binyavanga...

In a time long forgot, a bird called Nza, one of the tiniest birds ever created by God, finished a sumptuous meal of esusa soup and pounded yam, and while reclining on a soft palm frond, enjoying the evening breeze, and sipping from a gourd cup of fresh palm wine, said to himself, “Now I am filled. Where is god? Come; let us engage in a wrestling contest.” We do not need a soothsayer to tell us Nza’s fate.

I am reminded of the Nza lore because of two incidents that are just as nagging as they are insulting: last year, when my friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were shortlisted alongside two other Nigerians for the Caine Prize, our own Chimamanda Adichie insulted not just the prize but those four Nigerian writers shortlisted for it. Adichie’s comment on the Caine Prize didn’t injure people’s sensibilities because of its derogatory nature; it did because she was once shortlisted for the prize. We wondered if she would have made the statement if she had won the prize.

In a related incident, her friend, the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, who clinched international recognition after winning the Caine Prize and setting up Kwani?, a literary journal based in Nairobi, had this to say. While riding high on the popularity and recognition provided by the platform of the Prize, in a recent interview with Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu, Binyavanga lambasted the Prize for what he referred to as riding on the legitimacy provided it by the Nigerian media.

In Wainaina’s words “it (Caine Prize) just isn’t our institution… what is happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London.’ Wainaina’s argument is that;…all these young people who are ending up in that place (Caine Prize) were built up by many people’s work. If there was no Saraba, if there was no Farafina workshop, if there was no Cassava Republic…. There will be no Okwiri, there will be no Elnathan etc.”

Wainana argues that amidst the local and international buzz created around the winning writer, the media and the literary community often forget the efforts of the other platforms that gave the writer the push to grow and enter for the prize, in the first place—platforms like literary workshops, magazines, editors and publishers, etcetera.

Mr. Wainaina’s argument may be logical, but it is, to me, quite pointless. Literary prizes give validation to the work of the writer. In fact, every prize and award that has existed since creation recognizes the recipient and validates the work of the individual.

There is an African adage that says that a child is not owned by just the parents nor his kinsmen but the entire community — the man that separated a fight between the child and another in the street, the one that helped the child cross the busy road, etc. People like Wainaina who think that the Caine Prize takes undue credit for giving a writer recognition should learn from this.

Binyavanga said that by publicizing an author’s winning of the Caine Prize, we help Caine Prize receive money from sponsors. He said that “they (Caine Prize) take press clipping from all Nigerian media and use that to source for funding.” So what if they source for funding? Wainaina suggests, ever so slightly, that there’s something wrong or underhanded about Caine Prize going out in search for funds. We must ask Wainaina what happens to this fund when the Caine prize administrators receive it. Do they use it to organize a holiday program for their family and friends in the Bahamas? Or do they use it to provide publicity for the prize, the shortlists, and the winners? Do they pay people’s expenses to attend the award events, provide prize money, and provide platforms for them to get international attention for one year? Do they use the fund to organize the Caine Prize workshops where some of the shortlisted authors also get to attend? Or do they just pay salaries and pointlessly build ‘people’s careers in London’? We need to tell this story properly.

When our Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, he didn’t just receive global recognition but brought world focus to both African literature and politics. The Nobel Prize made Soyinka a greater literary and political figure and helped him to engage the government on all levels. He could call the President of any African country on the phone and get attention not just as Soyinka the writer, but as Soyinka, the writer, and the Nobel Laureate. That is called validation.

When Chimamanda Adichie wrote her Purple Hibiscus, and it won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize and her publisher printed ‘Winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize’ on the cover of the book, what happened? People began to see it not just as an ‘ordinary story’ that could have been written by just any writer. It became a story that had been certified good for consumption — that is the duty of a prize. I call it validation.

Without the validation given by the platform of the Caine Prize, Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About this Place, would not have received the kind of  enthusiasm the book is enjoying today because Africans do not read memoirs of unknown personalities. So it is quite right to say that the Caine Prize, using the funding they’ve received thanks to the “legitimacy” given to it by the Nigerian media, has helped Wainaina get recognition, not just as a writer but an author, a social critic, and a founder of Kwani?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi once told me that we need to grow the African literary tradition and to do this, the African literary community needs more prizes, more festivals, more publishers, and more magazines. All these, he said, forms the foundation without which there will be no structure for the African literary tradition. I totally agree with this. It has been proven time and again that nature abhors vacuum. Before the Caine Prize came into existence, there was no literary prize existing on a large scale that exposed the talent of African writers to the world. I believe that the NLNG-sponsored Nigerian Literature Prize and the Etisalat Prize came into existence, riding on the experience and example set by the Caine Prize for African Writing.

No platform can do without the other. Every one of it is very important — festivals, workshops, magazines, journals, anthologies, prizes and awards — every one of it. People like Binyavanga should stop putting one above the other. The Farafina workshop run by Chimamanda Adichie has trained some Nigerian writers, but so has the Fidelity Bank workshop, the Hilltop Art Centre creative writing workshop in Niger state and Ugreen Foundation’s Youth Creativity Class, which I moderate, that selects and trains about thirty young people from Ebonyi state annually. All of these matter. A young writer selected to participate in a small workshop feels energized that out of a pool of many his/her work is selected. Aside from Farafina workshop, there are countless other workshops in Nigeria alone. Adichie and her friend, Binyavanga, should stop making us notice how so ‘important’ theirs is to the African literati.

Until African writers understand that we must grow the African literary structure and to grow, we need all the platforms that there are in the world, be it from Asia, America or Europe, we will remain like the Nza bird, who had only but a little means of survival in the competitive animal world and when god provided him a meal, got himself filled up and felt he had arrived.

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Image via  Nairobi Wire

About the author 

Udenwe, Obinna - PortraitObinna Udenwe is the author a conspiracy crime fiction ‘Satans & Shaitans’ on terrorism, jihad, politics and love to be published in the UK in October 2nd 2014.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

9 Responses to “Slamming Binyavanga for Slamming the Caine Prize | by Obinna Udenwe” Subscribe

  1. Susan 2014/09/15 at 06:20 #

    Bravo!

  2. Oma Ogbodo 2014/09/15 at 10:53 #

    Why is Chimamanda so fixated on Elnathan John and sadly, not in the context of a proud ‘mother’ showing off her ‘son’ but rather like a jittery competitor yearning to take credit for another’s work? Are they saying that all that has gone into making Elnathan the writer that he is today, including his talent, education, the books he has read, his life experiences etc all become irrelevant in light of the fact that he attended a workshop? Which fact, I expect he now regrets. How long was that workshop anyway? Thank God I never attended a Farafina workshop and now, I probably never will.

  3. Manny 2014/09/15 at 14:18 #

    @Oma Ogbodo, where did you get that impression that Chimamanda is so fixated on Elnathan John? One encounter can hardly be described as a fixation.

  4. Harrison 2014/09/15 at 14:44 #

    Beautiful article. It’s really arkward the way people look down at things(people) that elevated them. If there were no prize for recognition who would know chiamanda and the rest. Now the prizes that made them who they are is what they now belittle.

  5. Oma Ogbodo 2014/09/15 at 15:59 #

    @ Manny, maybe not, but when those around you continue where you left off, it gives the impression that something is off don’t you think? Couldn’t Binyavanga have had his interview and belittled the Caine prize all he wanted without bringing in Elnathan and the fact that he (Elthan) attended a Farafina workshop? Sounds to me like the Farafina camp has a thing for Elnathan.

  6. Mulumba Ivan Matthias 2014/09/16 at 00:13 #

    Well put. Sometimes we forget who has contributed to our success. Every prize has a contribution it makes. It brings attention to a writer, a country or even a continent. If a ugandan writer wins, people will start paying more attention to Ugandan writing. If a kenyan wins, Nigerian, South African … it is the same story. What Winana is doing is similar to some one who has gone through secondary school and after reaping from it starts telling others how bad it is, and so on and so forth. If a prize does not benefit you/ an individual, there are others out there who can benefit from it. Every bit of recorgnition a writer gets is important. Why? It brings more readers on board.

  7. Yemisi Ogbe 2014/09/17 at 23:19 #

    Is sycophancy the way up our literary ladder as well? I have immense respect for Brittle paper but wonder why this article is Here. Who is the Caine Prize that it should be above criticism is my question. Should criticism, questioning no longer be regarded as signs of maturity in the line of work that we are in? These in my opinion should be the questions we ask. So because Binyavanga won the Caine Prize, therefore he should not say… Who better to describe the flaws of the parents than the child who grew up in the house. And who better to give credence to than the child who grew up in the house?

    What he said was “I am going to take this first to another road because I think all you Nigerian literati are way too addicted to the Caine Prize. I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution.

    Is this a lie, a falsehood, an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination?

    Should Binyavanga be defending the Caine Prize against Nigerians? Is that the honourable thing? If he had done that, I would have lost all respect for him.

    Does anyone in any case here believe that the Caine Prize needs defenders and they should be rightly Nigerian “writers” saying “Binyavanga should not say that!” Is the goal of the prize in the final analysis to gag speech or to open a way for the articulation of ideas?

    …Articulation of ideas whether they agree with our sensibilities or not! And I am not quite sure that all of this fuss represents “the Nigerian sensibilities” or the median of response to Binyavanga. It doesn’t represent mine.

    What is this aggression really about? The man says, look to your homegrown initiatives. He says encourage the Farafinas and Cassava Republics, Ake Festival…Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma of Saraba, Jalada etc etc. What in my opinion Chimamanda and Binyavanga were saying last year was/is the focus of good writing “cannot be the prize, any prize”. It HAS TO BE the writing itself. If this was inelegantly said, we need to get over it. The point is if there is no prize at all, Nigerian writing should be intrinsically noteworthy. There is a lot of African/Nigerian writing that is noteworthy and unrecognised and yes in Chimamanda’s mailbox…because we know it is true that writers very often send their work to well established ones to get some mentoring.

    …Because the Caine Prize or any other prize does not know or recognise writers does not make the writers any less noteworthy. Only time (sometimes long periods of time) and effort and the love of the craft of writing among many other factors that we might not immediately comprehend will determine that. Therefore the weight we give to the Caine Prize must be reevaluated. I personally regret the childishness that the debate about Elnathan and Chimamanda boiled down to last year. I think that matter needs to be left well alone and excluded from address here. Anyone who joins that issue with this one should be held accountable for very underhanded mischief. The commentators to the article might like to go over Binyavanga’s words again and note that he is in fact holding up Elnathan as a quality writer.

    But I ask you, where are we going with this “don’t say this and don’t say that?” If I were the Caine Prize, I would lose hope for Nigerian writers. Because this is a prize for fiction does not mean we have no responsibility to query real life. Our fiction is being informed by all these things that we are talking about, about life. It is not some wooly overhanging cloud that offends no-one, so who ruled that everyone should only say that which agrees with everyone. If these are the most articulate responses that can be found in Nigeria to “what Binyavanga said”. I think we should just pack up this business while we are ahead…or not, as long as no one tries to bully the voice of another.

    By the way I’m not sure what this statement means – “Without the validation given by the platform of the Caine Prize, Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About this Place, would not have received the kind of  enthusiasm the book is enjoying today because Africans do not read memoirs of unknown personalities.” … We need to be committed at the very least to addressing these issues intelligently.

  8. Michael Okpanachi 2014/10/08 at 16:09 #

    I feel this writer doesn’t really know what he is saying. The argument is merely emotional. It is almost a shit. If you dislike Binyavanga and Chimamanda, don’t just go about writing shit like this by blindly analyzing whatever comes out of their mouth. It is a pity you have closed your mind against the truths THE KENYAN WRITER is telling Nigeria literati like you.

    Binyavanga wasn’t slamming the Caine Prize and uplifting the Farafina workshop. I can see your politics. He was only telling you to publicize the local literary establishments and grow them to become great institutions like the Caine Prize. Are you not tired of always looking to the West to put a huge endorsement on one of your writers before he is known. You are so intellectually broke.

    Chimamanda and her besty are doing great stuffs. Farafina is one of the best, if not the best, writing workshops in Africa. No one can doubt it. If there is any, tell me how long they’ve being there and the quality of the programmes that they run.

    Keep making the noise for Binya and Chimamanda, they are making more money on top of your head and gaining more grounds all around the world.

    And for the Elnathan boy, why can’t you advise the guy to learn from his friends like Adam Abubakar and Richard Ali. If he thinks he can pick up a fight with Binya and thinks he will win, he should sit down and calculate well again. THERE ARE FORCES THAT WILL WORK AGAINST HIM. CHIMAMANDA AND BINYA HAVE LITTLE TO LOSE HERE. WHY CAN’T SEE THIS. That boy

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ikhide Versus Binyavanga: The Caine Prize Convo—Cainerversation—Continues | Brittle Paper - 2014/10/15

    […] His tweets ruffled more than a few feathers. {Elnathan shares a few thoughtful tweets in response HERE.  Obinna Udenwe’s weighs in HERE.} […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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