The Caine Prize for African Writing, first presented to Egyptian-Sudanese author Leila Aboulela in 2000, not only offers a £10,000 annual prize for a short story, but also hosts workshops for short- and longlisted authors and works to bring African writing to a wide audience.
The eleven-year-old prize has seen a few North African honorees; in addition to Aboulela’s inaugural win, Hassounah Mosbahi (Tunisia) and Laila Lalami (Morocco) have been shortlisted. But the prize has been largely a sub-Saharan affair.
I emailed with Dr Lizzy Attree, currently Assistant Administrator of the Caine Prize for African Writing, about North African participation in the prize. Dr. Attree will take on the role of Prize Admin this August.
ArabLit: In some places, the Caine seems to be billed as a prize for “Anglophone Africa,” and yet translations are welcome. Do you view this as a pan-African prize or as an Anglophone-Africa prize? Or something different?
LA: This is a pan-African prize. We would welcome many more stories in translation, but I think it has been a general misunderstanding that the prize is purely Anglophone. Obviously there is some bias but we hope that in the future more entries will be received that have been published in translation.
AL: Some in the African literary scene have been unenthusiastic about encouraging writers from North Africa to participate in the Caine. (One write cited, to me, the existence of the “Arabic Booker” as enough prizes for the North.) But I assume, since Hisham Matar is a judge and Ahdaf Soueif a council member, that Caine organizers don’t feel this way?
LA: We certainly don’t feel this way and would encourage writers and publishers from North Africa to submit stories to the Caine Prize.
AL: The workshops are meant to forge links between writers. Do you make an effort to find writers from various countries and regions?
LA: We make an effort to encourage writers from different countries and regions. We particularly like to include 2-3 writers from the country in which we hold the workshops. We will continue to seek out recommended writers from all the African countries in order to keep the mix as broad and diverse as possible.
AL: Do you know how many of the stories submitted are from North African-tied writers?
LA: Very few. We received stories this year from Egypt, Somalia and Libya.
AL: How do you spread the word to magazines/publishers about submitting their stories for the prize?
LA: We have done less outreach in recent years as the Prize has matured and generates much of its own publicity, but as I take over administration in August from Nick Elam, I hope to do a wider call to publishers across the continent in the Autumn to alert them to the opportunity the Prize presents and encourage them to submit stories.
AL: Why a short story prize vs. a novel prize? What are the advantages to a short-story prize?
LA: The short story is seen as an excellent form for Africa, which has long been the location of masterful storytelling in short story form. The advantages lie of course in the volume of reading that judges must be willing to do in order to make a decision. The short story also provides new young writers with a platform to enter a competition before they have been signed by a publisher or produced a major work. So in a sense the Prize enables readers to spot talent and potential.
AL: Is there any worry that there’s some paternalism there, that a short story is good for Africa vs. a long, complex novel?
LA: I think there is a danger in seeing the short story as the ‘easy’ option. I would consider James Joyce one of the masters of the short story form and yet we know that he was also the writer of one of the most complex books of the modern literary canon. The short story functions in a different way to the novel, it has its own subtleties and complexities, and requires as much talent to pull off successfully as a novel, packing character, context, linguistic flare and plot in to under 10,000 words. Of course the Caine Prize encourages African writers to write longer works of fiction, but we have chosen the short story as a niche that isn’t filled by other prizes, such as the Booker, which African novelists are also eligible for as well as prizes like the biennial Wole Soyinka literature prize.
AL: How do you respond to Ikhide Ikheloa’s criticism: “many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize.. The creation of a prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.. The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity.” (I’ll note that a similar criticism, about the encouragement of novels skewed to a Western audience, has been made about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or “Arabic Booker.”)
LA: I think the same response here is relevant as that given to defend the Orange Prize for women’s fiction. Of course by limiting the criteria for a prize there is a certain bias or perceived bias towards the ‘type’ of story that is likely to win, but I think the shortage of prizes rewarding African writers and the lack of publications and publicity around African writing and writers warrants a prize that specifically rewards African writers. The idea that the judges are particularly western-biased is also I think a mis-perception as we have tried to ensure that each year the majority of the judges are African or of African descent and this is often overlooked in criticism of the prize. I hope that writers will continue to break the boundaries and limitations that are often self-imposed when they write in order that the Caine Prize can also be said to break the mould when it chooses its shortlist and winners each year. Unfortunately we are of course limited by what is submitted and we would certainly encourage a broad range of stories that portray African in creative, diverse and exciting ways.
AL: Technical question: Since only publishers can submit (and only one story per writer), what happens if two different publishers send in stories by the same writer?
LA: If two publishers submit then we usually consult the author about which story they would like to enter. We can then hold over the other story for the following year if necessary.
AL: Another technical question: Since you accept works that have been published online, what is your criteria for “published”?
LA: Our criteria for published, which means strictly not self-published, means that online submissions must be published by a website that has an independent editor or editorial team.
On a final note, I would like to point out to translators that this is in your interest, too! “Works translated into English from other languages are not be excluded, provided they have been published in translation, and should such a work win, a proportion of the prize would be awarded to the translator. ” If you’re interested in entering, check out the rules here.