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  • The Geography of Prestige:Prizes, Nigerian Writers, and World Literature
  • Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

More than a decade ago, James F. English identified an emerging "deterritorialization of prestige, an uncoupling of cultural prizes, and even of symbolic fields as such, from particular cities, nations, even clearly defined regions."1 In his account, the power of national cultural fields, especially, has declined since the mid-twentieth-century heyday of anticolonial cultural nationalism. Since awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Nigerian writer and activist Wole Soyinka in 1986, the Swedish Academy has been at the forefront of defining a "global" or "world" literature—for English, the terms are interchangeable—that inevitably alters or even undermines "national literary hierarchies and systems of value," the ways in which writers are appraised by their compatriots (EP, 304). At the same time, English indicates, the Nobel does not float free altogether of specific geographies: even as nations command less symbolic significance, the Nobel has inaugurated a "conscious strategy aimed at honoring writers of world literature who could nonetheless and simultaneously be identified with local roots or sites of production, and indeed whose place within world literature was a function of their particular relationship to those local roots" (EP, 303, emphasis original). In the press release announcing the winner of the 1986 prize, the Swedish Academy emphasized Soyinka's "roots in the Yoruba people's myths, rites and cultural patterns," and it drew attention to poetry and prose he had written out of his imprisonment by the Nigerian government during the Nigerian-Biafran War; the Academy foregrounded Soyinka's loyalties to a subnational "people" and his individual conscience rather than to Nigeria as a nation.2 The proliferation of prizes that English traces across the twentieth century is an inescapable feature of African literature in the twenty-first century. The "deterritorialization of prestige" does not quite do justice, though, to the workings and effects of African literary prizes today.

Preeminent among those prizes is the Caine Prize for African Writing, of which Soyinka, along with fellow Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, is a Patron. Named for Sir Michael Caine, who helped establish the Booker (now Man Booker) Prize for Fiction while an executive [End Page 1093] at Booker plc, the Caine Prize is based in London and presented at a ceremony in Oxford. Since 2000, it has awarded £10,000 each year "to a short story by an African writer published in English."3 Building on the cachet of the Booker Prize by inviting 1991 Booker winner Ben Okri to chair its first judging panel, the Caine Prize has made itself an inescapable part of the machinery for selecting and publicizing early career writers of anglophone African fiction. The prize has launched the careers of such leading figures of contemporary African literature as Helon Habila (2001 winner), Binyavanga Wainaina (2002 winner), and NoViolet Bulawayo (2011 winner), whose first novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It has become even more important with the discontinuation of other major literary prizes for African writers, including the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 2009 and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2011. There are some prizes with a similar pan-African remit and larger award amounts, such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (first awarded in 2006) and the 9mobile Prize for Literature (formerly Etisalat Prize for Literature, first awarded in 2013), both based in Lagos, Nigeria. Yet the Caine Prize commands a terrain between these continent-based prizes, which attract limited attention outside Africa, and rich international prizes administered in the Global North like the Man Booker, the Dublin International Literary Award, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and the Windham Campbell Prizes, of which Habila was a recipient in 2015. Due partly to its ties to the London publishing scene and partly to the "dynamic canonization" afforded by an annual prize, the Caine Prize has a catalytic effect on African writers' reputations and careers outside their countries of origin.4 As a result, it exerts an outsized influence on discussions about an emerging canon of twenty-first-century African literature.

Contrasting the Africa-wide ambitions of the Caine Prize...


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