AiW long read: Caine 2021 – A prize coming of age

AiW Guest: Doseline Kiguru


2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist

AiW note: As with every year since “Joining the Caine Prize ‘Blog-Carnival'” back in 2013 — Africa in Words has engaged with the AKO Caine Prize for African Writers in the run up to the winner announcement, this year with critical reviews of each of the shortlisted stories for the 2021 prize.

WoTGorettiKyomuhendo_Caine featured (1)Joining last year’s Q&As, we were also able to run a series of Words on the Times interviews — an AiW Q&A subset that was initiated at the start of the pandemic lockdowns to connect up our books communities as we navigate our ways through these times — with shortlisted writers Doreen Baingana, Iryn Tushabe, and Meron Hadero, who went on to win the 2021 prize, and with the Chair of the Judges, Goretti Khyamundo.

This post rounds out our coverage of this year’s prize and formally introduces  Doseline Kiguru to welcome her as one of our AiW team. Doseline, who has written extensively on the Caine in view of broader prize cultures and the market for African literature, writes an overview of its “coming of age” through the links, connections and networks the Prize has fostered with distribution, publishing and writers’ platforms, considering its wide material life on the continent, as well as that of its short stories…


CaineAKO20202021 marks 22 years since the first AKO Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded. After more than two decades in the African literary market, it now seems like the perfect time to analyse the waves and ripples it has created over the years and what this translates to in terms of defining and working with contemporary African literature today. 

Arguably one of the most prestigious and prominent awards for contemporary African literature today, the Caine Prize is certainly a major canon formation and literary valuation body. Its shifting patterns in terms of foregrounding specific authors, texts, ideas and thematic contents and styles therefore has continued to affect the production and circulation of African literature over the years. Rather than focusing on content, this article is an attempt at mapping the effects of these shifts on local literary and cultural production, considering links the Caine has forged with publishing, and production and distribution networks, and the prize’s promotion of genre, to explore some of the contradictions therein. While it is true that the prize has courted its share of critical controversy in the past — perhaps most prominently it has been accused of favouring African writers based outside of the continent more than writers who are based in Africa; it has weathered the debate on its promotion of an ‘aesthetics of pain and suffering’ as a demand and desire for content determined by Africa’s outside — these are topics that have been written about extensively in different platforms. Here, I avoid that route in favour of a scope that looks in particular to the repositioning of the Caine over the years from a ‘new’ prize for ‘new writing,’ and ‘new/upcoming’ or ‘emergent’ writers to a more established orientation, and what this might mean in the wider African literary market. 


The early years of the award were defined by a mixture of stories by both older and established, and young and upcoming writers, for whom the prize provided an opportunity to access the global market. The shortlist for the first four years, for instance, heavily featured established and mostly older writers in the African literary scene such as Zimbabweans Charles Mungoshi, Rory Kilalea, and Shimmer Chinodya; Mozambican writers Mia Couto and Lília Momplé; Nurrudin Farah (Somalia); Hassouna Mosbahi (Tunisia); and Emmanuel Dongala (Congo), among others. 

However, the winning entries in these first years were stories by new, young, and upcoming writers who have since then moved on to become household names in contemporary African literature. These include the Scotland-based Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela (winner of the inaugural prize in 2000), Helon Habila (Nigeria, winner 2001), and Kenyan writers Binyavanga Wainaina (winner 2002) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (winner 2003). With this trend set early on, therefore, the Caine gained popularity as a new award for emergent and upcoming writers.

africa39coverThis was a reputation further established in 2014 when Africa39, a Hay Festival and Rainbow Book Club project, compiled a list ‘of the most promising 39 authors under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora,’ a list which foregrounded Caine-associated writers. The Africa39 project culminated in a festival and the launch of the book Africa39 (2014) at the Book Fair in Port Harcourt, the designated UNESCO World Book Capital in 2014. The book compiles a collection of short stories and extracts from novels written by 39 writers under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora who have greatly influenced the literary scene or whose potential for doing so is undisputed, under the tagline ‘Who will be the next generation?’.

13 of the 39 writers had previously had their work published in the Caine anthologies, having been among the prize’s previous long- and shortlists. The association of Africa39 writers with the Caine was also evident in connections with the prize’s ongoing collaborative relationships with local writers’ organisations committed to the generation and promotion of literary cultures, such as FEMRITE in Uganda, or Kwani? in Kenya.

kwani-logoMagnifying these links, the Africa39 research initiative was headed by Binyavanga Wainaina, a role complementing his work with Kwani? which he, together with other young Kenyan literary enthusiasts, had co-founded initially as a literary magazine with the proceeds of his 2002 Caine win and funding from Ford Foundation, concerned with the explicit intention of showcasing new and upcoming writers from a homegrown organisation and publication platform. 

Becoming ‘established’

The perception of the prize as an award body for what is ‘new’ in the African literary market had already been cemented by the Caine’s heavy investment in the African writing and publishing market through their annual writing workshops. The Caine writing workshops were launched in 2003, establishing co-publishing agreements of the prize/workshop anthologies between local presses and the Caine’s UK-based publishers New Internationalist, who provided a print-ready PDF free of charge to their publishing partners based on the continent. 

The Caine workshops were held in different locations within the African continent and usually in partnership with local literary platforms. They brought together twelve writers — generally but not always consisting of those long-listed the previous year — at a ten-day event where authors met to brainstorm and exchange ideas on writing and publishing. Each writer was expected to come up with a story to be workshopped with writing mentors and the other participants, and which was in turn published in an anthology along with that year’s shortlisted stories. Furthermore, these workshop stories were then submitted for the coming year’s Caine Prize competition. 

Two significant trends have emerged from these Caine workshops and the collaborative relationships with local literary organisations they put in place. Since their launch, these workshops have demonstrated their reliance on renowned and established writers to lead the discussions; increasingly, however, former Caine prize winners have later become workshop leaders and prize judges. Secondly, writers of the stories created and curated through this workshopping process have gone on to repopulate the shortlist and the winning lists. While this cyclic nature of awarding and circulating value has ensured the prize’s continued popularity, it has also played a big role in changing the dynamics of the prize from an upcoming prize to an established one. 


PrestiGe Books, @PrestigeNBI.

This shift is especially compounded by the ‘end’ of the Caine writing workshops and their anthologies. The last of such workshops was held in Rwanda in 2018, in partnership with Huza Press, making the last of the Caine anthologies based on the writing workshop model Redemption Song and Other Stories, which, as with previous years’ collections, was released on the announcement of the 2018 winner later that year. While no official communication from the prize body has been given about the end of these workshops, a new programme was introduced in September 2020 to ‘support and accompany African writers as they find their feet in the publishing industry’ (Ellah Wakatama and Dele Fatunla, joint statement on the Caine website). Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilot editing programme was held online with independent editor and founder of publishing services company Beyond White Space Ltd. (UK), Vimbai Shire, offering guidance and support to three selected writers — this inaugural year with Senegalese writer Aminata J Sow, and Nigerian writers TJ Benson and Rafeeat Aliyu — over a twelve week period. 

Significantly, the Caine website’s announcement tagline for ‘Online with Vimbai’ states that it ‘will mentor writers in producing stories eligible for the AKO Caine Prize,’ going on to describe the programme as involving ‘a professional assessment of each short story, discussions around the marketing direction for each piece, and regular feedback from the editor until a final review of the work is carried out to produce writings that are of a publishable standard.’ Similar to the end results of the earlier writing workshops, short stories produced through the editing programme will be published in an anthology together with the shortlisted stories. The addition of this programme further demonstrates the prize’s increased focus not just on the creation and crafting of the text but a professionalisation of the writer within the full gamut of publication processes, including on the networks within which the text circulates, such as its publishing and distribution platforms.

An analysis of the shortlist and winners over the years also demonstrates a shift in emphasis from favouring ‘upcoming’ to ‘established’ African writers, and its key role in that very establishment. The 2015 shortlist, for instance, included Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) who had previously won the prize ten years earlier. In the same manner, the 2016 shortlist included the 2013 winning Nigerian writer Tope Folarin. Also notable, a year later in 2017, the winning entry was ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ by Sudanese writer Bushra al-Fadhil. This short story was published in 1979 in Arabic and translated into English a year before the prize. 

This year’s (2021) shortlist included Ugandan Doreen Baingana who has been shortlisted for the Caine twice before (2004 and 2005, both times with stories from her collection Tropical Fish), and Rémy Ngamije (Rwanda/Namibia) and Meron Hadero (US/Ethiopia), who both made their second shortlist this year, having previously been shortlisted in 2020 and 2019 respectively. Both Ngamije and Kenyan writer Troy Onyango (shortlisted for the first time this year) head two of the leading literary magazines on the continent — Doek! in Namibia, and Lolwe in Kenya, respectively. Their contribution to contemporary African literature is both through their craft and their work in providing literary platforms for other creative writers.

Joining Baingana and others, in more recent years, some of the shortlisted authors have also published book-length texts before their entrance to the prize. Ngamije’s debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, was published in 2019 by BlackBird Books in South Africa; Ngamije was shortlisted in 2020 with ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ (published in The Johannesburg Review of Books), and 2021 with ‘The Giver of Nicknames’ (Lolwe). Irenosen Okojie (UK/Nigeria), who won the Caine in 2020 for the short story ‘Grace Jones,’ had published Butterfly Fish (2015), Speak Gigantular (2016), and Nudibranch (2019), the collection which housed her winning story, among others books. In the same vein, 2019 winner, Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah had previously published What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (2017), a collection which republished her Caine 2017 shortlisted story, ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ after its inaugural 2015 publication in The New Yorker

‘Establishing’ genre and the Caine short story

With this changing position of the prize body and the writers it foregrounds, the prize has cemented its place as a major canon formation body for contemporary African literature. And its impact has extended from the award scene to embrace other related fields such as literary publishing, writing organisations and writers’ groups, creative writing fields, book fairs and festivals, among others. Using the same analogy and tracing the prize’s foregrounding of individual writers and their work from ‘up-and-coming’ to ‘established’ market players, it becomes possible to read the impact of the prize on the short story as a genre. 

The Caine Prize has continued to play a significant role in the promotion of the short story genre in Africa. In fact, both economically and symbolically, the Caine ranks highly as one of the most prestigious awards for an African short story. It awards £10,000 to the author of the winning short story while shortlisted writers get £500 each. The focus on the short story genre in Africa however must be understood within the context of the economics of publishing over the different historical periods of the prize’s span. 

Granta_AfricanShortStory-coverFormer early Caine winner Helon Habila (who won the prize in 2001), for instance, in his introduction to The Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011), acknowledges the perception of the second-place position of the short story genre in relation to longer works of prose such as the novel, attributing this position to ‘the disappearance of a middle class in many African countries, a sector historically necessary for the survival of a short-story culture’ (ix). And as I have argued in detail in ‘Genre vs Prize’ (2020), ‘any history of this genre on the continent must take into account the effects of the history of literary publishing […] An economically challenged publishing industry favours those genres that achieve the best profit-to-cost ratios’ (38). With low or poor investment in the local publishing scene, the short story and poetry genres are going to be favoured over longer works of prose, such as the novel, or the biography and memoir. Tinashe Mushakavanhu illustrates this from the perspective of the short story in Zimbabwe and argues that ‘the popularity of the short story in Zimbabwe seems to derive from the fact that the form has been adopted as an economic publishing strategy […] Under the current economic challenges, it appears to be convenient for publishers to capture various voices in one book’ (131).

ALT31_coverWhile this perspective is a valid interpretation of how the material realities of publishing in Africa are interconnected with the production of literature more generally across the continent, it also runs the risk of presenting the short story as an in-between genre that stands in place of a more deserving one. By way of a counterpoint, a 2013 special issue of African Literature Today acknowledges that the short story genre had by then become one of the most popular on the continent. The editor, Ernest Emenyonu, insists on the continuing significance of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing to this rise in popularity, arguing that no other contemporary cultural institution has had a greater impact in foregrounding individual African writers in the global literary marketplace. 

There is an irony at work in this great impact of the prize on the genre, however, which lies in the less visible post-award life of the winning short stories and their writers. As we have seen, while the initial trend demonstrated a big focus on young, previously unpublished writers gaining global visibility through the prize body, it also meant that the same trend was reflected in the move from those winning with short stories to future publications of longer works of fiction. In the context of the prize itself, then, the short story became a transitional genre. 

Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s Caine Prize winning story in 2011, titled ‘Hitting Budapest,’ later grew into the novel We Need New Names (2013). Helon Habila, who won the prize in 2001 for the short story ‘Love Poems,’ later extended the story into the novel Waiting for an Angel (2002). Wainaina, who won the Caine in 2002 with ‘Discovering Home,’ later published his memoirs in One Day I Will Write About this Place (2011), with echoes of the winning short story evident in the book. Further, as demonstrated by most of the past winners who have extended their winning stories into novels, the short story has been treated as an appendage to the novel or memoir. Other related examples in this trajectory include the larger percentage of writers who first came to the limelight through winning the Caine, a short story prize, and who later moved on to focus on longer works of fiction. 

Such examples are numerous and varied, and seem to conform to an expected trajectory of the post-award life that the prize has established over the years. When the prize-winning short fiction is expected to emerge after, or, more significantly, naturally to progress to longer forms such as that of the novel or memoir, the award body can therefore be said to contribute to the creation and maintenance of genre hierarchies where the short story ranks lower than longer works of prose. And this exposes the irony of the prize body’s seeming promotion of the development of the short story genre for upcoming writers while at the same time assuming it to be a ‘gateway’ genre to the more economically viable forms of the novel or memoir for publishing and the literary market.  

However, we also see newer Caine trends, evident in the prize shortlist and winners, that seem to move away from a focus on upcoming and emergent to already established writers. Following on from this move, is it time to finally break with this now ‘expected’ trajectory and its ironies? Does the popularity of the prize among established writers mean a new lease of life for the short story as an independent genre that is not necessarily influenced by the economics of publishing? And how might the Caine’s influence fare in these shifting perceptions of the genre?

Changing literary networks and value

This expectation of a prize body’s evolution shaping the perception of a genre fits well with the history of the Caine where over the years it has continued to assert its influence on market trends as well as the publishing scene on the continent. Among the most prominent examples of its direct influence on the African literary marketplace is the prize’s foregrounding of short stories originally published online at a time when most focus on contemporary African literary and cultural production pointed towards print publications.

Graywolf_OneDayIWillWrite-coverWhen the award was launched, its focus was on stories published in print but this changed as early as its third year when Binyavanga Wainaina’s short story ‘Discovering Home’ from an online source won the 2002 prize. His memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place, Wainaina (2011) recounts how, on submission of his short story, which had been published ‘[i]n a panic, the day before the submission deadline’ in Rod Amis’ US-based e-zine,, the Caine organisers had replied expressing their regret, arguing that they “only accept stories published in print” (p.188).

Wainaina’s ‘furious’ email response, an argument about the poor state of print publications on the continent at the time (p.188), led to the Caine quietly opening its doors to his winning story and, so, to digital literary publications. Although Wainaina goes on to maintain that he was not made aware his story was even under consideration until his invitation to the prize-giving ceremony in Oxford arrived in his inbox, this change in the prize’s submission rules points to the fact that the award body was responding to the realities of the literary publishing industry in Africa at that particular moment in history. This also served as a demonstration and acknowledgment that an online publication does not necessarily mean lack of quality; it was an act of legitimising internet publications and their often smaller publishing initiatives, bringing them to the same level as the print publications in the context of the prize’s own valuing mechanisms. This shift, in addition to the Caine’s continued partnership with local literary organisations and publishers through co-publishing agreements and joint writing workshops as argued earlier, resulted in significant expansion of the literary platforms that eventually fed back into the international prize. In this respect, increasingly, the short stories that eventually ended up in the prize shortlists were initially published not only online but also through Africa-based literary magazines and publications. 

This has proved to be especially significant this year, in a period when the prize has been conducted entirely online due to the pandemic and, for the first time, is utilising a digital process for submissions. In this year’s shortlist, three out of the five stories were published on the continent through locally run and managed literary magazines. The three — Doek! based in Namibia (which published Onyango’s ‘This Little Light of Mine’ in 2020), Lolwe in Kenya (carrying Ngamije’s ‘The Giver of Nicknames’, also 2020), and Ibua in Uganda (which featured Baingana’s ‘Lucky’ in January of 2021) — share investment in a self-defining culture that materialises through their investment in contributors and submissions as literary platforms, largely by means of online classes and workshops, and events, and editorial commitment to their writers. Interestingly, an Africa in Words editor noted that this year’s winner, Meron Hadero, the first Ethiopian writer to win since the prize’s inception in 2000, spoke in one of the events in the run-up to the prize announcement, ‘African Literatures in the Digital Age about how the entire publication process of her winning story, ‘The Street Sweep,’ had happened exclusively in print, from submission to publication in San Francisco journal ZYZZYVA in 2018. 

Beyond the print vs digital publication platforms for these new magazines, they have also developed and maintained various literary networks and connections that allow for an ease in the flow of cultural and symbolic capital between the platforms. These literary networks and connections are created through collaborative writing and editing workshops and other literary events such as book fairs and festivals, as well as through personal and social relationships. Viewed together, these collaborations and networks hold the potential for remapping the topographies of power in the field of local literary and cultural production.

A mapping of the relationship between a prize’s focus and policies and the effect of this in the wider literary market over the years provides an entry point into a wider discussion of the value of literary networks and their effects on the individual ‘Caine short stories’ and their writers. Coming of age in our entry to the new decade of the 2020s, which has seen marked uncertainties and demands for shifts in the literary marketplace, questions of how the London-based Caine’s considerable influence will itself evolve in the changing networks of literary value and funding, and related economies of cultural capital, production and reception across the continent, remain to be seen. 

Works cited:

Emenyonu, Ernest N. ‘Once Upon a Time Begins a Story….’ African Literature Today 31 (2013): 1–7.

Habila, Helon. ‘Introduction.’ Habila, Helon (eds). The Granta Book of the African Short Story. London: Granta Publications, 2011.

Kiguru, Doseline. ‘Genre versus Prize: The Short Story Form and African Oral Traditions.’ English in Africa 47.3 (2020): 37-153.

Mushakavanhu, Tinashe. ‘Locating a Genre: Is Zimbabwe a Short Story Country?’ African Literature Today 31 (2013): 127–34.

Wainaina, Binyavanga. One Day I Will Write About this Place. London: Granta Publications, 2011.


DoselineKiguru_headshotDoseline Kiguru is a researcher, teacher, creative writer, and editor. Her research engages with issues of cultural and literary production in Africa with a major focus on the publishing and prize industries, and the effects that they have on local literary production. In her research on the contemporary literary scene on the continent, she engages with questions of language use in literature, the significance of writers’ organisations, literary magazines, creative writing, history of publishing and promotion of literature on the continent, among others. She is currently a research associate at the University of Bristol.


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