23 April 2012

A Good Sign for the Caine Prize?

I've voiced my qualms about the Caine Prize for African Literature before, particularly in terms of the stories that often end up winning the award, and so I found this statement by this year's Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, encouraging:
I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa — in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with individual Tragic Continent stories — I like tragic stories! — but rather with the accumulated, repetitious weight of them, the monotony and predictability. (I wouldn't say "time to move on" — that implies we've "covered" the wars, the child soldiers, etc., and now we can read about happy things; I think it's vastly more complex than that, and I'm sure Evaristo does, too.) There have certainly been plenty of tragedies and atrocities that need to be represented and explored in fiction, but Evaristo voices my concerns exactly: why does African fiction have to be less diverse and heterogeneous than any other fiction? Is it because that's what publishers think European and American readers will read? Should the Prize really be governed by European and American stereotypes of the continent? The great potential of the Caine Prize is that it doesn't have to adhere to publishers' opinions about what Europeans and Americans think is "proper" African fiction.

Evaristo's final paragraph almost had me jump up out of my seat to exclaim, "Yes!":
For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.
Now that's an idea of "African literature" I can get behind.