Posted in the run up to our review of the Caine Prize 2015 anthology Lusaka Punk and Other Stories, as part of a follow up series to our 2015 Blogging the Caine Prize – open to the ongoing public conversation the prize, and that this year’s winner’s ‘Act of Mutiny’ continues to inspire – AiW has been chatting to writers about their experiences of the Caine Prize and its workshop (held in Elmina, Ghana this year), their stories, and their future plans. Here Rebecca Jones chats to Pede Hollist, shortlisted in 2013 for his story ‘Foreign Aid’ and a participant in the Caine Prize Workshop 2015, about the prize and his writing career.
Rebecca Jones for AiW: Both your Caine Prize shortlisted story ‘Foreign Aid’ and your novel So the Path Does Not Die engage in detail with the Sierra Leone migrant experience, particularly the cross-Atlantic exchange between Sierra Leone and the US. Do you feel ‘Foreign Aid’ and your novel deal with the migrant experience differently – whether for reasons of form, or otherwise – or are they part of the same story?
Pede Hollist: In my mind Path is “Foreign Aid” writ large. It might be helpful to think of the latter as a track in an album. I actually wrote Path before “Foreign Aid.” Both deal with characters that travel to the US as young adults, embed themselves in the new country, and make a return trip home; both tales gesture toward representing a multi-layered and complex immigrant experience. “Foreign Aid” focuses on one character, Logan, has comic overtones, and deals primarily with the arrogance and ignorance of the diasporic returnee who thinks throwing money at problems solves them. Path covers a broader swath of the immigrant experience, using more characters and events. This presents opportunities to deal with a variety of themes and issues common to the immigrant experience — tradition versus modernity; the individual versus society; identity, ethnicity, racism, and sexism; love, pain, and sacrifice; home and abroad, to name a few.
Several of your reviewers have pointed out that your characters are not always particularly sympathetic: certainly the braggadocio American returnee Balogun/Logan in ‘Foreign Aid’, but also sometimes Fina in So the Path Does Not Die, noted for her ‘stolid superficiality’ (alongside other more admirable qualities) by Rashi Rohatgi in her review for Africa in Words. Can you tell us more about how you come to imagine your characters and their not-always-attractive personalities?
I avoid paragons of virtue and irredeemable villains, perhaps because I don’t personally know anyone who belongs to either category. Of course, such characters are necessary to some genres, but since I have written only realistic fiction, I make my characters reflect how I think we see real people and they see us. That is, they have admirable and attractive as well as repelling and questionable, if not unworthy, qualities. I put them in situations in which they have to act and make choices. I want their choices to be psychologically consistent with their behavior in the world of the story, but as author, I am mindful that I also want to keep the readers hooked, so I actively seek to deny their expectations by having characters behave and do strange things. In general, we are fascinated by larger-than-life, slightly off-center people who boldly or unconsciously manifest aspects of the id we suppress, right? I try to play to that. Mostly I have an instinctive feel for what the character should or would do but that has to be balanced against a need for the plot to surprise and hold a reader’s interest.
I’m interested in your writing style: your writing is often vigorous, bold and funny (‘Foreign Aid’ has a boisterousness to it that cleverly echoes Logan’s own bluster), but in So the Path Does Not Die we also see a gentle tenderness that wasn’t so apparent in ‘Foreign Aid’. How do you approach matters of style when you write?
I admire writers like Ben Okri and Chris Abani whose works manifest literariness, especially in language and technique. I try to do the same. The “boisterousness” you describe in “Foreign Aid” comes from my understanding of the general mannerisms and behavior of returnees from the west. Especially for those who have bought into the narrative of America’s greatness, they (we) return home with a certain pep in our step and what I’ll call a pseudo ugly-American attitude.
Mostly though, I pay attention to language when I provide a backstory or summarize large chunks of information and periods of time. For example, the prologue in Path is set in a remote, almost mythic, time so I figured a style that mimics oral story-telling was appropriate. Quite a few readers have told me they like the style of the prologue. I paid similar attention to style in the scene in which Fina returns to the village of her birth and finds it in ruins. Beyond the sensory description, I wanted the cadence of the prose to communicate the pathos of the return. Of course, in practice, the process is nowhere as conscious and deliberate as I make it sound. Many times, the cadence of particular lines strike you, and you run with it. At other times, you recognize the tone and sentence structure are repetitive, and you decide to change things up. Overall though, I aim to be more conscious of how I deploy style.
What do you feel the Caine Prize did or didn’t do for you as a writer? Was it a significant moment in your writing career, and what have been the other important influences on your career? (I’m thinking, perhaps, of your work with Jacaranda Books).
Being shortlisted validated the work I had been doing in obscurity, exposed my work to a wider audience, and has inspired me to continue to write and to teach creative writing. Through the prize I have come to meet many other African writers and people working in the industry, including the founder, CEO, and other personnel of Jacaranda.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of the Caine Prize workshop? How were the participants selected, what did the workshop involve, and what did you make of it?
My understanding is that each competition year, the Caine Prize offers the workshop to the shortlisted writers and those other writers who did not make the shortlist but whose stories the judges felt showed promise. I also understand that the Prize invites promising writers from the host country to participate in the workshop. For 10 days the workshop simulates the ideal work environment for a writer—literally a room of one’s own, food and drinks, feedback from other writers and renowned experts, and freedom from the responsibilities and distractions of daily life. We are asked to produce a short 3000-5000 word story. I found the pressure to produce intense. Nonetheless, I welcome any format which allows me to meet and work with other writers. The workshop also has an outreach component. Writers visit local schools, cultural centers, and radio stations to read from their work and answer questions from their audiences. Overall I found the experience positive.
In her piece on the Caine Prize for Africa in Words, Ranka Primorac writes of the Caine Prize’s ‘willingness to mediate between local and global literary and reading cultures via its annual writing workshops and co-produced short story anthologies’. What is your take on this idea of exchange between local and global literary cultures via the Caine Prize? What do you see the Prize’s place to be in ‘African literature’, that much-contested category?
There are certainly (African) texts which circulate around the world more easily than others, and anytime a publisher or prize can facilitate that movement from the local to the global, that is a good thing for the author. The Caine Prize is well-placed organizationally, financially, and from what I know of its current director, philosophically, to continue to do that. Its practice to hold workshops in African countries run by veteran facilitators from Africa or of African descent and its efforts to partner with African publishers speak to its recognition that it has to be rooted in the African continent and its literary practices. In short, the Caine Prize plays an important role in disseminating the writings of Africans. Of course, it cannot be the sole gateway by which the literatures of Africa get to circulate in the world. So the perceived or real criticism Ranka Primorac notes — specters of neo-colonial cultural attitude, unwittingly exoticising Africa via an emergent ‘Caine aesthetic‘ — must be countered by Africa-based publishers and prizes. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), the Nupeng (Oil and gas sector prize for Literature); Spectrum, Bookcraft, Kwani Trust, Langaa of Cameroon, Jalada, the Sierra Leone Writers’ Series, Short Story Day Africa, Etisalat Prize for Literature, Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize are a few of the continent-based efforts to provide other voices that will participate in mapping African literature. Also established, emerging, and aspiring African writers (old and new names) from the continent and in the diaspora need to “return home” to patronize Africa-based publishers and prizes.
Pede Hollist is an associate professor of English at The University of Tampa, Florida. His work draws upon the African consciousness, showing through literature the experiences of those on the continent and the experiences of those a part of the African diaspora.
His short story Foreign Aid was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing (read our AiW review here). So the Path Does Not Die (reviewed for AiW here) is his first novel. Pede Hollist’s non-fiction piece ‘Crossing Borders to Find Home’ was published on AiW here.
Ranka Primorac’s ‘Acts of Mutiny: the Caine Prize and ‘African Literature’’, an in-depth article which forms part of Africa in Words’ 2015 series of comment pieces on the Caine Prize, is here – posted in the run up to our review of Lusaka Punk.
Lusaka Punk and Other Stories is now available from The New Internationalist. The Caine Prize 2015 anthology contains the 5 short-listed stories and those from the two week Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop which took place in Elmina, Ghana this year, with Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner.
The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi (Nigeria)
Flying by Elnathan John (Nigeria)
A Party for the Colonel by FT Kola (South Africa)
Space by Masande Ntshanga (South Africa)
The Sack by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)
The Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop Stories 2015:
#Yennenga by Jemila Abdulai (Ghana)
The Road Workers of Chalbi by Dalle Abraham (Kenya)
Wahala Lizard by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
Nehushtan by Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)
Swallowing Ice by Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana)
Lusaka Punk by Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)
The Writing in the Stars by Jonathan Dotse (Ghana)
Burial by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria)
The Song of a Goat by Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone)
Princess Sailendra of Malindi by Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya)
Blood Match by Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi)
Coloured Rendition by Aisha Nelson (Ghana)
Last week Lilly Kroll chatted to Namwali Serpell; next week, we’ll be publishing our review of the Lusaka Punk anthology.
You can find our previous pieces on this year’s shortlisted stories as part of the Caine Prize blogathon at the following links:
John Uwa’s AiW review of Segun Afolabi’s “The Folded Leaf” (Nigeria) | Read “The Folded Leaf” inWasafiri .
Madhu Krishnan’s AiW review of Elnathan John’s “Flying” (Nigeria) | Read “Flying” in Per Contra.
Doseline Kiguru’s AiW review of F. T. Kola’s “A Party for the Colonel” (South Africa) | Read “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story.
Nomonde Ntsepo’s AiW review of Masande Ntshanga’s “Space” (South Africa) | Read “Space” in Twenty in 20.
Lilly Kroll’s AiW review of Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” (Zambia) | Read “The Sack” in Africa39.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A