CaineFive
Caine Prize Shortlistees in London for the award. Left to Right: Elnathan John, Abubakar Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta, Tope Folarin, Pede Hollist.

I was doing some blog work late last night and hanging out with my fellow African tweeps when the news broke that Tope Folarin had won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. We tweeted our congrats and hurrahs, but after taking a second to think, I realized that even though Ibrahim’s “Whispering Trees” could easily have won the prize, it had to be Folarin’s story. Here are my reasons in five easy bullet points:

1. Blue Passport: As an American born to Nigerian parents, Folarin disrupts what has become the rigidly defined category of the African writer. Is he an African writer or is he not? Is there such a thing as an African writer? Unlike Maaza Mengiste, I don’t think this is a bad, obsolete, or unwarranted question. It’s just that with Folarin’s win, we are forced to rethink the grounds on which we pose the question in the first place, revaluate the stakes in such a question, and find new ways of imagining what it means for a writer to be called African.

2. The Miraculous Story:  “Miracle” is brilliant work. It’s not that all the other shortlisted stories are not well-written but that Folarin pays attention to the nuances of story and form in a way that none of the other writers do. The play with pronouns around which the story is structured is a good example (wondering what I’m referring to? Read HERE.) But what hit the spot for me is the prettiness of some of the sentences. Here is one: “His sunglasses fall from his face, and we see the brilliant white orbs quivering frantically in their sockets, two full moons that have forgotten their roles in the drama of the universe.” Effortlessly good writing.

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3.The Underdog: If anyone on the list needs the validation that such a prize gives, it is Folarin. Except for Elnathan who is actually a pretty established online literary figure, everyone else on the list have either published novels, story collections, or are in the process of doing so. Let’s be honest, it has taken a win this big for us to take Folarin seriously and to realize that he brings a fresh perspective on the continent and its contemporary moment.

4. The Caine Prize Hype: Folarin’s win means that the Caine Prize people are listening to criticisms that they often encourage a certain kind of cookie-cutter African story. This time, they were not looking for stories exploring hot-button Africa-centered social issues. They went for the quirkiest story in the bunch.

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5. Making History: In a world where so much has become banal, it is nice to make history once in a while. A story, like “Miracle,” about a store-front church in a Texan town, written by an American of Nigerian descent would have had little chance of winning the prize a few years before. Folarin’s win tell us that the African literary powers that be are waking up and shaking things up a bit.

Big congrats to all the shortlistees for writing such wonderful stories around which we had some of the best conversations about African writing. Congrats to Folarin!