‘Jagua Nana’s Daughter on my mind’
In this interview, the Director of Caine Prize and author of Blood on the page, Lizzy Attery, speaks on her works, Mabati Cornell Kiswahili prize and the Caine Prize. Assistant Editor (Arts) Ozolua Uhakheme reports.
As a writer who also organises an award for African writers, which is your greatest African novel you ever read?
I have a very soft spot for Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera. She was a Zimbawean writer who died of AIDS related complications but she was in my opionion a great novelist . The novel is set in the 1940’s. The novel is a sort of musical.The novel had profound impact on me. Also in London I was introduced to several African writers such as Cyprian Ekwesi who wrote Jagua Nana’s Daughter. I hope to one day turn Butterfly Burnning to a film because of the imagery I see when I am reading it.
Why did you write a book Blood on the page?
I wrote the book, Blood on the page while I was doing a Phd but it was published after the completion of the programme. The research I was doing got me in contact to many authors. Some of them were new writers and they were the first to write about HIV in South-Africa and Zimbabwe. I spent probably a year (2003 /2004) looking for text and when I found them, I discovered nobody has really critique them. In general, such work hasn’t been done. So, I did it. I educated myself and got to the source. I knew that in the West, gay people were accused of spreading the HIV virus. So, to a large extent each chapter is an academic text and what I did, was to summarise all they said.
What is your impression of Ake Arts and Book festival and the rocky city of Abeokuta?
I am certainly a big fan of the festival, I have met many interesting people and I listened to what all of them said. I think it is quite a great opportunity to engage with literary people as well as the local people. I have met several people here including writers from all over the world. Mukoma Wa Ngugi and many of my old friends who I have known from several parts of Africa I am re-connecting here. The festival featured a high caliber of talents and I am enjoying it. You rarely see this array of talents in one spot. In London as a mother I don’t go out much to see things like this. For me, to watch Nigerian films is not just an opportunity, but an honour because you don’t find such every day. It will take a lot of time for me to digest it.
You watched October 1, what lesson did you take from it?
One of the lessons I took from October 1 film is from that perspective of an oyinbo, (a white person) through which the story is being told. There are dangerous things, also about the priest who gave more opportunities to people in the place where the story is set and the way he treated the young boy, the damage he did in the process while bettering people’s live. It is still entertaining but it makes one to think deeply why we put trust on some certain people. Why do we send children away for education? It was a surprise to me because my appreciation of Nigerian film is limited to Nollywood.
Why did you partner Mukoma Wa Ngugi for a Kiswahili prize and not a Yoruba or an Igbo prize?
Mukowa Wa Ngugi is a crime writer in his own right. He is also a professor of literature based in the United States. We have really being able to secure funding in South of Africa by Mabati Rolling Mills who are producers of iron roofing sheets for over 50 years and they have an interest in the language spoken by over three hundred million people in that region. We may not have found a Yoruba prize or an Igbo prize. But, it is an avenue to say companies that make roofing sheets in Yoruba to encourage Yoruba literature for instance. Because it is important that African language should be taken seriously for literature and there should be prizes for it. We the founders of Mabati Cornell Kiswahili prize are still learning ourselves, it is an interesting thing to set up for anyone who has that energy for it.
What next are you working on?
After the announcement of the Caine prize judges at Ake Art and Book Festival, the next thing is the funding of the Caine Prize workshop holding in Ghana in March next year because we don’t know if we are going to get enough funds for the workshop and flights from one African country to another as it is quite expensive. And of course, the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili prize. I am current receiving entries for the Caine Prize and looking through if those stories are eligible. I have to read those that are too short, too long and the self–published whether they are eligible. I am also preparing to teach two African courses at Kings College, London.
How do you know the stories sent to you are between 3,000 words to ten thousand10,000 words?
I sometimes count the number of words if I am not sure but when the number of words published in the short story is written when sent to me, it helps because I wouldn’t have to count. So, I have interesting things to do as the Caine Prize Director and also boring things to do like counting the pages and number of words from one end to the other.
The judges of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing were announced at the recently concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta. The panel will be chaired by award-winning South African author Zoë Wicomb. She will be joined by the distinguished television and radio journalist Zeinab Badawi, Indian author and Man Booker Prize shortlistee Neel Mukherjee, Assistant Prof of English at the University of Georgetown, Cóilín Parsons, and Brian Chikwava, the winner of the Caine Prize in 2003.
During the announcement Attree stated, “We are proud to announce the 2015 judges early this year and hope the calibre of this outstanding panel will encourage publishers to enter stories before the deadline of 31 January 2015.”
Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor won this year’s prize of 10,000 pounds with her short story, My Father’s Head which explores the narrator’s difficulty in dealing with the loss of her father and looks at the themes of memory, loss and loneliness. The narrator works in an old people’s home and comes into contact with a priest, giving her the courage to recall her buried memories of her father.
Chair of the judges, Jackie Kay, praised the story, saying, “Okwiri Oduor is a writer we are all really excited to have discovered. ‘My Father’s Head’ is an uplifting story about mourning – Joycean in its reach. She exercises an extraordinary amount of control and yet the story is subtle, tender and moving. It is a story you want to return to the minute you finish it.”
Oduor directed the inaugural Writivism Literary Festival in Kampala, Uganda in August 2013. Her novella, The Dream Chasers was highly commended in the Commonwealth Book Prize, 2012. She is a 2014 MacDowell Colony fellow and is currently at work on her debut novel. Nigerian writers that have won the Caine Prize in the past included Helon Habila (2001), Segun Afolabi (2005), E C Osondu (2009) and Tope Folarin (2013).