Caine Prize

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: “Being a writer is hard work.”

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim recently attended the 2015 Africa Writes festival (read his conversation with Emma Shercliff, about ‘love, romance and the gendered nature of reading and writing in Northern Nigeria’ at Africa in Words). Ibrahim was kind enough to visit our virtual offices and talk a bit about himself and his work.

What are your 5 favourite novels?

There are many favourites, some for their aesthetic quality, some for their amazing storylines and others for their historical significance. But the more you read the more discoveries you make. At the moment, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden remains a favourite for its historical depth and the author’s ability, even as an outsider to capture a dying Japanese culture.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has a lulling appeal and captures really interesting characters in a difficult situation. The language and storytelling are masterfully handled.

I admire the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and for me the favourite is Love in the Time of Cholera. Amazing love story. A big book with very, very few lines of dialogue but the flow of the narrations makes one forget.

I like VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street. He did really crazy things with the English language and some great characters. I read it a long time ago but I still think about it.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an amazing work. She is simply amazing that woman.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

Sometimes a writer flounders on the periphery of his literary niche until he gets permission to write the way he has always wanted to write. For Marquez he was struggling with writing until he read the first line of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In a way that work gave him “permission” to write the way he had always wanted to write. For me, that defining moment was reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. It simply expanded the scope of what I thought was possible in prose. I was young then, so it was a significant moment for me.

Marquez, I have always admired for his works and writing style. The panache and flourish with which he told his stories has rubbed off on me. It was an honour to visit his birthplace in Aracataca, Colombia and see all the places he had written about and feel this strange connection to this place, which were no longer foreign to me because I had read about the people who live there through his works. His works might be magical realist in nature, but they are strongly grounded on reality.

Cyprian Ekwensi is another writer whom I admire a lot. The fact that he, an Igbo man, wrote so convincingly about the understorified North, a region with very distinct character and culture and history and with amazing stories waiting to be told is a huge accomplishment.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I have been working on a new novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, which will be released this November in Nigeria by Parresia Publishers and in the UK in June 2016 by Cassava Republic. It took me a few years to get it to where it is now so it is a relief to have it ready for the readers. It has been a pleasure living with the characters of Binta Zubairu and Reza, and all the others in this book that have been in my head the last few years. I hope the world would find them as intriguing as I did. Now it is time for new residents to take up the space and I am already fiddling with a couple of ideas. I have a residency in Italy in October so I intend to start writing my next work there.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

Over the years, I have been involved with the Writivism Programme, an amazing initiative that has been creating a platform for upcoming writers to get the kind of mentorship we never got while learning the art of writing. It is great to see the programme grow from Uganda, once thought to be Africa’s literary desert, to cover the whole continent and involve writers in the diaspora.

This year, I will also be judging the Short Story Day Africa competition, which over the last couple of years has made enormous strides on the literary landscape of the continent.

I will also be judging the Etisalat Flash fiction prize this year also. So there is quite a lot going on, so many things lined up. I am excited that so much is happening on the continent and I am immensely happy to be a part of it.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It is an honour to be recognized. It is a validation. And looking at the list you can see the quality of writers on it. It is also a good thing to put your CV so that is useful enough. I don’t know what resources the Hay Festival is ready to commit to this project but I think it would be a good idea to continue to promote the list, maybe do another compendium in the next few years to see how these 39 writers have fared and what strides they have made. It would also be great if they can maybe use the project to run workshops in different countries for young writers. There is so much the Hay can do but I won’t presume to tell them what they need to do. I hope they have ideas and are working on exploring them.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Being a writer is hard work. Anyone who tells you anything else is misleading you. We know the challenges are many, key among them is the trouble of finding an outlet for the works produced in the rain and the darkness that the writing process is. For the African writer, because of the dearth of quality publishers on the continent, the West remains the beacon, the Eldorado of sorts. But sometimes they want African stories told a certain way. I don’t blame them for this because it is their business, their money and their tastes. To counter this, we need more publishing and distribution structures on the continent. We need government policies that will make it easier for publishers on the continent to produce cheaper, qualitative books, distribute these books and guarantee that they will get their money back. We don’t need the governments setting up publishing houses, we just need them to create the enabling environment.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read several of them. Some have had novels published, before or after Africa39. But the anthology was an avenue to discover some who we have not had access to their works. The stories are amazingly diverse, offering different slices of the continent each with its own unique flavor. I have read a few. I am reading more. And each time I come away with the sense that the list is a really strong one.
I have had discussions with the amazing Zukiswa Wanner about some project. She is so full of ideas and energy and I hope the talks we had would manifest into something concrete. It is too early though to reveal what we talked about but it is something we hope will have a huge impact on the literary scene on the continent.

Please describe your work with Writivism, which young writers you might have met that made an impression. What role do you see in future for events/organisations like Writivism across the continent? What hindrances do you see such organisations facing?

I was a judge for the 2014 Writivism contest and I read some amazing works. That year, the entries from West Africa, the traditional literary powerhouse of the continent was well below par and it was the submissions from the Southern Region that made the greatest impression.

I was impressed by the quality of the works of Saleeha Idrees Bamjee and her namesake Saleeha Bamjee, two different women, two South Africans, two amazing writers who can go places. There were remarkable entries from other countries in the Southern Region as well. All in all, it gave me hope for the future.
In previous years, I have been a mentor and have had the misfortune of being assigned mentees who do not seem to value the work involved in being a writer. It is an unfortunate situation. But overall it has been a great experience. I had the opportunity of teaching a writing workshop at the 2014 Writivism Festival and it is interesting to see how the model is constantly evolving and growing.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize, for his short story, ‘The Whispering Trees’(pdf) from his debut collection of short stories.


Namwali Serpell, Zambia’s first Caine Prize Winner

Namwali Serpell (left) and  Africa39 editor, Ellah Allfrey at the 2015 Caine Prize award ceremony.

Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell (left) and Africa39 editor, Ellah Allfrey at the 2015 Caine Prize award ceremony.

Namwali Serpell, an associate professor of English in the University of California, Berkeley, won the £10,000 Caine Prize award for ‘The Sack’(pdf), published in the ‘Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara’ anthology. In the hallucinatory story, two men and a boy are haunted and trapped by the memory of a woman. Serpell’s previous story, ‘Mzungu’, was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize. In 2014, she published ‘7 Modes of Uncertainty’, a book of literary criticism.

Serpell said her story was about two men who had known each other since childhood, how they have gone through “a long process of trying to build a political movement together, which failed, and in the process falling in love with the same woman, who died. It’s about trying to come to terms with that”.

“It has multiple inspirations,” she added. “When I was 17 I had a dream about a sack, and I didn’t know if I was on the inside or the outside. I found it very disturbing. The Japanese horror director Takashi Miike’s Audition, which also involves a sack, is another inspiration, and it also draws from an encounter I had with [another student] when I was a graduate student.

“I was studying American and British fiction, and she was studying African contemporary fiction, and her theory was that any time you saw a sack in African literature, it was a hidden reference to the transatlantic slave trade. I was kind of writing my story against that.” (Source: The Guardian)

Serpell shared the prize money with the other short-listed authors:

“It is very awkward to be placed into this position of competition with other writers that you respect immensely,” she says to BBC News. Taking the full award makes her feel like she is in some kind of “American Idol or race-horse situation.” Literary competitions are not about fighting to the death to win a prize but about supporting people you respect. […] Still Serpell’s decision to split the cash is a first. (Source: Ainehi Edoro, Why This African Writer Wins 15,000 Dollars But Receives Only 3000)

Last year’s Caine Prize winner was Africa39 author, Okwiri Oduor.

Writing for Africa in Words, Lilly Kroll was one of the many readers who predicted Serpell’s story would win the prize this year:

I am leaning toward a prediction that Namwali Serpell will be the winner of this year’s Caine Prize for a number of reasons. For starters, a win for Serpell would go some way to deflecting one of the major criticisms the Caine Prize has faced in recent years: that its winners are from a disappointingly small pool of African nations, even considering its Anglophone criteria. Serpell is the only shortlisted writer not from Nigeria or South Africa – two countries that have been well represented on Caine shortlists since its start – and would be the renowned prize’s first Zambian winner. She is also a writer very much ‘on the rise’; since appearing on the 2010 Caine Prize shortlist for her first published story ‘Muzungu’, Namwali has become an associate professor in the English Department at Berkeley, authored a book of literary criticism and been selected as one of Bloomsbury’s ‘Africa 39’, firmly assuring her status within the so-called new generation of African writers. […] (Source: Blogging the Caine Prize: Namwali Serpell’s ‘The Sack’, Africa in Words)

'7 Modes of Uncertainty' (2014) by Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell.

‘7 Modes of Uncertainty’ (2014) by Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell.

African literature scholar, Aaron Bady, wrote about Serpell’s story, that:

[…] If “The Sack” is about reading—if “reading” is what’s inside the sack—then it’s a sack whose outside contains everything else in the world: call the outside of a sack “the inside,” and suddenly it contains the whole world, bounded in nutshell, troubled only by bad dreams. If it’s about race, then it’s about how we struggle to look beneath surfaces that reveal nothing more than new surfaces. As we oscillate between white and black, between J and J, the inadequacy of the only thing we have becomes ever more perilously obvious. And if the story is about gender—and this, too, is what it’s primarily about—then it’s about the inevitable flattening of masculinity into violence when men are deprived of an other to be masculine against, the narcissism of the subject which men use women to blunt and muffle. Or perhaps it’s about something else entirely? Perhaps it definitely is.

I found these things when I looked in this sack, in part, because I dreamed about them and then they came to life. You might dream something different, and find it. You might have no choice but to do so, because you have to choose. As Serpell observes in ‘Seven Modes of Uncertainty’, this is where reading cannot escape the problem of ethics: literature produces free choice because the reader must decide what something means,and yet it’s a free choice which the text forces on us. That’s an uncomfortable place to find yourself, as reader, to be forced to take responsibility for what you chose to put in the sack. Passivity can be an alibi for readers who prefer to keep their hands clean, to let the author carry the burden. But what if, instead of playing detective, soothsayer, code-breaker, psychoanalyst—instead of being readers who follow the trail of breadcrumbs as mindlessly as ants—what if we are projecting our dreams forward as we read, living out what we imagined into existence? One retreat from that paradox—that freedom which becomes mandatory as you slide your hand along the Möbius strip and inside turns seamlessly into outside—is to take refuge inside the withheld narrative object, the un-said, to disown responsibility for the dream by finding it in the sack, suspending it there, burying it there, waiting for it there. It’s not in me, you might say, it’s in the sack. But if there is one thing “The Sack” does, it turns out, it’s to insist on turning that sack inside out. (source: Inside Out: Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”, The New Inquiry)

In Issue 39 of The Quarterly Conversation, a review of the Africa39 anthology highlighted Serpell’s work and the peculiar beauty and innovation of ‘The Sack’.

Namwali Serpell (Zambia/U.S.A.) is an academic (UC Berkely), critic, and writer of astonishing ability and range. Two recent texts serve to highlight her versatile gifts: “The Book of Faces” (n+1, Online only, 25/07/2014)—an ekphrasis of a Facebook news feed—and “Skin Her” (n+1, Issue 21, Winter 2014)—a consideration of Scarlett Johansson’s recent alien forms.

“The Sack” is a grim gothic. Three generations of men are in a house together where they are haunted by a woman—presumably dead—and her history, a part of which they have each been. Comrade J. runs the household, while “the man” awaits his death, and “the isabi boy” hangs around in disconcerting quietude. “The boy’s mind was empty but for a handful of notions—love, hunger, fear—darting like birds within, crashing into curved walls in a soundless, pitiless fury.” A big fish is slaughtered early in the day, and the big man (“bwana”) is slaughtered in the evening. They all dream of the woman, Naila. J. “dreams of her used cunt” but “had long ago decided to hate that woman: a feeling which had clarity and could accommodate the appetite he had once felt for her body.” The sick man “still loved her . . . scratched invisible messages to her in the sheets.” The thoughts of the three swirl and mix in a dismal dreamscape. Reality is slippery and unwieldy, like the bream they capture and eat, like the body in the sack of which the man dreams, like the pregnant baby slipping out of Naila—“She is gone. / She has been gone for a long time.”—of which J. dreams, and like their dreams themselves. The terrible sack about which the man dreams, which moves about as though the corpse or limbs within it are alive, recalls that other terrible sack (a makeshift body-bag) containing a brutalized and maimed undead body in the film adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s horror, The Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999). The men’s shared nightmare, Serpell’s surrealism, are chilling and enjoyable. (source: ’39 Africans Walk into a Bar’, The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 39)

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read ‘The Sack’ by Namwali Serpell, ‘Rag Doll’ by 2014 Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor (Kenya), ‘Sometime before Maulidi’ by 2014 Morland Scholar, Ndinda Kioko (Kenya), ‘The Banana Eater’ by 2009 Caine Prize Winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda), as well as many other impressive stories by authors from Africa South of the Sahara and its diaspora.

Spotlight on Tope Folarin: “I don’t want to continue being an artist for long.”

Africa39 author, Tope Folarin (Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, 2013).

Excerpts from Henry Akubuiro’s profile of Tope Folarin (Source: The Sun):

Folarin isn’t that sort of writer driven by socio-political con­vulsions. “I get interested in the desire to create something beau­tiful,” he says. “For me, that is what it is. A lot of my fiction, at the moment, is based on moments and things from my life. So, my goal is to depict these things. It is like being a photographer, in a sense. Everybody can take a pic­ture –we all have cameras on our phones –but a photographer can see the same thing you and I see, and captures something impor­tant at that moment. As a writer, I probably see what other people see, but I capture and render it on a page in a way and manner that captures the beauty and power of that moment.”


When Folarin won the Caine Prize in 2013, it created hoopla among Africans, especially those who felt he and others like him born and raised weren’t authentic African writers. So, is he an Af­rican writer? What really deter­mines an African writer? “I don’t know what that is supposed to mean,” he returns in a taut face; “I am a writer. He adds in amplified decibels, “I am not sure I know what that is.”


If you are one of those Nigerian writers lamenting that you aren’t grabbing the headlines for all your talent, the reason may have less to do with your quality but just advantages writers enjoy in the West. “[There], we have a society that a kind of provide institutional support. I think there is recogni­tion in the US that a writer needs time to develop their talent, away from the marketplace.”

On his career as a speech writer for the White House:

Folarin admits, “Sometimes it is hard at the beginning to get a salary or money from writing that will sustain you. In my case, I am in keen to write and be engaged with government. I am interested in foreign policy; I am interested in politics, so I would like to con­tinue to have a foot in that world; I don’t want to continue being an artist for long.”

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.”