The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Reprinted for archival purposes; First published in NEXT Newspaper in May 2011

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. 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 short-list 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 clichés 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 humorless tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

Five stories made the shortlist. Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten. Uganda’s Beatrice Lamwaka features, Butterfly Dreams, a pathetic story about a child soldier. Lamwaka apologetically documents Africans’ otherness by italicizing and explaining every Ugandan word – layibi, tipu, opobo, malakwang, etc. Enough said. South Africa’s Tim Keegan’s What Molly Knew, is a plodding tale about an interracial marriage gone awry filled with gunshots and ingredients that make for an African howler. Botswana’s Lauri Kubuitsile fires a volley of wretchedness in In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata, portraying the men of Botswana as drunken simpletons. South Africa’s David Medalie almost rescues the prize from the murk with The Mistress’s Dog, an affecting tale involving a well-fed dog, (what a concept, Africa without kwashiorkor!).

Medalie may not get the Caine Prize. His story is not African enough. No rapists, no murderers, no poverty. Why, there is a cell phone in the story. Shame on Medalie. Besides Medalie, Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers. The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes. The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules. Except for Medalie’s The Mistress’s Dog, there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once. Outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the Internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.

In 2005, the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, himself a Caine Prize winner wrote the now classic satirical essay How to Write About Africa in which he caustically smirked thus: “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.” It is as if these writers read Wainaina and misunderstood his sarcasm and rage as the bible on how to write. Wainaina, tell them it ain’t so,

The sponsors of the Caine Prize may be looking in the wrong places. We are witnessing a renaissance in African literature; it breathes joyfully in those spaces where African writers are not self-consciously burdened by the need to tell a certain story. It is interesting, the prize’s rules do not require that you write only about misery and huts and crap, it only requires that you be a writer of African descent. With the exception of Medalie, all the writers are united by a narrowness of range, and shallowness of depth.

The Caine Prize has become a truly prestigious prize, which is a good thing. The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize. They are viewing Africa through a very narrow prism, all in a bid to win the Caine Prize, The sponsors of the Caine Prize should organize a retreat and invite African thinkers of history and literature to vision a prize that encourages writers of African descent to write, yes, think and write out of the box of orthodoxy. Keep the Caine Prize, lose the contrived stories. Africa has suffered enough as it is.