Plagiarism, Intertextuality, and the Same Old Story: The Caine Prize Controversy is Not Original

On September 3, 2019, the Caine Prize for African Writing announced that it was removing Tochukwu Okafor’s “All Our Lives” from the 2019 short list for the Prize for short fiction for “failure to attribute an original source.” The 2019 judges determined this after a comparison with Laleh Khadivi’s “Wanderlust,” published in 2014 in nonprofit magazine The Sun. Here at AiW we’ve been blogging the Caine Prize since 2013, reviewing the stories shortlisted and also, we hope, offering our reviews with a critical eye regarding the structures in place in the prizing of African literature in English, as Kate Wallis does in our original post. The Caine Prize is certainly not the only prize for African works and authors based in Global North, mostly white institutions. It is also not the first institution based in a (former) colonial metropole to play the role of arbiter of originality regarding fiction by African writers.

Short Story Day Africa, which awarded Okafor its prize for the story in 2017, has responded in a thoughtful reflection on their own work developing and mentoring young writers. SSDA correctly situates this instance in a longer history of debates around plagiarism vs. intertextuality in literature in general, and particularly in African letters. They affirm that “African writers need to know that sadly, they are held to higher standards than Western writers, for whom intertextuality in publishing is a matter of implicit cultural heritage. This can be popular: fan-fic, musicals based on Shakespearian tragedies, sequels to classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, or even Disney’s recycling of fairytales; or academic, as in the central theoretical understanding of the literary author as an individual Romantic voice (rather than a representative of communal voices, custodian of shared narratives, harvester of story seeds).”  Brittle Paper, who shortlisted Okafor’s story for its own prize, has decided against removing it from their list, but also issued a brief response saying they were “dismayed” at the “unacceptable” lack of attribution. The editors there point to Okafor’s “inexperience” and see this controversy as “a teachable moment.” But teachable for whom? I hear in SSDA’s response a firm question posed to critics, prize juries, and academics like myself based in Euro-America–and in/from historically white institutions–: why do white writers get praised for creative uses of intertextuality, while black writers are condemned for plagiarism?

I felt particularly implicated in responding (or inspired to respond?) to this particular case, not only because I personally wrote the review of “All Our Lives” for the blog this year before the question even arose, but also because it reminded me of two other cases of plagiarism and prizes that I have studied in my academic work focused on African writers working in French: Calixthe Beyala winning the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française (French Academy Grand Prize for the Novel), and Yambo Ouologuem’s Renaudot, prizes that were and still are adjudicated in the center of the publishing world in French, and the center of the former colonial empire, Paris.


l’Affaire Beyala

Calixthe Beyala, a Cameroonian author who has been actively publishing in French with major Paris publishing houses since the late 1980s, is no stranger to controversy. Her novels focus on female protagonists that are provocative in their behaviors, but also are criticized by others for playing too much with exotic or essentialist stereotypes of African women (see this 1997 critique in Africultures by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa for an example of this earlier in her career). Her political outspokenness is well known, and her longtime tacit support of Paul Biya’s regime has become more visible/vocal in recent years (see Hitchcott p. 18 on Mongo Beti’s accusations against her; or this Mediapart article for a more recent case against Biya’s son whom she defends as being victimized by outside, western powers). And we won’t forget her barely-veiled memoir about an affair with a well-known French TV talk show host.

Cover of Beyala’s Les honneurs perdus

But Beyala’s works have also drawn critical acclaim, and are often the subject of academic study and found on course syllabi in US universities. Les Honneurs perdus (1996, Lost Honors) in particular was both critically praised and put on trial after accusations of plagiarism. In 1996, the novel garnered her the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française, one of the many literary prizes awarded in the last quarter of the year in France following the glut of new publications in September known as the rentrée littéraire. Beyala was the first African woman to be awarded the prize. Shortly after the award was announced, well-known literary critic Pierre Assouline accused her of plagiarising sections of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, printing side-by side comparisons of the two texts (the French translations of Okri’s novel) in national magazine Lire. Beyala was eventually found guilty–this following a previous conviction for plagiarizing parts of her 1992 novel Le Petit prince de Belleville from Howard Buten’s Quand j’avais cinq ans je m’ai tué. In an open letter published in Le Figaro titled “Moi, Calixthe Beyala, la plagiaire!”, Beyala highlights the difficulties of making it in the French literary field when one is from the outside. “Aujourd’hui, je m’interroge: peut-on naître dans une bidonville et être reconnu comme un écrivain dans sa totalité à Paris?” (Today, I ask myself: can one be born in a slum and be recognized as a writer in her totality in Paris?) She leans on her African origin to explain something of her creative process: “…je viens d’une civilisation de l’oralité, où la connaissance depuis des siècles se transmet de bouche à oreille […] De ce fait, l’histoire est à tous, à personne, à celui qui l’habite, la transmet, la fait vivre!” (…I come from a civilization of the oral tradition, where knowledge has been transmitted by word of mouth for centuries […] History thus belongs to everyone, to no one, to those who inhabit it, transmit it, bring it to life!)

As Nikki Hitchcott has explained in her book Calixthe Beyala: Performances of Migration, the author “chooses to play the ‘authenticity’ card. By strategically placing herself first as victim of racism because of her alterity, then as oral storyteller because of her African roots, Beyala attempts to reappropriate and then manipulate the French public’s image of her” (32). Other critics have been perhaps less nuanced; Jean-Luc Hennig, in Apologie du plagiat (1997), sees in Beyala the trope of the trickster in this affair. Kenneth Harrow finds possibilities for a similar connection, but cautions against too simplistic an interpretation, reading l’Affaire Beyala and her subsequent self-defense as a subversive act. Beyala occupies multiple positions here: both a publicly lauded novelist and a publicly accused (and condemned in at least one case) plagiarist. At different moments in time she is a creative talent or a criminal copyist; these performances seem contradictory and inspire accusations of inauthenticity. Beyala is classified in conflicting literary categories of what it means to be an African woman writer in the French literary landscape. But in her own and perhaps more contradictory performances, Beyala allows a site for criticism of the very industry that circulates her work, and asks whether space might be made for more and different ways of thinking about the individuals behind the creative works produced for the Parisian literary industry. 


Bound to Violence

Beyala was not the first African writer to face similar accusations after winning a literary prize in France. Malian Yambo Ouologuem published Le Devoir de violence in 1968 (Bound to Violence, 1971) and won exceptionally high praise for his début novel. Ououlguem won the Renaudot prize that year, considered one of the most prestigious of the literary awards in French, the first text by an African writer to win the

Cover of 2018 re-edition of Le devoir de violence

prize. Shortly following the novel’s translation into English, Ouloguem was accused of plagiarizing passages from Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield and later, André Schwartz-Bart’s Le Dernier des justes (Eric Sellin’s 1971 article in Research in African Literatures outlines the similarities with Schwartz-Bart’s novel). Greene’s legal action against the publisher was successful and the book was as a result banned in France for 30 years. 

More recently the book has drawn increasing critical attention and study, as postcolonial scholars in particular re-examine it and its social reality, finding evidence for resistance to (neo) colonial structures in the publishing world in France. A year following Ouologuem’s death in 2017, the original publisher,

Éditions du Seuil, released a new edition of the novel. In a similar vein as Harrow’s reading of Beyala, Julie Levasseur finds thatL’imposture commise par Ouologuem lors de l’écriture du Devoir de violence constitue en somme une riposte à la violence de la domination européenne en Afrique, une contre-attaque culturelle qui force à la réflexion” (The imposture committed by Ouologuem in the writing of Bound to Violence constitutes in sum a response to the violence of European domination in Africa, a cultural counter-attack that forces us to reflect).


Beyala’s and Ouologuem’s cases in fact flip the script of a related tale. Published in 1956, Ousmane Sembène’s Le Docker noir (Black Docker, 1987) is a fictional account of a plagiarism case in African letters. Senegalese dock worker Diaw Falla passes his unpublished novel to a white French woman, Ginette Tontisane, hoping she will help get the manuscript to an editor. She does; the book is published under her own name and wins her the year’s top literary prize. The chain of events that follow have dire consequences for Diaw, and he is put on trial for her murder. It’s Diaw’s work that is stolen, but French authorities are unwilling to believe his claims about the plagiarized novel, contributing to Diaw’s inability to get a fair trial. European anxieties about the originality of African literatures are not a new story. Neither are the sanctions–be they legal or on social media–handed down in the colonial literary capitals of London and Paris. Sembène’s novel takes one fictionalized case to a more extreme conclusion than the real-life prize controversies I’ve outlined here. But the reflex to question an African author’s originality, where a white writer may be extended a more generous benefit of the doubt, remains a constant. A teachable moment, indeed.

Kristen Stern is Assistant Professor in Francophone Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Managing Editor at AiW. She is at work on a book on contemporary francophone writers from the African continent and the performance of authorship. She regularly presents and publishes on contemporary African literature in French, performance studies, and the sociology of the author. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University.

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