You know about small-town Botswana thanks to Mma Ramotswe and the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. You're familiar with Morocco because of Paul Bowles and Edith Wharton. But when was the last time you read a work of fiction by an African author? That's what the Caine Prize hopes to address: it's the annual gong rewarding the best work of African writing, and is now in its 13th year.
The 2012 shortlist was announced on Tuesday by Ben Okri, the OBE-sporting Nigerian poet and vice president of the Prize. Five works are in the running, by Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Billy Kahora (Kenya), Stanley Kenani (Malawi), Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe), and Constance Myburgh (South Africa). Subjects range from homosexuality in Malawi, to a Nigerian soldier fighting in Burma in the Second World War.
Novels are not welcome: this is for short stories only. Submissions can be no longer than 10,000 words, and a minimum of 3,000. The prize money is £10,000, which works out at a pound a word, or three, if you stick to the minimum. Not that authors think in such vulgar terms.
The winner is also invited to take up a month's residence at Georgetown University as a writer-in-residence. Last year's winner, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo has subsequently been awarded a two-year writing fellowship at Stanford, and her debut novel, We Need Names, is to be published by Little, Brown.
Rules is rules. Like the Orange Prize, which is controversially open only to women, the Caine Prize demands that you were born in Africa, or are a national of an African country, or have African parents. But they don't stipulate on ethnicity: short-listed writer Constance Myburgh is a white South African.
The prize is a cousin of the Booker, in that it was named after Sir Michael Caine, the former Chairman of Booker plc, who founded the Booker Prize in 1969, and died in 1999. A lifelong fan of the African continent in all its manifestations, Caine had been planning to launch a prize to encourage recognition of African writing in English before his death. Friends decided to go ahead, and handed over the first cheque in 2000.
The winner will be announced at a dinner at the Bodleian Library in Oxford in July. It's held there partly because Sir Michael was an alumnus – he read history at Lincoln College – and partly because the Bodleian Library is a splendid place for a party, even if it has not much to do with Africa. The Rector of Exeter College lends his garden for free.
Bernardine Evaristo, chair of the judges, says she is looking for stories about Africa that aren't preoccupied with the usual image of the continent: war, famine, corruption. "I've been banging on about this for years," she says. "Because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines, isn't it time now to move on?"
This year's short-list was whittled down from 122 entries from 14 African countries. That's down from the first year, when there were entries from 20 countries. Nigeria has provided the most winning entries, with three, while Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa have each had two. So far, there has never been a winner from Botswana. It's time to find their answer to Alexander McCall Smith.
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