Okwiri Oduor wins Caine Prize for African Literature

Africa39 author, Okwiri Oduor.

Africa39 author, Okwiri Oduor, was last week awarded the Caine Prize for African Literature for her story, “My Father’s Head” (pdf).

In her interview with Kenyan journalist, Kingwa Kamencu, Oduor spoke about the forms of grief and grieving and how they circulate in contemporary culture and literature:

Death is a part of life. It’s interesting because we don’t know what lies beyond death and there’s so many stories to be told surrounding death. You’ve mentioned something about how we don’t like to acknowledge the fact that we’ll die, which is what happens. So I’m also interested in these kinds of appearances that we keep up.

But I’m also interested in the fact that grief happens in many ways and we grieve many different kinds of things. Many things die not just humans. I mean, childhood dies, love dies, relationships between parents and children die, or relationships between friends die, all manner of things die. In a way that is what life is about, it’s about death, death of different things, so one thing dies and another begins. Your journey ends and another starts, so, that’s what life is about, it’s just a series of deaths.

Talking to Nana Ama Kyerematen, Oduor added that:

I was estranged from my loved ones for a while. I thought of it as being in exile—from home, from them, from myself. During this time, I thought a lot about mortality, about the meaning of home and the spaces that one inhabits while there. What happens to home when you leave? Do these spaces lay fallow, waiting for your return? What if you never find your way home again? And what if you do, and you find that it has changed, and that your people are no longer yours? Are your people really, infinitely, your people?

Okwiri Oduor’s prize-winning story was praised by critics and readers alike.

Writing for The Daily Nation, Kenyan poet, Stephen Derwent Partington, described Oduor’s story as “cleverly full of conflicts and dualities that reinforce […] the dual need that we feel during times of grieving to both want the dead to return and, on the other hand, move on.”

On the Kenyan Writers mailing list, Keguro Macharia noted that Oduor’s story is “a story about listening: a story about stories, about the labor of memory-work […] a story about leaving and returning […] about the way returns are never possible […] and in the final moments, it becomes a story about a kind of impossible world.”

Orem Ochiel, writing for popular African literary site, Brittle Paper, described Oduor’s method of utilising narrative as “narrative being the uncertain ground on which other fantastic philosophical and poetic struggles are underway.”

Africa39 author, Ndinda Kioko.

Oduor’s win comes as no surprise to those who have been reading her writing closely over the years. In June 2011, Africa39 author, screenwriter, and Oduor’s close friend and collaborator, Ndinda Kioko, predicted that Oduor’s short story, “The Red Bindi on Diwali” (published by Story Moja), is “why [Okwiri Oduor] should one day win the Caine Prize.”

"The Dream Chasers" by Okwiri Oduor.

“The Dream Chasers” by Okwiri Oduor

Okwiri Oduor published her first novella, “The Dream Chasers”, in 2011. Highly commended by the Commonwealth Book Prize, 2012, her novella was praised on the Kenyan culture and literature web-site, Wamathai: “the effect of the post-election violence on her [the narrator’s] and her loved ones is described in heart rending personal terms; descriptions which resonate all the more loudly because they depict a microcosm of the “inside-out wounds” which the entire country experienced.”

Oduor further explored the entanglements of the personal and the political in 2013. Writing for The New Inquiry, in #KenyaRefuses, she described her reasons for not voting and provided frames through which to think through Kenyan youths’ broader disinvestment in contemporary political processes:

I did not register [to vote] not out of apathy, I shared in the concerns and anxieties that gripped Kenya. But the ruling elite, no matter what masks they wore, had interests more similar to each other than different. And for me, the prognosis was poor. There was little I could identify with, and even that little was flimsy. It was not enough for me to take part in empty ritual. I was very interested in the youth and women agendas, for example, but the political parties presented them in a way that was completely different from anything I had in mind. After looking at what the parties said about women and the youth, there was no way for me to select any of the aspirants. Had I chosen to vote, I would have been forced to use different criteria to make decisions on the political leadership. This was unacceptable.

Synopsis of “The Dream Chasers”

Four months to the disputed December 2007 general elections in Kenya, Lulu is living with a divorced, jobless mother prone to periodic lunacy. The radio and television are filled with campaigns, which Lulu pays little attention to. She doesn’t think the elections have a bearing in her life.

Lulu is in love with her best friend, Muchai, but they can neither admit it to themselves nor do something about it because Lulu is from the Luo tribe, and Muchai is Kikuyu. Muchai is marrying his girlfriend not because he loves her but because she is Kikuyu like him. His family would rather he be unhappy with a Kikuyu than happy with a Luo girl.

Muchai’s girlfriend breaks off the engagement, but elections take place and a wave of ethnic cleansing threatens to rob Lulu of her chance to finally be with Muchai.

Transcript of Okwiri Oduor’s Caine Prize interview with the BBC’s Alan Kasujja

O: For me it was a training of fire. You don’t think of becoming an author of international repute, you just write, that’s the first step.

I’ve met many people who ask “how can I be an author of international repute”—they use those exact words—which I thought funny because the first thing you need to do is to write…

A: So how did you start writing

O: When I was a child, I think I was about 9 or 10, I used to write little storybooks for my younger siblings but, seriously, from there I think I joined it from primary school to high school. I was spending more time writing than studying. Even later in college I was spending more time writing than studying what I was supposed to be studying so I guess I just kept on at it.

A: Many parents I know from Kenya will be thinking: “Writing is not really a career I’d like my daughter to be taking on because obviously it doesn’t pay too much or not many writers actually make it.” Is that something you’ve encountered.

O: Yes, I think it’s something I’m still struggling with. Being a young writer, I still have my parents hoping I snap out of this someday…

A: …And get a real job.

O: Get a real job

A: What do they want you to do?

O: Become a lawyer—that’s what I trained as so, they’re still hoping that I’ll go to the Kenya School of Law, get my postgraduate diploma, be admitted to the bar, and start practising.

A: Isn’t that an easier way out? It will pay more and you’ll have the certainty of a job.

O: It doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel fulfilled that way. I guess it would be much easier to do that but the thought of that just sickens me.

A: Why?

O: The idea of being stuck, the idea of being married to the system–I just can’t even think of it, and not being able to write. I don’t know, I guess I’d rather be a poor writer…

A: A poor writer than a rich lawyer?

O: Well, not completely poor: I’d like to be able to survive, I’d like to be able to pay my rent somehow, but I don’t really care about millions of shillings as a lawyer, in a profession that doesn’t make me happy.

A: What happens next for you—ten thousand pounds richer—what are you going to do with the money by the way?

O: It just means that I won’t be looking for a job right now. It means I can focus on my writing for a while, and maybe be able to finish my work in process.

A: What are you going to write about next?

O: Well, grieving.

A: Some more grieving?

O: Just Some more grieving?

A: That’s dark!

O: It’s not necessarily dark. It’s just coming to terms with it. It’s part of life, right?

A: What are you grieving about?

O: I’m not grieving, my characters are grieving. The thing is characters are not flat, they don’t only experience one thing. They go through the motions: They are happy, they are sad, they are ecstatic…

A: But yours are grieving constantly!

O: No they’re not. They’re not grieving constantly. It’s just one theme in the work.

Okwiri Oduor also spoke to BBC Focus on Africa’s Bola Mosuro about identity, geography, transitions, and the writers’ duty to look and see what is around them and what is felt by those around them.

Kenyan poet, Tony Mochama, announced that Okwiri Oduor will make AMKA Space “her first port of call on her ‘lap of honour’ this coming Saturday 26th July, 2014 (At Goethe Institute, Nairobi, 10 a.m. To 1 p.m., admission free, tea too). She’ll read her prize winning story and be in conversation with the young women (and 3 men) we mentor there.”


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