by Zenith Oduah
For the concluding part of olisa.tv’s Exclusive interview with Chimamanda Adichie, we culled excerpts of her reaction to the Caine Prize organisers..
The Caine Prize is open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.
The Prize is named in celebration of the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc, who was Chairman of the ‘Africa 95’ arts festival in Europe and Africa in 1995 and for nearly 25 years Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee.
Question asked Ms Adichie that led to Caine Prize : I read a response by James Eze that suggested that the journalist who conducted the interview also bears some responsibility for the fall-out.
The only person who bears responsibility is the person who wrote an ugly public piece knowing fully well that he was deliberately distorting things. But I think the journalist could have done more.
The interview was long and so he edited it. The reason I said the Caine Prize was over-privileged was because he had talked for quite a bit about how he and his academic friends followed it and read each story and discussed it and what not, and my response was to challenge that kind of over-privileging of the prize. Which is a position I completely stand by. Because he edited out the part where he talks about all the attention he and his cohorts were giving the Caine prize, it read as though I had just said the Caine Prize was over-privileged, without the proper context. I don’t think there was any malice in his editing. But I do think he could have responded when it became such an obsession for people. He could have released the whole interview. He could have clarified that I had not meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way, because he could certainly tell from the tone and context.
I want to say very clearly that I do not much care for the Caine Prize. I had a horrible personal experience with the first administrator of the prize, on which I based my short story Jumping Monkey Hill. He was sexist and lecherous.
I still sometimes blame myself for not handling things better. I think women who have had similar experiences will recognize that sense of self-blame, when someone says something disgusting to you and instead of telling them off, you find yourself laughing along, because you are uncomfortable, and because a part of you still has this reluctant respect for an ‘older’ man.
He was a bully and he did not like the few times I challenged him (I should have done so more), and he certainly did not like that I already had an agent in America, which meant that he couldn’t take the credit for helping me find an agent, and it deprived him of a source of power.
He then later told all kinds of petty lies, which are presently still being told and retold in the Caine Prize network, and when I first heard of them, I thought: my goodness, there are some things that a man his age should be above. He is no longer with the Caine Prize, but I think there is a kind of self-righteous entitlement in the very DNA of the Caine Prize administration. So, while I think any writer who wants to enter should certainly do so, I am categorically not an enthusiast.
Also the bit in the interview where I said that I look in my email inbox for new African writing, which I’m told a number of people were quite exercised by, would have been clearer in context. Because I had told the interviewer that he and his group were over-privileging the Caine Prize, he then asked – “well where do you go to find new African writing?” His subtext seemed to be a kind of smug “if you don’t look at the exalted Caine Prize, which you really should, then where do you look?”
To be fair, it might not actually have been his subtext because I was also really tired and unrested and in the middle of something like a fourteen city book tour. But anyway I gave that grumpy reply. Of course I don’t literally depend on my inbox to find new writing, but it was an irritable way of saying ‘I look anywhere but at the Caine Prize.’ Which is true. I think people read that response to mean that I think I am the final arbiter of African literature. I definitely don’t think that. I don’t even WANT to be the final arbiter. I do in fact get sent all kinds of stories and manuscripts and things. I actually don’t want people sending these to me.
Photo Credit: Vogue Magazine