The Winner of the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is Nigerian-British writer Irenosen Okojie for her short story “Grace Jones.” The story appeared in Irenosen’s latest book Nudibranch, a collection published by Little Brown’s Dialogue Books in 2019.
The AKO Caine Prize is an annual prize awarded for African creative writing. Irenosen emerges the 21st winner of the prize, which was established in 2000.
She was shortlisted alongside Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile, and Rémy Ngamije. As the winner, she goes home with the £ 10,000 cash prize while fellow shortlistees receive £500 each.
A few weeks ago, the organizers announced a big change in the format for revealing the winner of the prize. Typically, the winner is announced during the award dinner held at the British Library. But this year, the dinner had to be put on hold due to pandemic conditions. As a result, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE, chair of the judging panel, announced Irenosen’s win in a documentary film on the Caine Prize made by British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye. [read our interview with Adesunloye here if you missed it.]
Irenosen’s win comes as no surprise. She is an accomplished writer whose books have won awards and received considerable critical attention. She came into the literary limelight in 2016 with her debut novel Butterly Fish, which won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Beyond her three published books, her work as appeared in notable platforms, including the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post.
The winning story “Grace Jones” is centered on a traumatic experience that shapes the life of a women who impersonates the celebrated singer Grace Jones. The work has been praised for exploring “the particular experience of being Black and African in a global city such as London.”
Judging panel chair Kenneth Tharp highlights the story’s “extraordinary imagination,” “stunning prose,” and relevance for our current moment:
a radical story that plays with logic, time and place; it defies convention, as it unfolds a narrative that is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. It is risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold; it is intense and full of stunning prose; it’s also a story that reflects African consciousness in the way it so seamlessly shifts dimensions, and it’s a story that demonstrates extraordinary imagination. Most of all, it is world-class fiction from an African writer.
“At the heart of this story is its main protagonist, a young woman from Martinique living in London, who is moonlighting as a celebrity impersonator; her journey moves exquisitely and seamlessly between the exploration of the universal experiences of unspeakable suffering, pleasure and escape, and the particular experience of being Black and African in a global city such as London.
“In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted deeply powerful questions about race, justice and equality in the world today – this story offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform Blackness in the world. This is a story of tremendously delicate power and beauty, and one in which we recognise the tradition of African storytelling and imagination at its finest.”
Other members on the judging panel are South African broadcast journalist Audrey Brown, Irish-Nigerian poet and playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi, Ethiopian-born non-fiction editor Ebissé Wakjira-Rouw, and Kenya-based blogger and journalist James Murua.
With the award season officially closed, readers can look forward to an anthology of the shortlisted stories published by The New Internationalist and co-published in 16 African countries.
Congrats to Iresosen! But also congrats to the stellar panel of judges, AKO Caine Prize chair Ellah Wakatama OBE, and the whole AKO Caine team for bringing yet another award season to a resounding close.