Caine Prize Controversy: What makes someone ‘truly African’?

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2017 Caine Prize For African Writing. The shortlist. L-R, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, Chikodili Emelumadu, Bushra al-Fadil, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Arinze Ifeakandu.

I recently attended a Q&A panel at SOAS for the 2017 Caine Prize shortlisted writers. The Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literature award for contemporary African writers. This Q&A panel included: Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria) for ‘Bush Baby’ and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa) for ‘The Virus’. The remaining shortlisted writers, Arinze Ifeakandu and, the 2017 winner, Bushra al-Fadil, were unable to attend.

At the very end of this event, the conversation turned into a fiery debate concerning the ethics and inclusivity of the Caine Prize, leading to topics concerning African identity itself. The heated discussion was sparked by two audience members. The first asked about the bias of the Caine Prize. They commented on the fact that the majority of the competition’s nominees are from the African diaspora, rather than the continent directly. They asked the chair: ‘Are we actually acknowledging the writers from Malawi who have a story to tell?’ They then directed a question towards the panel of writers: ‘I wonder if you are supporting any local writers?’

A second audience member elaborated on this question, asking the panel: ‘Does it bother you that less than two thirds of the panel this year are from the African continent, and that the organisation is directed by someone who is from the UK?’. This question was vehemently interrupted by the enthusiastic chair, Dr. Carli Coetzee: ‘How can you say that?!’

These bold queries were addressed politely by the writers of the panel. Lesley Nneka Arimah answered by explaining the financial and political issues surrounding African writers:

I don’t have the power to build a structure in the village in Malawi so that the writer there can be published. That is a job for the Malawian government. So I feel like there are a couple different answers to this: one of them is institutional – the structure doesn’t exist and we writers do not have the resources to build that structure. All that we can do is work within our own small locus of control […] For a long time I was not in the position to support local writers. I was not a writer that anybody knew – nobody came to me for anything. I find that the more my work has been put out there, the more people will ask me ‘Oh, can you write this thing about Lagos?’ and I will say ‘No, I think X writer living in Lagos is probably a more appropriate person to write on whatever issue it is’ […]. There’s this thing that the institution does where one person is levered up and then, because people are lazy, they go, ‘Oh, this person is an ‘African’ writer so I can just go to them for all my ‘African’ things’. A one-stop shop. So I push back on that in the ways that I have the power to by saying: ‘No, I won’t do this thing for you, but here are three names of people who can.’ That’s all that I, as a writer, can do. I cannot fix a country. I cannot fix a structure. I cannot fix a school system.

The writers were also quick to challenge the implied criticism of the Caine Prize for including nominees from the African diaspora. Magogodi oaMphela Makhene stated:

What you mean by who is an ‘African’ – I think that deserves to be challenged. I take offence if somebody calls me anything other than South African because that’s all I’ve ever been. Yes, I’m a South African who is fluid in that I live in New York and I frequently go home, but I don’t know why I have to defend my locality. I don’t understand why being tethered to a specific zip code or postal code is the only thing that qualifies me being ‘South African’.

A similar answer on the subject of identity was also given by Lesley Nneka:

I am Nigerian. I live in America so I have American concerns. I moved when I was young so I also have American influences on my upbringing. But in my head I have never stopped thinking of myself as Nigerian, I have never stopped being Nigerian. It is such a ridiculous notion to me, the idea that I’m not a ‘real’ African writer. It feels so artificial to me. For example, there can be someone who lives in Nigeria who has a privileged life, buys all the things, goes to a British institution. Their life will look like mine in terms of what is familiar to them and what their interests are. Their cultural touchpoint will be both Nigerian and Non-Nigerian due to their access to all of these things. So why should we say that because this happened to me on a different continent and it happened to them in Nigeria, it means that they are more of a ‘real’ African?

There is certainly room to sympathise with the audience members’ questions. The fact that the majority of finalists are from the diaspora rather than the continent could lead one to the easy assumption that this is a typical Western organisation slighting residential African writers. However, these writers’ rebuttals hit the nail on the head. It is reductionist to view the Caine Prize as not really ‘African’ because the list of finalists includes more writers from the African diaspora than the continent. To do so is to dramatically undermine their African roots and identity. Also, like the Caine Prize director, Lizzy Attree said, if the prize excluded writers from the African diaspora, their entries would reduce by at least half each year. Furthermore, this reasoning also burdens writers from the diaspora with unnecessary guilt – can they be blamed for the opportunities before them which did not reach others in the continent? Like Lesley Nneka stated, the most writers can do is use their platform to spread other African names, and, when appropriate, step aside to allow other African people to have a voice. Attree also added that past Caine Prize alumni have done their part by acting as mentors for aspiring writers from the continent.

Attree further defended the organisation, reiterating Nneka’s point about the economic difficulty surrounding the African literature scene:

[The Caine Prize] cannot take the place of African governments to take education and art seriously, to take culture – beyond tourism – seriously. When we did a workshop in Malawi I spoke to local people who told me they were pulling their children out of school because they wanted them to fish and stay by the lake in the village. Those children will not go on to do an MFA programme […] those children will not get an education for a number of reasons. But that isn’t the Caine Prize’s job […]. All of these structures need funding. One of the reasons that we are based in London, one of the reasons we have a UK director who works part time running this prize is because we are able to fundraise and put this prize together. It is no mean feat, we struggle to do it every single year. We have been lucky enough to be gifted a lot of the spaces and the time that people offer to help us run this prize. And it’s up for grabs, if anyone wants to run a similar prize anywhere else on the continent they are more than welcome. And that has started – there is now the Etisalat Prize, Short Story Day Africa, there’s Writivism […]. There are plenty of other opportunities. There should be far more, and we encourage that and we try to support them when we can, but they need people to work tirelessly and to raise money to do all of this. And they need publishers and others to set up platforms in order to get those voices heard […]. [These questions] imply a burden on the Prize which it doesn’t really deserve. After 18 years we have done a great deal. What is everyone else doing?

Feeling that their question had been misrepresented, the second audience member amended their earlier inquiry. They had meant to ask why the judging panel included people who were not from the continent, rather than the shortlisted panel of writers. Their earlier statistic – two thirds – is then corrected by Attree who stated that actually three fifths of the judging panel is African. The audience member persisted, asking the writers if they mind being judged by non-Africans and stating: ‘Can you imagine a day when the Caine Prize for African literature is truly African?’

The sentiment behind this question is valid. It must be frustrating to see African writers only gaining recognition after European endorsement. However, the solution is not to nitpick the organisation and only hire African team members, especially if the majority of the judging panel is already from the continent. As Attree expressed, the Caine Prize is not endowed with a special ability to fix Africa’s economic problems. The organisation has tried to recruit more continental writers, however, these problems are institutional, and cannot be solved by any single competition. To criticise the Caine Prize in this manner deflects from all the work the charity has accomplished, and all the great African writers who have been published as a result.

Magogodi oaMphela Makhene raised another interesting point when addressing this question. She stated that while she understands the thinking behind this question, she ultimately believes that literature should have a universal appeal:

African literature does not exist in a vacuum […]. The idea that you can only understand my work if you are African or South African means that there has been a failure on my part as a writer. The fact that the judges come from all over the world is fitting because that is the job of good literature.

This is not to imply that African writers should cater to the West when writing. She discussed how her short story, ‘The Virus’, is ‘as African as it gets’. It includes her native tongue and does not contain footnotes to translate. What is important, said Makhene, is that the judges could still access the ‘humanity’ of her piece.

Makhene continued by again challenging the notion of what it means to be ‘truly’ African. She gestured to the South African chair, Carli Coetzee, asking the audience if her white skin compromises her African identity. Is she the type of person who should be excluded from judging writers in the competition? She concluded:

Once we start getting into things like ‘truly African’ I get very nervous because who gets to qualify my ‘Africanness’? That’s a very loaded assumption of what is x and z.

The final panelist, Chikodili Emelumadu, did not entertain the question, and gave a comically concise answer: “No. No it does not bother me.”

What do you think? Are these questions valid? Are continental writers being snubbed by the Caine Prize? Is there more the organisation could be doing to ensure writers residing in the continent get published? Or do you agree with the panel; are questions like these unnecessarily burdening both the writers and the charity? Do such queries lead to narrow views on what makes a person ‘African’? Feel free to let me know.

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