Wednesday, 10 August 2011


We had an interesting conversation in the comments on my post about the Caine Prize:

1) Why do so many successful African writers live outside Africa? (are they African writers or 'African' writers?)
2) Does the Caine, and the literary world generally, favour stories from Africa about poverty?

I've nothing further on 1), but I did a little research on 2), and found that every winning story for the last three years was about poor people, and in particular about poor children. 2011's winning text is linked to in my previous post, but here's 2010's, Stickfighting by Olufemi Terry, and 2009's, Waiting by EC Osondu

I've struggled to get much detail about what the stories from previous years were about, but I think this is certainly an interesting tendency for at least the last three.

I should be very clear here that I don't mean to bash on the Caine prize. I'm really grateful and glad it exists as a platform for African writers. I'm just wondering what this tendency mean - if stories of the poor are perceived as being the 'real' Africa; or if it's simply chance; or if perhaps the majority of stories submitted were in fact about poverty anyway (which would interesting in itself) . . . .


  1. I'm only just catching up on posts and really enjoyed the discussion on your previous post. This is a topic that gets discussed a lot and I think that is a great thing, I think it needs to be. One thing that I say a lot (in regards to a completely different issue usually) is that while authors don't have to push a certain message, if they are just falling into certain stereotypes because it is easier and seems to sell well... aren't they doing themselves, their works, and readers an injustice?

  2. You know, I think that's a really good point. I strongly suspect that for some authors trying to distinguish themselves in the crowded US market, the whole 'African' heritage thing can often be reduced to being simply a useful USP (Unique Selling Point) as they say in marketing.

    I met a young American girl in Kenya recently who complained that she hadnt met any 'real' Kenyans yet - though she had been working in a Kenyan lab for months, and had met many. What she meant was poor Kenyans, as they are apparently the only real ones. I'm not sure what she thought the middle class ones were? Pretend Kenyans? I wonder if this attitude does not unconciously inform choices about African literature too - about what is seen as genuine, unique and insightful.

  3. This is a fascinating topic, Sarah! Thanks for writing about it :) Like Amy, I enjoyed the discussions in your previous post.

    I lived in Africa for many years when I was a child - in Ethiopia. The last house we stayed in was a small house in a compound which had twelve houses, but we had a small lawn with trees and rose bushes in front (the yellow rose was so beautiful and it was my favourite :)). Our neighbours were all Ethiopians and I had many friends among them and they were all wonderful people. When I came back to my home country, some of my relatives and friends asked me how Ethiopia was and they saw in the news that it was a poor country with famine most of the time. I don't remember any famine during my years there - most of my neighbours had cars and televisions and all the nice things at home. I am sure there was a famine in Ethiopia, because I read about it later, but it was not like the whole country was poor and people were struggling. Like every other country, there were middle class people and rich people there and there were poor people there too. But I discovered that the portrayal of Ethiopia in books and in the news was always that of a poor country which was struggling. There was no mention of the football culture there, about how boys had so much of natural talent when they dribbled with the makeshift football made of old socks, about how girls were beautiful, about the wonderful Ethiopian cuisine and the delicious Injera and Shuro, about how Ethiopia is considered the land of the Queen Sheba who is mentioned in the Bible and how the royal dynasty of Ethiopia is regarded as the descendants of Queen Sheba, about how Ethiopia has one of the oldest sects of Christianity which stretches back to the time of Christ, about how Ethiopia is the only country with coloured Jews, about how Ethiopians in the walled city of Harar have a tradition of feeding hyenas in a unique way so that the hyenas don't attack their livestock, about how Ethiopians were like any other people across the world and they lived boring lives and they wanted to be happy. Later when I lived or visited other countries I discovered that they were very different compared to how they were portrayed in books and in the news - China seemed to be portrayed as a land with no freedom but people there seemed to be as free as anyone else, Russia seemed to be portrayed as a lawless land where even the policeman can mug you, but no one tried doing that when I took a walk on the streets alone - people actually were quite warm and helped me find my way eventhough I knew no Russian at that time. Sometimes I find that the fear of the 'other' is predominant in newspapers and movies and books and that is probably the root of this 'not-so-good' portrayal of a country and sometimes writers from that particular country try to propogate view, because it helps them get published. Sometimes if writers try to write a regular story about their country (for example, if a Nigerian writer tried writing a novel filled with Nigerian humour, or an Indian writer tried writing in an experimental style like Mark Danielewski or Thoman Pynchon or a Chinese writer tried writing a corporate novel), their books are rejected because publishers feel that such works don't have a market. And so the stereotype stories get propogated.

    I want to write more, but I don't want to hijack your post :) I loved your thoughts on the American girl you met. I loved that phrase 'Pretend Kenyans' :)

    Thanks for writing about this topic :)

  4. What a brilliant post, Sarah. I have been meaning to write an article around this topic. The questions raised ought to be asked billion times. I have been wondering the same why 'many' successful African writers live outside Africa. I have read most of the caine winning stories and I think you have a strong point. I think I wold have to hold on here...

  5. I started a search on the internet because someone has bashed me and considered my review of Stickfighting Days as useless. In fact to him it would be better if I write a story that would force the Caine Prize to award me, either than that I should not whine. I am happy to say that we share similar views on the Caine Prize and the trend in the winning stories.

    @Vishy, I love your comment and it speaks well to me. Writers combined theme comes to represent the people about whom they write. So that Africa has no middle class: it is the rich and corrupt politicians vs the poor and hungry. I always ask myself amongst which do these writers belong.

    Sarah, thanks for this.

  6. Oh Nana, it's great to see different people from Africa who share this same feeling! I totally agree that there is this focus on either the rich or the poor. We middle don't exist! I am sorry someone bashed on your review. I hate it when people use the internet as a way not to be civil. It makes me really cross! In real life they never would be so rude . ..

  7. I'd like to stick my neck out and offer a reason why many 'successful' African writers live outside - they seem to have more time to write, I think. Over the course of many years, I've interacted with so many wonderful African writers who can't seem to find the time because its near impossible to live off your writing in Africa. Meanwhile in North America and Europe, some are able to eke out an existence through grants and fellowships as well as royalties (however meager they may be!). I am also sooooo bothered by the kind of stories that get rewarded for the Caine. I'm beginning to wonder - is it a case of 'he who pays the piper, calls the tune'? E.g. Mamle Kabu's 'The End of Skill' does that seriously get passed over when it is such a thought-provoking narrative of culture and how different generations perceive it? Very frustrating...shall we continue to sell our souls for recognition and money? Almost not a choice when you consider what happens for a writer when she wins the Caine...

  8. I think that is probably a very good point, though I suppose you could also say that it is cheaper to live in Africa (often not always!) - I wonder if it has also to do with making contacts. The sad fact is you need first world publishers, I think, to make money, or get on the lecture circuit.

    Thanks for directing me to THE END OF SKILL, I just read it now as a result of your comment. It's a very nice little story, and entirely un-Caine. Very interesting - its so vastly, vastly different from any of the last winners.

    I am happy though that the Caine exists. Did you read ONE DAY I WILL WRITE ABOUT THIS PLACE? He makes it very clear that the Caine more or less gave him his career x

  9. @Sarah, I've not read Wainana's book. I hope to read it one day. Or should I say One day I will read about this book? It's not available in Ghana, not yet.

  10. African or 'African'? Sounds essentialist to me. Who is this African? What language does he speak? (surely he must be a he), what colour is he? Religion? Sexuality? (heaven forbid). In terms of literary output, what distinguish his style and determines his thematic choices? Is it simply a matter of living in Africa while writing about Africa that makes one African? Is Soyinka's 'death and the king's horseman' 'African' because it was written when he was abroad in exile while the majority of his work remains African? And what if an African writer in africa doesn't write about Africa? Where is he positioned in this unhappy dichotomy?

  11. have you guys considered that all the stori3s that make it to the Caine shortlist are not originally published or targeted for the Caine. Does it make a difference where a writer lives? Some questions are impertinent especially in these days where people can travel and live wherever it suits them. Some African writers are products of writing programs in the west because Africa doesn't have very good programs, and it makes sense to be in a place where most publishers and agents are based. There is the advantage that it is easier to get a book deal there and there is a flourishing publishing industry and a market with disposable incomes.
    Nana Fredua-Agyeman write a book that breaks the stereotypes you hate rather than complain. People write what they know and maybe it is only the rich and poor who write and the middle class don't.

  12. I think it is true that the availability of writing programs is a big draw overseas, certainly! Though some people claim that all they give you is time to write - that it's not possible to 'learn' which I think is interesting.

    Thanks for commenting Mr or Ms Anonymous - but do tell us your name! You know who me and Nana are!

  13. Oh, and I forgot to say, to the previous Anonymous - I SO agree about sexuality!!!! That is virtually not covered at all! And I think that Africans not writing about Africa is a FASCINATING subject . . .