AiW note: Okey Ndibe’s AKO Caine Prize shortlist Q&A rounds out our week across the series, part of our longer annual AKO Caine Prize coverage. Our Q&As have opened up some of the less visible avenues and labour involved in the literary prize – hearing from the writers on the shortlist but also from the publishers of their stories, as well as judges who have determined the shortlist this year — centering the people behind that work. We’ve also run AiW Guest reviews of each of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award, in the lead up to the winner announcement on Monday 18 July.
Today, we speak with Okey Ndibe, Chair of the judges for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize.
Okey Ndibe, Chair of Judges, says: ‘This year’s judges brought passion, discernment and joy to the task. The conversations around the entries were spirited and yet courteous, the judges realizing that – at the end of the day – it was less about our egos and idiosyncratic considerations than about a process to honor creative ferment among writers of African descent. To a person, each judge brought something of immense, even inestimable, value to the difficult challenge of selecting a shortlist of five stories.’
AKO Caine Prize
AiW: Thank you, Okey, for speaking 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?
Okey Ndibe: I’ve judged several prizes, but on panels that had to select from a shortlist. One of the ways the AKO Caine Prize stood out was the sheer size of the entries—267! I had to read all those stories during a five-week trip to Nigeria. That was a huge challenge. First, Nigeria’s electric power is notoriously unreliable. That meant I had to read during the day, when sunlight was out. I had gone to Nigeria for a research project. It was often quite difficult to manage everything. I let my project suffer a bit to enable me to invest enough time in reading the stories.
Another challenge: I’m a gregarious being, and have so many friends in Nigeria. I had to keep my presence in Nigeria a secret from most of these friends – or I would have been overwhelmed by invitations to socialise. In a sense, I had to subject myself to solitude in order to read and reread the AKO Caine Prize entries.
To my delight, many of the stories enchanted me. Which brings me to the ultimate challenge of the experience: the agony of selecting my top five from such a catholic, diverse and impressive harvest!
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 began my professional life in Nigeria as a journalist—drawn to literary matters. My first assignment as a young journalist was a lengthy interview of Chinua Achebe, one of the world’s greatest literary sages. In 1988, Achebe invited me to relocate to the US to be the founding editor of a bi-monthly magazine he co-founded. The magazine’s sad closure due to severe cash flow problems triggered my transition to a writer of fiction.
I ended up earning my MFA in fiction and a PhD in African and African American literature. I see myself, then, as a consumer and producer of writing by Africa-descended writers. That whole metamorphosis owed to a series of encounters and accidents, chronicled in my book Never Look an American in the Eye.
What is the best investment you’ve made in your professional self / selves?
I think picking up and reading a bunch of African texts in secondary school and youth – Things Fall Apart; The Man Died; This Earth, My Brother; Efuru; Kosso Town Boy; The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born – this was my best professional investment. It began my lifelong fascination with African writing.
The most valued advice you’ve received about navigating your industry or industries?
The best advice I’ve ever received was from a writer I encountered at a reading. He said, “A writer is somebody who writes. So make no excuses; write!”
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 tell my students that it’s absurd to want to be a writer if one isn’t also – indeed, first – a reader. So reading is key for me. Then, in a world with so many distractions, a writer must learn the habit of desperation. If you’re looking for a huge window of time and some quiet, congenial space before you write, odds are you’re not going to find them. So, write whenever and wherever you can – which means, as you cook, travel, party, love. The third thing is, keep yourself rooted in social life and be attentive to the stories of others.
If you have a major making or productivity bad habit/ kryptonite/ heel of Achilles/ soft underbelly, please confess it.
I tend to be unforgiving of myself in terms of standards. I’ve never slept over a sentence I wrote and found it interesting the next day. That means I revise interminably – to the irritation of editors, agents, and (especially) my wife. If you know some antidote for this problem, please DM me urgently!
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 a wonderful idea that all my books should be arranged by subject matter, and within that schema, chronologically by author. The trouble is, I’ve never found the time to make this happen. So my books are scattered all over, arranged higgledy-piggledy. Even so, I have an excellent sense of the shelves that hold particular books – especially, my favourites.
What’s the strangest, most significant – outrageous, even – thing you’ve done or would do because of, or for a book?
I once stole a book, something I often characterise to fellow readers as “rescuing” a book. You see, I knew this wealthy Nigerian guy who never read a book, but he had a well-stocked bookshelf in his office. For him, it was just another decorative feature of his office, a way to create a certain impression. Whenever he travelled abroad, he would buy any books that happened to be making waves at the time. One day I encountered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on his shelf. I’m sorry, but I had to…uhm…”liberate” the book!
You didn’t ask, but I might as well say this: I’ve been more sinned against in this respect than sinning. As I chatted with readers and friends after the event, some person escaped with a copy of my novel – a book I had purchased from the bookseller to read from. Now, here’s my attitude about book thieves: as long as you read the stolen book, your sin is forgiven (or, at least, mitigated)!
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?
I’m heartened that so many writers have found ways to turn the global disquiet of the past three years into an opportunity to create. Such defiance is a mainstay of the creative spirit. If one’s world is trapped in gloom, one has an obligation to write oneself – and one’s neighbours – out of that predicament. Human imagination is one of the best tools for this transformative act.
Okey Ndibe, Chair of Judges, is the author of two novels, Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain; a memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye (winner of the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for nonfiction); and The Man Lives: A Conversation with Wole Soyinka on Life, Literature and Politics. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has taught at various universities and colleges, including Brown, St. Lawrence, Trinity College, Connecticut College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). His award-winning journalism has appeared in major newspapers and magazines in the UK, Italy, South Africa, Nigeria, and the US—where he served on the editorial board of the Hartford Courant. He writes a column on the substack platform titled “Offside Musings,” and co-hosts a podcast of the same name.
Our author, publisher, and judge AKO Caine Prize Q&A Series began on Monday, where, in twinned posts with the shortlisted writers, publishers and judges discussed their experience with the literary prize, as well as their other literary labour and work, plus bookshelves, reading, their industries and more.
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.
Join the shortlisted writers and the Candid Book Club at the Africa Centre, London, today (July 16), 17.00-19.00:
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A