“Who said oppressive gatekeepers can’t come from within?” 2020 AKO Caine Prize nominees (Part II)
In the second of our three-part interview, we talked to the shortlisted writers about the politics of prizes and reading.
Welcome to Part II of our interviews with the 2020 AKO Caine Prize nominees. You can read Part I, on joy and writing, here.
The shortlisted writers and stories are:
- Erica Sugo Anyadike (Tanzania): How to Marry an African President.
- Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria and UK): What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata.
- Jowhor Ile (Nigeria): Fisherman’s Stew.
- Rémy Ngamije (Rwanda and Namibia): The Neighbourhood Watch.
- Irenosen Okojie (Nigeria and UK): Grace Jones.
On the politics of prizes
In 2011, literary critic Ikhide Ikheola warned: “The creation of a prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory. The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize.”
Is this something you ever struggled with: the fear of replicating tropes or the need to challenge expectations?
ERICA: I don’t understand how someone can allege that writers are “skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine to sell to the West and the Caine Prize” because that’s a very cynical assumption and I don’t see the empirical evidence for it. Who knows what judges will love or what they’re looking for? Shortlists are as much a matter of taste as anything else. I can only speak for myself when I say that [my story] How To Marry An African President defies the conventional advice regarding content that judges/readers are purported to love. For starters, writers are often told to write “likable” protagonists or told that using the “second person” is challenging. I didn’t overthink any of that. I just wrote the story I wanted to write and hoped readers would enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Representation is all around us. All one has to do is watch the news to see who sets the agenda and who shapes the narrative. But inasmuch as representation exists, so does resistance. My existence in this space is already an act of resistance. As far as I’m concerned, whatever may or may not have been true of the Caine Prize in 2006 is not necessarily true of the AKO Caine prize in 2020. I’m not here to invalidate anyone’s experience but just to point out that, so far, my experience has been positive. The most notable feature of the stories shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize in the last couple of years has been an exploration of genre and experimentation with form and that has translated into shortlists in which the stories vary from one another in terms of voice, style and content.
JOWHOR: I try to stay alert to the many forms of human blindness manifest in storytelling, in literature – clichés, racist, sexist, homophobic rendering of narratives, classism, heterosexism, which is the privileging of one pattern of loving over all others. It is so easy to be blind to how we actually are, so easy to insist on how we “ought” to be. I admit that it can be hard to truly see another human being who isn’t you. It can be difficult to avoid easy and available distortions of human experience, so easy to trade in ugly representations, erasures and outright lies. I trust my own experience of the world and follow my imagination, but I still question my assumptions everyday, because I’m not immune to self deception. Publishing is another matter. It is, of course, a question of power: who accepts and publishes a piece of writing? The who is crucial. Almost everything I write is set in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta area, and because I work often in the realist mode, would it then be merely topical or clichéd for my characters to struggle for resources or to witness the ongoing environmental destruction? I write what I know and feel to be true. I write what I can. I’m beginning to find that conversation really tedious. I think we know we need a multitude of voices and diverse narratives from publishers and publications based on the continent and outside of the continent. So let’s go to work, and stay alert. Who said oppressive gate keepers can’t come from within?
REMY: Writers draw inspiration from their realities. If their realities are war, poverty, and corruption (WPC) those realities will feature in their work. Readers gravitate towards stories which speak to their constituencies (social, economic, political, mental, sexual, and many other categories). If Africans write about WPC and African readers gravitate towards WPC stories because they see their constituencies and situations reflected in the works then a genuine literary moment has been created: trope or no trope, the reader and writer are in congruence. The literary moment is false when the African reader decides the African writer is no longer in tune with the times – when the times have changed. The reality is this: times have not changed or are changing too slowly. If readers – and literary critics are readers, too – want a different narrative they should work harder to create a different reality. Artists are merely the arbiters of reality, not its administrators. This does not excuse careless writing, but it does indemnify observant and honest storytelling. The ultimate decision rests with readers: do you hang a writer because he tells it like it is or do you chop his head off for telling it like it ain’t? A genuine artist knows the cup is poisoned but drinks anyway. Because they must, and because they must then tell the tale. The Western gaze is neither my primary audience nor inspiration; it is not my reality. If it focuses on my writing, then that is to both our benefit – we can learn from and about each other. But if that gaze exalts my writing above others and excludes other writers and stories then it displays its own ignorance and does so at its own peril.
Do you hang a writer because he tells it like it is or do you chop his head off for telling it like it ain’t?
What really good African short story writer have you been reading and whose words moved you?
IRENOSEN: Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures. It’s a story set in Botswana, that centres women, on the surface seemingly simplistic but has this message of the power of women, how complex women are. Women are allowed to be fully formed creatures. And by that, I mean, often we’re not allowed to show those more dangerous emotions like anger and revenge because society frowns upon it. For example, there’s one story about a woman who kills her husband who abandoned her. For me, because I’m somebody that likes to write about black women as well, complicated black women, it was nice to see an earlier text. The other thing I’ll reference that’s not a short story, but also was important to me is Buchi Emecheta. I really love her writing. She is incredible. Even just her story is incredible. Like, how she fought for her writing space and was undeterred is really inspirational. The Ditch was a book that I loved so much I gave it to my mother to read. And then we had conversations about the book. That was just a lovely thing to have that familial connection over a book. You know, when you share the lessons of a book, it leaves an impression and it brings you closer as well.
ERICA: I enjoyed Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection, What it Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, in which she writes about unruly, unconventional women. Take the short story Light for example, in which a young girl tries to resist the limited definitions of what it means to be a girl, in particular a good girl, and ends up as a listless, muted version of herself. In this case, it is the society and her mother that impose these restrictions on the girl and it’s her father who mourns the loss of the girl’s personality as she shrinks in order to fit into others’ ideas of who she should be. It’s a moving story about how others try to police us and about how women internalise misogyny and end up perpetrating it themselves. What I love about her body of work is that it embodies a resistance to the boundaries that society places on Black women and invites an interrogation of the reader’s collusion in enforcing these boundaries. The fact that she writes about ‘‘unlikeable’’, rebellious characters in an entertaining, empathetic manner is testament to her craft.
REMY: Zanta Nkumane, a Swazi writer, recently had The Couch published in Lolwe, a Kenyan literary magazine I admire. It is a bittersweet tale anchored by a piece of furniture which is a witness and repository of love, lust, and self-discovery. Its language is arresting; its descriptions do not shy away from the truth as it is lived by its character and imagined by the writer. Nkumane’s short stories are always in a death spiral towards tragedy but, my goodness, what fire, what flames, what sweet and terrible beauty.
JOWHOR: Leslie Nneka Arimah’s story collection, What it Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is solid.
Often we’re not allowed to show those more dangerous emotions like anger and revenge because society frowns upon it.
What books, poems, short stories should we be reading in a crisis?
JOWHOR: Everything by James Baldwin, Ursula Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, Franz Fanon, Chinua Achebe,
CHIKODILI: Seeing as the world is in great turmoil, one can go one of two ways with reading material. One: embrace the horror, the darkness and despair. I’m talking about Little Eve by Catriona Ward, Cabin at the End of the World or Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Short stories: anything at all by OJ Cade. My introduction to her work came about via The Mussel Eater, a dark, delicious tale of possession and desire with a twist. There is also The Better Part of Drowning which gave me the creeps and her collection of reimagined fairy tales The Convergence of Fairytales which is delightfully subversive and made me want to vomit. Damian Angelica Walters’ Sing Me Your Scars, the story and the collection. Anything at all by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Alternatively, you could go escapist and light. I loved the graphic novel German Calendar, No December by Sylvia Ofili and illustrated by Brigit Weyhe, a humorous account of life in a Nigerian boarding school and afterwards, as an émigré to Germany. I have a soft spot for tales about boarding schools in African countries. And although the subjects tackled in Manchester Happened were serious, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has such a way with words, with observation, with wry humour. She can take my money any day. I’m currently reading Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It’s only a slim volume but so far, with the way the sentences are structured and the subject matter, I’m enjoying it immensely.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.