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Caine Prize Winner Tope Folarin’s “African-ness” Examined

African VioletQuite a bit of controversy has surrounded the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was awarded to Tope Folarin for his short story “Miracle” last week. Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie came under fire for comments that showed an apparent disregard for the prize and its shortlistees, Africa is a Country commented on Nigeria’s “dominance” of the prize and whether this meant that the judges were only interested in a particular kind of (clichéd) African story, and, following questions about Folarin’s limited connection to Africa, Maaza Mengiste asked why African writers should always have to wrestle with the question of identity.

Simon Allison has also weighed in on the last point in an article for the Daily Maverick. Allison points out that, although Folarin’s parents are Nigerian, this year’s Caine Prize winner was born in America. “He has never lived in Nigeria, and rarely visited,” he says. However, the Caine Prize itself is not very African, Allison notes, as it is “an inherently British initiative”.

And does Folarin’s African-ness or lack thereof matter in the end? Allison does not think so. “I’d err on the side of claiming more excellent African authors, rather than less – especially in today’s globalised world where, more than ever before, identity is a fluid concept that doesn’t obey simple distinctions of place or nationality,” he writes.

This week, Nigerian-American author Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing with Miracle, a delicate, powerful short story about a less-than-miraculous healing performed by a travelling Nigerian holy man, in an evangelical church in Texas.

It is, according to Gus Casely-Hayford, chair of the prize committee, “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling”. I’ve read it. It’s lovely.

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Image courtesy CNN


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 16th, 2013 @21:42 #

    Nathan Hensley, one of the Caine Prize judges, made this illuminating comment on a friend's Facebook page. He's given me permission to paste it here:
    ''In short judging the Caine Prize was an incredible honor, not to say a big responsibility for all the reasons you mention. It was impossible not to be conscious of the global markets of culture these authors are caught up in already and/or aspiring to link to: I wrote about the experience briefly here:
    . Basically I found myself, in reading through the stack, somehow resisting the stories that seemed most explicitly to inhabit the genre expectations of "African short story," as that category has been defined and shaped by Western publishing and consecrating institutions like the one for which I was then reading. I was drawn to stories that seemed less burdened by their representativeness, maybe. Anyway there are huge and unavoidable problems that come with such prizes, as you point out; these problems are structural and predicated on the differential power relations that are, in fact, the rationale for the prize in the first place. Given all that, I thought this year was an important step for the Caine, not least since the winning story does not position "Africa" on the receiving end of western political agency; nor yet does it tell a (falsely?) redemptive narrative in which "Africa" transcends political challenges with culture (hard work, art, or love, say). In some ways it is not about "Africa" at all but one community of human beings inhabiting their particular but universally-resonant space in the world. It is, in the end, a story about belief and community. Still, and importantly for me, it has the effect of positioning its particular community of Africans as senders and not receivers of culture in the world: these people are elsewhere, in the diaspora, and altering qualitatively the western space they inhabit. (Funny, perhaps, that it is literally the west: Texas.) Maybe what I think is most interesting, is that in several ways at once, the prize this year confronts head-on the fact that Africanness can't in any secure sense be reduced to location or even citizenship -- the diasporic experience is just as "African" as any twice-told tale about warfare or the sights and scents of "authentic" village life. (There was a great column in the Guardian that made this point & defended in advance the "Africanness" of Folarin and some of the other diasporic writers on the shortlist.) Anyway here is what one of the shortlisters, Elnathan John, just wrote on Twitter: "With all its warts, I cannot think of anything that has supported & given more global publicity to African writers more than the @CainePrize." Sorry for the long post. I'd be thrilled to hear more expert opinions on this issue. Samantha Pinto has also judged the prize and has fascinating thoughts on this too.'

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 17th, 2013 @08:06 #

    That's a terrific contribution, thanks for posting it Louis.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    July 17th, 2013 @08:15 #

    These debates in african literature about what is/isn't authentically 'african' have gone on for well over fifty years, and they just seem to go round and round and not get anywhere. Perhaps they can't. But this judge's comments just add to the confusion. Stories 'shaped and defined by Western publishing and consecrating institutions'. Huh? I've read a lot of short fiction from africans (however defined) in my time, and I don't see what common thread, or hegemony, ties, say, Tayeb Salih's stories to Leonard Kibera's to Emmauel Dongala's - nor do most of them rely on western political agency; nor redemption; nor lack 'belief and community'; or whatever.
    There are a lot of things to be said here. But here are a few to start:
    - if you're going to deconstruct the term 'african', you have to deconstruct the term 'western' as well. A good place to start is Neil Lazarus' article 'The fetish of 'the West' that's available in at least two places in books (And what is a 'western' short story', I wonder? Wat common threads are there between that huge number of writers using the medium in the west?).
    - Dan Izevbaye made the point many years ago that the rejection of 'western' models by african writers/intellectuals is not a rejection of technical or narrative tools and techniques, but a rejection of attitudes. Sure; but this then begs the question: is it more or less 'african' to base a story on 'western' models, as against a usage of african traditional oral models transmuted to the page? e.g. iintsomi, izinganekwane, here in SA? (Michael Vaughan has an interesting article criticising Ndebele re issues similar to this).
    - my own take is that some of this anger about 'africanness' relates to critiques that have been made by a number of postcolonial scholars - Aijaz Ahmad comes immediately to mind - of the way in which, or rather the ease with which, too many african writers and intellectuals have positioned themselves in comfortable university jobs in the north. Maybe this is an issue; maybe not.
    Either way: in trying to displace what he perceives as a set of stereotypes about africa, this Hensley guy is just inculcating belief in others, equally stereotypical and off the point.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 17th, 2013 @22:40 #

    This, to me, was the NB nub of Hensley's interesting piece: "it has the effect of positioning its particular community of Africans as senders and not receivers of culture in the world". It reminded me of the last fellowship I held at a big, prestigious US university, where African Fellows were consistently expected by the institution to show receptivity, not agency. We were rounded up and asked for "input" on "African" problems (as if a French-speaking epidemiologist from Togo, and me, an English-speaking SA woman with a PhD in the Preraphaelites, both had access to a secret "African" code that made us experts on the entire continent), but heaven help us if we gave our opinion (which was rarely solicited) on US problems. If the Caine judges are rewarding agency, then that's a very telling shift.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    July 18th, 2013 @08:22 #

    I would want to phrase this slightly differently, though, because I don't think it's primarily about receptivity or agency. There's a 'first world' assumption that what one gets out of african literature is what I would call 'anthropological knowledge'. This goes along, usually, with a belief that any individual intellectual or writer from africa has some sort of 'authentic' knowledge of his/her community.
    No matter what identity the writer concerned has, this - of course - comes along with problems of how much knowledge any one writer ineluctably DOESN'T have: because of gender, race, class, regional, or other perspectives he/she may not have.
    Such a notion from the 'first world' moreover does not credit african writing with innovation, with quirkiness, with formal experimentation, or with individual agency - just an exposition of 'knowledge' about 'africa'.
    It also panders to those individuals from africa who are prepared to play along; to act as self-appointed interlocutors for their race, or whatever.
    One of the ways out of this, of course, is to stop using the north as a source of funding and power; and stop taking their literary and academic hand-outs.


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