Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Okwiri Oduor Reveals the Highs and Lows of Winning the Caine Prize

2014 Caine Prize shortlistees
The Gonjon Pin and Other StoriesOne Day I Will Write About This PlaceFeast, Famine and Potluck

Okwiri Oduor admits there are two sides to winning the Caine Prize, but says the negatives are short-lived and far outweighed by the positives.

Binyavanga Wainaina, who won the Caine Prize in 2002 and went on to set up literary magazine Kwani? to promote new African writing, was at the centre of a controversy this week, after slamming the Caine Prize in an interview with This Is Africa.

Wainaina, who has not been long out of the headlines this year, criticised the prioritisation of the Caine Prize, saying that there are many valuable literary institutions in Africa, such as Saraba, the Farafina workshop, Cassava Republic, that are “vastly underfunded and vastly ungrown, and they are the ones who create the ground that is building these new writers”.

I want people to say, Okwiri, who won the Caine Prize, is the founder of Jalada, an online magazine that has won five prizes in the last year and published, I think, the most exciting fiction I’ve seen in ten years. [...] Okwiri made her name long before the Caine prize. [...] The idea that she won the Caine Prize and journalists now want to feed the fact that she was made by the Caine Prize is unmaking her. You ask any smart Kenyan writer who is in the game, they tell you Okwiri is the new be. And we are talking two years ago. We must lose this s**t. Give due credit but don’t go giving free money and free legitimacy. Because the Caine Prize right now needs your legitimacy to get money. They take press clipping from all Nigerian media and use that to source for funding. We need to focus on how we can grow our own ecosystem.

Related news:

In an interview with Book LIVE, which took place a few days before Wainaina’s outburst, Okwiri expressed reservations of a different sort about the prize.

“There’s been lots of interest. Things have been so horrible the past few weeks … I kind of barricaded myself after the win. I couldn’t handle it, I found it so overwhelming, so I kind of shut myself away,” Okwiri admitted.

“In the process, I think I kind of ignored some media inquiries, which I feel slightly bad about but not completely, because a lot of interviewers ask you the same questions and sometimes I feel like just referring them to an interview I did before: ‘Just go online and you will find all the answers’.

“One thing that’s been happening is that I’m being interviewed by someone who maybe didn’t do much research, or is not very interested in the literary arts, or isn’t much or a reader or a writer. It makes the interview much more exhausting than it need be. So I’m ambivalent about interviews.”

However, Okwiri believes the exposure the prize has afforded her is invaluable, and much more important than the prize money or prestige that come with winning the “African Booker”.

“But there’s been lots of positives as well, of course,” she says. “I think the opportunities you get as a result of the prize are the main positive. The money sounds like a lot but when you get down to it it’s surprisingly not much. But the opportunities, like coming to South Africa for the [Mail & Guardian Literary] Festival. Having access to audiences I wouldn’t have had access to on my own. The fact that I’m here talking to you. The fact that someone is reading me who I’ll meet and they’ll tell me ‘Wow, I really enjoyed your story’, and they wouldn’t have read me if it weren’t for this. The fact that in some ways I can apply for residencies or MFA programmes, or whatever I want to, and have more weight on my application. Just, so many opportunities. So many opportunities to meet the readers, to meet other writers.

“Even on the Caine circuit itself, being in London with the other shortlistees, we became friends and I appreciate that.”

The daunting amount of attention Okwiri received after winning the prize, however, does go some way to proving Wainaina’s point. On the strength of writing like “My Father’s Head”, Okwiri deserves recognition. But why does it take a prize awarded in London to shove her into the spotlight?

Let us know where you stand in the comments, or on our Facebook or Twitter pages

Book details

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 16th, 2014 @21:40 #
     
    Top

    I suppose it depends where you live? (Referring to Okwiri's comment about the prize money: "when you get down to it it’s surprisingly not much") The prize money's not half bad at all - what about R170 000 when converted?? That's probably more than most South African writers earn in two years...

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 17th, 2014 @10:33 #
     
    Top

    It isn't much if everyone and their dog decides you now owe them $$$ to fund X or Y and 'don't you care about???' So yes, if you are going to keep it for yourself, and not go on a writing fellowship in the States or the UK, that money can go far. But rent for tiny bedroom (that is a bedroom - sharing toilet and kitchen with at least 5 other strangers) in London back in 2000 was more than what I paid for in 2008 for an entire house (with bathroomS we didn't have to share) in a nice part of the Mossel Bay area.

    I can't even begin to imagine what she is dealing with right now. Overall, I'm sure the Caine win will be worth it. But I feel for her. Heck, I'm not famous. (That is not a complaint!) Thus, I never thought to worry about the downside of Colleen doing the cover reveal. All my friends and family out there will be happy for me, right? True, most are. There are even people I hardly know, being lovely. But boy oh boy was I caught unprepared for the ugly it would bring out in some people. Less than four hours after that post and people I thought, well...no need to add drama to the world wide web. Point being, if that much fuss can be caused over a blog post displaying a PDF cover - my mind only begins to comprehend the trolls that such a prize with so much PR must attract. A pity. Okwiri should be allowed to enjoy her moment. She worked hard.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 17th, 2014 @11:52 #
     
    Top

    When you say 'keep it for yourself' you make that sound like a bad thing, like it's miserly or something - but surely it's a legitimate response to use money you earn to pay your rent, pay your electricity and feed your family? That's what most people would do with money they earn, unless they're rich enough to start giving it all away. I don't know how the fellowship works (never been on one), but I find it hard to imagine they don't give you a room for the duration ... I mean if they don't, they cut out most writers who are from Africa from the opportunity.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 17th, 2014 @12:45 #
     
    Top

    I don't think using money for yourself is a bad thing, especially if it is being used to further a dream such as writing. But coming into money publicly is very different from quietly receiving a pay check. I don't know her situation, of course. I'm speculating based on watching people over the years, including doing admin work in a law office. Money is a strange thing.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 17th, 2014 @12:54 #
     
    Top

    Hmm. Maybe I'm still not being blunt enough. When somebody comes into money publicly, even if it isn't a large amount, it tends to attract negative attention. Sometimes that attention even comes from people who the recipient thought loved and cared for her. These people will use emotional manipulation over it all. It can get ugly and very wearing.

    I am not saying that is what Okwiri is experiencing. But I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case. Because her comment of 'surprisingly not much' comes off to me as a tactful 'back off.'

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 17th, 2014 @13:21 #
     
    Top

    Speculation! I think it's your writer's imagination creating a good story between the lines. I do the same. But speculation is always just speculation...it ought not be absorbed into the category of truth (however, it is almost impossible once one has speculated to avoid believing the fiction in some measure).

    Bottom

Please register or log in to comment


» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat