Q&As: Elisa Diallo – Judge, AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022

AiW note: As part of our annual AKO Caine Prize coverage, we’ve been running AiW Guest reviews of each of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award, and this week, as we lead up to the winner announcement on Monday 18 July, we are very pleased to be sharing a new set of AKO Caine Q&As – with each of the authors on the shortlist, and with the publishers of their stories, as well as judges who read and selected the shortlist from all of the stories entered – so broadening our conversations around the Prize for its 2022 iteration.

Today, accompanying our Q&A with shortlisted writer Nana-Ama Danquah, we are speaking with French-Guinean author and literary scholar Elisa Diallo, the first of the judge’s responses for the 2022 Prize in our AKO Caine Q&A series this year.

“Judges are drawn from different literary fields including eminent journalists, broadcasters and academics with expertise and a connection to literature in Africa. Five stories are selected for the shortlist by the judges, with one selected as the winner on the day of the award each year.
The AKO Caine Prize announces its 2022 Judges, May 27.

On the judging panel with Elisa were Okey Ndibe (Chair), Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, Àsìkò Okelarin, and Angela Wachuka.

AiW: Thank you, Elisa, for talking with us.

~ Please tell us a bit about your judging the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing (perhaps something our readers might not yet know, or that they might need to, about being on a judging panel)? 

Are there any particular challenges, joys, or experiences specific to this year you would like to share with us? What does it mean for you to be working with the Prize now, in this, our current moment?

Elisa Diallo: First of all, can I state that being part of the judging panel for the Caine Prize is one of the biggest honours I received? I want to say that at the very beginning so that statement does not get lost in the rest of the interview.

Besides being an honour, it has been an extraordinarily enriching experience. Truly, I’m not only saying that to be polite or sound humble! We had one long sitting in particular, the whole panel, over zoom, to decide on the short list, and I learned so much from this conversation – everyone bringing their own perspective, their understanding, of the texts!  

And then I learned a lot from the texts themselves. We had A LOT of texts to read (probably because of the entries being submitted digitally again this year) which was a bit frightening at first, but turned out to be a real blessing in the end. 

I feel like I gained a full overview of current literary production from the continent and the African diaspora. The diversity was impressive, in themes and in aesthetics! But it was also interesting to note some trends, which didn’t necessarily match one’s expectations of “African Writing”. 

~ Could you tell us about your work more broadly – with African writing but also any overlaps with the (other) kinds of work you do, the roles you hold, or the more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear?

I work in a German publishing house, based in Frankfurt; we publish mainly German and European literature and, in that sense, professionally I am situated at the centre of European and Western publishing.

At the same time, I try to be as active as I can to make room for African Literature and Literature from the African diaspora, especially European diaspora, within the publishing industry. I’m especially interested in finding texts beyond the Anglophone realm. 

There has been a rising interest for African writings within international publishing these past few years, but most of them, at least most of the writers who gained international visibility, write in and are translated from the English. 

In Germany, it’s easier for a publisher to push a writer from the African diaspora if she/he comes through a UK or US publisher, than a writer from German African diaspora, who writes in German and has a German story to tell. The same goes for France – even if there are quite a few established Francophone African writers – but their literature does not travel into other languages as well as the Anglophone one, especially the young authors and the newcomers. 

~ What is the best investment you’ve made in your professional self / selves?

I left corporate publishing to join an independent publisher two years ago: it changed my (professional) life completely, it was one the best decisions I ever made. Going back to the previous question: independent publishers struggle in many ways, but they also have, and allow for, more freedom in terms of choosing whom and what to publish. 

~ What have you come to find most enabling for your practice as you think/make/produce – say, the top three (things/ communities/ people/ places/ snacks/ habits/ apps/ screen time…)?

I work a lot from home and find it extremely productive to allow myself real breaks during work days. Sometimes, when writing a difficult email, for example, I go and sit in my garden, in complete silence, for 5 or 10 minutes (or longer, if it feels right), and then go back to my desk.

Something I couldn’t do without while working (or cooking, or thinking, or travelling): my noise cancelling headphones. 

It’s not very original but I am a huge consumer of podcasts. And even if it’s an obvious thing: I’m still amazed to have the possibility to hear cultural productions from all over the world.

~ If you have a major making or productivity bad habit/ kryptonite/ heel of Achilles/ soft underbelly, please confess it.

Smartphone during work/reading/any activity, really!

~ Thinking more particularly about books now – we wonder if you might tell us a bit about your relationship with yours: how your bookshelves are arranged vs. how you would like them to be arranged, for example? Are you deliberate about materials/designs; where treasured finds and gifts go?

I have too many books to arrange them properly, so my bookshelves are a mess. I dream of taking the time, one day, to arrange them so that I can find a book when I’m looking for it. On the other hand, it’s always nice to look for a book and rediscover one I wasn’t looking for – get distracted.

~ Is there anything you like to do often before/after reading? (habits, routines, tics, talismans, spaces…)

My favourite moment for reading is in the morning, when I can stay in bed, therefore weekends only. If I didn’t have children, I would stay in bed and read for the most part of the day.

~ Finally, what are the most ethical and/or heart-lifting practices you’ve seen happening across your industry/industries and working life, perhaps particularly given our experiences over the last couple of years?

There has been a real effort for diversity within the German publishing industry these past couple of years. A big number of publications on the subject, workshops, festivals, publishers organizing anti-discrimination trainings, people in position of power actually making space for others. 

When book shops were closed during the first lockdown, many booksellers brought books to readers in their neighbourhood, or across the city on their bikes. A small thing, but I had books delivered to my door by my favourite bookseller. She came on her bike, with her kid (schools were closed as well), and it made me happy.

Elisa Diallo is a literary scholar and an author based in Frankfurt, Germany. Born in Paris to a French mother and a Guinean father, she works in publishing as Foreign Rights director. She has been on judging panels for several literary prizes, including the newly founded Resonanzen Literary Festival for Black German Writings. She is the author of two books: Tierno Monenembo, une écriture migrante (Karthala, 2012) and Fille de France (Flammarion, 2019; Berenberg, 2021).

Our author, publisher, and judge AKO Caine Prize Q&A Series began on Monday and will continue to publish through the week in the lead-up to the winner announcement.

The accompanying Q&A to Elisa’s running today is with Nana-Ama Danquah, whose shortlisted story, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, was published in Akashic Books’ collection Accra Noir (co-published with Cassava Republic Press in the UK in 2020), a volume Danquah also edited. We hosted a Publisher AKO Caine Prize Q&A with Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books here on Monday.

And please follow this link to read all our reviews of the 2022 shortlist, plus more from our AKO Caine Prize series, this year and (way) back…

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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