by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire
There are two rivers of Literature, so-called mainstream Literature (Euro-American), and the Other Literature (including African Literature), named after their histories. They come from Europe and America and the rest of the world, from two different histories. They come from swathes and swathes of land in countries with different names, at some point looking so diametrically opposed to each other, never knowing they will meet. They get tired of running alone, as it is such a long way to the globally shrinking market of literature. They want to reach this sea so that they can rest, stop running against each other. A bridge is built in London in the memory of Sir Caine, former Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, who is said to have had a liking for African Literature. Under this bridge, the two rivers meet. Fifteen years on, we are standing on the bridge and looking down so we can see the the various ship owners from African Literature-land taking charge of the direction of their river.
The Love Poems
In the middle of his how manyth year in journalism and writing, an excerpt of his manuscript was submitted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Like Lomba, the main character in his story, the 2001 Caine win grants him access to more pencil and paper and kicks off a diary of achievements. It is easy for us to say it was easy. It was not easy. He had to write, we may not know if it were in secret, or mostly in the early mornings like Lomba, but we know that the attention from the Caine friends and British media kept peeping through, waiting impatiently for his next work.
Waiting for an Angel is published in 2002. And he is named African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. A few years later, he is a 2005/2006 Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College, New York. Like any other business, testimonials are important for the image of the writer, and a prize is one such big testimonial. It is a big booster for a resume. It does not substitute the need to actually be up for the game. He proves himself as an editor. He co-edits the British Council New Writing 14 anthology, and the 2011 Granta Book of the African Short Story in which he declares that the time has come for the post-nationalist African writer who writes stories set in the world with strong African characters. He was thinking Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s street set in Belgium, Osondu’s Voice of America, and more.
With two more novels under his belt, Measuring Time, published in 2007 and Oil on Water, published in 2011, the plunge into the academia is timely. He teaches Creative Writing at George Mason University in Washington. Now a diasporan, he joins other African writers in the diaspora to found the African Writers Trust, on whose advisory board he still sits. The Trust seeks to coordinate exchange of skills and other resources between African writers in the Diaspora and writers on the continent. The plunge into this type of social entrepreneurship comes full circle when in 2013, he launches Cordite books, an imprint of Nigerian Paressia publishers dedicated to publishing African crime fiction.
A love poem is incomplete without some thorns and bones to pick. In 2013, he levels criticism at the Caine Prize in a review of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names published in The Guardian. The lovely Caine is being stabbed by one of its own for creating an aesthetic of African suffering. This must have hurt. It attracted unnecessary attention to the Caine too. The spokesperson rarely wants attention to themselves. The Caine knows this. The love affair was saved. He judged the 2014 Caine Prize and penned a blog-post about an African literary tradition. A spokesperson is a vessel for a message not their own. The message really is of African writers. Not Sir Caine’s. Does he now live in Abuja? There is a freedom earned. Being based in Abuja would not hurt the business of writing. Not any more. The careful business of branding takes care of that and the Caine set the painter’s brush roving in 2001.
Cape Town, June 1995 -There is a problem. Achebe may not have locked African Literature in the toilet of post-colonial writing but it seems the upstairs shower-room is locked and the tales from African writers are not freshening. There are small riots at many doors of literature curriculum development bodies all over Africa, as heavily post-colonial literature drunk writers bang on the doors demanding space alongside Achebe, Ngugi, Soyinka, P’Bitek and other post-colonial writers.
There is always that point at a party when people are too drunk to be having fun; when strange smelly people are asleep on your bed; when the good literary content runs out except in internet chat-rooms; and when you realise that it is your responsibility to breathe fresh air into the African Literature flat. You have been working here, in Observatory, Cape Town, for 2 years and rarely breached the boundary of your clique. Fear, you suppose, and a feeling that you are not quite ready to leave a place that has let you be anything you want to be — and provided not a single predator.
You are going home for a year. You will be encouraged by your online publisher when he insists he must submit a travel creative non-fiction piece of yours to this new prize, the Caine. You do not think so much about it. Then they write back and inform you that your piece is ineligible because they consider only stories that are published in anthologies, collections in print and not online stuff. You rant back, and write an incoherent essay about there having not been a single print anthology published on the continent in the last year. You do not expect that you shall win the prize, but you win it.
You return from London 10,000GBP richer and decide you will invest it in a literary journal to publish your writer-friends with whom you have been struggling. You call the journal, So What? Kwani?. Some call it the next Transition, in reference to the 1960s journal that used to be published by Rajat Noegy in your other mother-country, Uganda. Whatever they say, you do your thing. Publish good writing. The Pull Him Down syndrome does not spare you. But who cares? The next year, Yvonne Adhiambo’s story Weight of Whispers, which you published, also wins the Caine.
Tongues start wagging. Your friend Chimmy it is rumoured could not win the prize the year you won it because Habila, a fellow Nigerian had bagged it the year before. Things like, it could not reflect well to have back to back Nigerian wins. But Yvonne does win the thing after you. The rumours will even worsen in future when Chimmy writes a short story Jumping Monkey Hill in which it is said the administrator of the Caine of the day is attacked in the name of fiction. Rumour mongers have grown some mega-bytes of memory and Chimmy is the victim. When in 2013 she describes male writers shortlisted for the prize as her boys, the internet burns. In the same interview she added more wood to the fire by suggesting that she gets much better submissions for her workshop than the Caine gets. Some conspiracy theorists say she protests too much.
You become the fence between her and the Caine. This is how PR works. Should work. Positive or negative publicity is good. Your baby, now a ten plus child Kwani? co-publishes Chimmy’s internationally successful books in Kenya. You annually co-facilitate her Farafina workshop in Nigeria. You connect her to Lupita Nyong’o and now the discussions around taking her Americanah novel to the big screens are nearing conclusion. On Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s launch of Dust, her internationally acclaimed book published by Kwani? in Kenya, Chimmy is present to offer support and launch Americanah in Kenya.
Some useless people are talking too much about you having not really published much fiction since the win of the Caine but you see, there is a method to your madness. You become a name in the creative non-fiction genre. Your memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place is an Oprah Book club selection. Your satirical rant, How to Write About Africa published in Granta is an instant hit. You do more freelance writing and you get published in The New York Times, The Guardian and many other well-paying international publications. You do the rounds as a writer in residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York (2007) and at William College (2008). You do this writer in residence thing well, Kwani? is running well, things should be getting in order. You are chosen to direct the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, where you rub shoulders with Achebe himself very often.
You have reached the zenith. Successful entrepreneur. Very influential in the literary world. There is a certain brand of Africanity building around you. You declare you are a Pan Africanist and not Afropolitan. A good PR establishment is a vessel. Not the message itself. Carries others’ messages. Does not rob the shine off clients. You rubbish the World Economic Forum when they name you a Young Global Shaper. This is how influence works. Snubbing influence validators is itself a form of influence. When TIME names you one of the Top 100 Influential people in the world, publishing a bio that your bosom friend Chimmy writes, we now can tell your artist self will be uncomfortable about the idea that you are influential. You want to remain creative.
A lot of tongues wag as to why TIME never bestowed onto you the validation before you came out as gay. You have now become a very important idea that several homophobic literary enthusiasts admit to loving your work and being confused about your being gay. Like your Caine winning entry, the personal, the political, the confusion, the genius all mix in one. The Caine could only blush at the association with you. Your ingenuity. The Kwani? Manuscript prize alongside other Kwani? initiatives now launches careers of more ingenuity. The message is sweet, the vessel’s satisfaction not in doubt. You are based in Kenya now. Everything starts there.
We are on our way to Budapest. You know it is Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and Darling. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though I would be killed dead by mother if she found out. We are the types of characters the tide of post post-colonialist critics do not want to see in African Literature any more. We appear at a time trendy African Literature locates its African characters in the West. We come as a rude interruption of the critics’ navel-gazing. We are unwanted. African writers are writing for the mainstream. The rivers have joined and they are writing global novels. Human literature. They want their work to be listed alongside every other work according to its genre, not because of where their ancestors were born. They are celebrating the fact that their books are just displayed alongside other Fiction titles. Not the African Fiction section. Leave that for the dead Achebe, the Afro-centric Ngugi and others of that generation.
They are willing to burn old bridges like the Caine, and even blame the spokesperson for this aesthetic of African suffering they are describing our stories as. They are eager to tell the story of African privilege. The story of being born in London, studying at Oxford and Harvard and being mentored by world-class renown writers like Alice Walker, you gerrit? Who cares if there is a gang of children somewhere thinking about guavas to steal in Budapest, and can die for them? Where there is such gnashing of teeth and so much hunger, stomachs feel like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out?
Our story is beautiful and the good old Caine does not abandon us. We win it in 2011. Our story actually grows beyond Hitting Budapest to a whole novel. Our creator is probably the world’s most soft-spoken writer. She is nothing like us. We are mongrels. Mischief is our other name. But there is something to be said about letting one’s work speak for them. Despite the poverty pornography noise, Chatto and Windus in 2012 acquires rights to publish We Need New Names in an auction. Tongues wag. The price is high. At some level, one wonders why The Caine got the flak for our story. We could have done absolutely well in the market without the good old prize.
Our creator was already doing an MFA at Cornell University when the Caine happened. A Truman Capote Fellow. We Need New Names is happening when she is making the move to Stanford as Stegner Fellow. Of course it helps to have the good folks at the Caine saying good things about her. Of course as the old woman who urinated in a lake, it does not hurt to add some drops, even if in a sea.
We start to change the Zeitgeist when our story is shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The Caine folks have a good story on their hands. Some people even start calling our creator the Caine poster-girl. Maybe this is why The Guardian review aims to berate our stories as porn? This is the first time a former winner of the Caine is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is a story of From the African Booker to the Real Booker for our author. The first black African woman and Zimbabwean to be shortlisted.
This is the thing. If there is anything our creator is committed to, it is her craft. Junot Diaz already saw that she was going to blow up, when she published our exploits in Budapest in The Boston Review. So many other awards want to associate with us. The Etisalat Prize for Literature comes and our creator just swallows it. The Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award is taken home. Junot Diaz chooses her for The National Book Award’s “5 Under 35”. The Guardian First book Award folks do not want to be left behind. We Need New Names is shortlisted for 2013. The Barnes & Noble Discover Award follows. The 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction comes in too. More less prestigious awards come.
While other past winners of the Caine follow and amazing things have happened, are happening and will happen for them too, largely with their ability to actually work and make use of the PR the Caine provides, our author’s political commitment to African Literature continues to reach wider audiences. Now a member of the Writivism Board of Trustees, a programme that identifies, mentors and promotes African writers resident on the continent, more stories, whether similar to ours or not will surely keep reaching out there without denying their Africanness. She is also starting a literary journal soon in Zimbabwe to provide a platform to grow more talent. And of course other characters will be born by her. We already feel immortal though. And I am confident I speak for Chipo, Bastard, Stina, Godknows and Sbho, even though I drifted away into America. I will return to the continent in the not so far future when our creator also returns as she has said to various interviewers.
Under the Bridge
Fifteen years on, since Leila Aboulela’s The Museum, through hard work, the African writers who have had the opportunity to associate with the Caine establishment can attest to the journey to the global literary marketplace. And not quite suddenly, stories do not have to be changed and written a certain way to win global prizes, be included on world best-seller lists and featured at book clubs. Like a good PR practitioner the Caine establishments deflects attention from itself to their clients. If anyone does not see that under the Caine bridge, the global market and African Literature have met, let them buy some pair of eyes.