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)