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Dear Tete Petina,

Once again, I am not on the Caine Prize shortlist. My story was the best I have written to date, I was so sure I would get the nod. I am so disappointed that I feel like crying. I am finding it hard to be the bigger person and fight my jealousy when Facebook is full of so many congratulatory posts. My dreams of getting a book deal are now turning to ash. Will my turn ever come?

Obi from Ibadan.

***

Dear Obi,

Beware, my dear Obi, of jealousy, the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on!  But firstly, why don’t we both say congratulations to this year’s shortlisted writers: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Chikodili Emelumadu, Bushra al-Fadil (along with Max Shmookler, his translator), Arinze Ifeakandu, and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene? Caine Prize watchers are already calling this the most diverse list in years: it is particularly wonderful to see translated fiction being recognized in this way.

On to your question. Imagine, for a minute, Obi, that you were one of these writers. I am certain you would have been as proud and delighted as they no doubt are. But as I always say to my son, it is really okay to cry, it is okay to be disappointed, because that disappointment can lead you to push yourself to strive to achieve more.

There is no reason why your disappointment should turn outward, into envy or jealousy.  One of my dearest wishes for writers in “African writing networks” is that we see each other not as rivals engaged in competition to the death but as coevals engaged in the same pursuit, each farrowing our own field, and regarding the next field as a source of driving inspiration, not souring bitterness.  It would also be helpful to you if you saw the Caine Prize not as a competition that all African writers must fight for, but as recognition for those stories that strike particular chords within the hearts of the judges of that year.

But, said Henry Fielding, example works more forcibly on the mind than precepts, so I hope you won’t mind if I share my own Caine adventure. I have reached a stage in my career where I do not see the need to ever enter the Caine Prize, but for three successive years, when I was an unknown and struggling writer, I eagerly sent in my entries. For three successive years, I was disappointed. In fact, the last year I entered, 2008, brought a truly acute disappointment. A few months before, two of my stories had placed second and fourth in a story competition for southern African writers. That year’s Caine shortlist featured three stories that had placed first, third and fifth in the southern African competition. My stories, placed second and fourth, were overlooked. It was very hard not to see this as anything but a deliberate snub and a personal rejection. But what made it all bearable is that the writers who were on that Caine shortlist had become dear friends, in fact one writer ended up subleasing my apartment in Geneva, while another, who went on to win the Caine, is probably one of the short story writers I admire the most in the world.

That disappointment inspired me to look beyond the prize, and to really focus on my craft. It also helped enormously that a very kind friend said to me: “You know, you don’t need the Caine Prize.” This was an entirely new idea for me: that I could be a published writer without ever having been ‘Caine-anointed.’ At that time, the Caine was so dominant in conversations about who got published that it seemed like a revolutionary, even sacrilegious idea, that really, we might all want to win the Caine, but no one truly needed it.

He was so right. A few months after my disappointment, I was sought out by a literary agency that secured no less than eight international book deals for me in the space of one week. I have not entered the Caine since then. Not because I have anything at all against the Caine Prize, but because it has become deeply important to me to show young African writers that there is more than one path to success. For every Helon Habila, who won it, is a Dinaw Mengestu who did not; for every Henrietta Rose-Innes, who won it, is a Lauren Beukes who did not; for every Monica Arac, who won it, is a Taiye Selasi who did not.

So yes, dear Obi, it is fine to be disappointed that you are not on this year’s Caine shortlist, but put your disappointment in proportion, celebrate the success of others, and enjoy reading, and learning from, the work on this year’s shortlist.  And remember that as badly as you may want to win the Caine Prize, you honestly, really and truly do not actually need it.

With my very bestest wishes for your glittering success,

Petina.

*

Note: Vatete or tete means aunt in the Shona language, and refers to a “patriarchal aunt,” whose main role is to dispense wisdom based on her own experiences and life observations. I hope to use this new column to share with you the wisdom I have gained as a published author, and as a writer still trying to write that definitive masterpiece. I do not know everything of course, nor do I claim to, but I am happy to share what I know on how to find an agent, rights issues, writer’s block, competitions, getting published, how to do a publicity campaign, how to get your work translated, anything at all really, as long as it is writing and publishing related. Regretfully, I am not able to advise on actual manuscripts. Please send your questions to creativezimbabwetrust@gmail.com and do please let me know if you wish to remain anonymous.

 

**************

About the Author:

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer and lawyer. Her debut collection of stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won The Guardian Best First Book Award in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her first novel, The Book of Memory, was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize and nominated for the 2017 PEN Open Book Award and the 2016 Prix Femina etranger. Her most recent work is the story collection, Rotten Row. She was named Brittle Paper‘s African Literary Person of 2016.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba, Nigeria and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A finalist for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, his short stories include: “A Tenderer Blessing,” which appears in Transition Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015; “Mulumba,” which appears in The Threepenny Review; and “You Sing of a Longing,” which was shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award and appears in Pride and Prejudice, an anthology by The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation. His essays appear in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and in Brittle Paper where he is Deputy Editor. His interviews appear in Africa in Dialogue, Bakwa Magazine, SPRINNG, and Dwartonline. He is the editor of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (October 2016), focuses on Nigerian cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. A postgraduate student of African Studies, he currently teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, Nigeria. When bored, he blogs pop culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.

8 Responses to “Dear Tete Petina: I Am Not on the Caine Prize Shortlist | By Petina Gappah” Subscribe

  1. Ada 2017/05/17 at 15:06 #

    Awww. Thank you Petina. Now this is the best thing I have read today, if not this month.

  2. Frances 2017/05/17 at 15:23 #

    oh wow! Thank you!

  3. Okeke Okechi 2017/05/17 at 15:40 #

    This is really cool. A f
    Good advice to young writers. In fact, Chuma Nwokolo once said that prizes should not define our literature but structures.
    Dear Obi, like Petina said already, don’t tie your craft and mind to winning prizes. You should rather ask yourself this: if the prize doesn’t come, will I stop writing? At this point you should know that are many books that didn’t win prizes but are very good and worth having.

  4. lydia 2017/05/17 at 23:53 #

    Wow..this is great advice! Thanks Petina.

  5. Mwinji 2017/05/18 at 01:17 #

    Nice.I think prizes are a good ego-polishing nod, not to mention the money and publicity but no book I’ve ever read,enjoyed or which moved me did so because it won a prize.prizes don’t change the world or minds or peolle ,good writing and stories we connect with do.I think that would be the best validation for a writer, having someone even one person say “wow I enjoyed your book” or “I was so inspired”!Or knowing that unlike the fleeti g but well-deserved pride there is a long lasting impact of your work

  6. Muna 2017/05/18 at 02:56 #

    This speaks to me in so many ways. Thank you so very much for your wise words, Petina. You’re right. It’s okay to want to be shortlisted for a prize, or to appear on some cool literary list, but nobody really needs those things.There’s more than one way to succeed as a writer.

    Just a couple of years ago, the world hadn’t heard of Yaa Gyasi, Imbolo Mbue and Ayobami Adebayo. They were working hard on their craft in absolute obscurity. Look at them today.

    I’ve always been different, and my writing journey is different from the norm as well. My turn will come someday, and it will be ‘different’ but special and spectacular, just like all my other life milestones.

    Again, thank you, Petina. You’re a big inspiration and a great writer. Xoxo.

  7. A 2017/05/19 at 04:52 #

    I have not published anything yet , I I am writing and I am learning. Truth is I am not writing to win awards but the year I get published and get selected for any award I want to win it. It’s not to be selected than to be selected and not win it. That’s just me lol. Too emotional.

  8. Obinna Ozoigbo 2017/05/19 at 05:19 #

    It never ceases to baffle me that a lot of writers these days, unlike those of the 1940s and 50s and 60s, write with prize and money and fame as motivation. I think that’s the height of selfishness. Yes, they’re not writing for the reader out there. They’re simply writing for themselves instead, for some kind of aggrandisement and gratification and vainglory that they covet so badly. This is error, blatant error.

    Let’s learn from Doris Lessing, Wole Soyinka, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwapa, Nadine Gordima, Peter Abrahams, and several other veteran writers on the face of our continent – dead or alive. They wrote, honing their craft with amazing stoic at the same time, because they simply want or wanted to write. Deep down in their hearts there was no pursuit of vainglory. They never sought how to sell millions of copies, neither did they, for once, yearn for any goddamn prize. They wrote with relentless and selfless zeal, in all sincerity, just for one outstanding reason: for the benefit of mankind. They paid the price for any the prizes that came their way. They wrote without expecting any form of accolades in return.

    And here we are today, having a fuss about one prize or another without wanting to pay the price.

    Trust me, if we do like these wonderful writers did or still do, the prizes will come on their own – and will keep coming…LOL…just like the 33rd verse of the 6th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew (see the Holy Bible).

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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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