By Anote Ajeluorou
Perhaps, one of the most fully realised sessions of the packed Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2013) held at Freedom Park was the one on The Caine Prize for African Writing. Mischievously but aptly tagged The Caine Prize for Nigerian Writing?, organisers sought to draw attention to the dominant status of Nigerian writers in winning the prize five times already in its 14 years’ history. This, indeed, is a feat given that all the five shortlisted writers this year alone were all Nigerians, with U.S.-based Tope Folarin eventually winning it with his story, ‘Miracle’.
LABAF organisers sought to know what the prize meant to Nigerian writers, whether they consider it a desirable Western validation of African writing and whether it sets polico-cultural agenda for Africa writing. Although Abubakar A.Ibrahim (2013 shortlisted author with his piece, ‘Whispering Trees’) and Elnathan John (???) were to have joined 2012 winner of the prize, Rotimi Babatunde (he won with ‘Bombay Republic’), Ibrahim couldn’t make it from Abuja for flight-related problems. But the duo of John and Babatunde made a fine moment of the session, with dexterous moderation coming from poet and teacher, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo.
Ifowodo sought to find out the two writers’ philosophical views on the prize, the role of Western cultural hegemony in its organisation and the institutional framework that sustains it as against what is obtainable on the African continent. John maintained that from an idealistic point of view, he wished there were no prizes to reward writing or writers, arguing that prizes tended to diminish writers and needlessly put up one writing against another. However, on the grounds of serving as a tool for promoting writing and writers, John conceded to prizes as being inevitable.
But he was clearly not in favour of prizes being turned into some sort of celebrity circus, with the story or writing relegated to the background, “There’s too much of the celebrity factor in the prizes; we’re more concerned with what’s on the faces of writers and not what’s on their shelves. For some, prizes stop their career as writers. Some prizes do not help writers in their administration; they exclude other writers. I wish there were no prizes”.
However, Babatunde stressed how important prizes were fast becoming a factor in the lives of writers, and added that prizes had come to stay and that they couldn’t just be wished away any more. “The real prize is the one which, 100 years from now, people will still be reading you”, he said. “Prizes can distract you and they can also spur you on to write more”.
On why or how African writers look to Europe for validation, and so fall into the dangerous trap of writing to conform to Western expectation of the kinds of stories that should come from Africa, Babatunde took a swipe at the continent for lack of structures that support writing and writers. According to the 2012 prize-winner, “We should also ask, ‘what platform have we established (in Africa) to counter The Caine Prize? If there’s one platform in Africa, the Caine prize will just be one of those prizes”.
Babatunde then went on to commend the Caine prize for what it has done for African writing, “The Caine Prize for African Writing has done a wonderful job of spotlighting African writing. The only way its influence can be reduced is to counter it. Another prize of equal prestige will help. There are not so many organisations doing something similar in Africa for African writers”.
John also expressed similar view, and argued that it would be wrong to pick on the Caine prize since there were no alternatives available for African writers to promote their writing on the world stage. Yet, he regretted that the best of African short storytellers are celebrated outside the continent in a manner not dissimilar to Africa’s prized artefacts adorning foreign museums, “I don’t think it will be right for anyone to throw stones at the Caine prize.
“But it was sad to see that five Africans are taken to London to decide African writing and not in Accra or Abuja or Yaounde. These guys who endow prizes abroad are not the best of people. It’s an inexpensive but effective media machine for them. The Caine prize is run on a very small budget compared to The Nigeria Prize for Literature (sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas -NLNG) company.
“What can we do to counter this intrusion into our space? To fight it, you have to do the cultural invasion; you must be doing something to discourage invaders from encroaching into your cultural space. Nothing is happening in Africa; no one is doing anything. There’s a cultural effect, imperialism to the Caine prize sponsorship; the West seeks to extend their culture here. What we are seeing at the Caine prize is just the glitz, and they are getting the kind of literature they want from us”.
Some observers are critical of types of stories coming from the continent, saying they are designed to titillate Western literary tastes, especially with wars, hunger, child-soldiers, diseases, HIV/AIDS and so on (something John referred to as the poverty pun), as forming the predominant staple themes. Many see this as the cultural and institutional power the West wields in setting the pace or agenda for African writing through its prizes.
But Babatunde somewhat disagreed, saying that no one tells a writer what to write nor do prize organisers know before hand what a writer intends to write while entering for a prize race. According to him, “Who are those who value literature and those who do not? Even the Booker Prize has been accused of story type. I don’t know if this argument is because the Caine prize promotes African writing; I don’t think that is the case because you can’t know what a writer wants to write. The only conflict in literature is that between good and bad. So, the problem is not in the theme but in the writing. Is it really deep? How are you writing about anything you’re writing about?”
On the other hand, John stated that poverty pun as theme is injurious term and also very dangerous to a body of writing. He argued that all the judges of the Caine prize are usually Africans even though they might be residing overseas. He queried, “Is there a problem with people patterning their stories after a certain way? Why are writers people for whom trying to win a prize is a sin? Prizes are given in other areas but no one asks why or why not.
“Prize endowers are setting their own ideal, their own agenda. What good is this to us? How does it affect us? Isn’t what is happening in Maidugiri (with Boko Haram killing, maiming and bombing) mean that the Kanuri man faces extinction? If a writer writes about it, does that mean he’s conforming to Western stereotype? The fact is that we’re not investing in publishing in Nigeria, in Africa, in our cultural production. That is another way to look at it”.
In summing up, Ifowodo noted that it was impossible to be prescriptive about what to write, but that what mattered most was the perspective from which a writer might be looking at the crucible of Africa issues. He asked, “Is the angle of writing possibly slanted if you’re writing about war, hunger, genocide?”
And, Babtunde also agreed, “It’s the how, the skill of writing that matters; the intellectual skill, empathy invested in the writing that does it!”