‘Ah, the tyranny of mzungu prizes!’ the Kenyan author and journalist Parselelo Kantai said when I rang him up to talk about literary awards for African writers. Mzungu is Kiswahili for ‘white person’ and Kantai was only half-joking.
Since its inception in 2000, the annual Caine Prize for African Writing – awarded, more narrowly than the ‘African Writing’ of its title might imply, ‘to a short story by an African writer published in English’ – has been the most high profile award for contemporary anglophone African writers. But it’s administered in Britain and the £10,000 cash prize is bestowed during a gala dinner at the Bodleian Library. ‘There’s something that rankles,’ says Kantai, who has been shortlisted twice. ‘Once the conferring is done in London you become big on the African landscape.’
But the lingering hangover of colonialism may be lifting. Kwani?, a publisher and writers collective in Kenya, has just released the longlist for its prize for an unpublished novel. The 30 longlisted manuscripts were whittled down from 282 submissions from 19 African countries as well as the diaspora. The shortlist will be announced in June. Each of the three winners will get £4000 and the winning novels will be published next year.
‘There’s a new generation, post-independence, that wants to tell their stories, give their own point of view,’ says Billy Kahora, Kwani?’s managing editor, who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize last year. ‘I want to give writers opportunities, to have more than the Caine Prize,’ Kahora says. ‘The kind of writing that Kwani? engages with is writing that wasn’t being found’ by publishers and prizegivers in Britain and the United States, who ‘don’t understand what’s going on in the creative African spaces’. The problem with writing for overseas audiences, Kantai says, is ‘you’re constantly having to introduce yourself and your world’ as if you’re a ‘literary tour guide’.
‘What we’ve seen in the last ten years is an explosion of expression and writing,’ says the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who won the Caine Prize in 2002. ‘At the time the Caine Prize started it had a very central role. The thing is: it’s a nice thing to submit, £10,000 is an excellent thing to earn, it’s always nice to go to England but it’s far from being at the centre of where production, debate and conversation is going on, right? It’s a good thing but it isn’t the thing.’