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Olufemi Terry’s accolade inspires Sierra Leonean fiction writers

Olufemi Terry’s accolade inspires Sierra Leonean fiction writers

The Caine Prize for African writers, regarded as African Booker Prize, was born in 2000, and named in memory of the late Michael Caine, who was chairman of the Booker Prize Committee for about 25 years. Before his death, he was working on the idea of a prize to encourage the growing recognition of the worth of African writing in English, its richness and diversity, by showcasing it to a wider audience. The African fiction prize is the most prestigious of all others, offering a hefty purse of 10,000 Pounds, the equivalent of $15,000, in addition to a month’s residency at George Washington University, Washington DC. All expenses being paid for.  (Photo:  Olufemi Terry, Caine Prize for African fiction winner 2010)

It focuses on the African short story in the range of 3000-10,000 words, reflecting on the contemporary development of the African story-telling. The remuneration breaks down into more that a dollar per word. Quite rewarding wow! This is more than exciting news for serious writers of African pedigree, who craft African flavored short stories in the Diaspora as well. There are other qualifying rules for submitting an entry for the award. Among them, the short story should be published either online or in print, and the entry must be submitted only by a publisher. The emphasis is on published work not work in progress like a dust collecting manuscript.

The initial prize was awarded in 2000 at a Zimbabwe International Book Fair 2000 in Harare. The lucky winner then was Leila Aboulela from Sudan. Annually, the winner is announced at a dinner in Oxford, UK, in July, to which short listed candidates get invited. Also as part of a week long of activities are book-readings, book signings, and press opportunities. The African laureates of the Nobel Prize for literature, Akinwande Oluwale Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and J. M Coetzee are patrons of the Caine Prize: So also is Chinua Achebe – who is considered the Father of African literature, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is president of the council and Jonathan Taylor is the chairman.

On Monday July 5, 20010, at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, UK, amid fever pitched excitement, the long awaited announcement came: And the winner of the 2010 Caine Prize for African fiction is Sierra Leonean born Olufemi Terry, for his short story: ‘Stickfighting Days.’ The cheers like thunder were deafening and pulsating, if not rousingly punctuated with stardom. Terry said he was overwhelmed, at least for the first hour. He comes from a diverse background of African and Antillean parentage. He grew up in Nigeria, UK, and Ivory Coast, before attending New York University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing.

Subsequently, he lived in Kenya and worked as a journalist and analyst in Somalia and Uganda. Today, he lives in Cape Town, South Africa, that he calls home, where he’s working on his first novel. His writing has appeared in Chimurenga, New Contrast and the Caine Prize for African Writing’s eighth annual collection of short stories. Later, he would go on to bag an MA in Creative Writing from University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2008.

The panel of judges included Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist Literary Editor; Ellah Allfrey, Editor of Granta; Professor Jon Cook of the University of East Anglia and Samantha Pinto, George Town University professor.

Last year’s Caine Prize winner was Nigerian born E.C Osondu with his short story “Waiting.”

The 2010 Shortlist Includes:

  • Ken Barris (South Africa) The Life of Worm, from New Writing from Africa 2009
  • Lily Mabura (Kenya) How Shall We Kill the Bishop? from Wasafiri No53, 2008
  • Namwali Serpell (Zambia) Muzungu, from The Best American Short Stories 2009
  • Alex Smith (South Africa) Soulmates, from New Writing from Africa 2009
  • Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone) Stickfighting Days, from Chimurenga vol 12/13

Terry’s story portrays a group of boys who sniff glue and fight each other with sticks in a dump. “Mormegil is as long as our regulations allow, a lovely willow poke, dark willow – that’s why I chose the name. It means black sword in Tolkien’s language,” says Terry’s narrator. “Mormegil is a killing machine, even though I’ve never done for anyone yet. But I will. I like Markham, but I’d like to kill him. I dream of doing it in front of a huge pack of boys. Clinically.”

Chair of the judges Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor, called the story “ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative.” Terry “presents a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception,” she said. “The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future.”

“I had in my head the idea of street boys in Nairobi, in rags, sniffing glue,” Terry said. “The stickfighting element just popped into my head – there wasn’t any obvious connection between the two strands, but somehow I found myself working with these two elements and the story just poured out of me.”

Terry added he doesn’t find the label “African writer” to be helpful, as it is too often associated with the African stereotypes of poverty and disease. His awarding winning story is the second short story that he has written, Terry emphasized.

In his own writing, he said he is keen to explore the African Diaspora. He hopes the Caine Prize accolade will help him secure a publisher for his first novel, The Sum of All Losses, which he has been working on at his home in Cape Town.

Here’s an extract from Olufemi Terry’s winning short story: ‘Stickfighting Days’:

“Thwack, Thwack, the two of them go at it like madmen, but the boys around them barely stir with excitement. They both use one stick and we find this swordy kind of stickfighting a bit crappy. Much better two on one or two on two – lots more skill involved and more likelihood of blood. I turn to Lapy. “Let’s go off and practice somewhere. This is weak.” Lapy likes any stickfight, but almost always does what I say. His eyes linger ruefully on Paps and the other boy – don’t know his name but I see him a lot – and then he follows me. I run almost full tilt into Markham and he gives me a grin, like we’re best pals and he’s been looking for me. Markham is my rival. We’ve beaten each other roughly the same number of times. Well, six to five in his favour, but one of my victories was a beauty, a flowing sequence of sticks that even I couldn’t follow before I smashed his nose in nicely. Almost broke it. The satisfaction of Markham’s watery-eyed submission that day makes me smile easily back at him.

“Wanna mix it up?” Markham’s eyes aren’t smiling any more; he won the last one and thinks he’s on a roll. I know better.”

In today’s stressfully laden, time sensitive and busy world, a lot of our folks don’t read. Endless wants are actively competing for our limited time. People often tell me, I want to buy your book, but I don’t have time to read it. Short fiction is already competing with the novel. The length, convenience and time management makes an anthology of short stories cost effective and preferable to the novel. It’s increasingly gaining credence and popularity. Writing short fiction could become a profitable investment of one’s limited time which so many other things are endlessly competing for.

Roland Bankole Marke © 2010

Roland Bankole Marke is a widely published writer from Sierra Leone, based in Florida. He’s the author of 3 books, and a short story writer, whose short stories and poems have been anthologized. Visit his website: www.rolandmarke.com

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