Caine Prize Workshop 2014: Interview With Director, Lizzy Attree

Snippets of this interview appeared in an article published this week ahead of the Caine Prize for African Writing Workshop happening in Zimbabwe this year.

Fungai Machirori (FM): Why is the Caine Prize returning to Zimbabwe? How was the decision arrived at?

Lizzy Attree (LA): The Caine Prize has long wanted to hold a workshop in Zimbabwe and support Zimbabwean writers, but has not felt the environment was right until recently.  We also found funders who were supportive of the idea, so we took the plunge.

F:M One of the challenges that has been clearly articulated around the Prize has to do with the dearth of north African winners/ finalists? Why do you think this is?

LA: I think north Africa already has a well-established literary scene and prizes that reward writers from that region, so I think that is one of the reasons we do not receive many entries from north Africa.  Much of the literature is also in Arabic, and so the issue of translation arises.  The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is a sister Prize, also backed by the Booker Trust, so we are confident that IPAF is making great strides in recognising and rewarding north African, as well as Middle Eastern literature.

FM: Wouldn’t the more logical step, therefore, be to try to hold the workshops in north Africa?

LA: We would very much like to do this and a recent visit I made to Morocco and the Casablanca Book Fair was encouraging.  We have plans to approach funders for workshops in north Africa in the near future.

F:M In 2000, when the Prize was first held, Zimbabwe still had a somewhat robust literary scene. But the nation was on the verge of it decline in the early 2000s. Is the return therefore symbolic/ strategic?

LA: There are no strategic considerations when planning workshops, certainly no political aspirations, other than ensuring the country is safe and relatively politically stableOur only strategic concern, in terms of fairness, is that we try to cover east, south and west Africa evenly, so we have had workshops in Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda and hope soon to be in Nigeria, Zambia etc.   There is a symbolic link and many of our council members are fond of Zimbabwe for a number of reasons, but really our return is partly based on the high number and quality of entries we receive from Zimbabwean writers, and the funding conditions that make such an expensive enterprise possible.

FM: Two Zimbabweans have won the Caine Prize since its inception with NoViolet Bulawayo particularly enjoying great success since. Do you see the Caine Prize as an important gateway to get more Zimbabwean writers out into the mainstream?

LA: We aim to ensure the Caine Prize is an important gateway for all African writers to get in to the mainstream.

FM: Is the publishing partnership with amaBooks yielding significant benefits thus far?

LA: The partnership with amaBooks is fantastic for us. It is very important to the Caine Prize that the stories are read widely and are therefore locally available.

FM: Can you tell me a bit more about the participants in this year’s workshop? How were they sought and what do you expect from the workshop?

LA: Participants are selected based on the previous year’s shortlist and informed by the previous year’s entries.  So, four shortlisted authors are attending this year, unfortunately the winner, Tope Folarin, couldn’t join us due to work commitments.  We also took recommendations from the judges to invite a number of writers, as well as recommendations from other colleagues and professionals in the field of literature and publishing, as well as past winners, who we listen to closely.  We aim to have a range of writers from different countries, a mix of men and women of different abilities and to include four or five writers from the country in which the workshop takes place.

The workshop will produce 13 publishable short stories, and will involve hard work from the moment we arrive.  Our facilitators, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Nii Parkes will help the writers to shape and edit their work, as will group sessions of readings and criticism which take place daily.  The writers will also visit four senior schools near Mutare, to meet and talk with local school children. There will then be 2 events, one at the Harare City Library and one at Meikles Supermarket on 1st and 2nd April respectively.  The stories will then be published in the 2014 Caine Prize anthology, which will also include this year’s shortlisted stories, which will be announced in late April.

FM: There is often criticism levelled against the Prize for selecting literature that paints Africa in a parochial and formulaic light (hunger, strife, dictatorship, etc). What do you say to this?

LA: Really I think literature is subjective and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think the stories that have won and been shortlisted for the Caine Prize have been of a very high quality and that unfortunately it makes bigger headlines to critique writing on the basis of subject matter, than on the basis of literary or linguistic style and accomplishment.  Having said that I do hope that Caine Prize stories provide a bright window in to a continent that is often not understood in all its complexity in the West. If this window involves telling tales that are hard to read or which details the often terrible events that occur in countries all over the world, then so be it.  I cannot tell writers what to write, or editors what to publish.  We work with the stories that are sent to us every year.

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