The Caine Prize for African Writing

African literature is fast gaining an international reputation. For 14 years the Caine Prize for African Writing has championed the finest short story writers that Africa has to offer. Previous winners include Leila Aboulela and Binyavanga Wainaina, and, in July this year, Nigeria’s Tope Folarin was added to the list of esteemed authors…

The Caine Prize was established in 1999 to reward African creative writing and is named in honour of Sir Michael Caine, Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The £10,000 (Ksh1.3 million) Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English – a short story is defined as between 3000 and 10,000 words long. An ‘African writer’ is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African.

The 2013 Caine Prize was won by Nigeria’s Tope Folarin for his short story entitled ‘Miracle’, which is set in an evangelical Nigerian church in the US state of Texas. In the story, the congregation has gathered to witness the healing powers of a blind pastor-prophet who is visiting the US from Nigeria. In a little over 4000 words Tope uses the character of a young boy who volunteers to be healed and begins to believe in miracles to look at religion and the gullibility of those caught in the deceit that sometimes comes from faith.

Tope Folarin was announced as the winner in July at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. The shortlisted writers were joined by the judging panel, former winners and shortlisters as well as supporters of the Caine Prize in Oxford to announce the winner but also to praise the literature that is emanating from Africa. Ben Okri, the Vice-President of the Caine Prize and winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, reflected on the short story, seeing it as “the master form”. He also paid tribute to Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author who is seen as the ‘father of modern African writing’. Okri said: “Chinua Achebe was undeniably literature with a capital ‘L’ in his lifetime.” Tope was judged the winner from 96 entries submitted from 16 different countries.

Tope Folarin
Tope Folarin is the recipient of writing fellowships from the Institute for Policy Studies and Callaloo, and he serves on the board of the Hurston/Wright Foundation. Tope was educated at Morehouse College, and the University of Oxford, where he earned two Master’s degrees as a Rhodes Scholar. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

Based in America, Tope is a voice of the African diaspora, who reside all over the world but still retain a strong African identity. Stories such as ‘Miracle’ reflect the internationalisation of Africa and its diaspora communities. Much was made of the fact that Tope was born in America and has spent the majority of his life residing there. However, the Caine Prize is open to anyone with African parents as this reflects the importance of the diaspora in maintaining their cultural identity, no matter where they now live.

Tope spoke to the UK’s Guardian newspaper regarding his identity: “I’m a writer situated in the Nigerian diaspora, and the Caine Prize means a lot – it feels like I’m connected to a long tradition of African writers. The Caine Prize is broadening its definition and scope. I consider myself Nigerian and American, both identities are integral to who I am. To win… feels like a seal of approval”.

For Tope, his trip to Oxford for the announcement dinner brought back memories of his time studying at the University as a prestigious Rhodes Scholar. On winning the Caine Prize, Tope received a £10,000 award and the opportunity of taking up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.

Chair of Judges Gus Casely-Hayford saluted Tope’s story: “Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ is another superb Caine prize winner – a delightful and beautifully-paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling.”

An extract from the winning story…

By Tope Folarin
The tinny Nigerian gospel music ends when the pastor stands, and he prays over us again. He prays so long and so hard that we feel the weight of his words pressing down on us. His prayer is so insistent, so sincere, that his words emerge from the dark chrysalis of his mouth as bright, fluttering prophesies. In our hearts we stop asking if and begin wondering when our deeply held wishes will come true. After his sweating and shaking and cajoling he shouts another Amen, a word that now seems defiant, not pleading. We echo his defiance as loudly as we can, and when we open our eyes we see him pointing to the back of the church.

Our eyes follow the line of his finger, and we see the short old man hunched over in the back, two men on either side of him. Many of us have seen him before, in this very space; we’ve seen the old man perform miracles that were previously only possible in the pages of our Bibles. We’ve seen him command the infirm to be well, the crippled to walk, the poor to become wealthy. Even those of us who are new, who know nothing of him, can sense the power emanating from him.

We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.

We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.

We need miracles.

In an unusual twist, the 2013 Caine Prize saw four authors from Nigeria shortlisted for the award. This is the first time that four shortlisted writers in one year have been from the same country. Also shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize were:

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Abubakar is the author of the short story collection The Whispering Trees (Parresia Publishers, Lagos, 2012). He is a Gabriel García Márquez Fellow and won the BBC African Performance Prize in 2007. He lives in Abuja, Nigeria, and was shortlisted for ‘The Whispering Trees’.

This moving piece tells the story of a boy called Salim, who recovers from a car accident only to find he has lost his sight. Salim rapidly loses all hope; his medical studies are neglected, his loving fiancée eventually leaves him and only bitterness remains. As he begins to overcome his tribulations he solves a mystery from his childhood and finds he can see some things more clearly than before.

Pede Hollist
Pede, a native of Sierra Leone, is an associate professor of English at the University of Tampa, Florida. His interests cover the literature of the African imagination – literary expressions in the African continent, as well as in the African diaspora. So the Path Does not Lie (Langaa Press, Cameroon, 2012 ) is his first novel. His short stories, ‘Going to America’, ‘Back Home Abroad’, and ‘Resettlement’ have appeared in Ìrìnkèrindò: A Journal of African Migration, on the Sierra Leone Writers Series website, and in Matatu 41-12 respectively.

Pede was shortlisted for his enlightening and witty story ‘Foreign Aid’, which is about Balogun, who returns to Sierra Leone after twenty years in America, toting an abbreviated name, Logan, three suitcases full of cheap clothes, and a wad of cash to appease his relatives who have long learnt to survive without him. As a returned ‘been-to’ Logan expects to save his family from his country’s problems, but finds that “neither party fully understood the reality of the other”.

Chinelo Okparanta
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta earned her BSc from the Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was featured as one of GRANTA magazine’s six new voices for 2012, and in May 2013 her collection of short stories entitled Happiness, Like Water was published in the UK and is due to be released in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2013. Chinelo has been nominated for a United States Artists Fellowship in Literature and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She currently teaches at Colgate University in the US, where she is Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction.

‘America’, Chinelo’s shortlisted story, sees the narrator travelling to collect a visa to America to be with the woman she loves, while wondering whether she will “get lost in America”, and “what happens when all the hens are gone?”. When she is finally granted her visa, the enticement to leave home suddenly becomes a more ambiguous temptation that is contaminated with fear such that the reader is no longer sure whether the narrator will regret staying or going more.

Elnathan John
Elnathan, who was shortlisted for ‘Bayan Layi’, is a full-time writer who trained as a lawyer in Nigeria. His writing has been published in Per Contra, ZAM Magazine, Evergreen Review, Sentinel Nigeria and The Chimurenga Chronicle. Elnathan John writes political satire for a Nigerian newspaper and for his blog. He also teaches and is currently writing a novel.

‘Bayan Layi’ is about two street children in modern-day Nigeria, who sleep under the Kuka tree in Bayan Layi, which lies next to the River Kaduna.  As electoral violence begins in the area the boys take sides arbitrarily based on payments of money, food and drink. The narrator, an almajiri who used to study at the mosque before his father died, is hypnotised by the “breaking and burning business” which he is not used to, but follows the gang leader, Banda, for 200 Naira to buy bread and fried fish, before turning to flee for his life.

The Caine Prize, of which Kenya Airways is a corporate sponsor, is awarded annually each July. The shortlisted stories and more information is available at The Caine Prize 2013 anthology, A Memory This Size and other stories, which contains the five shortlisted stories along with stories written at Caine Prize workshops, is available to buy from Kwani? in Kenya, New Internationalist in the UK and six other publishers in Africa.