Africa: "We're All At Sea" - Meet the 2020 Ako Caine Prize Nominees

Nigerian author, Irenosen Okojie.
20 July 2020
interview

In some ways, the Caine Prize for African Writing is a coronation.

For the last 20 years, it has been the most prominent institution rewarding the best fiction by an African writer working in the English language. Its eventual winners have seen their careers accelerated. Past winners like Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainana, NoViolet Bulawayo, Namwali Serpell, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Leila Aboulela immediately come to mind. Even those shortlisted - like Tendai Huchu, Billy Kahora, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim - have gone on to do great things. Of many success stories the Caine Prize may claim to be a part of, none is bigger than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who was shortlisted in 2002.

The prize also often signals the vanguard in writing on the continent today. Through those it has recognised, one can track the shifts in the kind of writing being produced: from the early 2000s when dramatic fiction reflecting the times were the norm; to the late 2010s when more experimental work in magical realism and science fiction started getting its day in the sun.

As such, the shortlisted writers are to be considered very seriously. They have immense potential, to be what is new and next. This year's shortlisted writers are no different. Except perhaps they have the unfortunate distinction of being shortlisted during a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

The shortlisted stories for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize are:

We spoke to the writers on wide-ranging topics, divided into three parts. This is Part I.

On joy

With everything going on right now - the pandemic, #BlackLivesMatter, creative workers losing their jobs in dizzying numbers - what's your most reliable source of joy, your port in this storm?

REMY: Everything going on in the world right now has always been going on. Everyone is experiencing everything at the same time - that is the only change. But it is also my comfort: I am not being picked on, we are all suffering; there is no port in this storm, we are all at sea. There is a hole in the boat and we all have to fix it or drown. Why? No one is coming for us. The sooner we realise that, the better off we will be. Because the hole is getting bigger.

IRENOSEN: Music is always the constant I think. It is a nice change of pace and medium from writing, which is quite intense you know. At the moment, I am listening to Santigold, an experimental US artist, Lous and the Yakuza, a Congolese rapper; and then there's ZAP Mama, who I've been listening to since I was in my early twenties.

ERICA: No matter what is happening in the world, excellence, kindness and curiosity bring me joy. I feel joyful when I read a sentence that sings. I'm happy when somebody is good at something, anything really, be it cooking or carpentry or constantly working to improve themselves. I try to apply that to myself because I'm a work in progress just like everybody else. I'm a sucker for perseverance, for passion, for people who are inquisitive about the world and others. Learning how to be present and recognise the humanity in other people is a gift to them. Learning how to appreciate that we're alive and okay is a gift to ourselves.

I am not being picked on, we are all suffering; there is no port in this storm, we are all at sea.

Many people believe times like now are an opportunity for artists to create or create more. Has that been the case for you? How have you otherwise been affected?

CHIKODILI: It was a devastating year for me last year but I was lucky in that even though my personal life was in turmoil, I was able to finish a book and win an award and agent. I think that because of this, I have been more understanding of myself during this pandemic. It's a pandemic. People are dying, or are shielding. Human beings are social animals and this great disruption is a huge weight on our collective psyches without adding the pressure of writing about it all right this second. I write if I can, but I am also trying to read, to listen, to raise children, cook and just be. Artists are not machines. Some people can create when all the world around them is going to hell. Others need distance, for the trauma to pass before they can collect themselves. I think I am the latter - I used to be the former, but there is already so much death. I did manage to finish the second draft of my novel Dazzling which is with my agent. It has been a month since then and not writing at all means that my fount of ideas is positively bubbling.

REMY: Artists have always created through crises, both personal and public: divorces and mass death, financial stability and economic destitution, existential angst and political turmoil - an artist always angles towards crises. The difference is that these current crises affect all artists at the same time (even if it does not affect them equally). This period of global lockdown has affected my writing outlets and, thus, my ability to make a living from my craft. But it has also given me the time to start and finish other projects. My writing process involves finding silence and focus and then starting, continuing, and working towards a conclusion. Seek, pursue, find - that is how I work. The lockdown enhanced and extended the necessary factors for my creative process even as it increased my economic anxieties. I am yet to decide whether it has been for good or ill. Only time, as usual, will tell.

IRENOSEN: I think you've got to do what speaks to you and also you're going to have both experiences inevitably. I actually wrote a short story while I was sick during the early part of catching COVID-19. Because I was like: well I don't know if I'm going to get well and if I don't get well, I want to be doing something good. The writing gave me comfort and distracted me from worrying too much. So I found that I could channel my energy. And then as I got sicker, obviously I couldn't write. I was able to finish just before I got really sick. So, I'm really pleased about that. But then, you know, getting well took my whole energy. I write poetry every day and that always keeps me grounded, even if I'm not writing larger works like short stories or working on a novel. People may not be able to write work at the moment. Sometimes I go to my writing desk, and I'm just like, I can't do it and I get up and leave again. Because a lot has gone on. So, I think we have to be gentle with ourselves during this period. I know that even if you're not physically writing, you're absorbing a lot that can go into writing later on when you feel like you're in the space to do it.

ERICA: Questions like this are subjective because every writer's process is different. I do think we are experiencing a world event unlike any other but I would need some distance from it before being able to write about it. The only thing for me that differentiates a lockdown or a pandemic from other writing periods is that the limitation on movement means that you have fewer social obligations. Ideally, that should translate in having more time to write but remember also that writers who have families have to be present for children who are learning from home and not ensconced in a school building. Often, that doesn't allow for long bursts of uninterrupted creativity. That said, you make the sacrifices that you need to whether it's getting up early or working late or just maximising the time that you do have.

Some people can create when all the world around them is going to hell. Others need distance, for the trauma to pass before they can collect themselves.

On writing

How did your story first come to you? Did you have it all planned out or did the idea come more spontaneously? Do stories for you start with a sequence of words or come fully formed?

ERICA: I have written professionally for television so I tend not to be precious about waiting for the muse, but my experience of the short story form has differed from my television work. Short stories come to me in many different ways. A sentence, a line of dialogue, an image, a news article. They occupy space in my brain, squat in my imagination and refuse to leave. In that sense, they're like nightmare tenants or angry apparitions. Sometimes the story is fully formed but far more frequently, we co-habit until the story decides to reveal itself or until I find an entry point, an avenue into the story, and when that happens there's nothing like that feeling of flow. That's when the process segues from an uneasy relationship into a harmonious one where the story practically writes itself. In this instance, I remember reading about Grace Mugabe, the inspiration for this story and feeling perturbed by how she was presented in a simplistic, one-dimensional manner as this iconic representation of greed. I wasn't interested in excusing her excesses but I'm suspicious when the dominant narrative about a person or an issue lacks complexity. It piques my curiosity and I want to know more. The what is not enough for me. As a fiction writer, I want to know the how and the why.

JOWHOR: Some stories are given to you. Some you have to nurse like algae in a dish before they grow and take form. Fisherman's Stew came complete in two sittings. I held on to it for two years, because I'm a hoarder, just doing window dressing.

IRENOSEN: I've always wanted to write about Grace Jones. I went to see her in concert years ago and that was a really mind-blowing experience. So, she's kind of always sat there, in the back of my mind. When things stay in the body, you reflect on the experience now and again. And then I was in the process of writing a few stories for my new collection, Nudibranch. The idea of writing a story about a Grace Jones impersonator just really struck me because it did that thing of wanting to write about somebody who has a really traumatic past. You know, the way they process and have dealt with that trauma manifests in lots of interesting ways. And one of the ways is kind of having another persona to hide behind. I thought it could work on multiple levels. It made sense that the idea came to me. It made sense that Grace was the person that I wanted [the character in the story] to imitate as an artist because obviously, I've had that love for her. So, it felt like there was a real synchronicity about getting the idea.

Some stories are given to you. Some you have to nurse like algae in a dish before they grow and take form.

If you didn't win the AKO Caine Prize, who would you be most happy to lose to?

REMY: Being shortlisted is a prize. I have made it this far, further than I ever thought I would come. So I cannot "lose the Caine Prize". I can only be shortlisted with the other writers forever. Victory into eternity, that is a rare thing.

IRENOSEN: I don't know each of them well enough though to really say. That's the genuine truth. The interesting thing is who wins would change depending on the different panel of judges. This panel would pick their winner. Another panel would have picked somebody else. It is interesting as well that somebody has been shortlisted twice: Chikodili. So my money is on her. Lesley Nneka Arimah was shortlisted thrice and won the third time.

JOWHOR: Chikodili Emelumadu. We are close friends and we speak on the phone all the time. I'm sure I can talk her out of some of the prize money.

CHIKODILI: Ha! Stop it. Have you not seen the list? I'm honoured to be on it. It wouldn't hurt to lose to anyone on the shortlist. Would you like to ask me what I'd do if I won? High-five myself, smile a lot and carry on writing.

All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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