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.
Image via Nairobi Wire
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