The Commonwealth Short Story Prize short-list has been announced.1 I had a particular interest in the announcement of this short-list because I submitted a story to competition.2 My name was not on it but the winner for the Kenya region is a friend, and his story – a gritty tale about a woman retaining, reclaiming, and asserting her dignity despite the depredations in the Kakuma refugee camp – is worth reading.3

My expectations, when I write and submit anything, never really include the possibility that I will be published or that I will win a prize. I send and try to forget until reminded.

Literary competitions are often merely black boxes into which manuscripts are inserted.4 Some churning goes on within; we are not privy to the operations of the concealed, magical text-mangling machine. At the end of the process, winners are announced, funding dispensed, contracts signed, books and anthologies published, trips undertaken, careers launched or propelled, and so forth.

Literary prizes are also, unavoidably, political. It has been said of the Caine prize (as well as other prizes, and vital publishers such as Femrite) that it has fostered a certain style of writing, inculcated certain expectations of how African writing should look like, how an African voice should sound like, and how an African narrative should be read. An “African” writer seems expected to work as closely as possible to a social-realist mode, to include something of the disenfranchised and benighted African condition, to work on a substrate made up of the conflict that occurs when the African is confronted with the West (its attendant trappings and values), to talk about the ills of Africa, the corruption, the disease, the hunger, the violence.5 That this mode of writing is so consistently rewarded can and probably does have a chilling effect on African writers who do not fit neatly or nicely into this mode, who do not want to work or live in an imaginative world of this kind, who do not find meaning or value in the perspectives nurtured in that genre. The stories short-listed from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria for the Commonwealth Prize, excellent though they may be, illustrate that this kind of writing is indeed what the judges wanted to read.6

The Kwani? Manuscript project was announced with gestures that it would seek to discover new voices but it is difficult to discern just how radical an emphasis they are putting on “new”.7 Having adjusted their deadline thrice since the beginning of 2013, they seem “plagued by delays” (a perennial African condition if ever there was one) and are yet to announce any list. I’d like to imagine that the difficulties they are facing in finalising a long-list might be a side-effect of their stated mission and ambitions.

Because competitions are so opaque, because the writers who are not short-listed can never expect to obtain any explicit feedback from the judges, because the invisible political hand at work is nonetheless perceptible in the results year after year, it is difficult, unnecessary, and unwise for any writer to invest his or her emotions in the outcome (except, of course, if one happens to be amongst the winners). Mostly, I experience a profound sense of relief to see that writers are awarded large prizes and are being permitted and enabled to live in (if not from) their art. I see a winner and get the sensation of watching a drowning child being saved.

For those of us who lose (because it really is losing if one does not win: judgement has been passed; “the shadow remains cast”) the publication of yet another list on which our names do not feature is an opportunity to remember that writing fiction is to embrace an absurdity: one writes with the conceit of hope that one’s words and thoughts matter, that one’s imagination is bright enough to illumine the hearts, minds, and lives of a small cohort of unknown kindred others, that perhaps the writer is in fact brilliant, her output perspicacious or even vatic, her existence necessary. However, those of us who remain unpublished write not because we really believe these things which we hope but because there is not an alternative: the hand that holds the pen propels itself, wending its way across the page, and it matters very little if anyone else reads these words.

A friend asks me,

Who is the imagined audience? Why should what you have written or want to write matter? How does form itself matter, if at all? Why should I be sold on this?

I still do not have meaningful answers to these questions and perhaps I never will. My only reply was, and remains, that “matters is not the same as matters in a grand way. To matter, in an age where publishing is cheap and easy, almost without barrier, is to say that individual voices matter and that they matter in the same way that individual lives matter. To ask someone why his writing matters is the same as to ask him why his life matters. What exactly is one to do upon evaluating his life and finding that, perhaps, it doesn’t matter? Should the person, perhaps, throw himself off the edge of a cliff?”

    1. What is most pleasing to me about this list is that out of 18 writers, a memorable and remarkable 13 are women. 
    2. The story I submitted, “The Women I Have Destroyed” is one man’s meandering and maudlin attempt at approaching an understanding of how women move and live in the world and how, in his role as masculine exploiter, he might have impinged on those with whom he has been intimate. 
    3. “Fatima Saleh” by Alexander Ikawah. 
    4. We don’t know because they don’t say, it’s all so very secretive and solemn, they are using their great big heads to elucidate the power of words and the lasting power of stories. Like gurus, they don’t need to explain themselves. (Madeleine Thien, “On transparency”)

    5. The (in)famous “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina. 
    6. I have only read the Kenyan story but based on the synopses of the other stories I’m willing to generalise. 
    7. I submitted a manuscript to the Kwani? competition. My approach to submitting material is opposite to that of the assassin in “Kill Bill” who when asked if she’s a good shot with a shot-gun, replied that she’s a fucking surgeon with it. I’m no surgeon, but I am wielding a blunderbuss, and sending everything scatter-shot at every target in range. 

[Originally published here. ]