How story with a traumatic twist won the Caine Prize

Nigerian-British author Irenosen Okojie is the 2020 winner of the AKO Caine prize for African writing. The writer won the £10,000 award. PHOTO | POOL

What you need to know:

  • Okojie beautifully weaves a haunting tale using delightful language.
  • She successfully tugs at the strings of the hearts of readers as she weaves them in and out of Sidra’s personal tragedies.

Nigerian-British writer, Irenosen Okojie, is the winner of the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Grace Jones. Grace Jones is one of the stories in Okojie’s latest book, a 2019 collection of stories titled Nudibranch. She beat four other contestants to emerge winner of the £10,000 prize money.

Okojie is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an established writer. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, was published in 2015. Her second book, a collection of stories, Speak Gigantular, was published in 2016 by Jacaranda Books. Okojie’s work has also been featured in the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, Huffington Post and the BBC.

Grace Jones tells the story of Sidra, a Martinican forensics graduate who lives in London and impersonates Jamaican model and singer, Grace Jones, with the hope of escaping a traumatic past. Even so, Sidra’s efforts seem wasted as she finds herself unable to forget her losses.

Okojie beautifully weaves a haunting tale using delightful language. She successfully tugs at the strings of the hearts of readers as she weaves them in and out of Sidra’s personal tragedies.

Winning story

On her winning story, Okojie had this to say: “I’m really trying to push the boundaries in terms of language, form and ideas because I find that I really enjoy being in the writing space while doing that.

I want to write provocative work because I think only then can we really challenge ourselves in terms of how we look at the human condition and how we empathise with people in certain contexts, especially those who may not often be centered. What I am passionate about is centering characters on the fringes and really exploring their internal and external lives.”

In previous years, shortlisted writers would travel to London and hold week-long readings in the city. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, the AKO Caine prize adopted a different style of announcing the winner.

 They commissioned British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye to produce and direct a documentary film to celebrate the shortlist and announce the winner.

Tanzanian writer Erica Sugo Anyadike read from her story How to Marry an African President, a story which, in her own words, falls in the bio-fiction genre. “As a fiction writer I am not so interested in the what but in the what and why, that is why I started to think about how a woman would decide to marry a man 40 years her senior. How does she deal with the consequences of that choice? Why is she so reviled? Some of the things that were interesting to me were the parallels I began to draw between the biblical Eve, Delilah and Grace Mugabe.”

Driving around

Chikodili Emelumadu’s What to do when Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata was written as a how-to-guide out of jealousy of those in academia, which is where she always wanted to be. “For me, it was getting back into the mindset of being in school and writing in a certain kind of format," said Chikodili

Namibian/Rwandan writer Rémy Ngamije read from his story The Neighbourhood Watch. He also talked about how part of his research for the story involved driving around his city to familiarise himself with the streets and about how observation is the most important tool a writer has at their disposal.

Rémy’s characters, who are homeless, scour the garbage for food and materials to survive each single day.

Fisherman’s Stew by Nigerian author Jowhor Ile has an older woman as protagonist. Unlike Ngamije, Ile said he did not have to do much research to find the protagonist’s voice in the story which he wrote in two sittings. Johwor Ile is known for his book titled And After Many Days.

Ellah Wakatama, the chair of the AKO Caine Prize, in addressing the age-old issue of a western institution funding an African prize, said: "Going forward, the challenge is going to be how to continue to remain relevant. We are a British prize celebrating the African continent and we have to acknowledge that we do something a little bit differently from our sister prizes on the continent. The most important thing, however, is providing support for writers and giving readers wonderful stories.”

The chair of the 2020 judging panel, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, described Okojie’s winning story as "a radical story that plays with logic, time, and place." He further said that: “Okojie deftly layers the psychological trauma of the daily experience of a Black woman in contemporary British society and of the specific tragedy that befalls Sidra.”

Global conversations

Drawing on current global conversations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Tharp further praised Okojie’s story for cementing the importance of Africans telling their stories. He said that for years, the narrative of Africans was written by white people and pointed out the importance of Africans owning their stories.

Okojie is the 11th woman and the seventh Nigerian writer to win the prize. Other Nigerians who have won the prize over the years include Helon Habila, S. A. Afolabi, E. C. Osondu, Rotimi Babatunde, Tope Folarin and Lesley Nneka Arimah.

The AKO Caine Prize is an annual award given for the best short story by an African writer. Now in its 21st year, it remains a most important short story prize on the continent.

The other writers on the 2020 shortlist will each receive £500.

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