Gossip and publicity about the Caine Prize and ‘African Literature’ |

A very fine article Acts of mutiny: the Caine Prize and ‘African Literature’ by Ranka Primorac.  In the end, labeling is marketing.  A writer can object to labeling, and refuse to be labelled: but then they have to be prepared for the consequence that their book might not sell.

Serpell went on to win the Caine prize – the first Zambian ever, and the only Zambian this year on a strong shortlist populated by representatives of literary superpowers Nigeria and South Africa. In a congratulatory speech at Oxford, the Chair of the judging panel, Zoe Wicomb, advised prospective readers to read the winning story, ‘The Sack’, very slowly. She had good reason to do so. ‘The Sack’ is an accomplished textual achievement: using a pared-down narrating style, the story sets out a complex interplay of emotions among its characters by deliberately delaying, suppressing and defamiliarising the information it provides about how they are all related to one another. At one point, one of the narrators says: ‘I wonder at the dwindling of our cares. We began with the widest compass, a society of the people, we said. But somehow we narrowed until it was just three. Jacob, Joseph, Naila.’ Readers who rush over these simple sentences will miss a key inflection: Zambia once aspired to be an African humanist society, and this political and ethical outlook arguably infuses every line of Serpell’s story.

On winning, Serpell made history by a further, more radical intervention. In her acceptance speech, she said she wanted to reconfigure the competitive structure of the prize (which, for her, had unwelcome resonances with American Idol), and that she would be sharing the prize money equally with the other four participants. She is the first prize winner to have done this. It was, for her, a long-overdue ‘act of mutiny’, she said.


About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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