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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?