Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Caine Circus: Tendai Huchu

The circus is over, the gorilla is returned to his pen, the tents are folded and the pool bulldozed, drunk poets feast on chicken and a disembodied head crowns the queen of the fair. I really should stop here, but I have more to say, coz this Caine thing was super-dope.

At the Caine Circus: Tendai Huchu,  Diane Awerbuck, Okwiri Oduor, Billy Kahora and Efemia Chela 

In The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, our hero arrives to what he assumes to be a hotel, ignores the cues and checks in, only to realise he has unwittingly been incarcerated in a nursing home. That’s how I felt arriving at the Royal Over-Seas League Club[1], seeing the old biddies tottering about on the maroon carpet and the grand wooden staircases with stairlifts for the infirm. Surreal doesn’t quite describe it.
In no time at all I’d met up with the other shortlistees[2] and we bonded with the genuine, heartfelt sentiment you feel when there is a couple of grand between you. From them all I take cool memories. I remember how on telling Diane that “fingers-crossed” I would not have kids any time soon, she remarked drily, “It’s not your fingers you have to worry about, mate.” Or running in Green Park with Okwiri, Efemia’s sense of humour and watching the World Cup final with Billy[3].
The best thing about the prize is how it brings a diverse group of people together, especially at the events. Apart from meeting other African writers[4] you get to meet and hang out with agents, publishers, readers, bloggers, academics – you get the drift – who all have an interest in literature from the continent, so there is a lot of schmoozing and drinking of free wine. It is important to keep moving your jaw up and down, expelling warm air from your mouth, nodding your head, and, from time to time, drawing the corners of your lips upwards. But the range of people you meet is ridiculous. I met a lady in Brixton who outlined her theory on Brazil’s defeat to Germany by saying the German players were robots and the Brazilians had transgressed against the ancestors, hence the hefty punishment[5]. I listened to her thoughtfully, gave her a hug and fled. At the last event at the Southbank Centre, a West African man asked what I was doing to improve the public perception of the Zimbabwean president[6]. Whatever the bollocks, the prize creates space for dialogue and debate which can only be healthy for our literature.
The Caine takes a bit of flak ranging from contempt for the stories themselves to its very right to exist as a literary prize. I asked Lizzy Attree[7] if she was an imperialist, hell bent on subverting African Literature so that we are forever mentally colonised. She said she wasn’t. In any case, with her easy smile and wit, she would make a third-rate villain. Throughout the year Lizzy and her team scurry about looking for the resources it needs to survive and thrive, and I can imagine this is not the most pleasant of tasks. It is fascinating to see the network of people from different nationalities that come together to try and make this thing happen. The Caine may not be perfect, but occupies a special place because of the impressive list of our leading writers who have come through it over the last fifteen years and it is also good to see new prizes like the Etisalat, Writivism and Short Story Day Africa coming in to provide platforms that fertilise our literary ecology.
So the circus comes to an end with a worthy winner. No one can doubt that Okwiri Oduor will hit us with something wicked in the future, and I am sure Billy, Efemia and Diane also have new shit planned that we will enjoy in time. Turn off the lights, wait for next year[8] when the circus rolls back into town.

Tendai Huchu was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. His new novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician, is to be published by 'amaBooks in the near future.

[1] Never call the place a hotel unless you want the posh receptionist to issue a stern reprimand.
[2] All, except for Billy Kahora who showed up a few days later in what was either a brace or strait-jacket.
[3] This is not a eulogy.
[4] The term “African writer” is used loosely here and may also refer to the “Writers formerly known as ‘African Writers.’”
[5] In case you think she was joking, she was damn well serious.
[6] I am open to job offers.
[7] Caine Prize Director - medium height, freckles, often seen in open footwear.
[8] Predicting the return of the Nigerians—their writers more than make up for the crap soccer team.

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