African literature: Caine Prize winner stages small 'mutiny' by sharing bounty

Zambian writer Namwali Serpell has promised to share her $15,000 winnings with the other finalists as a way to challenge what she calls the divisiveness of an annual prize awarded for African writing. 

The Caine Prize
The 16th Caine Prize winner Namwali Serpell on July 6, 2015. She chose to share her winnings with the other four finalists

Each summer, the announcement of the Caine Prize for African Writing stirs up nagging questions. Why has a British award become one of the most prestigious honors for up-and-coming African fiction writers? And what makes one African writer worthy of representing an entire continent on the global literary stage? 

So when Zambian Namwali Serpell was named the 2015 winner Monday evening, she staged what she calls a small “mutiny” in the University of Oxford’s stately Bodleian Library: She announced that she would split the $15,000 (£10,000) prize with the four runners-up.

The move, she says, was a challenge to how the award pits African writers against each other “like American Idol,” offering a winner-takes-all approach to celebrating the continent’s literary output.

“It was quite an intriguing decision, and I have to agree that if the aim of the Caine Prize is to generate better African writing, then if you single out one person and tell them they are the best African writer for that year, it can be pretty alienating,” says Wamuwi Mbao, a literary critic and lecturer at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “Putting more voices on the stage is something we definitely need when it comes to African literature.”

Ms. Serpell is not the first Caine Prize winner to express ambivalence about aspects of the very award she was receiving. 2002 awardee Binyavanga Wainaina, for instance, put his winnings towards starting a literary magazine — Kwani? — in his home country of Kenya, and in the years since has chided the prize for honoring only African writers who appeal to Western audiences. In 2014, he tweeted: 

“What’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway?” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie — a 2002 Caine Prize finalist — asked an interviewer in 2013. “I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa.” 

But what is distinct about Ms. Sarpell’s criticism is that it came from the winner's podium when the media coverage of the prize is at its highest. Elnathan John, one of the finalists, who will share in her winnings, agrees. He tweeted:

Celebrating the short story

For all the criticism, however, the Caine Prize still offers something few African literary prizes do — an international platform. “The Caine Prize is as relevant today as it was at its inception,” says Nigerian literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa. “There are few institutions as dedicated to our literature.”

The prize is also unusual because it only goes to writers of short stories, often seen as publishing's red-headed stepchild. 

Speaking to the Monitor after the prize ceremony, Serpell praised the form. “For me the short story is a feminist form, and that’s for a very simple reason: women often don’t have time to write in more than short bursts, and short stories are more amenable to that than novels. Because it’s so contained, it’s also a form that has the potential to be extremely powerful as a form of political and social critique.”

Serpell’s winning short story, “The Sack,” explores the relationship between a very ill man and his caretaker, in part through the lens of a series of blurry dreams. The chair of the judging panel, South African writer Zoe Wicomb, called it “formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects.”

“There’s a degree of experimentation in this story that I haven’t often seen in stories shortlisted for the prize — it’s giving something that’s not simply a snapshot of ‘native life,’ as it were, and the judges clearly responded to that,” Mr. Mbao says. “The publicity this piece gets will definitely help demonstrate to the world that there are a wide range of things going on stylistically beneath the broad umbrella of what we’d call ‘African writing.’”

A win for Zambia

Serpell, the first Zambian to win the prize, beat out two Nigerians — Segun Afolabi and Elnathan John — and two South Africans — F.T. Kola and Masande Ntshanga. She was previously a finalist for the Caine Prize in 2010. 

Self-describing on her Twitter profile as a “halfrican smartypants,” Serpell is the daughter of a Zambian businesswoman and an English academic, and is currently an associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Although her family left Zambia when she was eight, her parents have since moved back, and she says she makes regular visits home.   

“I find it much easier to write about both America and Zambia when I’m away from them. I think that’s a very common thing among writers — and not just African writers — to be nomadic or in exile,” she tells the Monitor. “Many of the most famous writers haven't lived in the places they write about, and as Africans we’re very used to people moving and cultures mixing, so that has never felt foreign to me.”

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