Some Writing About What We Wrote About When We Wrote About The Caine Prize

Though I decided at the last minute not to join the third annual Caine Prize Blogathon after having  participated in the first two, I am still interested in the Prize, its effect(s), and its complex relationship to the idea of "African literature". Thus, I read with great interest an article about recent reactions to the Caine Prize that has been published in the latest issue of the venerable journal Research in African Literatures.

The article, "The Caine Prize and Contemporary African Writing" by Lizzy Attree, includes a discussion of the first year of the Caine Prize blogathon, a discussion which at first was very exciting for me, because it's nice to have an endeavor you've participated in noticed.

Once I actually read all of what Attree had written, though, I became annoyed. The trouble is, I don't really recognize the actual discussion in the discussion that Attree says we had. Or, rather, I recognize parts of it, but because Attree focuses on those parts at the expense of the whole, it feels distorting.

I think there are quite a few problems with the essay overall, but I'll leave it for other people to look at the entire piece. (Her characterization of postcolonial theory is especially problematic.) Here, I'm going to reply to one part — just four paragraphs — and I am only going to speak for myself and use evidence from my own posts, though I think a lot of the writing of other people involved in the Caine Prize blogathons also stands up against Attree's claims.

Since the essay is available only via academic databases, I will place here the four relevant paragraphs one by one as I discuss them, so that my analysis and response to their claims can be fairly assessed. I won't pretend mine is an impartial analysis.
Although online community interest is solicited through Facebook and Twitter, and my recently begun Caine Prize blog, the wider blogging response by readers has been completely spontaneous. Bloggers are notoriously uncensored and seem to come from all over the world, such as those from the U.S., Bangalore, Nairobi, Lagos, and Ireland who wrote about the prize. Typical of one critical reaction in 2011, is the feeling that "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" (Ikheloa). In 2011, Aaron Bady, who blogs as "ZunguZungu," raised the challenge to other bloggers to read and critique all five shortlisted stories in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner that July. Eight bloggers (including Bady) took up the challenge and quite an interesting, if frustrating, debate on "poverty porn" followed, with the shortlisted authors accused of pandering to a Caine Prize "type" of story, as if a kind of "Caine genre" exists.

There are a few problems I see with this paragraph. Most superficially, there are some problems of word choice. For instance, "spontaneous". Aaron Bady actually does lots of organizational work, so it's not like the blogathon suddenly appeared like mushrooms on a lawn. Spontaneous is not a synonym for autonomous. I'm amused, too, by the idea of bloggers being "notoriously uncensored" — as if censorship is what we really need! Not the best word choice. But, as a blogger, I know that sometimes in the heat of writing we choose inadequate words, or words with implications we really didn't intend. So it goes. It would be nice if that's not how it went in a journal that is among the most prestigious in its field, but, as the great Osgood says in Some Like It Hot, nobody's perfect.

You might have noticed that phrase "and my recently begun Caine Prize blog" and wondered who Lizzy Attree is. Her affiliation is listed on the first page of the article: "Caine Prize Administrator". I have to say, if Attree's comments had been on the official Caine Prize blog, I really wouldn't have cared much, and I probably wouldn't have been motivated to respond. As someone who works for the Prize, her response makes perfect sense, and I really don't have a problem with it in that context. But this is Research in African Literatures! That this piece was published there is the source of at least 76.3% of my frustration. Or, actually, that the piece was published there without any other context or response is the source of my frustration. I certainly don't blame Attree for that. She is who she is, and her job is what it is. Also, it's entirely appropriate and useful to get a perspective on the Caine Prize from somebody who works for the Prize. But it's a bit odd to have such a piece on its own in an academic journal, particularly one that so dominates its field as RAL does. Ideally, the journal would have included at least one other view from somebody not affiliated with the Prize itself. One of the reasons I think the Caine Prize blogathon is a good thing is that it helps to multiply the discourse around the Prize, usefully undermining or at least complicating the very powerful discourse created by any high-profile award. RAL would have served the Prize and everything around it better had the journal helped to multiply that discourse rather than simply filter it back through the lens of an administrator of the Prize.

The last sentence of the quoted paragraph is the most troublesome, and the one that demonstrates most vividly why someone who works for the Prize is not the best candidate to analyze it. Yes, some debate on "poverty porn" ensued, but while it was certainly a topic of conversation among us that year, it's a mistake to reduce the entire blogathon to those two words. I myself only mentioned the term once, as far as I can tell, and that was when discussing "Hitting Budapest" by NoViolet Bulawayo, the eventual winner of the Prize. I don't particularly care for the term "poverty porn", because I think it obscures bigger limitations — the sorts of limitations I discussed in that post and elsewhere regarding the particular kind of social realism that Caine Prize judges repeatedly reward.

And that's the problem I have with the Caine Prize, and the problem Attree doesn't really seem to understand, as we'll see. Paragraph 2:

Some of the bloggers agreed with ZunguZungu that the 2011 Caine Prize shortlist featured stories that "traffic in the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography," functioning only as "an obligatory excuse for the parade of affect-inducing spectacles which are the story's real reason for existing" (Bady). Focusing initially on the story "Hitting Budapest," which wound up winning, seven of the bloggers expressed disappointment that NoViolet Bulawayo conforms to the stereotypes expected of African writers, accusing her of exactly the kind of writing that Wainaina lampoons in his Granta article. When questioned on stage at the British Museum in London on July 13th, Bulawayo expressed her surprise and confusion at these criticisms. She emphasized that she identified with that child stealing guavas, "I am that Street Kid." Beatrice Lamwaka similarly said of her story "Butterfly Dreams" that she could hardly write about anything different: "I am from Northern Uganda, child soldiers are a reality there. That is what I know." Only one blogger recognized the deftness of Bulawayo's language. In his [sic] "Africa Is a Country" blog, Neelika Jayawardane concludes that "The finesse of Bulawayo's writing, I think, rescues this story from the grasping crassness of poverty-porn."

"Hitting Budapest" quite obviously fits into the actual content of what is generally referred to as "poverty porn" and which Binyavanga Wainaina lampoons in "How to Write about Africa". That's indisputable. What it means, though, is what we (and others) were discussing. Great writing frequently recontextualizes and re-envisions familiar content, and so an assessment of how particular stories approach their topics is necessary for any evaluative analysis. (On a side note: When reading Aaron's phrase "the parade of affect-inducing spectacles", I don't think we should emphasize the inducement to affectual response, but rather the parade and the spectacle. Much [if not most] effective writing gains its effect from affect-inducing techniques, whether they be spectacles or not. How the affect is produced and used is what matters.) Attree's defensiveness comes out in her characterization of the discussion as "an interesting, if frustrating, debate" and her statement that "Only one blogger recognized the deftness of Bulawayo's language." That the debate was frustrating to her is obvious, but her evidence against the value of the debate — indeed, the evidence for her argument that the bloggers involved were blind to the wonders of the great and benevolent Caine Prize — is nothing but a cluster of assumptions, as shown in the assertion of "the deftness of Bulawayo's language." She did not write, "Only one blogger perceived, or sought to highlight, deftness in Bulawayo's language," which is a statement of fact. Rather, she wrote from the assumption that Bulawayo's language is deft and that this is an inherent property of the text that must be recognized before anything else can legitimately be said about it.

Plenty of writers from or of Africa have all sorts of complex representations to offer. The Caine Prize so far, though, has rarely rewarded complexity. Further, once a story becomes a Caine Prize Nominee, it is no longer just any story — it has to bear the burden of being singled out as a Great African Story. That's a big burden, unfair to the story, the writer, and the Prize, but inevitable until there are more prizes to disperse attention, better conditions for publishing and the distribution of texts on the continent, better education of non-Africans about the continent and its literatures, etc. (There are some good signs of hope for all of these things.) To pretend that the Prize exists in some sort of non-ideological happy valley of la la la is disingenuous at best. The evidence of the winners proves that there is, in fact, a Caine Prize genre, though it may be more productive to speak of it as a Caine Prize ideology. Is it eternal and immutable? Of course not. Last year's judges did some good work to expand the genre and challenge the ideology. Continuing and diverse discussion of the Prize does the same. But there will always be an ideology and a genre — prizes and awards are expressions of genre and ideology, or else they're utterly incoherent and chaotic.

I suppose it's nice to have the individual writers respond to criticisms that their work falls into a particularly familiar and narrow genre, but it's not illuminating. I expect they sat down to write the best story they could. Most writers don't start work by saying to themselves, "Hmmm, what familiar tropes could I employ in a familiar way today?" Attree's use of these writers has the intellectual heft of asking renowned writer Dan Brown if he thinks he's as bad as his critics say he is. The response may be interesting, but it is tangential to the argument. (For the record, Bulawayo and Lamwaka are vastly better writers than Dan Brown!)

Really, though, my response to this paragraph is my post on "Butterfly Dreams". So let's move on...

As with so much African literary criticism, analysis of the content takes precedence over questions of language, formal experimentation, and the artistry required to craft a successful short story. As Hisham Matar, author and chair of the 2011 judges, said of Bulawayo's story in the winner's press release, the language "crackles" ("NoViolet Bulawayo Wins"). Matar highlighted specifically that "NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language" (Ibid.). It is the successful rendering of a particular event or moment in time using the medium of language that secures the judges' approval year after year. The Booker Prize debate on "readability" versus literary fiction this year (2012) reflects the universality of some debates on the merits of good writing. Jeanette Winterson identifies precisely what all literature is about by posing a simple test: "Does this writer's capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?"
When I read the first sentence of this paragraph, I gritted my teeth, pounded my fist on the desk, and screamed, "Hogwash and horse effluent!" It may be that something called "African literary criticism" (litcrit of books by African writers? litcrit from Africa?) is all about the topics writers choose and not the ways they write about those topics, but just read my review of the 10th anniversary Caine Prize anthology (used as an intro to that first year's blogathon) or my non-blogathon post on Keguro Macharia's concept of "Report Realism", or most of my posts from last year, to see that I, at least, have frequently raised "questions of language, formal experimentation, and the artistry required to craft a successful short story." (And I'm not the only one.) The problem is, I rarely saw much, if any, aesthetic diversity in the Caine Prize winners, and only slightly more in the nominees. Aesthetic diversity does not mean a writer uses strong verbs and precise, concrete imagery. Aesthetic diversity means Bessie Head, Dambudzo Marechera, Amos Tutuola, Yvonne Vera. The only Caine Prize winner so far to offer anything on that level of craft, vision, or formal inventiveness is Binyavanga Wainaina.

Attree then offers bland assertions as counter examples against what we supposedly didn't discuss.  Assertions are not evidence. Of course, Hisham Matar will say in a statement about a winner that her writing is fabulous and wonderful and great, etc. etc. He's not J.M. Coetzee. Award statements are the place for hyperbole, not for closely considered critical analysis. I like Matar as a writer, but "NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language" is not among the best sentences he's ever written. What does "delight in language" look like on the page? Do other writers not "delight in language"? How? Why? Again, it's a statement that is perfectly acceptable in an award announcement, but to offer it as evidence within an academic journal is ... well ... [I censor myself, and thus prove I am not a blogger.]

Finally, if you're going to hold Jeanette Winterson's question up as a criterion of merit, the Caine Prize will not do well, because, at least for me, when it comes to the majority of the nominees and winners up through 2011, the answer is, as it is for 99% of writing, no.

Moving on...
It is interesting that winning stories from 2009 to 2011 feature child narrators located, in Osondu's case, in a refugee camp, while Terry's "Stickfighting Days" is set in a Kenyan slum and Bulawayo's "Hitting Budapest" is set in and around an informal settlement. It is a shame if this series of stories selected to represent the Caine Prize, which in most other ways are not that similar, suggest that there are thematic concerns for which the judges look. The judges certainly do not have any set criteria when making their choices and the members of the panel varied between 2009 and 2011. This apparent thematic coincidence is purely accidental and in no way reflects explicit preferences of the judges. The real poverty of this debate lies in the way it overlooks the aesthetics, language, and style of all the shortlisted stories. It would be brilliant if a fantasy story such as Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, for example, were to be shortlisted for the Caine Prize in the future.
Here's where we see how an administrator for the prize may not be the best judge of the judges. The numbing similarity of the winners of the Caine Prize has been its central problem. It is a similarity that is not merely thematic, but also a similarity of, yes, aesthetics. That so many of the winning stories are similar in content, tone, form, and purpose makes the Prize into a homogenizing force. It fails to show the diversity of writing from the continent of Africa. Yes, it is a shame that the Prize continually awards the same kinds of stories. But Attree misses the point of her own insight. It doesn't matter that the judges don't have set criteria, and it doesn't matter that the "apparent thematic coincidence is purely accidental". Nothing matters except the effect. (For somebody so concerned with aesthetics, Attree sure is given to that bête noire of aestheticians, the intentional fallacy!) The sameness of winners and nominees may not reflect "explicit preferences" of the judges, but it sure reflects their implicit preferences. Social realism told in a straightforward style by a child narrator in a contemporary setting is the dominant form for recent Caine Prize winners. Because of the Caine Prize's stature, the pattern of winning stories sends a message to the world about what "African literature" is, and it sends a message to anyone submitting work to be considered for the Prize. And that's a problem — not of the debate, and not even so much of the individual stories, but of the Caine Prize itself.

Attree notes earlier in the essay that the Prize is only given to short stories, and so it's funny to see her bringing up Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, which is not a short story. I wrote an early and glowing review of that book, interviewed the writer, have used the novel in classes, and have defended it to people who disliked it quite vehemently (some of whom are my friends — astoundingly, there are people I like and respect who disagree with me!), so obviously I'm partial to it, but I don't think it's the best evidence here. Perhaps Attree should have suggested instead that the Prize consider something like the stories in AfroSF. I would agree.

Finishing up, I think it's important to note that I and most of the other completely spontaneous uncensored bloggers thought the Prize got better last year. Here's how I summed up my feelings after reading the last of the stories:
I think it's clear that the Prize is moving in the right direction. Five stories can't be everything. But these five stories do not all seem to come from the same place regardless of the places named, nor do they come from the same writerly place of insistent realism and good moral instruction. There are, as there should be, a few stories here that wouldn't have surprised us as Caine Prize nominees in the past, and there are also, as there should be, a few stories that really do feel like they come from a wider aesthetic than has been the norm in the past. With luck, the attention the Prize brings to these stories will encourage more writers to follow their imaginations wherever they lead, and challenge them to aim for original styles, forms, images, topics, and dreams.
All of my responses to Attree really live in what I wrote for the two blogathons. (See my post on the story that eventually won last year, "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babatunde, which includes lots of discussion of aesthetics, language, etc.)  I think an interesting academic project could be made from an analysis of the blogathon (preferably more than just the first year) and its claims and rhetoric. But that's not what we have in this essay.