Friday, May 6, 2016

We Need New Caines!

Uh? What the hell does he mean by that? New Caines! Is he referring to the Caine Prize for African writing? Yes, but errr, I’m referring to the new plural form; Caines. Take note, this is not another anti Caine Prize war, so all the literary Conans and Clint Eastwoods please keep back your swords and pistols, neither is it another Caine scourging with a literary cane. This is not another essay which screams about the Caine Prize still recognizing African writers who are writing poverty porn and that it should now recognize African writers who are writing rich porn. Oh! I like the sound of that, rich porn. Lol. Definition. (Rich porn is the opposite of poverty porn.) This is just a suggestion to the Caine prize about “newness” on the writers selected on its recent shortlists, as this year’s shortlist unveiling draws very close. The title of my suggestion essay is, “We Need New Caines”, a pun on NoViolet’s debut novel, “We Need New Names”

When I was a kid in primary/secondary school, I was a keen reader of short fiction from the Matracks children series and the novels in the African Writers Series in our school library. We even studied some, from Cyprian Ekwensi to Chinua Achebe, Mongo Beti to Ayi Kwei Armah and Ferdinand Oyono to Camara Laye. But with the AWS going defunct, my follow up of more recent African writers dropped dead in its tracks, especially as I couldn’t find their novels in Cameroon, which I call a novel desert. Then came the internet and the Caine Prize towards the mid 2000s (for me) and I got to discover and read new exciting writers like Leila Abouleila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Monica Arac de Nyeko, EC Osundu, Henrietta Rose Innes, NoViolet Bulawayo etc. Most of these writers kept me up to date with new literary trends with their writing styles and themes in their brilliant stories. And they were relatively unknown before their Caine achievements. I started asking family and friends abroad to buy some of their longer works and send to me.

And so another new “African short story writers series” was born, the Caine Prize, to somewhat replace my dear defunct AWS, and I could read Caine for free. I know all the winning stories/winning authors and a horde of the Caine Prize shortlisted authors and short stories offhand. The highly inventive and cinematic 3D style with which Olufemi Terry wrote “Stickfighting days” inspired me to write graphic, fast paced stories like "Wahala Lizard", the high voltage humour which Lauri Kubuitsile effortlessly injected into “In the spirit of McPhineas Lata” cracked me up like never before and she taught me too, the unbelievable experiences of teenage boys in a refugee camp in "Waiting" by EC Osundu took my mind to a place I could never go but still made me have hopes, the poignant experiences of Salim and spiritual depth in Abubakar’s “The Whispering Trees” story almost opened up my tear ducts, then he strangely surprised me and consoled me at the end in an unexpected way.

Now after a couple of the Caine Prize years, some writers who had previously been on the shortlists began reappearing again. That wasn’t a major issue for me as it was generally one author. But last year, 2015, they constituted the majority (three out of five) and it irritated me a little. I’d lost my quest for newness at the Caine. And the reappearance of Segun Afolabi had me screaming, “Oh no! What’s a former Caine prize winner doing here!” Afolabi actually won the Caine Prize eleven long, long years ago in 2005. It’d been so long that I’d almost forgotten about him. Picture it from this angle, Zimbabwean writer, Brian Chikwava won the Caine in 2004 with his entry, "Seventh street alchemy", a year before Afolabi won it in 2005 with "Monday Morning". Brian was one of the judges of the 2015 Caine Prize. Then Segun Afolabi popped up on the 2015 shortlist again sha! Imagine if Afolabi had won, Brian would have been one of those on the judging panel handing Afolabi the Caine Prize trophy, when both of them won the thing just a year apart. Nah, in 2015 Afolabi should have been a big boy at the Caine, like a judge or something, not on the shortlist again! With all the money, book deal and publicity he had way back massah.

Okay, Namwali won it and Zambia had a first winner which was cool but she’d been shortlisted five years prior, with a story titled, “Muzungu” which I liked back then. So what about her 2015 story, “The Sack”? Hmmm, that story eluded me. I grabbed little or nothing. In fact, I read it twice on my laptop and on both occasions, I dozed off, as if the story had sprayed sleeping gas on my face from the screen. Disappointed, I was like, “Mayne, how do you intend to become an accomplished writer someday when you cannot understand a Caine prize winning story?” But when I read online that, even the Caine prize judges had to reread it over and over to finally get it, I felt consoled. “Ah ha, it’s not only me oh. It dribbled even the Caine Prize judges too with all their staggering genius. So relax man.” When a writing mentor, Pede Hollist, asked my opinion about the story, I just hacked back at the keyboard in jest, “I sack “The Sack” because it is incomprehensible,” and the man almost collapsed with laughter. Wait, I think that’s a compliment not a diss oh. The cherubic professor lady wrote that kind of high horsepower fiction that many readers will struggle with, ah no go lie. So I think that portrays that, her craft is sky high and it puts her in a league that surpasses Caine Prize short fiction submission. Big girl power.

Elnathan John, hehehe, was the third previously shortlisted writer with a new piece that was my favourite last year, “Flying”. But I think “Bayan Layi” in 2013 was better plotted. With his debut novel out, a beautiful satirical blog which has got a large following and his accomplished literary presence, he also doesn’t need the Caine again. Billy Kahora doesn’t need to be shortlisted for the Caine Prize again. He’s been a judge for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature (a novel prize for God’s sake) and was also involved in the Kwani? Manuscript Project, then was later Caine Prize shortlisted in 2014 for "Gorilla's Apprentice" (after rocking the boat in 2012 with his very impressive “Urban Zoning" and getting honourable mentioned in 2007 with “Threadmill Love”, so 2.5 times for Billy).

On that note, I suggest most of our former shortlisted and accomplished writer biggies should be doing bigger things at the Caine, like judging the entries just like Brian Chikwava did, facilitating the annual Caine prize workshops like Leila Abouleila did for us and helping other literary initiatives like Writivism, Kwani?, SSDA and Storymoja grow bigger, rather than submitting. Finally, can I let the cat out of the bag, that the Caine Prize should not judge submissions from writers who have already been shortlisted twice? And create new space for young emerging writers who need to be read? What about a Junior division, The Caine Prize for previously not shortlisted or winning African writing? For the Caine Prize shortlist is the cannon for most readers who follow some of the best new fiction by African writers, which is a bad and good thing in equal measure. (Hey, please spare me that other argument of the Caine Prize not being relevant anymore because of falling standards etc. I earlier said this is not an anti-Caine war, so Clint Eastwood please put back your gun. Thank you). Let’s go back. Okay imagine that you look at the next Caine Prize shortlist and see Leila Abouleila, Helon Habila and Chimamanda Adichie all in there again. Jesus, that sir Michael Caine statue in London will just develop a scowl on his face. And if Wole Soyinka gets shortlisted in 2017, the stature will just explode because of anger. “What the hell is a Nobel Prize winner and Caine Prize patron doing on my shortlist?”

There are a lot of young, emerging African writers that I would like to see on the 2016 and future Caine Prize shortlists and even the workshops, rather than a recycling of previously shortlisted writers, just like my resident president, Paul Biya recycles a bunch of the same men along key ministerial positions. I would love to see young writers like Jonathan Dotse, whose African set sci-fi is so amazing. When he started reading his historical/futuristic epic, “The writing in the stars” at the Caine Prize workshop last year, I gasped. Check out his blog, afrocyberpunk. And if sci-fi is not your cup of tea, then maybe you would cherish other young writers like Akwaeke Emezi, whose work in liminal spaces, loss and identity is so compelling. There are equally other youngins like Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Abdul Adan, Pemi Aguda, Kiprop Kimutai, Dalle Abraham, Nana Nyarko Boateng, Dzekashu Macviban, Philani Amadeus Nyoni, Monique Kwachou, Ngasa Wise, Emmanuel Iduma, Anthea Paelo and so many other budding African writers.
Wasn’t it a delight discovering a 21 year old Efemia Chela on the shortlist in 2014? Yes, we need more Effies. Hey, who mentioned my name? Nah, not me! I’m just a young troublesome satirist trying to get shortlisted for Elnathan John’s award of “trying hard and not winning no-nothing…sorry, anything”. Better still, I’m trying to get arrested by the Caine Prize, so I’ll also become very famous. And I hope the writers who have been shortlisted twice will bail me. I had to go to other online platforms and a Caine Prize workshop to discover some of these new names and voices I just mentioned, since my quest for newness at the Caine has sadly not been satisfied especially in 2015, as the authors on the Caine Prize shortlists are rapidly becoming old names and old Caines. So I will conclude by saying, “We Need New Caines!”