Dr Cóilín Parsons is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. With a PHD in English and Comparative Literature, he was one of the five judges of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. In this interview, he speaks of African literature and shares with Praxis his experience as a judge of the 2015 Caine Prize. Read:
Have you been a judge of any literary prize before the Caine Prize?
Why do you think you were selected as one of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing judges?
Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Justice and the English Department of Georgetown University selects one judge every year, usually a member of the academic staff. I was that staff member this year. Of course, I am interested in and teach African literature, and worked at the University of Cape Town before I came to Georgetown.
How much acquainted are you with books written by Africans?
I am not an expert in the field, but I am avid reader of African, and particularly South African writers, and I have written about South African literature and culture.
Who would you say your favourite African writers are?
Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, Alain Mabanckou, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Adichie, Zoe Wicomb, JM Coetzee, Imraan Coovadia, Yvette Christianse, Abdulrazak Gurnah.
African writers have, over the years, evolved from the days of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wa Thiong’ O. What do you think of this evolution?
All writers and writing traditions that are alive and thriving evolve rapidly. African fiction has been doing so for generations.
How well are these ‘new’ writers known in the west and what percentage of the reading population over there show interest in African books generally?
I cannot speak for ‘the west,’ but I know that in the US very few people know of many African writers, but many are genuinely interested in any good new writing from around the world. One of the great benefits of the Caine Prize is that it allows readers from outside the country of origin of the writers, where they may already have a readership, to hear from the newest and best writers from the African continent.
Now let’s talk about the Caine Prize issue. When you were selected as a judge of the 2015 Caine Prize, what were your expectations for the stories to come?
I expected a lot of child narrators and a lot of so-called ‘poverty porn,’ both of which are seen as trademarks of the prize. I was proven wrong on both counts.
This year’s Caine Prize received a record-breaking number of 153 qualifying short stories, from 17 African countries. Given your demanding academic position, how did you find time to study all 153 stories?
Good question! I had to do most of my reading on weekend days. I would pick up 10 stories, lie down on the couch with some coffee and snacks, and read until I was finished. So it took me about 15 days of work (not full days every time) to make my way through each and every one of the stories. I read them all to the end, and the good ones (the shortlisted ones) I read many more times.
Would you say you were disappointed, pleasantly surprised or simply impressed after reading these stories?
I was impressed. Not all were good, of course, but every one of the stories had something to say. Every one of the writers felt passionately that their story was worth being read, and represented in some way the diversity of African writing.
On what bases were your judgements for the stories made?
My criteria were quite simple—I chose for my informal longlist only the stories that had made me think, that had left me wondering, and that were well crafted in idiomatic English.
How were you and the other judges able to break down 153 stories to a shortlist of five?
We each came up with our own longlists of about 12-15 stories, and then combined them. That left us with maybe 20 stories overall, and from there we made it to the shortlist with very little disagreement—they were clearly the best 5 of the lot. Each one stood out for its subtlety, and its gift of understatement.
What did you discover to be flaws of other qualifying stories that could not make the shortlist?
I didn’t discover any major flaws.
You may not have discovered any major flaws. But what, based on your judgment, were the errors in these stories that stopped them from making the shortlist?
We chose the best stories. That is not to say that there were any errors in the others.
Namwali Serpell’s The Sack emerged winner of this year’s prize. Do you concur with it being the best amongst the five stories?
Of course! From a field of five excellent stories it stood out for its complexity, for the way that it demands so much of the reader, and yields so little to her. It also stood out for the complexity of its characters, even in such a short story. I thought it offered the reader a genuinely puzzling story that revealed more and more answers and questions on every reread. That is the mark of an outstanding short story.
As a Professor of English, what do you think is fundamental towards achieving excellent creative writing skills in the English language?
I’m not a professor of creative writing, so I can’t answer this.
But as one who has vast knowledge of the English language, what in your opinion makes a good writing?
I really don’t feel that I can answer this question. Sorry.
Okay. So what words do you have for writers who have plans of submitting their works for next year’s Caine Prize?
Submit! Submit the best piece you have ever written. Don’t think about genre or audience or previous winners—just send what you are genuinely proud of.
Thank you, Dr Parsons.