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.
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,
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 [email protected] 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.