Thursday, July 30, 2015

Caine Winner’s Move Not Helpful

The winner for this year’s Caine Prize is Zambian born writer Namwali Serpell. When she was announced the winner at Oxford she took to the podium to announce that she would be sharing the 10,000 British pound prize with the four other writers on the shortlist. She claimed it was a “mutiny” in a move to challenge the prize that pits African writers against each other in an “Idols” sort of way. There are many levels on which I find her decision to share the prize and her reasons behind that decision unhelpful to writers trying to make a living on the continent. 

What does this “charitable” decision really say to the other shortlisted writers? If I was on that shortlist, I would find this action undermining. It says in one swipe that I am somehow less than Serpell. But those writers are not. They were shortlisted because their stories were deemed to be excellent. After that it is only the preference of the judges that chooses the winners, nothing more. Serpell’s decision is much like the vile donor- recipient relationship that places the recipient in a “less than” position and the donor in the magnanimous position of the giver. If I was on that shortlist, I would not allow her to do that to me, she has no right. 

As for her insistence that the Caine Prize is competitive, did she not know this the last time she was shortlisted?  That time when she got a free, all expenses paid trip to London? If her position on this issue was so strong, why did she not insist that her publisher not submit her story for the prize, for any prize actually? Why not give her spot on the shortlist to someone else when she heard she had made it? All of these questions point to one answer- her “moral high ground” position is a false one.

And I wonder where in this world is writing not a competitive business. What writing prize is not competitive? Is it not integral to their existence? Why should that not be the case for African writers? 

She has submitted to literary magazines in the United States that are competitive. She has won fellowships in America that are competitive. Why did she not apply her moral position in those instances? Why is it only applied to African writers? Why is it only “Idols” for writers when it is the Caine Prize? Do African writers need a step-up?  Some sort of affirmative action programme? Has she decided that for us? Does this not, in the end, undermine all of us? Does it not tell us that we are not as good as those off the continent which is the reason competition should not be imposed on us?

Beyond this, Serpell is an academic at a university in the United States earning a liveable income; this is not the case for the majority of writers in Africa. Prizes such as the Caine Prize are lifelines that buy writers time to write, time that they would have otherwise had to use to make an income to survive. To give the money away so flippantly reinforces the notion that writing is a hobby one does in one’s free time, not something anyone should ever hope to do as a professional career, not something they should be paid for. It reinforces notions many of us fight against on a daily basis. That, for me, is particularly unforgivable. 

I hear people praising Ms Serpell’s actions, but I think they have not considered the consequences of what she has done. What she has done is harmful to African writers. She has once again taken African writers and told them that they are not good enough to operate in the real writing world which is almost exclusively about competition. It has also created a difficult position for the next Caine winner, having to justify why she will decide to keep the money for herself, as she should. Ms Serpell should keep her money and leave the shortlisted writers to win their own. 

(This column first appeared in my column It's All Write in the  29 July 2015 edition)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Tendai Huchu Can Teach Us

The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is the second novel from Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu. His first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare was a big success, but his new book is something all together different. 

It is set in Edinburgh Scotland and revolves around the lives of three Zimbabwean men trying to make a new life there as immigrants. The Magistrate is an older man who left his position in Zimbabwe as a respected magistrate to live in Scotland where his wife works as a nurse. At the beginning of the book he is unemployed, spending his days keeping their house clean and caring for their teenage daughter. Later he is forced to take a job as a temporary nursing assistant in a care home for the elderly. Both positions leave him feeling useless and lost. 

The Maestro works in a grocery store, at least at the beginning of the book, but then slowly he loses touch with reality. He stops going to work, deciding he wants to spend his time at home reading his books. But eventually even that is too much and he leaves his home and moves about as a homeless person in Edinburgh lost in his thoughts. 

The Mathematician is perhaps the most well-adjusted of the three, likely because he comes from a wealthy family that cushions his life in Scotland. He is working on his PhD in economics and spends most of his time with his girlfriend and his flat mates. 

The three storylines might work well alone, but are made more by being woven expertly into and through each other. The writing is beautiful, in places stunning. The descriptions of Edinburgh are from the pen of someone who loves that city and it can’t help but show through his words. There are many books about Africans in the diaspora, many books that appear similar after a while, but not this one. This one stands apart. 

Within the circle of African writers there is often the discussion about who do you write for. There is the feeling that the authors who are most successful in Europe and the United States are authors who write books not well suited to people in their home countries and the reverse-  books that are accepted in their home countries are often not the type wanted by overseas readers and publishers. This discussion and the resulting angst it causes African writers is not to be taken lightly. Is it okay to write a book for overseas eyes that discounts the local readers? And why must these issues weigh heavier on African writers? 

This book gets the balance spot on in my opinion. Huchu’s Magistrate has a love for Zimbabwean music and musicians. The writer does not stop and explain what would be readily known by Zimbabwean readers, insulting their intelligence along the way. He uses Shona freely throughout the novel, but does not weigh the narrative down with clunky explanations. He seamlessly integrates these aspects of his character and plot into the story with no apologies. The foreign reader will find their way, just as the Zimbabwean reader will navigate the unknown landmarks of Edinburgh. There is a respect for all readers here that I think is the way that it should be. Huchu stands his ground in this debate. He will write as he wants and I beg African writers to learn from him and do the same. 

The other thing that I appreciate about The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is that it is published by the independent Zimbabwean based ‘ama Books. Huchu’s first book was critically acclaimed and translated into many languages, published all over the world. He easily might have been grabbed up by overseas publishers, but what that does is make them stronger at the expense of publishers on the continent. Of course, many publishers on the continent do not approach the publishing business with a global eye and concentrate on a very limited parochial point-of-view that makes authors unwilling to stick with them as their careers take off since it becomes difficult to make a proper living.  

Some big name authors can be published overseas but then withhold rights in certain areas around the continent to allow local publishers to distribute the book. This can assist the local publishing house. 

But that is not what’s happening here. ‘ama Books published this book. Now they will be the ones selling the rights to foreign publishers to distribute the book in those countries. This is how local publishers grow as trade publishers and begin to play real roles in the global industry. ‘ama Books and Huchu must be congratulated for this. They both took risks. Again they are showing us the new way of doing business in this harsh publishing game on the continent. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 July, 2015 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Poetavango Short Story Contest! Deadline 30th July!

Poetavango, the poetry group in Maun, is one of the groups that operate under the motto- “If not us than who?”. They don’t like the conditions that they live in, so they get busy trying to create the world that they want and I seriously respect that. This year they are taking another welcome step toward improving the situation for writers in Botswana by running a short story competition in conjunction with the Maun International Arts Festival. 

In their press release they identified the problem- “One of the objectives of the Maun International Arts Festival 2015 is to promote the literary arts, to give hope to writers who, throughout the years have been, by and large, disgruntled by the conditions of the writing industry in Botswana. Nascent writers are easily discouraged by the somehow writer-unfriendly environment within which we live.” Then the group set out to solve it- “The Maun International Arts Festival seeks to promote the culture of reading and writing. As an initiative for achieving this, the organisers, Poetavango Spoken Word Poetry are introducing the first Poetavango Award for Short Fiction.  The literary competition will focus only on the short story form for fiction writers living in Botswana. It is hoped that in the future, the competition will include awards for novels, poetry and journalism.”. 

The plan is to publish the winning entries and a selection of the better submissions in an anthology. This is a great opportunity for writers in the country and we should all try to support them. 

The rules for the competition are:
·        Only writers living in Botswana can enter the competition (citizens or non-citizens), 18 years old and above. 

·       Only one submission per writer allowed. 

          Writers can submit stories in any fiction genre, e.g. literary, romance, thriller, adventure, suspense, horror, etc.

·      Stories should be no longer than 3500 words and must be in English.

·    Stories must be set in existing places/locations of Botswana. Stories with non-existent or international settings will be disqualified. 

·       Stories must not have been previously published in any form, including online platforms (websites, blogs or social media)

·       Only email submissions allowed. Stories must be submitted as a .doc or .docx attachment, no PDF or any other format is allowed. Stories should not be pasted in the body of the email either. 

·       The deadline is July 30th 2015, 11:59pm CAT. Late entries will not be considered.

·       Submissions must bear the title of the story and name of writer. However, stories will be judged anonymously with names removed. 

·       Writers are allowed to use pseudonyms, but real names must be indicated in the body of the email.

·       Document must be typed in Times New Roman, font size 12, 1.5 line spacing. Paragraphs must be left-justified, ie, leave the right margin ragged. Titles must be centered and bolded in same type as the body but font size 14. Name of the writer should also be centered (size 12 and bolded) and immediately under the title.  

·       In the body of the email, write your names in full (even where pseudonyms are used in the story, you need to provide real names here), address and contact details and the word count of your story. 

·       By entering the competition, the writer declares that the story is their original work and grants Poetavango the permission to publish the work either in print or digital platforms. 

·       Members of the Poetavango Collective and their families are NOT allowed to enter the competition; however, their work may be included in anthologies where necessary. 

·       All submissions will be acknowledged with a response from the receivers. Shortlisted stories will be announced by August 30th while the winners will be announced by September 15th

·       The judges’ decision is final.

·       The Award Ceremony will take place on October 26th during the Maun International Arts Festival ’15, in Maun, Botswana. Winners are expected to attend this event. 

·       For more information or enquiries, email to or call +267 73597356 or +267 74083616