Something is happening at the Caine Prize.
Here at Brittle Paper, our role has been to support African literary institutions and spaces, to situate them in discourses, ignite conversations about their place, and in this, none has benefited more than the Caine Prize: we review the shortlisted stories, play up the announcements, and document conversations around it. So much so that we have been accused, in an essay on Woke Africa criticizing the Prize, of “playing Olivia Pope in the Scandal that was the Caine Prize’s image.”
But part of our role has also been to ask questions.
Early this year, Dr Lizzy Attree, director of the Prize since 2011, stepped aside from her role. Her leaving seemed an anti-climax for a Prize that had, two months previously, announced what happens to be its most notable panel of judges yet—novelists Dinaw Mengestu, Alain Mabanckou, Lola Shoneyin, and 2007 winner Henrietta Rose-Innes, and journalist Ahmed Rajab—suggesting that, after years of its shortlists being picked apart, the Prize was thrusting in their most ambitious direction yet. A brief statement ran on the Prize’s Website:
Dr Lizzy Attree, who has served as Director of the Caine Prize for African Writing as a part-time consultant for seven years, is leaving the organisation. The Board of Trustees has paid tribute to the work Lizzy has done throughout her tenure, and wishes her well with the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize and her other projects. The Board is grateful for Lizzy’s commitment and contributions to the continued growth of the Caine Prize, which is recognised as a leading literary award. An announcement regarding the future administration of the Prize will follow in due course.
President of the Caine Prize, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, added her gratitude for and warm appreciation of Dr Attree’s unique achievements for the Prize.
For a Prize noted for its ubiquitous publicity, the brevity of the statement, the mutedness at its core, was a small cause for concern.
And then it became a legitimate concern. Bushra al-Fadil, winner of the 2017 Prize, visited the US in January, but his February 26 reading and conversation at John Hopkins University was not publicized by the Prize—the hosts tweeted this event but the Prize did not retweet, which is the least observers would have expected.
Last week, Dr Attree—who is also co-founder of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize and sits on the Writivism Board of Trustees—joined Short Story Day Africa. Days later, the Caine Prize announced that it was looking for a new Prize Administrator. The symbolism of Dr Attree’s new home is a loud one: she swapped the Caine Prize, which despite rewarding only short stories of 3,000-10,000 words is the best-known prize for African literature, with Short Story Day Africa, which runs its own fiction prize, a themed prize that, despite the limitations of themed prizes, has emerged, only in its fifth year, as a viable alternative for people interested in new fiction—a conventionally deemed “alternative” that yours truly has regarded, since 2016, as the leading African prize for short fiction.
One or two days ago, Alain Mabanckou’s profile in the judges section of the Prize Website disappeared. A few days before this, Brittle Paper had been anonymously informed that Mr Mabanckou had resigned from the panel. The disappearance of his profile validates our source.
With little publicity ongoing, with no Administrator yet, with a judge’s resignation, the situation is rather worrying.
If literary cultures are to be sustained, then the prominence of questions is vital. In the African literary space, in the 2010s so far, the place of the Caine Prize, more than that of any other institution, has been the biggest source of such questions, of intense contention, of unguarded controversies spilling on social media and in interviews and in essays and opinion pieces. In ways, this is over-privileging. But in a continent where every literary institution has a unique function, where there is a single version of nearly everything, of prizes and grants and workshops, to not question is to risk watching a hole emerge in the literary superstructure.
The Caine Prize is currently holding its 2018 workshop in Rwanda, a gathering of the finalists and selected entrants for the previous year’s edition, and this is reassuring. This is us hoping that the Caine Prize is alright.
COMMENTS ( 6 ) -
Ayodele CY July 26, 2018 23:30
Also, brittle paper is doing great work that nobody else is doing. Who else would have the guts to openly and honestly criticize institutions? Kudos guys.
Ayodele CY July 26, 2018 23:25
George and Harriet Omoweh must be bitter people. I guess George is a catfish name for a writer who's been nominated for Short story day Africa but didn't get to trend as he hoped lol. Harriet must be a very bad writer from her comment. This post, as far as I'm concerned, is very helpful. Your pettiness doesn't count.
Christopher Olubela March 21, 2018 15:04
I think this is a very good post from Brittle Paper. We do not cure head ache with beheading, we are all hoping for the Caine Prize to get better, we are not to cast them off. Controversy or not, The Caine Prize is one of Africa's biggest literary prizes and they have to be recognized for this. So any issue they have should be of great concern for us. Because you feel the SSDA is better doesn't mean we throw off the Caine Prize. Remember that if the Caine Prize closes up today, it is a blow to the African literary space.
Inno March 20, 2018 23:33
What a shitty post! You guys can do better. Too much focus on this stupid caine prize where the stories are an eyesore. I don't just understand the plenty fanaticism about the caine prize; perhaps because it's in London and Africans think they do everything better than we do here. Alain Mabanckou has my respect for leaving the judging panel. Learnt of Short Story Day Africa this year and their Migrations anthology blew me away. They need more applause than the fucking attention the caine gets. Next!
Harriet Omoweh March 20, 2018 17:30
Also.. That was how I have been submitting numerous works and brittle paper consistently ignores them. Well I hope you don't weave my story into someone else's tale. If I see it I will print out the emails I sent you and make a publicity tragedy that would shock even your most seasoned publicist. You focus all the time on the west and very rarely look to other regions... Enjoy.
George March 20, 2018 16:56
The Caine Prize is not alright, you bloody fools! It has never alright. Over the years, this blog has given unnecessary attention to the prize -- fawning over it mostly. Is this because the administrators are from the West? For many years now, this blog has largely ignored the work of Short Story Day Africa despite the great literary merits of the stories that they longlist and eventually publish. Short Story Day Africa prize is the leading literary prize that Africa needs. I hope you get to review them more. Else this post of yours is pretentious and mere gossip. Good riddance!