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The Caine Prize: Is it the foreign gatekeeper of Africa's fiction?

Since its inception 15 years ago, one of Africa's most prominent literary prizes has been at the center of debate over what constitutes as African literature. The Caine Prize committee announced its 2015 finalists on Tuesday.

Neil Hall/Reuters
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie poses with her novel "Americanah" ahead of the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction in London June 4, 2014. She was a 2002 finalist of the Caine Prize. Photo: Neil Hall/Reuters/File

A teenage boy confronts a father wasting away from an unknown disease in a South African township in the early 1990s. A blind Nigerian girl stifles a flicker of hope that she will be healed at the hands of a Lagos mega-church preacher. An Indian South African couple tip-toe along apartheid’s racial boundaries at a gala in a white Johannesburg hotel. 

These are some of the shards of modern Africa on display in the stories named Tuesday as finalists for this year’s Caine Prize, an annual short-fiction award for English language African writing. Drawn from a record 153 entries hailing from 17 countries, the five finalists are writers of diverse trajectories — from a duo of internationally acclaimed Nigerians to a South African-Australian lawyer whose nominated story is her first published work. 

“To me this isn’t just the best fiction Africa has to offer, it’s some of the best fiction the world has to offer,” says Irish literary scholar Cóilín Parsons, one of the judges of this year’s competition. “These writers are a reminder that there’s a huge production of literature going on in Africa that can and should be part of the global conversation.” 

The Caine Prize, awarded annually since the year 2000, has been the advance guard of recognition for some of the continent’s most storied contemporary fiction writers, including Kenya’s 2002 winner Binyavanga Wainaina — named one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential People in the World” in 2014 — and the Nigerian novelist and essayist Chimamanda Adichie, who was a finalist for the award that same year.  

But as the London-based award has risen to become one of the most globally visible platforms for African writing, it has also become a lightning-rod in debates over who should be the gatekeepers of the continent’s literature, and churned up heated discussions about what makes a writer “African enough” to represent the continent on the world stage. 

“Of course when you have a panel of judges, many of whom are not African, determining the face of African literature, it’s going to introduce a kind of discord,” says Dan Ojwang, an associate professor of African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Three of the five judges this year have African backgrounds. 

“This is a very legitimate question to ask, and one that gets us thinking about Africa’s continued marginality in the world of publishing and literary production. But we must also remember that in that regard the Caine Prize is only a symptom — it certainly isn’t the cause.”

Many past winners seem to bear a complicated relationship to the prize. In 2014, more than a decade after his own victory, Mr. Wainaina slammed African “literati” for being “way too addicted to the Caine Prize” at the expense of local literary magazines and awards. Ms. Adichie grumbled in 2013 that the prize had been long “over-privileged.”

“For me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa,” she said in an interview. “It’s never been.”

For the prize, even the definition of “fiction in Africa” is a blurry one. The award stipulates that entrants must be born in Africa, a national of an African country, or have African parents. Of this year’s five finalists, just two — Nigerian Elnathan John and South African Masande Ntshanga — currently live on the continent. Two more — South African FT Kola and Zambian Namwali Serpell — are affiliated to American academic institutions, while Segun Afolabi, the son of Nigerian diplomats, lives in London. 

The debate over the place of the diaspora in African literature is not new. Even the popular term ‘Afropolitan’ — coined by author Taiye Selasie (who has connections to Ghana, Nigeria, Britain, and the US) — has proved divisive as it aims to acknowledge Africans who have a global perspective. The conflict stems when these type of writers are often overrepresented on the global literature stage over their "homegrown" counterparts.

“For me what’s important for a writer to be considered African is that you are connected to an African society and culture in a way that’s profound and important to you, rather than that you meet some set benchmark of “African-ness,” Ms. Kola says. “I don’t think being a person with multiple identities means the one excludes the other — there’s no reason I can’t be South African and Australian at the same time.”

In fact, Kola’s shortlisted story, “A Party for the Colonel,” is an intimate examination of the often-fuzzy borders of identity and belonging in modern Africa. Set in Johannesburg in the late years of apartheid, the story explores the inner lives of an Indian couple caught between a white world they wish to emulate and a black world they are scrambling to transcend with their growing wealth.

Mr. Afolabi — a 2015 finalist who also won the Caine Prize in 2005 — says his fiction is in part a response to the way his own life has straddled cultures and continents. “I think writing is often a way to make sense of that kind of diversity of experiences.”

All five of the finalists receive ₤500 ($760), and will travel to the University of Oxford to hear the announcement of the ₤10,000 ($15,200) grand-prize winner on July 6.

“The unique value of this prize is that it brings African writers to a world readership,” Mr. Parsons, the judge, says. “While that’s good for African writers, it’s even better for the world’s readership.” 

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