The scene was at Beveridge Hall at Senate House, University of London. Acclaimed Kenyan writer and university don Peter Kimani took a long pause.
He held the audience captive as he savoured the moment before announcing the winner of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing. The five writers on the shortlist must have had their hearts beating fast. In his own words, Dr Kimani had placed his palm on the continent’s literary pulse.
Dr Kimani must have enjoyed feeling the throb as he made Africa and the world wait to hear the verdict. He was not the only Kenyan name involved in the event that Monday night, though. Cherrie Kandie was one of the finalists, having been shortlisted for her short story “Sew My Mouth”.
Dr Kimani was performing his duty as the chair of the 2019 prize judges, who included Sefi Atta (Nigeria), Margie Orford (South Africa), Scott Taylor (USA) and Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone).
Before Binyavanga Wainaina won the third edition of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, Kenyan literature was rarely mentioned during international literary awards. The most recognisable name then was Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Maybe this is what fuelled derision by critics, with one describing our artistic space as a “literary desert”. However, the tectonic plates of that desert have since shifted.
Alongside Binyavanga, other Kenyans who have won the award are Yvonne Owuor (2003), Okwiri Oduor (2014), and Makena Onjerika (2018). Last year Kinyanjui Kombani won the continental CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature for his book Finding Colombia.
Dr Kimani described this year’s shortlist as one of the strongest in recent years that made the judges’ work challenging.
“We had different opinions from our reading during the judging period. But since the judging panel did not have a fixed mind, it was easy to let a compelling argument for a story prevail, or at least motivate the rest of the judges to reread a story to absorb what might not have been obvious at first reading. Once we read again and again, it was easy to build consensus,” he told Weekend.
To show how closely they worked together, he invited the panel to join him at the podium as he made the announcement and joked: “I want to be sure that they support my decision, you know elections are rigged, sometimes, or the wrong list is read but we were above that.”
The Caine Prize has had a huge impact on African writing, if the careers of past winners is anything to go by. “Nigeria’s Hellon Habila, Sudan’s Leila Aboulela, Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Owuor, Zambia’s Namwali Serpell, Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo, to mention but a few, have gone on to have very successful literary careers. The award served to springboard their writing careers,” Dr Kimani said.
“(It was) like placing a palm on the continent’s pulse. I experienced its beating heart. Caine Prize winners have been revolutionary and evolutionary, while pushing the African story to the mainstream of world literature,” he told BookBrunch.
Dr Kimani is an awarding-winning author of no mean repute. In 2002, his novel Before the Rooster Crows was shortlisted for the biennial Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. He then won the children’s category of the award in 2011 for his book Upside Down.
However, it is the 2014 publication in the US of Dance of the Jakaranda, a historical novel that reimagines the rise and fall of colonialism in Kenya at the turn of the last century, that placed Dr Kimani on the zenith of world literature. The novel has received rave reviews in international publications like The New York Times Book Review, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Guardian and Huffington Post.
An audio version of the book read by renowned broadcaster John Sibi-Okumu is available. In the same year, Kimani earned his doctorate from the University of Houston, US. He had his childhood hero and literary mentor Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo on his doctoral committee.
Heading the rich panel of judges gave Dr Kimani a deep insight into African writing. This year, more than 130 writers from 21 African countries submitted their works. Despite the apparent dominance at the Prize by Nigeria (5 winners) and Kenya (4 winners), he revealed that a writer’s country of origin was irrelevant in the scoring.
“The judging panel works with the submitted works. Neither did we engage in regional balancing. We just picked the best writing.”
Dr Kimani, however, acknowledges that even though the Caine Prize is one of the major literary awards on the continent, it locks out many people as it only recognises works written in English. Stories written in Kiswahili, Arabic, French, Portuguese and the over 2,000 indigenous languages actively used in Africa are not eligible for consideration.
Gender tectonic plates appear to have shifted also, as only one male writer made it to the shortlist of five, which Dr Kimani says “adds another dimension about the place of women writing on the continent”.
A serious indictment of the local publishing industry, and Africa at large, was that all the finalists and many past winners either reside or have published their works abroad.
Dr Kimani is on record saying that he tried unsuccessfully to publish Dance of the Jakaranda in Kenya as publishers he approached were more interested in textbooks while one asked him to heavily alter the manuscript to conform to Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development prescriptions. He declined and took it to the US.
He encourages local authors not to be discouraged. “I am based in Nairobi, and that hasn’t prevented my work from being published in London or New York, and other world capitals like Beirut, where an Arabic translation [of Dance of the Jakaranda] is in progress.”
According to him, the West beats us in giving incentives, such as writers’ residencies and fellowships to authors, something yet to be explored in Africa.
Of the submissions published outside the continent, he observed that they were “of noticeably higher quality as they benefited from superior editorial interventions. By contrast, a reasonable chunk of submissions from the rest of the continent were self-published and in need of a decent edit”.
This year’s winner was Lesley Nneka Arimah of Nigeria for her short story “Skinned”. It is set in a parallel society where girls are ceremonially ‘uncovered’ and walk naked.
They must marry in order to regain the right to be clothed. Ejem, a young woman uncovered at the age of 15, has to live with the tag of an ‘unclaimed’ woman and discrimination in adulthood. The story addresses independence, womanhood and friendships.
The Caine Prize, memorializes Sir Michael Caine, who established the world’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize. The award’s patrons are Nobel Literature laureates Wole Soyinka and J.M. Coetzee. The winner receives £10,000 and exposure to larger audiences across the world.
The deadline for the 2020 Prize is January 31, 2020. Unpublished works are not eligible and submissions should be made by publishers only.