoils of these awards by nation certain facts became immediately obvious. South Africa and Nigeria are the 800 pound gorillas of the English-speaking African literary world. Between them they account for two-thirds of the prizes won by Africa. South Africa, though, clearly takes the gold medal, leading Nigeria by 5 awards (including double the number of Nobel prizes). Zimbabwe takes the bronze medal, limping in a distant third.

There may be a conversation to be had about the racial split of southern Africa’s winners. (They are disproportionally white.) Or maybe not: an African is an African is an African.

Analysing the awards by date throws new light on the health of literature in the various countries. Nigeria is currently enjoying a rich renaissance, kicked off by Helon Habila’s triumph at the 2001 Caine Prize. Its near neighbour, Ghana, on the other hand, is caught in the jaws of a terrible slump; the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Benjamin Kwakye’s The Sun by Night won in 2006 is the nation’s only showing in close to 15 years. And if Ghana is in a bad way, Egypt is even worse; Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz is their only international prize winner. And Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006.

Mahfouz isn’t Africa’s only Nobel laureate; Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka preceded him in 1986, Zimbabwe’s Doris Lessing won it in 2007, and in between it was won by South Africa’s literary giants, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

JM Coetzee is, to borrow an ugly American phrase, Africa’s “most winningest” writer, our Usain Bolt: Booker Prize followed by Commonwealth Prize followed by Booker again and followed by Commonwealth again. Oh, and of course there’s that Nobel Prize.

Dicing the data by author throws a different hue on our leading countries: JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer cast huge shadows over the South African scene; Nigeria is a little more democratic – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila are undoubtedly the leaders of the new Nigerian pack, but the pack is not far behind.

Viewing the data in this way also reveals the huge flaw in our experiment: where are those grandees of Nigerian literature, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe? Between them, they have a Nobel Prize and an International Booker respectively, but authors such as Karen King-Aribisala loom larger than them with her clutch of Commonwealth Prizes. Ms King-Aribisala is undoubtedly a gifted author, but few would argue that she should eclipse Soyinka and Achebe so easily. Perhaps our analysis would have benefited from weighting being assigned to awards, showing that the Nobel is worth more than the Caine? Everyone knows Usain Bolt won the 200m at the Beijing Olympics – but who remembers who won gold in the 20km walking race? (It was Russia’s Valeriy Borchin. No, I’ve never heard of him either.)

Literary prizes won by African countries

Despite this flaw, we should not throw our results away; they give us a good picture of the health of African literature and of the way literature fits into the larger political and historical jigsaw puzzle. South Africa leads the way and has done so since the end of Apartheid.  And the revival of Nigerian literature coincides almost exactly with the rebirth of democracy in that country. Zimbabwe is also experiencing a second wind, despite (or because of?) its financial and political problems.

And the future? Nigeria seems to be on course to overtake South Africa as Africa’s literary powerhouse. And perhaps Kenyan literature will experience a “Binyavanga bounce” the same way Nigeria had a “Helon boost” a decade ago. And maybe – hopefully – Ghana will rescue itself from the quagmire it has been trapped in for so long.

We will look at the data again in five or 10 years and let you know.

View our data.