The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Namwali Serpell on Monday for the short story The Sack.
The Caine is the premier award for published writing from Africa, offering a fast track to the in-crowd of world literature and cash upwards of R150?000.
Based in London but judged by Africans, the prize has recently received robust criticism, most notably from former winner Binyavanga Wainaina, who last year insisted that the Caine, for all the attention it garners, has “made nothing, produced nothing, distributed nothing.”
With four out of five stories on this year’s shortlist published outside Africa, and amid incendiary discourse in South Africa about the “decolonisation” of local literature, I spoke to the Caine’s director, Lizzy Attree, about the prize’s position in literature on the continent.
Nick Mulgrew: One could argue that a prize for short fiction in Africa on the scale of the Caine Prize is window dressing for dysfunctional literary systems across the continent. Although the Caine Prize engages with literature from Africa, it isn’t completely of Africa in the sense that it’s foreign-run and, arguably, for the benefit of foreign readers. Would you agree?
Lizzy Attree: I think it’s important to point out that the Caine Prize works for two groups: first, for writers, in rewarding and recognising talent, and second, for readers, by highlighting and championing good writing, and publishing it annually with New Internationalist in an anthology of short stories. However, these anthologies are sold in larger quantities in Ghana [for example] than they are in the United Kingdom. This does not necessarily equate to readers, just as bestseller lists do not equate with canonisation, but they are useful indicators of where the market is.
Prizes are often “external” bodies and this is significant in some ways in establishing the impartiality of the decision-making, which is, of course, always subjective in literary terms, dependent on the tastes and preferences of the judges. I think it’s particularly important for writers to be recognised beyond national boundaries as part of an attempt to share stories with a wider readership and audience who would otherwise not have the chance to appreciate literature from around the world.
But, of course, recognition from within the country in which the author lives and where the books are published is equally important.
It is also crucial to remember that in countries where the publishing industry is struggling to sustain itself, printing as little as 500 or 1?000 copies of a novel or collection of short stories, there isn’t money available to plough into prizes. The money available must be spent on producing quality books, paying authors, editors and printers. This is no small level of investment or philanthropic work: this is running a business in a small market, often without government support, tax relief or subsidy or even patronage.
Maintaining these industries should be the priority – so in that sense, yes, prizes are additional, if you like, but their ability to champion particular authors and texts can feed back into local industry and inform consumers’ decisions about which books to buy and read.
NM: What do you hope the role of the Caine Prize is, or should be, for African writers and African writing? Is it a development tool or a reward for excellence in an industry in a place in which rewards are tough to come by? Or something else entirely?
LA: I think the prize is both a reward for excellence in literature as well as a development tool, in the sense that the annual workshops contribute to the production of an anthology of stories that would otherwise not be published in the UK, the United States or in any of the African markets.
The writers who take part in the workshop seem to find the process and experience useful and the networks formed between shortlisted writers, prize-winners and less experienced writers [and] with the tutors themselves are invaluable and often continue for years after the workshop itself.
The prize and the anthology together act as a showcase, a snapshot produced every year of current writing in Africa, and this is a brilliant platform for writers to become better known and more widely read.
NM: Perhaps it would be cynical to argue, as other critics have done, that the Caine Prize is trying to be the West’s gatekeepers of African literature. But, because of a lack of robust literary engagement in some African countries, it inadvertently functions as one. So surely there are drawbacks?
LA: The Caine Prize aims to be Africa’s leading literary award but, of course, no one institution can act as the gatekeeper of African literature. In some ways, the aim should be seen as a provocation to other institutions to compete in supporting and identifying the best literature on the continent.
The Caine Prize runs on a very tight budget of just over £100?000 a year, and achieves a great deal with this amount of money. It should be remembered that, when the prize began in 1999, there were only two other comparable prizes for African literature: the Noma Award for publishing in Africa, which ceased in 2009, and the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize that has recently changed its remit and dropped awards for novels and first books by African authors.
So the Caine Prize was an important prize at that time, and is still one of the only prizes that recognises short stories with such a large financial reward, and so it remains important for that reason. The prize can make a significant difference to a writer’s career, offering time to write and the opportunity to travel and make links with agents and publishers in Europe and the US. So I don’t see a huge number of drawbacks.
NM: Does that mean you think outbursts such as Binyavanga’s last year are misdirected? Or that the perceived problems with the foreignness of the Caine Prize are actually more symptomatic of larger, homegrown malaises?
LA: I think criticism of any prize is healthy and shows that what the prize does is provoke a response, generate debate and keep literature and authors in the spotlight.
I think national and pan-African initiatives such as Writivism, Jalada, Short Story Day Africa, Awele Creative Trust, Chimurenga, Saraba Magazine, Prufrock, and many others should be more prominent, but they are all relatively new and are still making an impact. The Caine Prize relies on such initiatives to identify, nurture and publish new writing.
However, I do think there is a great deal of wealth in Africa that is not being spent on supporting education and cultural initiatives. I would hope that this will change in the near future and that more enlightened individuals and corporations will see a clear link between education, literacy, art and literature, and will invest in the next generation of writers and thinkers, so that they can remain resident and critically linked to the societies that produced them and the cultures with which they engage in their writing.
This interview was edited for length and clarity