Boyd Tonkin: Listen to all the voices of Africa

The Week In Books

It can can take quite a time for outsiders to appreciate the good things that come out of Africa. This spring's National Theatre production of Death and the King's Horseman by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka proved a revelation. Some 35 years after the play's composition, London theatre-goers at last had the chance to savour its spectacular blend of Greek tragedy, Yoruba tradition, psychological enquiry and political satire. Somehow, Soyinka had passed – as, to a degree, did his contemporaries Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o – from maverick to monument. This transition can skip the stage at which large audiences enjoy the full flavour of a writer's work.

Artists from Africa – so often subject to the overarching agendas of critics, friends and foes – suffer this compression more than most. Too much attention to the nature of their "African" identity (or lack of it) can squeeze the creative juices out of the liveliest work. For this reason, among others, the annual Caine Prize for short stories by African writers demands louder applause with every passing year.

With a mission to promote and celebrate the best new writers from the continent, but no partisan investments, it has showcased one outstanding newcomer after another. Several winners have gone on to shine as novelists – among them, Brian Chikwava, Helon Habila and Segun Afolabi. As for the shortlisted candidates, they have included Chimamanda Adichie, currently the top-selling African novelist; Uwem Akpan, whose debut collection Say You're One of Them won rapturous reviews last year; and Chika Unigwe, whose novel On Black Sisters' Street has just made a successful entrance.

On Monday I returned to the fan-vaulted Divinity School of the Bodleian Library in Oxford to witness another triumph for a 21st-century voice under a 15th-century roof. Formerly an advertising copywriter, EC Osondu from Nigeria has won the tenth Caine Prize for his story "Waiting". As Nana Yaa Mensah, who chaired the judges, put it, his child's-eye account of life in a refugee camp is "powerfully written without an ounce of fat on it – and deeply moving" (read it at caineprize.com).

"Waiting" also plunges the reader back into an unresolved debate about literature from Africa today. Many authors look with suspicion on the Western taste for tales of famine and disease, corruption and carnage: horror stories that render ordinary African lives of love and work, of hope and dream, invisible to the stranger's eye. Such fiction, for its critics, can give succour to the sort of cynic who prefers to write off a "basket-case" continent.

For the most part, that case compels assent. African writing covers every human base. In Soyinka's drama, the elite "horseman" Elesin descends into an anguished underworld of tragic passion not because he is a hapless victim of colonial power but because his strong but warring selves tear him apart.

Yet, as William Hazlitt knew two centuries ago, if tyranny and slavery exist, you do not make them vanish by staying silent. Osondu's kids in "Waiting" endure the worst that fights and flights in a failed state can bring. At one point, shockingly, a toddler is savaged by camp dogs which "fled with parts of the child's body dangling between their jaws". Too extreme? Not for Congo or Darfur.

All over the world, the muse of fiction opts to sail into storm rather than calm. Nick Elam, the award's administrator, points out in his preface to the 2009 Caine anthology, Work in Progress (New Internationalist, £8.99), that "The urge for self-expression is often born out of adversity. Astonishingly, the country with the highest number of entries for the Prize this year was Zimbabwe". The trouble arrives when the dark and not the light comes to represent a whole culture. And the answer to that stigma lies in an ever-growing plurality of voices, with every tone and timbre to the fore. Which is why the Caine Prize deserves many more rich decades.

P.S.I yield to no one in my worship of The Wire, and if you ever want an essay on the evolution of analytic urban naturalism from Zola's Paris to Simon's Baltimore, you only have to ask. But down on the corner we need to geat real and grasp that, over here, the addictive series counts as elite, minority culture. When Kraft brand Carte Noire coffee announced that Jimmy McNulty himself, Dominic West (left), would be fronting an ad campaign with readings from novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sons and Lovers and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, some reports suggested that the cult star was doing these obscure classics some sort of favour. Quite the opposite: an Austen adaptation can command 8-10 million BBC viewers, and Tess itself scored 5-6 million. The Wire debuted on BBC2 with 568,000. Jane will be raising Jimmy's profile, not vice versa.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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