Caine Prize for African Writing

I’ve been attending quite a few readings at the Southbank Centre lately, and always find that, while I spend some time wondering why I am there, I get something from the experience in the end.

Last Sunday it was the shortlisted writers for the Caine Prize for African Writing. My first observation was that, whereas the Orange Prize readings last month were a sell-out even in the larger Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Caine Prize readings attracted only a few dozen people scattered around the Purcell Room. It’s true that the Orange Prize is more well-known, but it also showed me who the main audience is for literature.

Another observation: the two white South African authors on the shortlist, Gill Schierhout and the eventual winner, Henrietta Rose-Innes, seemed intensely uncomfortable when they were being questioned. Gary Younge, the moderator, was by far the best I have seen at this kind of event. His training as a journalist seemed to prevent him from just lobbing the easy ‘so tell us how great your book is’ kind of questions that most moderators opt for. He wasn’t exactly interrogating them, either, but he did try to ask some questions about the social and political context of the work.

The response, particularly from Gill Schierhout, was astonishing. She had written about a miner who’d lost his hand in a mining accident, had it sown back on, and was then paraded around by doctors as an example of a medical miracle. Gary Younge, quite naturally, was reminded of Sarah Baartman and the objectification of the black body, but when he asked about this, the author began by saying “Well, I don’t think the objectification of the body applies to one particular race or ethnic group – it’s a universal thing, I mean, we’re all objectified, aren’t we?” I was stunned by that response – that kind of ignorance, to me, is not acceptable in a writer. When Gary Younge pressed her, she said she didn’t feel qualified to answer. Well, I’m sorry, but you felt qualified to write about it, and you had no problem accepting the money and being shortlisted for a prize, so you should be qualified to talk about it too.

Henrietta Rose-Innes wasn’t quite as bad, but she did circle around and around the topic, not answering questions directly or (heaven forbid) mentioning the “race” word. When Gary Younge tried to pin her down by asking her what different reactions she gets when she reads her work to Afrikaaner vs. coloured vs. black audiences, she gave an evasive non-answer that a politician would have been proud of.

I enjoyed Ghanaian writer Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s story, and also his explanation of his character Mallam Sile as something of a sage. He said he wanted to place a high value on naivete. Gary Younge didn’t seem to understand and made a joke out of it, but I thought it was a very perceptive point. We place such high value on knowledge, i.e. accumulation of memorised facts, but rarely does such knowledge lead to understanding. People with a lot of knowledge created nuclear warheads, prescribed disastrous economic policies for poor countries, invented highly toxic technologies that are destroying the world. Perhaps a little more naivete would not be such a bad thing.