By Anote Ajeluorou and Greg Austin-Page Nwakunor
It’s not often that you find three Caine Prize winners on the same podium. But this happened at Port Harcourt Book Festival 2014 that ended last week. The three writers Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria- 2012), Tope Folarin (Nigeria - 2013) and Okwiri Oduor (Kenya – 2014) were part of the ‘Africa 39’ writers that added excitement to this year’s book festival, writers under 40 Africa south of the Sahara, London-based Hay Festival partnership with UNESCO Port Harcourt Book Capital 2014.
The Caine Prize (10,000) is perhaps Africa’s biggest literary prize for the short story, bigger than the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (USD$2,500) and prides itself as celebrating new writing from the continent. Although the biggest prize on the continent, it’s ironically administered from outside the continent - London, in fact. This fact has attracted the attention of many critics, who are skeptical about the true intention of prize and its administrators. They see it as another cultural imperialism with dubious intention, one that expects African writers to dredge up Africa’s many ugly sides for the entire world to stare at, and laugh.
Elnathan John it was, who, shortlisted in 2013, with his story ‘Bayan Layi’, had expressed the wish that it would have been better if an African capital was playing host to the biggest short story prize honouring her sons and daughters rather than in London or any other foreign capital. But such sentiment does not fly in the face of philistinic economics of a continent that pays little regard to cultural productions of whatever hue. Critics of the Caine Prize say that the selection criteria are slanted towards stereotypical African images of poverty, war, child soldiers, prostitution and desperation.
Others have, however, argued that since the prize is sufficiently competitive to bring out the best on the continent so be it, as it has since inception brought about a remarkable change in the fortunes of the winners, 15 in all so far, to tell a different story through their engagement in creative writing.
These three writers are the latest addition to the list of winners since 2012 till date. Ibadan-based Babatunde won with his short story ‘Bombay’s Republic’ in 2012, a harrowing story of a Nigerian who fought in World War II in the dense jungles of Burma, and how the war changed him for all time; U.S.-based Folarin won with ‘Miracle’ in 2013, a story that treats miracle-peddling fad in church, and how it could all be a sham. Current winner and U.K.-based Oduor won with, ‘My Father’s Head’, of what a young girl remembers about her father, who died suddenly and how she begins to re-imagine what her father’s head looked like, as a way of dredging up memories of the man who left too soon, and thus conjuring him from the dead.
Babatunde, Folarin and Odour all sat in conversation with Caine Prize jury Vice Chairperson, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, also of Hay Festival, last Saturday, the closing day of events at the book festival at the Tent, Hotel Presidential. It was a fitting climax to a weeklong festival that had several panel discussions, seminars, workshops, residency and a showcase of young talent in creative engagement.
Babatunde recounted that the most memorable part of the prize was the grand ceremony around it, which usually held at Oxford University’s Boldein Library. Also, he noted, “The connection between the writers is unbelievable. You won believe they are competing for the same prize, the camaradiere”. He recalled how the ‘Africa 39’ writers at the festival easily blended as if they’d known each other all their lives. “It’s amazing how the 39 have been working things among themselves. We’re just a single family, and it just happens.”
For the only female, Oduor, “You get to meet other writers, and it’s incredible. The Caine Prize is intense, nerve-wracking situation, but you feel a sense of solidarity from the other writers”, and added that she didn’t know if the prize had wrought any changes in her since winning it a few months back in July. “I don’t know if anything has changed,” she said in her sonorous, romantic voice. “But I’ve received marriage proposals on Facebook!”
For Folarin, who was born in the U.S., and has lives there, the Caine Prize experience was simply awesome. Although he’d written a couple of stories, ‘Miracle’ became the real miracle turning point in his life. He expressed how a single story turned him from an anonymous individual to the status of a star overnight. “I went completely from being anonymous to being known, and people were saying, ‘who the hell is the guy?’ I had to quickly adjust to being a public figure. The prize confers legitimacy on you as a writer. All of a sudden I was being called upon to speak on writing at important events! I’m incredibly glad I won the prize. And there’s a lot of pressure here, too, because everybody wants more, a book from me.”
Babatunde also had his own share of pressure just after wining, with journalists crowding out his space eager to have him share his unique experience with the public. “What I felt was exhaustion because of the pressure,” he said, “it took a while to decompress. Meanwhile, it was the story that won, not me.”
Like every writer, Oduor devotes a lot of her time reading other writers. But it is fellow female writers like America’s Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morison among others that appeal more to her “because they speak to me and show me the light. I find their writing rich…”
Already, Babatunde and Folarin are hard at work for their debut novels. Like his Caine Prize story ‘Bombay’s Republic’, Babatunde is still fascinated with material history; his new work is on historical fiction, and it’s situated in the Niger Delta. The three writers read excerpts from Africa 39, an anthology of new writing.