The Caine Prize for African Writing, in its 18th year, has grown to become the most prestigious award for literary writing by Africans. But the question remains, how does the prize get to select its winners out of the numerous entries? What are the criteria, if any? Ricardo Ortiz, an Associate Professor of US Latino Literature and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, talks to Praxis about his experience on being a Caine Prize judge this year. Enjoy it.
When you were selected to be a judge, did you have any expectations for the stories to come? Were you pleased by the entries? Did they beat your expectations?
My department at Georgetown University has had a relationship with the Caine Prize for a decade now, so I have had the pleasure of attending readings by Caine Prize winners for many years. Those readings have reflected both the consistent high quality and the intense diversity of themes, settings and styles that can garner recognition like the Caine Prize. This year’s field of entries beat these high expectations to the extent that even the diversity of the winning stories can’t begin to reflect the depth of quality and the range of variety that one encounters in a field of 150 different pieces of short fiction. The scale of that reading experience more directly resembles encountering an epic of the continent, even if not all the stories are set there, and even when it’s an epic compiled of stories published in a single year.
What was the experience like reading through all the entries and picking the stories that made the shortlist? Were there any specific criteria? What was the judging process like?
Without going into particulars, what I can say is that our selection process was extraordinarily collegial, and respectful, and fair: we jurors communicated openly and honestly with one another, sharing agreements and differences, articulating varying philosophies about artistic expression and interpretation, and considering the infinite variety of ways that a piece of short fiction could leave a meaningful mark on a reader, and on a time.
What major weaknesses did you find in the stories that didn’t make your cut?
Many of the stories that we left out of the shortlist were excellent unto themselves and not necessarily “weaker” than stories making the shortlist. We made some very difficult decisions based on the rigorous demands of our process. But the range of “quality” across nearly 150 stories is inevitably going to be vast, and each story, as a unique act of artistic and imaginative expression, is always likely to succeed or not based on factors that are unique to it, and not necessarily due to patterns that are replicable across multiple pieces. I hope that makes sense?
Yes, I get it. What observations did you make on the entries you read, similarities, differences, reoccurring themes, etc.
For me personally, the experience was marked as my first really thorough reading encounter with what the Caine Prize calls “African Writing.” I specialize in US Latino literature, and while I’d read a number of African writers before, my most direct “hook” into the Caine Prize experience came through my many years of teaching masters of the short fiction form in my own field, writers like Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat and Daniel Alarcón. The field of Caine Prize entries did not disappoint: there were certainly recurring themes, for example many variations on the tension between modernity and tradition, but those consistencies were always undercut or complicated by the diversity of stylistic approaches, of mastery across sub-genres (especially, to my surprise, speculative fiction), and of political, social, philosophical, and spiritual dispositions.
What then would you say made the shortlist stand out among other entries?
Each of those five stories made a uniquely indelible impact on the jurors, and as a collection they were more broadly representative of the range of quality, themes and styles that we saw in the strongest of the entries across the entire field. Each is a story that bears re-reading multiple times, and as a group they comprise an eloquent précis of the “epic” formation of the larger field.
What are your views about Caine Prize and the work it’s doing?
The Caine Prize is clearly doing an invaluable work, foremost by now for a couple of generations of writers from the continent who have been beneficiaries of not only the Prize itself, but also the public recognition of making the shortlist, the access to annual writing workshops, and the international attention to African literature that comes from programming beyond Africa and the UK, like the residency at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. As I said in my earlier response, I’ve had the pleasure of attending readings by many past Caine Prize winners at Georgetown, and those experiences were always thrilling confirmation that literary invention and literary artistry were alive and well in the greater world, thrilling especially for someone who, like me, has made a career out of the study of literature and its unique capacities to render that world as something that could be both known and when necessary transcended. The opportunity I had this year to participate in the Caine Prize process as a juror has been both a blessing and a gift, and an opening to new relationships with literature and with Africa that I know will only deepen, and grow.
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