Rebecca Lerner: The problematic ‘Caine Prize aesthetic’

Sunday, March 6, 2016 - 8:02pm

“No, I don’t think there is a ‘Caine Prize Aesthetic,’” NoViolet Bulawayo responded during a recent Q&A in the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Room.

This isn’t surprising to hear. In 2011, Bulawayo won the Caine Prize for African Writing, an annual literary award for African original stories, for her story “Hitting Budapest.” The story is the first chapter of her novel, “We Need New Names.” Along with the award and 10,000 pounds, the winner also often accepts the stigma of the “Caine Prize aesthetic” — the idea that the authors are conforming to pre-existing notions that the Western world, and the Western judges, have about Africa.

In the Q&A, Bulawayo, who moved to America from Zimbabwe as a young adult, went on to describe the ways in which winning the Caine Prize bolstered her confidence in her ability to write and sell a full-length novel. But can we take her word as a winner and beneficiary of the prize that an aesthetic does not exist?

I don’t think we can. This is nothing against Bulawayo — she’s an engaging intellectual, and “We Need New Names” is a fantastic book. But both her story and its form in her novel comply with stereotypical ideas of poverty and brutality in Zimbabwe. This is where I get lost contemplating the Caine Prize. Bulawayo’s novel is both incredibly well-written and an opportunity for a voice that would normally be silenced to be heard, a chance we cannot take for granted. But her themes of incest, starvation and child neglect play into our ideas of a place we’ve never seen. Our construction of Africa is pieced together from sensationalist journalism and a lack of the consideration for the ethnic and geographic diversity of the continent.

The Caine Prize, dubbed the “African Man Booker,” has increasingly come under fire for catering to the Western world at the expense of the literary independence of the authors. In 2015, Zambian writer Namwali Serpell won the prize for her story “The Sack,” a nuanced and enigmatic narrative of the relationship between two men who love the same woman. (If you want to read the story, set aside an hour or two of your time. It’s not long, but the confusing nature of the structure lends itself to rewarding new discoveries every time you reread it.)

Serpell’s triumph in winning the prize struck the literary world as unusual for two reasons. One: an author from Zambia had never won the prize before. In the fifteen years of the Caine Prize, the winners have been overwhelmingly from Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with some exceptions of Sudan, Uganda and Sierra Leone. The recent influx of winners from countries with less established ties to Western literature reflects the growing diversity of the prize between nations. The second reason might change the course of the prize forever. Serpell accepted the prize and immediately announced that she would be sharing the 10,000 pound prize with her fellow shortlisted writers. Serpell later described this to BBC Newsday as “an act of mutiny …” It’s awkward to be placed into this position of competition with other writers that you respect immensely and get put into a sort of “American Idol” or racehorse situation when actually you all just want to support each other.”

Binyavanga Wainaina, winner of the Caine Prize in 2002 and LGBT activist in his home country of Kenya, has also spoken out against the burden of the prize. Wainaina took to Twitter, directly calling out the prize, saying, “Caine Prize! 10,000 dollars and never ask questions, coz literary intellectuals shld never be uncertain about who Rules African literature.” Perhaps due to the democratizing nature of the Internet, writers are feeling more at ease coming out with their dissatisfaction about the nature of the prize.

I recently had the opportunity to listen to Shadreck Chikoti, a Malawian writer who came to the University as part of the Zell Visiting Writers series. Chikoti, who writes in both English and Chichewa, was selected to attend the Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop in Cameroon in 2011, and his story “Child of a Hyena” was published in the Caine Prize 2011 anthology. And yet, when asked about his time working in conjunction with the prize, Chikoti said that in some ways the prize went against “how much I believe in the liberty of an author … in people writing whatever they want.” He expressed the pressure he felt from officials to write a story about stereotypes and traditions of Malawi, rather than letting ideas naturally come. But Chikoti recently broke from the social construction of what African writers can and cannot write, in his publication of the science fiction novel “Azotus the Kingdom.”

Namwali Serpell, after winning the prize, spoke similarly of these pressures and of people asking questions like “Are you an African writer? What is Africa and its life?” The problems we have with the Caine Prize go deeper than problems within literature. These issues reflect our need to homogenize Africa and the way we ask one writer a year to write the single story the Western world has assigned it.