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17 Jul Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

A Few Strokes of Caine

The Caine Prize for African Writing, nicknamed the African Booker, is the most talked about prize on the continent despite not offering the highest cash reward for literary endeavours— the other major one, the NLNG Prize rarely comes up in discussions, as it more than doubles the Caine prize money for less than half its reputation.

The prize has brought more enquiry than elation, and more reconsideration than celebration. Several issues have emerged. A few are discussed below.

On Live Events. There is an appeal of following an event live. Be it a four-hour tennis match, a 9- minute football match, or the unknowable hours of a PDP convention.

On the Caine award night, the cacophony of incessant clicks on refresh buttons could have been picked up by satellites orbiting the earth, everyone itching to be first to update social media. More than any previous year, this year had a massive Nigerian following because of the country’s snagging of four out of the five spots available.

However, the enthusiasm was a configuration of desire and doubt: it would be humiliating to lose after having four names on the shortlist.

Spared the shame, satisfaction was withdrawn when the winner was tweeted to be the least Nigerian Nigerian on the list. But, maybe for an event as prestigious as the Caine to have just the one outlet to present its proceedings ought to have intimated followers to the cultural anachronism to come.

Little mercies: many Nigerians must be glad the UK doesn’t use MTN modems.

On Identity. Since the announcement of Tope Folarin— who possesses a resume so impressive part of the argument against his win has to come from a very justifiable envy— several commentators have come out to defend the man’s African-ness.

But isn’t that a defence is needed enough to drown the argument?

The Abilene Principle. Let’s not go peeing down both legs. Celebrations have been muted for a reason. The politically correct silence is a nuisance. It is fair to query the decision.

On The Caine Validating African-ness. Mr Folarin seems to have implied the win validates his African identity. This gives one pause: a British prize conferring on an American, an African Identity? Ahem, speaking of miracles…

Beware the Western Gift. Stripped of embellishments, here’s one way of putting the controversy: the Caine Prize for African Writing went to a Rhodes Scholar.

Here’s an uncharitable simplification: Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar— if, in time, he decides to write fiction, and uses an African pseudonym, the good folks of the Caine Prize are not the FBI, there is a chance he might get on the shortlist.

The winner has said he didn’t expect the judges to take his entry seriously, clearly ascribing to the Caine Prize judges more cultural aptitude than they possess.

The Booker Prize, from which the Caine prize gets its African Booker sobriquet, stipulates that to be eligible a book must be published in the UK between specific dates. This clearly places importance on geography; an importance dismissed by the good folks at Caine.

But seriously, the West seeks to promote African writing, but not by mocking itself: How can a man trained by its glorious institutions not win against men bred by frequently maligned Nigerian universities?

Why the Debate Appears Insignificant. At this point, it seems the only reason this debate is being waved aside is because there was no outrage at Mr Folarin’s inclusion on the shortlist. The Nigeria literati, overjoyed at its domination, forgot to question it. Its predicament is so common and ancient it has an entry in Aesop’s Fables. The now hollow hullabaloo is the fox’s “the grapes are sour and not ripe,” after failing to reach the fruit.

The Diaspora Is Coming. The NLNG prize amended its rule to allow writers in Diaspora. Immediately, Chika Unigwe, based in Belgium, won it. A few years ago, Sefi Atta, now based in America after moving from England, won the inaugural Soyinka prize. Now, Tope Folarin wins the Caine prize. You don’t have to be a cryptologist to see a pattern.

Fact is, if writing is rewriting, and it truly is, then editing is surely all-important. The African writer’s editorial board, made up of barely literate family and friends, is no match for the army of seasoned editors writers overseas have access to.

Soon, when nominees for major literary prizes are announced, all literary enthusiasts have to do is pick the nominee with an extensively foreign curriculum vitae and give up on refreshing twitter feeds.

Cheers? In some quarters, the win has been labelled bittersweet but this isn’t really the case. At best the win is sour: nobody here gets to hail the winner chanting “Chairman!” repeatedly as the man would not buy anybody anybody knows a drink. The prize money might pay for his return ticket to Nigeria where he would visit, at best, as a tourist. It is hard to locate the sweet.

Schadenfreude. The real bittersweet would have been if any of Messrs John or Ibrahim had won. Sweet, because those two are well known, others can see them and if not inspired, be inebriated; bitter because the literati would have felt the import of that great Gore Vidal line: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Perhaps a few are counting their blessings?

Imperfect Tales. What the literati has now is a huge slice of schadenfreude sublimating into guilt as days go by. This despite, allowing that Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s story could do with a tightening of its sentences; Elnathan John’s was a methodical, workmanlike combination of two prizewinning stories: Olufemi Terry’s Stickfighting Days and E.C. Osondu’s Waiting; Chinelo Okparanta’s was so righteous it should be a sermon; and Pede Hollist’s, lost its voice halfway.

Randall Jarrell’s, “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it” is applicable to 2013’s shortlisted stories.

The Aftermath. Asked about the prize, Chimamanda Adichie weighed in saying the Caine Prize is not an arbiter of Africa’s fiction in an interview as widely misinterpreted as scripture. In fairness, truer words are yet to be spoken. Still, it would be nice to win it. At the moment, every African or ‘African’ writer wants to bear the mark of Caine.

In any case, there is the angle that, well, she didn’t win it herself in 2002, unlucky as she was Binyavanga Wainaina’s marvellous Discovering Home— believed, in some quarters, to be the best winner so far— was also shortlisted. Perhaps Adichie herself is the fox in Aesop’s tale.

The controversy around spurned fanboy missives and the vault-of-potential-victors slough off the illusion that everyone in contemporary Nigerian literature has bottomless reserves of benevolence. It is a veneer; the real situation is more happy-go-plucky than happy-go-lucky.

Apparently, every illusion, demands a sacrifice— of pride, of truth, and, in this particular case, of a few pieces of cocoyam.