'Like placing a palm on the continent's pulse' - Dr Peter Kimani on judging the Caine Prize for African Writing

Opinion - International Tuesday, 02 July 2019

As the Caine Prize contenders visit the UK in advance of the announcement of the winner next week, chair of the judges Dr Peter Kimani discusses what the prize has meant to African writing

What have been your observations of the quality of work shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing?
The five stories on the shortlist are outstanding and any of them is a deserving winner. That four of the five writers are women adds another dimension about the place of women writing on the continent. Quite honestly, this wasn't obvious during the judging process. Not that it matters, but women writers outshone the menfolk in the contest.

Has work been submitted from throughout the continent? Is it the job of the Prize to encourage creative work from countries with less established literary traditions?
The judging panel works with the submitted works. But I believe the Caine Trust engages in outreaches to mobilise writers to participate. Neither did we engage in regional balancing in our judging; we just picked the best writing. That said, we received over 130 submissions from 21 African countries. That's a substantial sample of the continent's writing. However, since the Caine Prize is offered to best fiction in English, or is available in English translation, this linguistic categorisation obviously locks out Arabic, Francophone and Lusophone Africa. Moreover, some 2,000 indigenous languages are in active use in Africa, so the Caine Prize can only accommodate a slice of African writers of English expression.

All the writers on the 2019 shortlist live in the US. Is this a necessary move for an ambitious African writer?
This was one of the coincidences of our collective verdict! I don't think it's necessary for African writers to move to North America, or anywhere else outside the continent, to have successful literary careers. I am based in Nairobi, and that hasn't prevented my work from being published in London or New York, and other world capitals like Beirut, where an Arabic translation is in progress. However, there are incentives, such as writers' residencies and fellowships, that are available in the North but are conspicuously missing on the continent.

Do you think that the chances for writers outside the UK, North America and ANZ to get their voices heard have improved?
Yes and no. Here's why: Western academies continue to support literary journals, anthologies and magazines that provide a platform for many African writers to hone their skills. Such forums produced many of the pieces on the shortlist. The submissions were of noticeably higher quality as they benefited from superior editorial interventions. By contrast, a reasonable chunk of submissions from the rest of the continent were self-published and in need of a decent edit. So, to your question, the field remains uneven. Some voices will be heard, some will not. To compete fairly, investments have to be made to support an infrastructure that nurtures African writing on the continent.

Has judging the Prize provoked thoughts about your own work?
Judging the Caine Prize was a very rewarding experience. As a writer who is engaged in the history and development of the continent, I was able to experience, at a quick glance, the issues that contemporary Africans writers are grappling with. It was like placing a palm on the continent's pulse. I experienced its beating heart. This will no doubt enrich my own writing.

Photo of Dr Peter Kimani by Boniface Mwangi

Caine Prize shortlisted authors Lesley Nneka Arimah, Meron Hadero, Cherrie Kandie, Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti and Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor are in the UK this week and next. The Caine Prize ceremony takes place on 8 July.


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