Saturday, June 3, 2017

The almost year at the Caine

I’ll always remember 2017 as the year that almost all the records at the Caine prize got broken. Interestingly, no records were actually broken except one –the oldest writer to make the shortlist. Sixty five year old Sudanese, Bushra al-Fadil is the oldest fictioneer to get nominated for the Caine prize. Record! “The story of the little girl whose birds flew away” is a translation from Arabic to English which almost became the first translated story to make the top five. But there has been an Arabic translated story on the shortlist before. Bushra was almost the first Sudanese writer to grace the Caine prize shortlist too. However, that record eternally belongs to Leila Abouleila. She is not only the first Sudanese Caine recognized writer but also their first ever prize winner in 2000.

Lesley Nneka Arimah is slaying. Besides winning the Commonwealth short story prize in 2015, she’s now been in the Caine Prize champions league final for two consecutive seasons like Real Madrid -in 2016 and 2017. Lesley almost set a record with her back to back shortlisting but oops, Henrietta Rose-Innes reigns in that realm. She made the shortlist in 2007 and again in 2008 with a story titled,“Poison” which ultimately won her the Caine. So if Lesley wins it this year, she’ll only be the second writer to accomplish that. I know some readers are already saying, “Lesley will be the first writer to win the Commonwealth short story prize and Caine prize then!” Being recognized on both platforms will be quite an achievement for her, yet it is another oops. Her compatriot, Helon Habila has been there and done that already. He won both prestigious writing awards in 2001.

22-year-old Nigerian, Ifeakandu Arinze almost broke the “youngest writer to ever get shortlisted for the Caine” record. Nevertheless, that bragging right still belongs to Efemia Chela, who did it at the unbelievable age of 21. I know the army of young Nigerian writers who know Arinze are lurking in the shadows, waiting to hack back at their keyboards in the comments section of my post, “Arinze wrote that story at 18, he wrote it at 18! 18!” Okay, if we ask Efemia, maybe she will just quip, “I wrote chicken at 14!” and get a gigantic bite off her piece of unctuous chicken. One remarkable similarity between Ifea and Effie is that, their shortlisted stories both have gay themes, bold and insightful takes on sexuality by very young Africans. On a records note, Arinze is the youngest Nigerian writer to get nominated for the Caine prize, knocking off Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie from her fifteen year record –she was shortlisted for the Caine prize in 2002 at the age of 25. Adichie coincidentally facilitated Arinze at the 2013 Farafina workshop. Little did she know that, Arinze would one day break her, “youngest Nigerian to make the Caine shortlist” record.

The number of Nigerian writers in this world surpasses the population of Nigeria by a large margin. If you shoot a stone in a Lagos market, it will most probably land on a writer’s head. He/she will hurl Shakespearean insults at you and describe your own head in the biggest of grammars, “your obfuscated and wretched cranium void of intelligible grey matter. Why did you shooting my head?” (I nobe Falz). Three of such fine Nigerian writers invaded the Caine prize top five this year like a swarm of locusts, grrr-grrr-waah-waah and almost transformed the thing into the Caine prize for Nigerian writing. Still, as impressive as it may seem, 2017 isn’t the year with the highest number of Nigerians. The real year of Nigeria invasion will always be 2013. That year, four Nigerian writers annexed the Caine prize shortlist like the British government annexed Nigeria–Tope Folarin, Aboubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta and Elnathan John. Even the fifth shortlisted writer, Pede Hollist, who is Sierra Leonean was rumoured to have Yoruba ancestry. When I met Prof in Ghana in 2015 I asked him,

“Pede, what is this story I’m hearing about you not being completely Sierra Leonean?”
“My grandparents migrated from Yoruba land in Nigeria to Sierra Leone.”
“Oh, so you’re technically Nigerian abi?”
“Never mind Prof”.

Long story short, a legion of “five” Nigerian bookworms were shortlisted for the Caine prize in 2013, so this year’s three is another almost that falls off the 2013 radar. Nonetheless, it is still extraordinary. Ghanaian Caine prize judge, Nii Ayikwei Parks even joked about them on twitter, “No doubt your Jollof rice can’t compete, bookworms!” Jeez, “Thank God I’m not a Nigerians”.

It seems all the feats that happened on the Caine prize shortlist this year are unintentional “almost attempts” to topple the record feats of the past years. They somehow fall inches short off the mark every time. It reminds me of a line in the Lauryn Hill song, “Lost ones” which goes, “everything you did has already been done”. Well, almost done, in a year which I call , “the almost year at the Caine”.

Bio: Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a Lagos boy who lives on the other side of the border.