Surveying the the five shortlisted authors dotted around the cavernous domed hall with Dale Chihuly’s gorgonesque chandelier hanging precariously from the ceiling, Ndibe opened with a paean of praise for the final five authors : Joshua Chizoma (Nigeria), Nana-Ama Danquah (Ghana), Hannah Giorgis (Ethiopia), Idza Luhumyo (Kenya) and Billie McTernan (Ghana). “You are all winners,” then followed up with a sombre qualifier “but we are in a capitalist society, we have to award a first prize and that goes to Idza Luhumyo from Kenya.”
Ndibe described Idza’s story – Five Years Next Sunday – as “incandescent” and “written exquisitely” about a woman who is ostracised but can determine the fate of her community, in Kenya’s Coast Province.
Caine Prize winner
Idza’s work has been published by Popula, Jalada Africa, the Writivism Anthology, MaThoko’s books, Amsterdam’s ZAM Magazine and African Arguments. She was the first winner of the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award in 2020 and the Short Story Day Africa Prize last year.
A trained lawyer and screenwriter, Idza told the BBC that she enjoyed the challenge of short-story writing – “Fitting the narrative into a tighter frame”. She added that with the prize under her belt, she will start working on a novel, “hopefully you’ll be hearing from me in a couple of years.”
Connections to The Africa Report
Two of the other shortlisted writers, Billie McTernan and Nana-Ama Danquah, have been top writers for The Africa Report. Billie edited the magazine’s celebrated Art & Life section, with its blend of reportage, interviews and cultural commentary. Moving from Paris to West Africa, she undertook multiple reporting trips on politics and economics for the magazine.
Her shortlisted story, The Labadi Sunshine Bar, was partly drawn from her stint living in the Labadi beach area of Accra and its hectic nightlife which appears in the Accra Noir collection, published by Cassava Republic Press in Africa and Europe, and Akashic Books in the US. After getting a master’s of fine art degree at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, Billie has been working on a range of multi-media projects, including ground-breaking podcasts and radio discussions.
And the Accra Noir collection was edited by Nana-Ama, whose award-winning memoir Willow Weep for Me about fighting melancholia and despair in the US established her among the senior ranks of writers in that country, as in Africa. A sought-after lecturer in creative writing, she edited Becoming American, Shaking the Tree, The Black Body and then Accra Noir.
It was her story When a Man Loves a Woman that starts with the unforgettable lines: “Every morning for the last five days, Kwame had woken up next to a corpse. Well technically, Adwoa had not yet become a corpse…” This story, like Billie’s, wholly fulfils the promise of the introduction to the collection that they would “highlight all things Accra, everything that the city was and is … the most basic human failings laid bare alongside fear and love and pain, and the corrupting desire to have the very things that you are not meant to have.”
There is also a link to another of the shortlisted authors, Hannah Giorgis, whose A Double Edged-Inheritance is in Addis Ababa Noir, also published by Cassava Republic and Akashic Books. A staff writer at The Atlantic, Hannah also co-wrote, with Michelle Duster, Ida B: the Queen about the pioneering African-American journalist and activist Ida B Wells.
The last of the shortlisted authors, Joshua Chizoma, has won serial prizes for his short fiction. His traumatic story – Collector of Memories – is told by a woman who was snatched at birth from her mother who was deemed unfit by her family to raise a child and shows how such scars can shape a life.
The importance of telling stories
Nigeria’s Ben Okri, whose Famished Road heralded a new wave in African fiction three decades ago, treated the audience to a lyrical essay on the power of short stories and the discipline of making them work. The AKO Caine Prize, which is helping to supercharge the latest wave of African writing, attracted a star cast from the continent’s cultural firmament, such as Margaret Busby, Veronique Tadjo, Sarah Ozo-Irabor, Ella Wakatama, Nii Ayekwei Parkes, Gus Caseley-Hayford and Bibi Bakare Yusuf, the founder of Cassava Republic Press – an independent company publishing fiction and non-fiction with its headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria and a branch office on the continent.
Apart from publishing the Accra Noir and Addis Ababa Noir collections, Cassava Republic Press is also publishing a collection of Caine Prize shortlisted fiction this year. After the ceremony, Bibi told The Africa Report that Cassava’s mission was more important than ever given the surge of brilliant new writing across the continent, increasing amounts of which is breaking into the international literary scene.
Yet like so many other areas of cultural endeavour, the succession of economic and commercial pressures of the past few years are stymieing the outreach of these new writers, across the continent and beyond. Trying to cut through those limits is central to Cassava Republic’s credo.
Full disclosure: the writer of the above contributed a story to the Accra Noir collection.