The Missing Women of The Caine Prize
16th Jul 2013
The Caine Prize for African Writing is still relatively young, the first being in 2000, and named after Sir Michael Caine (not him, the other one), who was always very supportive of African writing.
When you look at the vast array of literary talent the continent has produced his interest is understandable; Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, Ama Ata Aidoo and Brian Chikwava to name a few.
Caine intended that this prize be open to anyone from Africa that has had work published in English and accept entries on the basis that submissions come in the form of a short story.
It was felt that this format would best reflect the contemporary progress that has come leaps and bounds from Africa’s long-tradition of story-telling.
Considering this reflection it is disconcerting that this year there is a blatant shortage of females on a shortlist of five; the only female being Chinelo Okparanta (above), a Nigerian author, who was picked to be one of Granta’s six new voices for 2012.
It is worth noting that Okparanta has written about lesbian love in her short story, a topic which is taboo and even dangerous to be associated with in some African countries.
the inclusion of Okparanta and her potential controversial submission doesn't change the fact that our gender has been significantly disenfranchised with this awardBut the inclusion of Okparanta and her potential controversial submission doesn’t change the fact that our gender has been significantly disenfranchised with this award.
As the prize is based upon short story submission it becomes difficult to criticise the prize; without knowing the make-up of the nations and genders submitting the prize.
We are left to fall back on the administrator for the prize, who revealed that the submission percentage of female authors was close to half, 44 out of 96 in total, yet women make up a mere 20% of the shortlist.
The mainstream media has picked up on the geographical imbalance of the shortlist. Not only are four of the shortlist male, but four are also Nigerian, with only one Sierra Leonian, Pede Hollist. However these concerns are fairly easy to dismiss when we consider that every 1 in 5 Africans is a Nigerian.
What is harder to dimiss is the gender imbalance. The fact is that out of five shortlisted (five per cent of the entire submission) only one is female. And frankly they shouldn’t have been struggling to get women to submit to the prize!
If we look at the other authors that are making a name for themselves with debut titles, we can see that there are some fantastic African women writers to consider:
Taiye Selasi is an author of both Nigerian and Ghanaian origin, which with her début, Ghana Must Go, is an up and coming author not to be overlooked.
Despite a need for nurturing her writing ability somewhat, there is a clear understanding of the African brain drain and movement, which comes across in her writing.
Lauren Beukes, South African novelist, award-winning journalist, and author of 2013 title, The Shining Girls, which has already been adapted into a television series, is another that must have sent in a submission for this prize, not making the shortlist.
Yet another incomprehensible decision; considering acclaim and prizes she has already picked up for her backlist, which includes Zoo City.
It is not only those writers who have had their titles recently published that have been slighted this year, the prize is also failing to reflect the expanding and emerging talent acquiring a voice in the Western world.
Those such as Petina Gappah, Zimbabwean-born writer, and author of story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, which fully engages the reader with every coating of the country’s culture, and winner of the Guardian First Book Award, has yet to be on the Caine shortlist.
Lauri Kubuitsile, is a Botswanan citizen, who did actually make the shortlist but like Adichie missed out on that prize, has had over fifteen works of fiction published and won other literary achievements, she is clearly another that has been passed over by the Caine Prize.
It is clear that there is the strength in writing there from African female authors.Women need to be encouraged to submit their work and they need to see more women on the shortlist.
It would be a fantastic driving force in African culture to see a prize that does give women a strong platform to relay their talents to existing African literati.
It is about time this strength in writing be transferred in terms of recognition, and that say two were up for the shortlist, rather than the lone Okparanta.
Editor’s note: It has been pointed out in the comments that this article does not mention the prize’s good track record when it comes to women writers; out of 14 prizes, 6 have be awarded to women. The reason that this, and the lack of access many African women have to education, has not been mentioned is because the focus of the article was on the 2013 shortlist. Our belief is that a great number of fantastic female African writers were overlooked this year and that is what Keira Brown was addressing.