Devil is in the detail: What it takes to win coveted Caine Prize

Kenyan author Okwiri Oduor, the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing winner.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is a prestigious award which has projected many fiction writers at the beginner’s level to prominence. The 2020 submissions are ongoing and will end on January 31, next year.

But since it was founded in 2000, there has never been a judge from Kenya picked to sit in the panel tasked with shortlisting and awarding.

However, this year’s shortlisting and award had the first judge from Kenya, Peter Kimani. Others in the five-judge bench included playwright Sefi Atta (Nigeria), author Margie Orford (South Africa), author Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone) and Scott Taylor, the director of the African Studies Programme at Georgetown University.

Kimani is the author of the New York Times’s Book of the Year, Dance of the Jakaranda, a seasoned journalist, editor and currently a lecturer at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication.

Kimani explains how the best stories are located, leading to the shortlisting of five works and announcement of one winner. The process has remained consistent since the prize started about two decades ago.

Despite the tough competition, a few Kenyan authors have managed to win the prize in the past.

Kenya missed out on the prize this year, but one writer, Cherrie Kandie, made the shortlist. Some of the big literary names in Kenya that have bagged the prize include Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003), Okwiri Oduor (2014), Makena Onjerika (2018) and the late Binyavanga Wainaina (2002).

Binyavanga was the first Kenyan to win the prize for his short story Discovering Home while Owuor and Okwiri were awarded for Weight of Whispers and Rag Doll, respectively. Last year, Onjerika won the prize for penning Fanta Blackcurrant.

But what does it take to earn a place in the Caine Prize? Drawing from his recent experience as a judge, Kimani says the method of selecting stories has remained consistent, and writers need to understand the tricks and adjust accordingly.

He says there were 131 entries of short stories published in English from African writers this year. The judges had to read all the works and pass their judgments.

The entries must be works published in the five years before the submission’s deadline. They should not have been submitted for the same prize in the past.

“Story must be enjoyable to sustain an interest to read. It could be as a result of the narrative voice used or the rare perspective into the story,” says Kimani.

The award-winning author says the judges look at how writers have employed narrative strategies and imagined new possibilities in society.

“Does the story start and end well? Can it stand the test of time? If read in the next 20 years or so, will it still be intriguing?” poses Dr Kimani as he speaks of the elements required. He says some stories are not worthy of being considered for shortlisting because of “careless” mistakes such as typing errors resulting from poor or lack of editing.

A dozen Kenyan writers submitted their entries for consideration and among them was Cherrie Kandie, who was shortlisted after impressing the judges with her short story, Sew My Mouth. Her story explored lesbian relationships, a controversial subject that has never been resolved in the country.

“It was no easy task deciding the winner. We disagreed and later agreed,” says Kimani. He praises some of the writers who submitted their works as emerging authors with a great potential.

Kimani says there was something striking in a few of them while the many that were dismissed captured the sad reality of fiction writing in Kenya: writers left on their own to publish.

“Some stories did not make sense. We need to invest more in nurturing African writers because many of them are publishing without help,” he says.

Since the founding of the Caine Prize, Nigeria has taken a lead in the awards, followed by Kenya. South Africa comes third with three awards scooped. Sudan and Zimbabwe have each managed to clinch two awards while Uganda and Sierra Leone have only won once each.

In Kimani’s view, Nigerian writers were more likely to win the prize than other countries because of their dense population.