Rising above criticism

2015-10-27 11:36

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Lusaka Punk and Other Stories – The Caine Prize Anthology 2015
New Internationalist Publications
304 pages
R205 from takealot.com

If the venomous criticism the Caine Prize for African Writing has received over the past few years has put you off the competition, the critiques of Lusaka Punk – this year’s compilation of the prize’s short-listed stories – might compel those desperate enough to read them to enter their nearest bookstore incognito. 

In 2011, Nigerian writer Ikhide R Ikheloa called the short-listed stories a “riot of exhausted clichés”, referring to what he argues is a preoccupation with stories that perpetuate the narratives of darkest Africa – poverty, war, child soldiers, genocide and so on. 

Helon Habila, one of Ikheloa’s literary contemporaries, echoed him last year, asking whether “this new writing is a fair representation of Africa”. 

The winners, say critics, are also too often Africans raised and educated abroad.

Judges have responded to the criticism by claiming it’s all sour grapes. 

And then, on top of all that, when this year’s prize was awarded to Zambian author Namwali Serpell for her story The Sack, the author announced she would be splitting the £10 000 prize money among her five fellow nominees, saying literature shouldn’t be treated like a horse race. 

“I thought the prize structure worked against the spirit of supporting and encouraging my fellow writers,” she said. 
With my own copy in hand, however, I can quite proudly admit that for those who don’t use literary prizes as a way to navigate their literary tastes (or opinions, for that matter), there is very little criticism one can level against the collection’s 12 stories without coming across as being just a little bit bitter. 

Yes, there certainly is a dose of poverty porn in the mix, and no shortage of violence, but from the story of a successful apartheid insurance dealer to the effect of an imported Chinese building crew on a small village facing gentrification, there is no dearth of diversity among these voices. 

When the stories are read consecutively, they encompass a fluid reading of some of the world’s most considered perspectives of the continent and will undoubtedly broaden your views of a “written Africa”, as Binyavanga Wainaina might put it. 

But even Wainaina, the 2002 winner of the prize, points out that “the Caine Prize can’t do what we all have to – centralise our vision for ourselves to ourselves and the world”. 

There is just too much tension and context to simply enjoy Lusaka Punk on a beach somewhere. The institution around it has made it much more than just a light read. But I would nevertheless suggest you try reading the work for yourself and seeing if, somewhere, among all the entries, you find a bit of your own story, or someone you know, or even just a story that reminds you of something you may have forgotten about the place in which you live. 

If you’re still unsure, you have the option to download a few of the free stories from this year’s selection from caineprize.com before buying the book. 

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