Who Should Be Eligible for (and Included in) African Literary Prizes?

A version of this post originally appeared on the Writivism blog, affiliated with the Writivism Prize and the Writivism Festival, which is set to open at the Makerere University and National Theatre on June 17:

Chimurenga's upcoming "Afrabia" Arabic-language issue
The newest issue of the South African literary newspaper Chimurenga: in Arabic.

A few days ago, an Egyptian novelist sent me a Facebook message. In it — among other things — he suggested that he’d really like to see one of his short stories submitted for the Caine Prize. This was despite the fact, he said, that he was pretty sure the prize was only geared toward sub-Saharan authors.

He’s wrong, sort of. There isn’t a wall between writers north and south of the Sahara, and there isn’t a wall between his work and the Caine, or the Writivism Prize. But there is a wall, because he sees it.

The absence of a shared language is an issue, yes. But it’s not just about language — this novelist’s story is already in a strong English translation. But there are hundreds of dividing walls, stronger than language, that have overgrown the Sahara in the last century. This follows thousands of years when the giant desert was more easily crossed: by ideas, by commerce, and by literature.

We could try to break down these walls, sure. But the first thing we have to ask is: Does it matter? With so many things to do in the world, why bother? Don’t Arab-African authors have “their own” literary prizes — at least the ones who write in Arabic? And what do authors from Lagos or Kampala or Johannesburg gain from competing alongside Arab-African writers?

And hey: Should we have literary prizes at all?

Literary prizes sometimes appear, like the novel, to be a European intervention. But like narrative prose, literary competitions have been around in various forms for thousands of years.

Certainly in the Arabic tradition, ancient literary competitions were fierce, as evidenced by still-existing zajal debates and textual evidence like the recently translated Consorts of the Caliphs, a collection that focuses on high-profile women’s writing between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Literary competitions — whether in print or in the oral tradition — elevate writers who might not otherwise gain recognition. And they encourage us to sharpen certain skills.

Prizes do have their problems. Some are corrupt and encourage corruption, and even the best and most transparent can reward standardization and conformity. But some share the best aspects of the poetry battles of a thousand years ago: They celebrate skilled authors, create miniature canons, spur writers to improve their work, and make connections. The writers who’ve won the Writivism now all share a circle of influence. Not to mention access to writers’ workshops and other benefits that come out of prizes.

If we agree to that, who ‘belongs’ in these shared circles?

In the literary contests of a thousand years ago and more, writers competed in a shared language. It might or might not have been their “mother” tongue, but it was a shared one. For logistical reasons, most prizes, whether oral or written, are still run like that. But with widening, fracturing, and overlapping literary spheres, translation has become an important part of some literary prizes.

Yet in attempting to judge the product of one literary tradition against another — English against Arabic, Gikuyu against French — are we comparing apples to oranges, epistles to flash fiction to zajal? Are we fostering the development of a “globalized,” mass-market literary genre, thus diluting the world’s bibliodiversity? Should my Egyptian colleague, after all, keep his story for himself and for Egypt?

Author, translator, and critic Tim Parks has been perhaps the most prominent voice arguing for a sort of literary nationalism. Parks has recently written that there is too much emphasis on “world literature.” To shrink and oversimplify his argument, the best literature comes when Italians write in Italian, for Italians. Ditto on the rest of us.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, this might work better for Francophone French citizens who live in Lisle than it does for authors with complex, post-colonial roots. As for my Egyptian colleague, his short work reads much like a story in the Anglophone tradition. Should he, after all, write more like al-Jahiz?

Parks’ literary protectionism certainly has its merits, but it also favors the powerful. Moreover, bibliodiversity is not just about respecting and protecting our traditions: It’s about forging new connections, violating old boundaries, and creating new spaces of overlap. One of these spaces can — and should — be trans-Saharan: literary connections and conversations between north and south.

More on that in the forthcoming issue of Chimurenga.

Even if we agree… how do we do that?

We accept that – in trying to bring these stories together – we’re violating a boundary that’s reinforced by racism, sectarianism, colonial economics, and powerful narratives. Not to mention the language issue, which looms large. But while we can’t imagine an oral zajal competition taking place between poets who compose in different languages, we can bring different-language print literatures together without erasing their diversity or requiring a single, mass-marketized standard.

India is another populous space with many languages, and thus many language- and state-based literary awards. But there are also pan-Indian prizes, such as the Crossword. The Crossword does privilege English, for practical and other reasons. But it also has a separate award for “Indian language in translation” that attracts submissions from around the sub-continent.

Yet in order for the Crossword to exist, first there had to be a shared imaginary space where Indian writers wanted to communicate with one another. It’s the same for Writivism, the Caine, or other pan-African prizes. For the prizes to speak to Arab-African writers, we need to create this space. We can create it through magazine projects, shared literary festivals, co-edited anthologies, collaborative translations, and a thousand other forms of literary communication.

The barrier that has been erected across the Sahara exists in our imagination. So in our imaginations, we can rewrite it.

As always, ArabLit’s interested in your opinions: