Q&A Caine 2021: Words on the Times – Goretti Kyomuhendo, Chair of the Judges

With AiW Guest: Goretti Kyomuhendo.

Caine2021_5ReviewsAiW note: Last week we ran reviews of each of the five shortlisted stories for the AKO Caine Prize 2021 by five new AiW Guest authors, re-opening our now annual critical conversations and feedback around the writing, the work, and that of the literary prize.

In a joyful offshoot this week, and as the writer events and public conversations build to the specially curated winner announcement on the AKO Caine Prize’s YouTube channel on Monday 26th July at 5:00 P.M. BST, we are delighted and grateful to be able to offer some wonderful responses to a Caine-related Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A subset we initiated last year as our arts and books communities entered our various #Covoids and the challenges of the pandemic. 

These Words on the Times are with shortlisted writers and others working with the AKO Caine Prize, which this year has been wholly undertaken during pandemic conditions. They expand on experiences of the prize beyond the shortlist, as well as discuss wider shifts, in other work and writing practices, and living through these, our times.


Our first Words this week are from Goretti Kyomuhendo, chair of the judging panel for the AKO Caine Prize 2021. 


The AKO Caine Prize judging panel, 2021. For bios of the judges, see the AKO Caine website

Goretti Kyomuhendo - credit Matched FocusGoretti is one of Uganda’s leading novelists. The first Ugandan woman writer to receive the prestigious International Writing Program Fellowship at the University of Iowa, Goretti has been recognised for her work as a writer and literary activist nationally and internationally, and has participated in numerous forums worldwide.  

She is a founding member of FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers’ Association and Publishing House – and worked as its first Director for ten years (1997-2007). She is also founder-director of the African Writers Trust (2009- ), which promotes synergies and collaborative learning between African writers on the continent and in the Diaspora.

“What comes across vividly in this year’s shortlisted stories, through their impressive craft and intelligent language is their ability to resonate profoundly with the reader. My fellow judges and I were reminded, once again, of the redemptive power of stories. These remarkable five narratives all exemplify, with delicacy and truth, what good fiction is.” 

Goretti Kyomuhendo, on revealing AKO Caine Prize shortlist, for African Writers Trust

As Chair of this year’s AKO Caine Prize judging panel, she has already spoken about the shortlisting process in terms of the literary excellence of submissions, including the “consistently excellent editing throughout the stories put to our judgement”, and in conversation with allAfrica, the “profound” significance in the fact that three of the shortlisted stories were published in homegrown literary journals from the continent, Ibua, based in Uganda, Doek! based in Namibia, and Lolwe, in Kenya. 

In her Words on the Times for us, Goretti reiterates the significance of this in judging the submissions in this particular year, the personal and professional joys and challenges of the pandemic — working with others as a novelist and plans for AWT — and new ways of working emerging and going forward…


AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your role, involvement and work with the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing?

Goretti Kyomuhendo: My role as chair is majorly to preside over the judges’ panel meetings, direct the conversations and guide the discussions. Some of the meetings we’ve held so far were to agree on the modus operandi and to select the five stories that appeared on the shortlist. We will have a couple more this month.

caineMy first involvement with the Caine Prize (as it was known then) was when I was invited to its first writing workshop in 2003 in Cape Town.

Are there any particular challenges, joys, or experiences specific to this year you would like to share with us, and/or what does it mean for you to be working on the Prize now?

I think the greatest challenge has been to zero down on the five stories that we put on the shortlist; selecting them from the many that were presented to us for judging. In total we received 120 short stories from 22 countries, many of them very well written. I am glad that we finally agreed on the five that appear on the shortlist.

It was also rewarding to note that three of the shortlisted stories were published by homegrown publishing outfits based on the continent. As African writers and publishing professionals, we should strive to create our own centres of gravity when it comes to publishing; and to own the production processes of our literature. We should not always look to the west for publishing opportunities. That is why the emergence and growth of literary journals and other publishing setups on the continent is particularly exciting.

This year’s entries had a number of stories submitted in translation, mostly from the French-speaking parts of Africa. This was really fantastic because, usually, when we speak of African literature, we tend to refer to literature written in English only. It was brilliant to read different accents, different perspectives from a part of the world we rarely hear from in our English-speaking world. This can only expand our imaginative horizons and experiences of reading African literature.

AiW’s Words on the Times Q&A was initiated at the beginning of the pandemic, when our communities entered the various #COVOIDs for books and literary production; as it continues, it is still inspired by the spirit of connection in our varied experiences of working, making and living as we share in the challenges of these times.

On this note, how have things been on the ground for you? Could you tell us a bit about your other work — your writing and/or other kinds of work, roles, more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear — and any ways the pandemic has affected it?

I normally divide my time between London and Kampala. The pandemic found me in Kampala, ostensibly having come to celebrate Christmas of 2019 with my family. I have not left since. On a personal level, this was a good thing because I was able to spend quality time with my family. My mum fell seriously ill at the height of the pandemic, and I am glad I was here to nurse her back to health.

African-Writers-Trust-LogobOn a professional level, my work as director of the African Writers Trust was disrupted by the onset of the pandemic in Uganda at the beginning of 2020; and the subsequent measures put in place by the government to mitigate the spread of the virus. We only managed to implement one activity last year – the second edition of the Publishing Fellowship programme, which brought together 12 writers and emerging publishers from Uganda and six other countries from southern Africa.

In April 2021, we were fortunate to pull off the Writing & Reading residency, a hybrid activity combining in-person and virtual interactions and experiences, before Uganda was hit by the deadly second wave in May 2021, which is still on-going.

One of the positives of the pandemic, however, was that as an organisation, we’ve been able to plan for the future. Having cancelled or postponed all our activities last year, and many this year, we used the time and resources to establish a writers’ training centre, a pioneering initiative intended to fill a literary gap in the East and the Horn of Africa sub-region. The Centre offers a physical space where contributors of literature gather to focus on craft development, and enjoy an atmosphere conducive to creating and developing their writing and publishing processes to higher standards.

My own writing (as a novelist), has gone much better than I had anticipated, I guess because many of my writer friends (including myself) had to cancel our international travel (which normally eats up a lot of our writing time); I was able to share my on-going novel manuscript with two of them. They both provided useful feedback, which I have just finished working on. It is great when, as a writer, you feel your manuscript is ready for submission to the next level.

Do you find yourself working in new ways now that you weren’t before?

Yes. Definitely. Covid profoundly changed or affected the everyday working lives of everyone. Kampala is a small city; many of us in the Literature sector know and collaborate with one another. We regularly meet up for lunch or a drink to discuss our various collaborative projects; or make appointments to hold meetings in our different spaces and offices; or attend book launches, etcetera. In other words, we meet physically. There has never been a reason for a Zoom meeting between us.
The pandemic changed all that. There was a time I was zooming with a colleague whose office is just a stone throw away from mine; and another time when I started working on a project with someone I had never met physically; and some months later, we concluded the project without ever interacting in-person. This really felt weird and, to be honest, I don’t like this ‘new way of working’.

I still very much prefer to talk about things over a cup of tea, in an office, or other working space, rather than on a zoom screen. I pray and hope that we will soon go back to ‘our normal way’ of doing things.


With our thanks to AKO Caine Prize and, of course, to Goretti for taking the time to give us her Words.

You can find details of the multifaceted work of the African Writers Trust at their website here – and Writers – see their call for the Manuscript Assessment Programme, now in its third iteration – the deadline is coming up on the 31st July, at 5pm GMT.


Today, Monday 19/07 – Join AKO Caine Prize shortlisted writers Meron Hadero, Doreen Baingana, and Iryn Tushabe, streaming from the British Library’s own platform, in conjunction with Africa Writes:


Watch this space for more Caine-related Words on the Times with the shortlisted writers to come…And check out our reviews of their stories in advance!

Every day last week, as part of our longer engagement with the Caine Prize and prize cultures around African literature, we published our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read the stories in full at the AKO Caine Prize website and our reviews as follows:

These reviews are part of our extended conversations over the years about prizing African literatures and the Caine Prize’s contributions to (or detraction from) discourses and critical appraisals of the cultures it promotes. You can dig back into our previous years’ shortlist reviews, interviews with the writers, and other coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our discussions of the Anthologies.


And keep tuned in to the conversations surrounding the prize this year. You could have a look at Brittle Paper’s post to find out which virtual events with the shortlisted writers remain ahead of the revelation of this year’s AKO Caine Prize for African Writing winner!!

A reminder of tonight’s below…



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