Egypt was one of just 14 countries represented by submissions to this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing, sometimes referred to as the “African Booker.” The prestigious and lucrative short-story prize, which accepts work from African-rooted writers the world over, announced its five-strong shortlist on Tuesday.
The shortlist is: Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde, Kenyan writer and editor Billy Kahora, Malawian writer Stanley Kenani, Zimbabwean author Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, and a South African writer and filmmaker who goes by the name Constance Myburgh.
Writers who hail from any of Africa’s 50-odd nations can compete for the 10,000 British pound prize. But submissions are limited by language: stories must be originally written in English or published in an English translation. Most of this year’s 122 eligible short stories, according to prize administrator Lizzy Attree, were from Nigeria and South Africa.
There was “only one from Egypt for example,” Attree wrote. “But the others aren’t badly represented, perhaps three or four. A lot from Zimbabwe this year too.”
The five shortlisted stories are each very different in style and subject matter, with none standing clearly above the others. Judging chairwoman Bernardine Evaristo said in a news release that “this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives.”
On the Caine Prize blog, Evaristo wrote last week that “The Caine Prize has been instrumental in revitalizing African fiction.”
A number of authors who have been shortlisted for the prize, such as Sudanese-British author Leila Aboulela and Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami, have gone on to greater fame. But the prize, which is based in the UK, has also been criticized as shaping African fiction to UK taste. Evaristo asked, on the blog, “are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships, such as the big, international markets in Europe and America?”
“I ask myself — to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost? How might this contract the imagination and reduce expectations for readers and writers alike.”
Evaristo, who called for a greater variety of African fiction, seemed to answer her own call with the wide-ranging shortlist.
Of the shortlisted stories, Myambo’s moving “La Salle de Départ” has perhaps the most familiar theme, of emigration and return. Here, an Egyptian-American girlfriend comes between a Senagalese brother and sister. The sister muses: “Ghada was like a big black stone that could splinter your teeth if it wasn’t removed before the rice was cooked.”
Fatima wants her brother, Ibou, to take her son to live with him in America, but, “Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony.” Go on; keep reading.