Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Trouble With the Caine Prize

The Caine Prize has a new winner. From the press release at the Caine website.
Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for her short story entitled ‘Hitting Budapest’, from The Boston Review, Vol 35, no. 6 - Nov/Dec 2010.

The Chair of Judges, award-winning author Hisham Matar, announced NoViolet Bulawayo as the winner of the £10,000 prize at a dinner held this evening (Monday 11 July) at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Hisham Matar said: "The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language."

Hisham Mattar, writer of the amazing In the Country of Men that I just finished last week, said that? Well, that's another story. You can read my review of the story here.

One of the most depressing things about being from an African country, and I suspect it is the same for being from any post-colonial society, is the need to seek validation abroad or by Western standards. You can be the best writer ever, but if a bunch of white guys in academies don't see it, you're not. This applies to disciplines outside of literature as well. It's really as simple as that.

That is what is so extraordinary about the Caine Prize. Folks call it the "African Booker Prize", and with the mantle of premier African literary award comes the weight that The Booker, The Pushcart, The Pen or any other literary award doesn't have - the burden of representation, of validation, of choosing by dint of one's position the face of and state of African literary scene.

If you so much as scroll through the blog, you would see my reviews of each of the five stories that made up the shortlist for the prize. I tried not to absolutely skewer things in reviews (unless, of course, it's really that abominably bad), but as a whole I'm agree with Ikhide Ikheloa from 234Next on the quality of this year's shortlist:
The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the shortlist, I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail every open sore of Africa. Apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clich├ęs even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty. The monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader. Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor who chaired last year’s judges, crows that the stories are “uniquely powerful.” The stories are uniquely wretched. The chair of this year’s judges Hisham Matar declares presumptuously that the stories “represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.” Really? Is this the sum total of our experience, this humourless, tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

I hope to goodness that this applies only to this years, but judging from Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days, pathetic stories seem to be their thing. Emmanuel Iduma, publisher of Saraba Magazine, responded to Ikheloa's comments, which seemed to cause quite the firestorm on the internet and, I hear from someone present, was even talked about in the discussion part of a Caine Prize event that happened in London today:

I believe what is more important is the objective of the story. I assume it is unhelpful to draw a line on what a writer’s process/objective is by his story. Granted, critics do this continuously – yet in the final analysis if we can define a “grand” objective of “the story” we can go past these questions of stories that dance to a Western tune. And what is the West, anyway? And what is even human? So our grand objective must transcend western lines, become human, and take a more particularized stance. Can this grand objective be grasped? I propose that memory, fraternity and essence are merged, so that every writer, of whatever African descent, plugs his narrative into this fusion. Hopefully.

Knowing my own writing process and how much is involved, I'm wont to agree with Iduma. I'm not willing to be cynical enough to say that these writers are, as Ikheloa says, "willing to stereotype [Africa] for glory". I have no idea what led NoViolet Bulawayo to write the story she did, chockful of such familiar tropes on woe-is-me African literature (IMF street? Really??) And I should say here that this is what annoys me the most about the counter-argument to this brand of literature. Writing about Africa does not absolve one from writing well, and bringing complex characters to life, and, indeed, having a plot and creating a believable world for a reader from which (s)he can take away something of value. It really does not.

Writers write. Readers have opinions. It's really that simple. One has a right to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and churn out just whatever (s)he pleases. I certainly did not like Hitting Budapest, a plotless story that does not seem to have a point beyond "these kids are poor and live squalidly and you should pity them", but I do not really care about Bulawayo; she can write whatever she wants. I'm madder at the Caine Prize for seeming to favor stories of a particular strain, the ones that are less about characters and the network of trip-wires that make up their humanity and more about flattening characters to render them tools to make a political point, and absolving them from the basic responsibilities that come with writing a good story. I'm madder at them for not asking for complexity, and buying into an oversimplified narrative of Africa - poverty, war, disease, starving/fighting children -- just like most Western media does. I'm madder at the Caine for saying that this collection of stories is the best they could get out of Africa. I'm mad because I and so many people out there know that that is not true.

2 comments:

  1. I was telling a friend on twitter about this. Though I set to promote African Literature on my blog, I've wondered why Africans are buying into this culture. Good story is just what it is, good story. Yet, shortcuts are being taken. Write about dying people, sick people, hungry people and you are the best writer in Africa and awarded. Let's say each person could/should write what he/she wants. What happened to those questioning life in itself? Or those who invent new stories. For me, stories about hungry children and dying children are mediocre and trite.

    Thanks for this insightful article.

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  2. "For me, stories about hungry children and dying children are mediocre and trite. "

    Absolutely. Stories should be about people, not what ails them. Still, I don't want to take away people's rights to tell shitty stories. It's a free country.

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