Last week, we received suggestions of similarity between two short stories. One, the Nigerian writer Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor’s “All Our Lives,” won the 2018 Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) Prize, was shortlisted for the 2018 Brittle Paper Award for Fiction and the 2019 Caine Prize, and was published in print in the SSDA anthology ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, appearing online in The Johannesburg Review of Books in 2018. The other, the Iranian American novelist Laleh Khadivi’s “Wanderlust,” first appeared in 2014 in The Sun magazine. While “Wanderlust” is set in Russia and follows girls and “All Our Lives” is set in Nigeria and follows boys, both employ the first person plural narration—we—and feature cybercafe scenes in which their narrators indulge in love chats on websites. Both stories, on comparison, share the same DNA.
The opening lines of “Wanderlust”:
We are Inna, Yulia, Victoria, Yana, Snezhana, Tamara, Olesya, Nadesha, or Lena. We come from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kursk, Barnaul, Kharkov, Odessa, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, or Novosibirsk. Our hobbies are running, skating, biking and/or sailing, aerobics, dance and/or kickboxing, stretching and/or chess. We were born under the signs of Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Cancer, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Libra, Aries, or Leo. Some of us are 1.6 meters tall; some of us are 1.8 meters tall. We believe in God, or we are Orthodox, or we are spiritual, or it is not important. Our English is preliminary (need a translator) or conversational or excellent or fluent. We smoke occasionally; we never smoke. We drink occasionally; we never drink.
The opening lines of “All Our Lives”:
We are city people. We live in wooden shacks alongside lagoons that smell of decaying fish and shit. We live in rented apartments with flush toilets and airy bedrooms. We live under bridges, with torn tarpaulins to cover us, feet pounding and vehicles speeding above our heads. The air in this city is rancid with sweat, gas flares, and sun-warmed garbage. Some of us live in face-me-I-face-yous. We are tired of the daily bickering with our neighbours. Of the lack of privacy. Of infections contracted from pit latrines. We wish we had our own homes. Homes full of servants and pets, with pretty gardens, and fences to shield us from the foulness of this city. We are Chikamneleanya, Ogheneakporobo, Abdulrasheed, Olarenwaju, Alamieyeseigha, Tamunodiepriye, Onuekwuchema, Toritsemugbone, or Oritshetimeyin.
Accusations of “copying” and “plagiarism” were never formally made in public, however. But while there is precedent for intertextuality in fiction, there is sometimes, as noted here in The New York Times, a thin line between homage and plagiarism, particularly as much of the decision on which is which comes down to the second author’s intention. It became tricky in this situation because there was no signalling of external influence by Okafor in subsequent interviews about his short story—something he informed Brittle Paper that he did on a panel in London. It further did not help matters that, in an interview with The Johannesburg Review of Books, Okafor was asked—
‘All Our Lives’ is something of a departure for you, in that you play with language and form quite a bit in the story. Was this piece like this from the beginning, or did it evolve?
—and he replied:
The story began that way in my head. It was also chaotic. Perhaps this was why I tore up the first draft of the manuscript. So many things, so many people, were pouring onto the page, and I couldn’t control them. As I wrote and rewrote, I made new discoveries, with form especially. Language wasn’t much of a problem, as I had heard the story so loud and clear in the manner it wanted to be told.
When we reached out to SSDA, its founder Rachel Zadok privately shared with us a statement. “Short Story Day Africa does not countenance plagiarism,” it read. “We ask all who submit work to us to provide a declaration avowing that their work is their own and original. We take these declarations on trust.” It continued: “SSDA does not throw its authors to the wolves, especially not when they have made an honest mistake, and one which we missed. It’s easy to see how a twenty-three-year-old engineering student might have read Khadivi’s interpretation (Russian brides) of Otsuka’s work (Japanese brides) and been inspired to dream up a Nigerian alternative that involved young men. The use by all three authors of the rare first-person plural as a narrative voice also sets up an echo – but one that dissolves on closer reading.”
Today, however, the Caine Prize released a statement in which it “regrets to announce the removal of Tochukwu Okafor’s story from the 2019 shortlist.” It is an unprecedented step for the prize.
Here is the statement in full.
Caine Prize Responds to Allegations Against “All Our Lives”
The Caine Prize for African Writing has been made aware of an allegation levelled against this year’s shortlisted story ‘All Our Lives’ by Tochukwu Okafor. The Trustees of the Caine Prize referred this matter to the 2019 Judges for adjudication, and on comparison of ‘All Our Lives’ and Laleh Khadivi’s ‘Wanderlust’, published in 2014, determined that there had been a failure to attribute an original source.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Chair of the Prize, has corresponded with both authors and as a result of these communications, the Prize regrets to announce the removal of Tochukwu Okafor’s story from the 2019 shortlist.
The Caine Prize is committed to holding writers to the very highest of ethical standards. It is accepted that in this particular case, the author’s failure to attribute a core source was born of inexperience and lack of familiarity with literary protocols.
The Prize will review our guidelines for 2020 submissions, and instil preventative measures to guard against such incidents. We hope that this process doesn’t detract from this year’s truly excellent winning story.
Following this, Short Story Day Africa published the statement they’d sent us, with minor changes.
Read it in full below.
SSDA Response to Allegations Against “All Our Lives”
We have been approached for comment on allegations levelled at Tochukwu Okafor, winner of our 2017 SSDA award for his story in ID. We have worked with him for several years, both in our Flow Workshops, and during the editing process for two of our anthologies. Our team has supported his journey over the years and will continue to do so, as we believe him to be a person of great integrity and a writer of exceptional talent.
Short Story Day Africa does not countenance plagiarism. We ask all who submit work to us to provide a declaration avowing that their work is their own and original. We take these declarations on trust.
An essential element of our work and mission is to identify, nurture and develop young and novice writers from the continent. Each year we receive excellent stories from established authors who have been published multiple times. It would be easy to compile our anthologies from these submissions alone. But we believe it is vital to spot raw talent, pull it from the pile, develop and polish it. We are often the first to give gifted aspiring writers a platform, guidance, professional editing.
This means that we see almost every variety of novice error. Some are technical; others are extremely sensitive: for instance, we’ve had to help young, less experienced writers grapple with representations of sexual violence, hate speech, racial slurs, mental illness and more. We learn as much from this process as the authors.
No one on the SSDA reading panel, the judging panel or the editing team had read the initial work that inspired our author during his research. Having now read the materials under discussion, the consensus is that there has been no clear or deliberate lifting of phrases, sentences or passages, or an attempt to pass these off as the author’s own intellectual/creative work. When asked publicly about his influences, the author has openly named the works (both Khadivi’s and more indirectly, Otsuka’s) from which he took inspiration, with no attempt to dissemble.
If we had read Khadivi’s piece, we would still have published the story, as the writing is clearly original, if not the opening structure. Mentoring editor Helen Moffett says, “I found the voice in this story authentic – I recognised it as the author’s own, having worked closely with him before. If I had known the story relied, especially at the start, on the structure of a short story on Russian mail-order brides by Laleh Khadivi (itself drawing from Julia Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic), I would have asked for an attribution. Better still, I would have suggested an epigraph from the influencing work, as a more elegant way of signalling intertextual influence. Future print editions of ID will indeed have such an attribution.”
SSDA does not throw its authors to the wolves, especially not when they have made an honest mistake, and one which we missed. We find “call-out” and shaming culture, all too easily whipped up online, both saddening and alarming. It’s easy to see how a twenty-three-year-old engineering student might have read Khadivi’s interpretation (Russian brides) of Otsuka’s work (Japanese brides) and been inspired to dream up a Nigerian alternative that involved young men. The use by all three authors of the rare first-person plural as a narrative voice also sets up an echo – but one that dissolves on closer reading.
This opens up the complex and tricky territory of intertextuality. What we’re all agreed on is that we need to offer our writers, especially the less experienced ones, more explicit training and open platforms for debate on intertextuality.
African writers need to know that sadly, they are held to higher standards than Western writers, for whom intertextuality in publishing is a matter of implicit cultural heritage. This can be popular: fan-fic, musicals based on Shakespearian tragedies, sequels to classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, or even Disney’s recycling of fairytales; or academic, as in the central theoretical understanding of the literary author as an individual Romantic voice (rather than a representative of communal voices, custodian of shared narratives, harvester of story seeds).
These faultlines were shown in the controversy that arose some years ago over the world-renowned and prolific Zakes Mda’s use of historical materials in his award-winning novel Heart of Redness. The unpleasantness and heatedness of the debates surrounding the above and other similar accusations (such as the Krog-Watson controversy) have scarred the South African literary landscape; they make it hard to have candid discussion and honest debate about influence and inspiration, and how to interact with and interpret the works of others in ways that do not simply mimic Western models of literary theory and practice.
To this end, SSDA commits to providing more solid and explicit training on and discussion of plagiarism and intertextuality, in our sought-after Flow Workshops held around the continent; and in the editing structures and materials posted on our website (we are currently preparing these materials). So far, during editing, questions about influence have indeed been asked, but informally and in an ad hoc manner; we will now explicitly ask our authors about their sources of inspiration and influence. We also commit ourselves to learning more, from our authors and each other, and indeed the African publishing community, about these thorny questions, so that we can do better, and continue to move towards “best practice” models for our authors. We welcome constructive comments and suggestions from our peers on the continent and abroad.
Given that “All Our Lives” was also shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, our editors have been dismayed at the development. While we agree that the lack of acknowledgement—in interviews—of its shared DNA with “Wanderlust” is unacceptable, we will not be withdrawing our shortlisting as we believe this to have resulted from inexperience rather than intentional withholding. We welcome the important conversation on intertextuality, particularly as it applies to “standards” and examples by “Western writers, for whom intertextuality in publishing is a matter of implicit cultural heritage.” This is a teachable moment.