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.

3 comments:

  1. This reminds me so strongly of a TEDTalk given by Nigerian author/activist Chimamanda Adichie titled "The Dangers of a Single Story." If you haven't seen it, DO!! It's a compulsively quotable reflection on the need for diversification in African literature, AND a commentary on Western consumption of the 'exotic.'

    See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

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  2. Absolutely! In fact, I just had students in my Global Literature class watch that TED Talk last week. That and Binyavanga Wainaina's "How to Write About Africa" (linked above on the word "proper") are the two best tools I know to make the issue vivid to people who've never considered it before.

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  3. I mostly agree with Evaristo, it's unfortunate that some of her choices on how to present her credo rub me the wrong way. 'Move on', which you are willing to interpret more generously, was a most unfortunate phrase. The second paragraph that you quoted had me cheering along too - but also cringing at the whole 'why can't we be more like the Europeans' routine. Speaking of TED talks I just watched an incredibly smug, simplistic talk by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling this morning where at one point he smugly opines that the developed West will slowly emerge as the 'foundation' for a world where everyone enjoys the benefits of development. No, I found myself thinking, we can all build our own foundations. African literature doesn't need to even implicitly look to European models, and neither does the literature of my country (India) or continent (Asia). We just need to build more complex, diverse models for ourselves. I might seem to be nitpicking here, but when even the most well-meaning discourse on matters like this tends to use inherently polarised phrases like 'people of colour' I find that the language we use to frame these issues needs to be scrutinised really, really carefully.

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