Blogging the Caine Prize: An Introduction

Aaron Bady has come up with a great idea: since the Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded in five weeks, and there are five short stories nominated, why not write about one story a week until the award?

I'm going to throw myself into this, because I think the Caine Prize is important, and the exercise could be fun. I hope lots of other folks will join in.

Here are the nominated stories, all available online as PDFs:

[Update: My contributions: On "Hitting Budapest", On "Butterfly Dreams", On "What Molly Knew", On "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata", On "The Mistress's Dog". Then a final post after the award was announced.]

To begin, though, and as an introduction, here's a review I wrote of Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, for the winter 2010/11 print issue of Rain Taxi.


edited by Chris Brazier
New Internationalist ($18.95)

by Matthew Cheney

The Caine Prize for African Writing was first awarded at the 2000 Zimbabwe International Book Fair.  Named for Sir Michael Caine, who for many years chaired the management committee of the Booker Prize, the prize is awarded annually to a work of English-language short fiction by an African writer (the winners have all so far been from sub-Saharan countries).  Before his death, Caine had been working on ways to bring African writing in English to a wider audience, and his family, friends, and colleagues created the prize after his death to honor him and his efforts.
Because of Michael Caine's connection to the Booker Prize, the Caine Prize has sometimes been called "the African Booker", and Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing encourages this idea by leading with works by Booker winners Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.  Coetzee's story, "Nietverloren", is the only one original to the anthology, and his prominence as not only a Booker winner, but, like Gordimer, a Nobel Prize laureate, in some ways overshadows the Caine Prize winners, especially since Coetzee has rarely published short fiction.  Okri contributes a sententious introduction and a story, "Incidents at the Shrine", that tells an allegorical tale of an urbanized man being purified through contact with spirits in his rural village.
Beginning the book with stories by the Booker winners who have African connections is understandable from a marketing point of view, but it unfortunately makes the Caine Prize seem not so much like "the African Booker" as "the lesser Booker" -- after all, the Booker is given not to short fiction, but to novels, and it has the power to make its winners into overnight international bestsellers.  On one hand, placing the Caine Prize winners alongside the work of Okri, Coetzee, and Gordimer encourages us to see them all as equals; on the other hand, it is very obvious that the differences between the prizes and their winners is substantial.
This is not to suggest that the Caine Prize winners are bad stories; none of them are, and many of them are more vivid and gripping than, at least, the two plodding and obvious stories by Gordimer that are included ("The Ultimate Safari" and "An Emissary"; Gordimer has written some brilliant short fiction, but you would not know that if you only read these two pieces).  Coetzee's story is minor in comparison to the accomplishments of his novels, but a minor story by one of the greatest living writers in the English language is still an impressive piece of work, and the tale has a complexity and richness lacking from all but one or two of the other pieces in the book.  In telling a story about one man's perception of the changes in pastoral South Africa during the course of his life, Coetzee offers a delicate and complicated perspective on nostalgia, change, commercialism, and authenticity.  There are ironies in the story, and the portrait of a sad, alienated man is affecting while also incisive: we do not, as readers, need to accept his admittedly bitter interpretation of life in South Africa as objective and accurate, but his view of the world as a place ineradicably commercialized is seductive.  (It makes for a particularly interesting comparison with Okri's "Incidents at the Shrine", which tells a very different story of a man returning to a changed home.)
The sort of complexities "Nietverloren" offers are absent from the other stories in the book, which tend to be more straightforward. Most of the prize winners are slice-of-life dramas featuring many of the problems that get sold to the non-African world as endemic to the continent: abject poverty, diseased slums, wanton political corruption, refugees, children of war.  If there are ironies in these stories, they tend toward the obvious, as in Mary Watson's "Jungfrau", the 2006 winner, wherein a character nicknamed "the Virgin Jessica" is proved to be anything but virginal.  The narrator announces from the first sentence that "It was the Virgin Jessica who taught me about wickedness," and the story goes on to show how.  There's nothing particularly wrong with such a tale, but there's also nothing exciting or innovative about it, either.  It is skilled, and that's about all.
Binyavanga Wainaina's "Discovering Home" is much more than skilled.  Seeming to hover in a genre divide between being a personal essay and a short story, it is an absolute masterpiece, full of both humor and pathos.  It builds on a simple concept: a man returning to his Kenyan home after time in Cape Town.  Wainaina's keen eye for meaningful details enriches this simple structure, and the abundant specificity of the narrator's observations and experiences becomes universally affecting for anyone who has ever returned home with new eyes.  There is an energy and humor to the writing that is absent from the rest of the book.
Henriette Rose-Innes's "Poison" may lack "Discovering Home's" wryness and brio, but it's probably the wrong sort of tale for such things anyway, being an apocalyptic science fiction story of a massive chemical cloud causing havoc in South Africa.  What distinguishes "Poison" from the other Caine Prize winners (aside from being the only story clearly set outside a recognizable present reality) is the clarity and grace of its writing.  The situation and plot are not especially original, but the imagery is polished and affecting, the sentences impressively efficient and balanced.  It's a haunting story, bleak but not nihilistic.

The individual Caine Prize volumes include the shortlisted stories and stories from an annual African writers' workshop, and the effect is quite different from this collection only of winners.  While the quality of writing in the annual volumes is more varied, the subject matter and story types are as well.  The Caine Prize judges seem to have narrow tastes, at least when it comes to picking a winner, and this is a real limitation not only of the prize, but of its loftier goals for  spreading awareness of African fiction.  African writers are no less diverse in the types of literature they write than non-African writers, but without much publishing infrastructure for fiction outside of a few countries on the continent, African writers who seek something more than local publication are at the mercy of non-African ideas of what constitutes "African literature".           
Bringing attention to African fiction is a worthy endeavor, and though the winners have, overall, been narrow in scope and technique in the first decade of the Caine Prize, the second decade may offer more variety of writing as the prize brings encouragement and resources to Africa's writers.

reprinted with permission of Rain Taxi

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