Part 18 – On African Literary Prizes 2013 (July 2013)

I recently went to the Africa Writes 2013 Literary festival at the British Library – and made some great book buys at their Book Fair.

I also listened to an intense panel discussion on African Literature Prizes & the Economy of Prestige. Panel discussion was with Billy Kahora (Managing Editor of Kwani?), Jamal Mahjoub (Chair of Judges for the Kwani? Manuscript Project & Chair of Judges for The Caine Prize 2007) and Bernardine Evaristo MBE (novelist & Founder of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize). Chaired by Lizzy Attree (Administrator of The Caine Prize for African Writing).

As James English argues in his book ‘The Economy of Prestige’, to explore literary prizes is to explore literature’s relationships ‘to money, to politics, to the social and to the temporal’.  Set in the context of the recent announcements of the winner of the ‘Kwani? Manuscript Project,’ the ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’ and the imminent announcement of the winner of ‘The Caine Prize 2013′, panellists share their experiences of ‘prizing’ and ‘being prized’, addressing questions such as: Where does the power to confer cultural value on African literature reside? Which of Africa’s 250+ literary awards have been the most significant and why? What are the politics that dictate the setting up and funding of awards for contemporary Anglo-phone African literature?  And, what is the relationship of literary prizes to structures of publishing and circulation within Africa and in the West? (c/f Online Programme).

This was a fascinating panel and a lively discussion was provoked further with some excellent questions from the floor, including one from a distinguished elderly man sitting immediately in front of me — whom I suddenly realised was (Professor) Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (I cursed myself for not bringing my copy of ‘Wizard of the Crow’ to be signed.)

Ngugi asked the question whether it made sense to request authors naturally conversant (for example) in KiSwahili, to submit their books in isiZulu. A discussion ensued about the enduring colonial legacy of dominant languages – not just English, but other European languages, predominantly also French in Africa. The logistic and financial difficulties of running competitions with over 1000 indigenous African languages were cited in defence, with little seemingly possible compromise, apart from trying to encourage local indigenous writing with locally available grassroots resources, often extremely thin on the ground. However, an example from an audience member of book publication and large readership in West Africa (Hausa) was used as an illustrative example of a possible successful model for local publishing in an indigenous language.

This is a central issue for African writing, because as I blogged here some good few years ago now, (i.e. Nov/Dec 2006), the potential issue of language loss is very real within Africa and a further threat to richer diversity and difference, which may indirectly aid alternative ways of seeing the world:

Notwithstanding this cognitive argument, languages are cultural-linguistic repositories central to identity and very much in need of both protection and celebration. Carole Bloch in South Africa is one person I know – no doubt amongst many valuable others – who is helping to increase accessibility to indigenous writings and early literacy, which encompasses bilingual facility:

The emphasis on bilingual facility is hard to avoid, though. When I ran several writing workshops in the townships in Cape Town, the students specifically did not want an isiXhosa translator, as they said they preferred to improve their abilities in English, perceived to be a language of both power and access.

Indeed, a further point of discussion was the criteria used for African identity, to submit to African awards. The possible advantage some members of the African diaspora may have, perhaps due to greater access to writing resources such as creative writing degrees etc. was mentioned. Parentage, birth and relative ‘distance’ from Africa was argued over, with an admission that the boundaries of identity are hard to pinpoint, certainly given intersectionality and multiple possible identity configurations, in an increasingly mobile world.

Finally, there was also a discussion about how prizes may shape writing by perhaps privileging certain kinds of stories. There have been some previous online critiques that as an Award administered from London, the Caine Prize may perhaps be privileging certain Western shaped story formulas around Africa, specifically the inclusion of negative stereotypes:

Bernadine Evaristo (on the panel to represent the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, but recently a Caine judge Chair too) emphasised the need to encourage African writings that moved beyond African stereotypes:

This call has been met with some mixed responses:

However, it is hard not to agree with the main thrust of her argument that African writing should not be constrained by audience expectations, particularly Western ones. On the other hand, at play may also be some hard economic realities around what publishers expect will sell (certainly with regards to Western audiences). Building local readerships in local languages looks a promising option, but again perhaps requires a critical resource mass – including sufficient readership able to purchase – in order to be feasible. What all of these awards do – and aim to do, however, is to run local writing workshops within Africa, in order to further develop African resident writing and (potentially) readership.

A commendable goal indeed and one that can only aid the increasing surge of good African writing, both within the Continent and beyond.

Best wishes to all the pending Caine Prize 2013 candidates, due to be announced soon, i.e. tomorrow Monday 8th July:

Summary of Prizes represented on panel:

Brunel University African Poetry Prize

The Caine Prize

Kwani? Manuscript Project