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Tenth birthday tour of the Caine Prize for African Writing gets on the road
By Susannah Tarbush
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 02 - 11 - 2009

All too often Africa only receives coverage in the Western media when bemoaning issues of violence, disease, famine or corruption. But in the cultural field there is better news, and African literature is attracting growing international attention. An important engine of the African literary renaissance has been the Caine Prize for African Writing, and to celebrate the prize's 10th anniversary, a 10-day tour of England took place in the latter half of October.
The tour featured the 2002 winner of the prize, Binyavanga Wainaina of Kenya, the 2004 winner Brian Chikwava of Zimbabwe, and two Nigerians: this year's winner E.C. Osondu, and Chika Unigwe, who was shortlisted in 2004.
The Caine Prize is for a short story of between 3,000 and 10,000 words. It is worth 10,000 pounds to the winner, plus a month as a writer in residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Each summer the five writers shortlisted for the prize are brought to Britain for the prize-giving dinner at the Bodleian library in Oxford University and for a busy week of book readings, signings, media opportunities and meetings with publishers and literary agents.
The anniversary tour began with a packed event at the British Library in London, introduced by the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri. Okri, who has lived in Britain for many years, was chairman of the judges of the prize in its first year, and is a patron of the prize. In 1991 he won Britain's most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, for his novel “The Famished Road.”
Okri described the Caine Prize as being “the result of a love story: Baroness Emma Nicholson's love for Michael Caine, and Michael Caine's love for Africa.” The late Sir Michael Caine was the former chairman of Booker plc and for nearly 25 years chairman of the Booker Prize management committee.
After his death, his widow Baroness Nicholson, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, launched the Caine prize in his memory. The prize represents “the translation of grief into dream, and of the dream into reality,” Okri said.
Okri recalled that when the prize was first launched “we didn't know how it was going to turn out; it had never been done before. I thought it was an extraordinary adventure: submissions were invited and suddenly from all over the continent these entries started coming in. We read our way through hundreds of stories.”
The inaugural prize in 2000 went to the Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela for her story “The Museum.” Okri noted that the prize has so far been won by five women and five men: “there has been no gender bias.”
Okri said he warmed to the Caine Prize because it was for a short story. “I have always felt that the short story is, apart from the sonnet, the most difficult literary form,” he said. “I think what defines it is some mysterious element of inner completion in a small space.”
What the Caine Prize has done in these 10 years is the enabling of a new generation of African writers scattered all over the globe. This has been accomplished under the wise and watchful eye of Nick Elam [administrator of the prize] and Jonathan Taylor [chairman of the Caine Prize Council].”
All four writers on the tour currently live outside Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina is the newly appointed director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, New York. He used his 2002 Caine Prize money to launch the literary journal Kwani? in Kenya, and is finishing his first novel.
Chikwava's first novel “Harare North” was published by Jonathan Cape to critical acclaim in April this year. He was a Charles Pick fellow at the University of East Anglia, and his work has been published in several short story collections and magazines.
“Harare North” is the term by which London is often known among Zimbabweans. Chikawava amused the audience with a reading from his novel, in which the first person narrator arrives in Britain as an asylum seeker.
Chika Unigwe lives in Belgium. Her second novel “On Black Sisters' Street”, set in the red light district of Antwerp, appeared in Dutch last year and was well received when it was published in English this year. E.C .Osondu is teaching at Providence University on Rhode Island. A collection of his short stories is to be published by Harper Collins next year.
The British Library event was chaired by the distinguished writer and memoirist Aminatta Forna, daughter of a Sierra Leonean father and Scottish mother. She is on the Caine advisory committee and has twice judged the prize. In April this year she was a facilitator at a Caine writing workshop in Ghana.
During a lively discussion between Forna and the writers, she said she was “surprised how few African writers do non-fiction memoir”. She would like to see more travel writing by Africans.
After the British Library event, the Caine tour took in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the University of Kent, the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Ilkely Literature Festival in Yorkshire, Newcastle University and Lancaster Literature Festival. The tour's Facebook page includes a separate event to be held at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday. Caine Prize winners Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008) and Mary Watson (2006) will be in discussion with novelist Imraan Coovadia, who teaches at Cape Town University.
The Facebook page also links to a video blog by Oprah Winfrey, who has chosen the short story collection “Say You're One of Them” by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan as a pick for her hugely influential Book Club. Akpan was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2007 with the story “My Parents Bedroom”, one of the five stories in the collection. In the video Oprah talks about the “stunning” impact of another story from the collection, “Luxurious Hearses”.
A discussion with Akpan will be the focus on Nov.9 of the biggest-ever Oprah Book Club meeting online, in which CNN.com and Facebook will also participate.
In addition to the tour, the Caine 10th anniversary has been marked by the publishing by the New Internationalist of the anthology “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African Writing”, which includes all ten stories to have won the prize. There is an introduction by Ben Okri, and stories by two African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.


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