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Africa: Stories in the 55
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Caine Prize judges read Africa's best stories; Accra's vibrant literary scene

By Laura Angela Bagnetto

The Caine Prize is an award given out annually for African creative writing published in English. Delia Jarret-Macauley, an award-winning writer in her own right, is heading the five-judge panel. She sat down with RFI to talk about the Caine Prize, and sheds light on how she approaches creative writing.

Can you give us an idea of the Caine Prize process? Last year there were 153 qualifying stories, which is a lot.

I understand we have just as many this year, perhaps maybe slightly more, coming from 23 different African countries and including translations, so that’s something that I think is something fairly new to our pile. The process is quite simple—the stories have to be published in a journal or magazine somewhere on the continent, or it could be America or the UK. The magazines forward them to the Caine Prize and anything that fits as sort of basic criteria can then be part of our process. We can read all the stories, have a short list drawn up in the spring, so late April, and then there’s an award dinner and the prize giving in early July. That takes place in Oxford.

Do you read every single one or do you portion them off to the other judges and then you discuss them amongst yourselves?

All the judges will be reading all of the stories. So the idea is that everybody, I hope, will read really closely and finely so that we really are conscious of what contributions we’re receiving, and then we have vigorous discussions about them and make our short list. We have a panel of five judges taking part in this, and the judges come from all over. We have someone based on Kenya, the director of the Storymoja Festival, there’s an actor who’s based in London, a professor based in Washington, so we are quite a wide-ranging group of people coming together to read all these stories.

Judging is subjective, so could you tell us what grabs you when you’re looking at a story in general?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this and the process of reading is really something that demands I think that you create a space inside yourself and an attitude that allows you to allow the writer to communicate what he or she wishes to communicate, rather than imposing upon them any pre-conceived notions of what they should say or how they should say it. I think I want to be enchanted, I want to be surprised. I don’t feel that the writers should feel that the African short story or this or that and they have to fit to a particular criteria. We want to feel that somebody has a voice, that they’re innovative, but we have to remain open, I think, and be willing to challenge each other when we come together as judges.

Part of the conversation around African writers is not being able to get the attention of publisher. That the talent is there, but not the access. The Caine Prize has sort of been a launching pad for published writers into the west. But what do you believe needs to be done in addition to help promote African writers?

It’s true, the Caine Prize has had quite an important impact, I think. You’re right in saying that several careers have been launched, and people have gained more access to mainstream houses, so for example, last year’s winner, Namwali Serpell, her first novel has already been bought by Hogarth Press. I think many people will be conscious of the discussions going on around diversity in the arts and questions of representation. Clearly, if the publishing world as a whole is not particularly geared towards hearing new voices, and it could be new voices from Africa, from the Caribbean, or other parts of the world, and new types of writing, then that fiction won’t see the light of day. So we actually obviously want to see a publishing world that is responsive, we need critics to be responsive to those changes and differences, and for books to get the marketing and the backup that they need to reach those wider audiences. That would be terrific.

We broadcast throughout Africa and there are many listeners who are aspiring writers. Do you have any advice?

What I always say to other writers would be to say it’s important to read. To read widely and to read critically, and also, to be willing to keep practicing the craft. So it takes a long time I think to become a really mature writer, really confident in what you’re doing. What I do if I get stuck, I turn to poetry. Poets always have to work on language, and the rhythm of the language. I don’t lose myself in a novel if I get stuck, I turn to poets. And they help me get started again.

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