Over the past decade and a half, the Caine Prize has championed the finest short story writers that Africa has to offer, not only through giving a prize to the shortlist and winning story, but through the facilitation of workshops across the continent. Each year twelve or more up-and-coming African writers are invited to a workshop to compose a short story for inclusion in the anthology, which is then published annually by New Internationalist and seven co-publishers in Africa.
The Caine Prize was established in 1999 to award African creative writing and is named in honour of Sir Michael Caine, Chairman of Booker plc and the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English – a short story defined here as between 3,000 and 10,000 words long. An ‘African writer’ is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African.
This year it took seven months for the record breaking 140 entries, from seventeen African countries, to be whittled down to the final winner. Five judges, chaired by Jackie Kay were given with the job. They were particularly impressed to see real originality with so many writers bringing something different to the form; they all agreed that this is a golden age for the African short story. Eight writers whose stories that didn’t make the shortlist received a letter of encouragement from the judges and some of these writers will be invited to take part in the workshop that takes place next year. The Caine Prize intends to continue holding writers workshops annually and, subject to funding, begin a series of editing workshops to improve editorial skills on the continent.
In April, after much deliberation, the 2014 shortlist was announced by Nobel Prize winner and Patron of the Caine Prize, Professor Wole Soyinka, as part of the opening ceremonies for the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 celebration in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. To commemorate fifteen years of the Caine Prize this year, £500 was awarded to each shortlisted writer. It is hoped that this award will continue to be made annually.
The final judging process took place in Oxford on the day of the announcement. Announcing Okwiri as the winner, Jackie Kay praised the story, saying, ‘Okwiri Oduor is a writer we are all really excited to have discovered. ‘My Father’s Head’ is an uplifting story about mourning – Joycean in its reach. She exercises an extraordinary amount of control and yet the story is subtle, tender and moving. It is a story you want to return to the minute you finish it.’ ‘My Father’s Head’ explores the narrator’s difficulty in dealing with the loss of her father and looks at the themes of memory, loss and loneliness. The young woman works in an old people’s home in Kenya and comes into contact with a priest, giving her the courage to recall hidden memories of her father.
Okwiri lives in Nairobi, and has received a great amount of interest already from agents and publishers in the UK. She will take part in the Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi in September and the Ake Festival in Nigeria in November this year.
Similarly, the Caine Prize has brought African writers into the spotlight, discovering new talent and encouraging people to write – something the Western world often takes for granted. Okwiri noticed herself that ‘there are more Africans writing and more Africans reading and there’s a hunger for these kinds of stories.’ She added that she is ‘so hopeful and grateful about this thing we call African literature.’
Kenya’s leading newspaper The Daily Nation wrote, ‘Global recognition as comes with the Caine Prize should act as the foundation on which the great repertoire of work and talent on offer is rolled out to wider audiences.’ Over the past fifteen years, the Caine Prize has achieved this by launching the careers of esteemed winners such as Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina and NoViolet Bulwayo.
We look forward to spotlighting the talents of hundreds of other African writers in years to come.