Caine Prize 2020 – “There’s been a lot of kindness and even rediscovery of a sense of community”: Words on the Times with the shortlisted writers.

Image courtesy of Caine Prize.

Ahead of the announcement of the AKO Caine Prize’s winner today at 5pm BST, we were able to catch up with Erica Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile, Rémy Ngamije for their Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A set inspired by the spirit of community and resilience and to help connect us up during the measures necessitated by the pandemic.

We have reviewed each of this year’s shortlisted stories, part of our longer engagement with the Caine Prize and prize cultures around African literature. 

The Prize winner will be revealed this evening with a specially commissioned film, produced and directed by renowned filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye, which you will be able to watch here.

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Words on the Times, AKO Caine Prize 2020.

downloadChikodili Emelumadu was raised in Nigeria. Her short fiction has previously been shortlisted for several awards: “Candy Girl” for the Shirley Jackson Award (2015), “Bush Baby” for the Caine Prize for African Literature (2017) – reviewed for Africa in Words as part of our annual Caine series here – and “Sin Eater” for a Nommo Award (2020). In 2019, she won the inaugural Curtis Brown First Novel prize for her novel Dazzling. You can follow Chikodili on Twitter: @chemelumadu.

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize. Could you tell us a bit about your short story and/or how it came about? 

Chikodili Emelumadu: My story was birthed as a result of several influences. Feminism and a dislike for the singular and acceptable femaleness (coy, submissive, no agency apart from that handed to her by a man), a desire to highlight the creative otherness of individuals, and frustration at not having my interests presented in Academia to name a few. To be frank, I’m sure there are many other influences that I haven’t even thought about.

AiW: In what way has the pandemic affected plans in the run up to the Caine Prize announcement this year?

CE: Ooh, not sure this a question for me. I tell you what I miss though: the opportunity for hangouts IRL with my fellow shortlistees.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your other work and the ways you are working now that you weren’t before? 

CE: My work deals in subversion and the supernatural. Right now because I have dependents, I work when I can. It’s quite rare but I don’t sweat it. My agent at Curtis Brown has the second draft of my novel ‘Dazzling’ at the moment.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

CE: Being able to connect frequently with family and friends, and, silence and introspection. We are all in good health so, we can afford to take time to be with each other, even if only virtually.

You can read Joanna Woods’s review of Chikodili Emelumadu’s “What to do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata” here.

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Tendu

Erica Sugo Anyadike began her career in South Africa as a screenwriter and worked in various capacities in the television sector. In 2019, Erica was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Queen Mary Wasafiri Writing Prize. Erica’s interests lie in depicting complex African female characters and mentoring young filmmakers and writers. She is writing a novel and living in Kenya with her family. She can be found on Twitter @SugoErica.

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize. Could you tell us a bit about your short story and/or how it came about? 

Erica Sugo Anyadike: My current shortlisted story, How To Marry an African President was inspired by the former Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe. I was fascinated by her because she’d become this iconic representation of greed and she was portrayed in this incredibly one dimensional way by the media. This fascination grew when President Mugabe was toppled and the narrative tended towards blaming Grace and her undue influence over him. This surprised me – this tendency to vilify her and infantilize him. The more I thought about it, I saw parallels between Grace and Eve and Delilah from the Bible. So, yes – Eve and Icarus, the Bible and mythology – those were inspirations too.

Bio-fiction, which is the genre I wrote in, is a term I first encountered when I read Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light which is a fictionalised biography of the life of the photographer Lee Miller during her time with Man Ray. Then Curtis Sittenfeld wrote Rodham which explored the what if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton. Both of these stories deal with ambitious women who wanted better for themselves and mine does too. I didn’t want to excuse my protagonist’s excesses but but I’m suspicious when the dominant narrative about a person or an issue lacks complexity. I start to question who is setting the agenda, what controlling images and stereotypes are being perpetuated and to what end? I wanted to reclaim that narrative and give Grace the complexity I felt she lacked.

There are many aspects of that story which are fictionalised and nothing and no-one is named and that is because this story and the questions it raises about gender and power are universal. 

I’m interested in how women are lauded when they conform to certain standards and reviled when they don’t. Or how, for example, women are blamed for a man’s failings or even for a child’s misbehaviour. I watched women running for office, both on this continent and on the global stage, and I noted how their ambition is perceived, how they were treated, the nature of the insults that were wielded against them. Insults that are often sexualised, violent and reductive. 

In the case of How To Marry An African President, it’s been fascinating to watch how people engage with the story and their perception of what they think it’s about and how they relate to it. But I think it’s important to reiterate that I have no interest in praising Grace or pathologising her.

AiW: In what way has the pandemic affected plans in the run up to the Caine Prize announcement this year?

ESA: Ordinarily, we’d get to meet each other and be doing these events in person. We’ve compensated by bonding online and on social media but nothing can replace personal contact. That said, we’ve still built a community of sorts because all of us are experiencing this strange year together, we’re all in this peculiar position. I’m still holding out for the workshop. I like our group and I would love to meet them in person and exchange ideas. A writing community is so important.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your other work and the ways you are working now that you weren’t before? 

ESA: I’ve worked in broadcasting and I’ve been a commissioning editor and an executive producer. My background is primarily in screenwriting. I’ve made several television series. I’m currently working on a novel. Writing during this year has had less distractions because of curfew and lockdowns, but also more distractions because I’m a parent and my kids participate in online school from home. So the home/work/school boundary has definitely blurred. The challenges around time management have required creativity and adjustment but you learn to adapt.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

ESA: The same things I’ve always enjoyed. Life’s little pleasures. Hugs from loved ones, books with breathtaking sentences, movies and television shows that make you think, random and deliberate acts of kindness, great views, a perfect cup of coffee and laughter. 

You can read Wesley Macheso’s review of Erica Sugo Anyadike’s “How to Marry an African President” here.1page-divider1

unnamedRémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One is available from Blackbird Books. He writes for brainwavez.org, a writing collective based in South Africa. He is the editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine. His short stories have appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Columbia Journal, and New Contrast. He has been longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize and shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines in 2019. More of his writing can be read on his website. Follow Rémy on Twitter @remythequill.

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize. Could you tell us a bit about your short story and/or how it came about? 

Rémy Ngamije: The Neighbourhood Watch follows Elias, Lazarus, Omagano, Silas, and Martin around the streets and suburbs of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, as they try to make some sort of life without the comforts of food, shelter, and security. Over the course of a week it delves into their pasts, their present plights, and tries to show their precarious future.

Like many stories, it is hard to reach ground zero for the origin of the story. I can, for example, only hazard a guess: that I had seen aspects of the characters in The Neighbourhood Watch in my environment. But, thereafter, to tell the story, I had to use the standard storytelling ingredients: character, plot, structure, and the rhythm of language.

AiW: In what way has the pandemic affected plans in the run up to the Caine Prize announcement this year?

RN: Well, you know, I did not plan on being shortlisted this year—it just happened. So I am not sure whether it has affected any of my Caine Prize plans, personally.

My only regret, really, is that I did not get to meet Irenosen, Chikodili, Jowhor, and Erica—they wrote impressive stories; it would have been great to meet the writers and talk about craft and language and how we go about putting our work down on paper.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your other work and the ways you are working now that you weren’t before? 

RN: Well, to be honest, many of my writing opportunities have dried up so I have more time to pretend at being a full-time writer. I am using most of my time without work to polish other writing projects like the literary magazine I co-founded and edit: Doek!Namibia’s first and only literary magazine. Our third and latest edition—Stories From A Small Place—has been quite a success. Now I am planning for the fourth due in November, 2020.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

RN: The AfroLit Sans Frontières Literary Festival, which is held online on Instagram Live, is probably the best thing to happen in a long time. Zukiswa Wanner, its founder, has really managed to bring some of the most interesting writers to the platform and allowed us—their reading public—to engage with them in honest and sincere ways.

Then, lastly, Lolwea Kenyan-based literary magazine founded by Troy Onyago—launched its first edition. Reading the writers who have been published in it has been a transcendental experience. Anyone who says Africans are not writing—and writing in diverse and interesting ways—needs to take a step back and then fall back.

You can read Ellen Addis’s review of Rémy Ngamije’s “The Neighbourhood Watch” here.

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Jowhor IleJowhor Ile is a Nigerian writer known for his first novel, And After Many Days (2016). In 2016, the novel was awarded the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Ile’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Litro Magazine. ‘Fisherman’s Stew’ was published in The Sewanee Review (2019). You can follow Jowhor on Twitter @JowhorIle.

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize. Could you tell us a bit about your short story and/or how it came about? 

Jowhor Ile: It’s a story about Nimi, a widow who lives alone and longs for the husband she lost. She decides to do something about it. To help fulfill a promise they made to each other, she makes him a stew. The story came together out of a mix of feelings I had and continue to have as a person who currently lives far away from the place of my birth, my family, and the richly flavoured  riverine food I was raised  on.

AiW: In what way has the pandemic affected plans in the run up to the Caine Prize announcement this year?

JI: Being on the shortlist has been a wonderful experience. To be shortlisted together with such an extremely talented group of writers is simply wonderful, and what an exciting ride it has been. It’s a shame there won’t be the usual ceremony and I won’t get to physically meet the other writers, the panels and all the people who have worked so hard to make sure we still have a Caine Prize this year, but we have been meeting online and it’s been a lot of fun.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your other work and the ways you are working now that you weren’t before? 

JI: I have more time to work on my writing, but my focus and attention has dwindled with the lockdown. I miss going into the classroom with students and the stimulating conversations  we have about stories

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

JI: There’s been a lot of kindness and even rediscovery of a sense of community. COVID has disrupted a lot of things, but many people have risen to the occasion to care for others. Jobs have been lost, livelihoods obliterated, but our sense of shared humanity is being reaffirmed in quiet but unmistakable ways.

You can read Didem Alkan’s review for AiW of Jowhor Ile’s “Fisherman’s Stew” here.

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You can also find Zahra Banday’s review of Irenosen Okojie’s “Grace Jones” here.

Thank you, Irenosen!

We also had the pleasure of sharing the uplifting Words on the Times from Ifeanyi Awachie, who chaired the annual Africa Writes AKO Caine Prize Conversation event, held online this year on July 20. You can find more on that conversation here.

Watch out for the announcement of the winner at the AKO Caine Prize YouTube link here. We’ll be posting through the day so look out for more on our Instagram!
And best of all good luck to all the shortlisted writers!



Categories: Caine Prize, Words on the Times, Writers

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