Every year local book lovers look forward to ’amaBooks Publishers latest anthology of short stories based on the Caine Prize for African writing. This year, the volume is named Lusaka Punk, after Zambian-born Efemia Chela’s story based on ‘teenage angst’ and a gap year spent in the internet cafés and night clubs of Lusaka. In all, there are 17 short stories, including the five short-listed authors, and 12 other writers who took part in this year’s workshop in Ghana.
The Caine Prize for African Literature was established in 1999 by Baroness Nicholson, in memory of her husband, Sir Michael Caine. Sir Michael, a larger than life character, was an executive of Booker PLC, a group of companies involved in food distribution and agribusiness. It was his love books and reading that lead him in 1968 to create the Booker Prize for fiction, soon to become Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
Thanks to Baroness Nicholson, the Caine Prize for African writing provides an opportunity for writers linked to the vast continent of Africa to have their voices heard, to give shape and form to their creativity and to delight readers everywhere with extraordinary and diverse narratives. At the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in the Harare Gardens in 2000, the first ever winner of the award was announced as Leila Aboulela, for her story ‘The Museum’. Born in Egypt and brought up in Khartoum, Aboulela shows how a young Muslim student studying in Aberdeen adjusts successfully to culture, society and life in a cold climate.
In 2004, Zimbabwe hit the headlines again, when Bulawayo-born Brian Chikwava won the £10,000 prize with his story, ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’. Set in Harare’s once notorious Avenues, Fiso, an ageing prostitute, copes with the daily uneven fight for survival. Her struggles with bureaucracy and inability to obtain either a birth certificate or a passport will seem all too familiar to many readers.
A few years later, in 2011, NoViolet Bulawayo’s ‘Hitting Budapest’, chronicling the emotive, sometimes tragic, escapades of a gang of six underprivileged children, won the Caine Prize. While their mothers are busy with ‘hair and talk’ and the men play draughts under the jacaranda trees, the children raid gardens in wealthy suburbs, in search of adventure, and for guavas, to ward off hunger pains.
In 2012, Zimbabwean Melissa Myambo’s short story, ‘La Salle de Depart’, was shortlisted as a possible winner, but Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde wowed the judges with Bombay’s Republic, a darkly humorous narrative about Nigerian soldiers fighting in Burma during the second world war. Kenyan writer Okwiri Oduor won the prize in 2014, with ‘My Father’s Head’, a surreal story about a young woman coming to terms with her father’s death.
This year the panel of judges, headed by South African writer Zoe Wicomb, were presented with 153 entries. Brian Chikwava, now an established writer in London, returned to the Caine Prize as a 2015 judge. He described the ‘pleasant agreement and disagreement’ involved in selecting the shortlisted writers. ‘Being a good writer alone is not enough to guarantee a place on the short list’ he said. ‘One also needs luck. Plenty of it.’
The winning entry, ‘The Sack’, by Zambian Namwali Serpell, was described by the judges as a ‘truly luminous’ story. The surreal tale about an uncomfortable relationship between two men who loved the same woman, now deceased, relies heavily on the claustrophobic image of a sack. Serpell says that inspirations for ‘The Sack’ came from a disturbing dream she had at age seventeen about being in a sack, and from a 1999 Japanese psychological horror film, ‘Audition’. In an interview with The Guardian, Serpell said she was ‘really pleased that the Caine Prize is honoring something so strange’.
Judges and past winners can shed some light on what is deemed essential in a winning story, but bear in mind that the panel changes every year. Bernadine Evaristo, the 2012 chair of judges, looks for a ‘strong, original streak’, ‘a risk taker’, a story that is ‘provocative and unsettling’. Conversely, for Leila Aboulela, who acted as a tutor at this year’s writers’ workshop in Ghana, a stand out story would be ‘one I would want to pass on to friends’.
Many shortlisted authors and winners of the Caine Prize no longer reside in their native countries, but their link to Africa remains strong, a necessary element for the mindset and creativity displayed in the latest anthology. It is time for another Zimbabwean winner of the Caine Prize, so whether you are in Pote Primary School in Goromonzi, St John’s College in Harare, or reading English honours at UZ, pursue your love of reading, start writing and make a start on that short story that will change your life.
Lusaka Punk and Other Stories is published by ’amaBooks.
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