Books & Arts

Senegalese couple clinches the 2023 Caine Prize for African Writing

The prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2023 has been secured by a dynamic duo from Senegal. The duo’s short story, “A Soul of Small Places,” resonates with profound literary trends in the country while delving into the burgeoning realms of horror and speculative fiction across the African continent. Specialist in African literature, Caroline D. Laurent, provides insights into their achievement.

What is the Caine Prize, and what significance does winning it hold?

The Caine Prize, bestowed annually since 2000, recognises a short story crafted in English by an African author.

Its primary objective is to introduce African literature to a wider readership. The prize is named in honour of Sir Michael Harris Caine, a co-founder of the Man Booker Prize.

It comprises a £10,000 cash award for its recipient(s). Winning the prize opens doors for authors to discuss their work, engage with fellow writers, interact with the press, and have their work published in the Caine Prize anthology.

This, in turn, raises the prospects of gaining wider recognition and frequently acts as a launching pad for future publications.

Notably, it has played a pivotal role in launching the careers of renowned writers such as Nigerian novelists Helon Habila and Tope Folarin, Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo, and Zambia’s Namwali Serpell.

Who are the victors this year?

The laureates of this year’s Caine Prize are a pair of Senegalese wordsmiths, Woppa Diallo and Mame Bougouma Diene.

Diallo, a lawyer and feminist activist, founded The Association for Keeping Girls in School in Matam, Senegal, at the age of 15.

Her tireless efforts provided the inspiration for the award-winning narrative, hence the protagonist’s name, Woppa Diallo.

Diene, a Franco-Senegalese American humanitarian and author, serves as the francophone spokesperson for the African Speculative Fiction Society and contributes as a columnist to Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine.

His debut collection, “Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night,” received nominations for two 2019 Splatterpunk Awards.

His work often amalgamates elements of horror, social issues, and local beliefs. “A Soul of Small Places” is a shining example of his favoured genres.

What does the story encompass?

“A Soul of Small Places” follows the tale of Woppa, a young girl residing in the rural town of Matam in Senegal.

Woppa shoulders the responsibility of safeguarding her younger sister, Awa, on their daily journey to school.

Tragically, girls on their way to school often fall prey to sexual assault and forced early marriages. The daily ordeals of Woppa and Awa underscore the alarming absence of response from both the authorities and the community.

Gender-based violence remains concealed, stifled by feelings of shame and guilt. This is where the Soukounio, a flesh-eating djinn, intervenes as a guardian and avenger of young girls. When all else fails, it is only the gods who can protect the girls of Matam.

Why is it so remarkable?

“A Soul of Small Places” is a exquisitely written short story, aptly characterised by the Caine Prize judges as “tender and poetic.”

However, it is also a harrowing and infuriating account. The story’s power lies in its ability to centre on individuals and their personal experiences, humanising an unresolved social issue.

The authors employ suspense and horror masterfully to convey their message, leaving a profound impact on readers and inspiring them to contemplate the issue and take action.

Diallo and Diene’s narrative is deeply anchored in its local context. Matam is vividly portrayed as the second hottest place in Senegal, with the heat palpable in the description of the landscape, where nature assumes both a menacing and protective role.

References to various gods and spirits also illuminate the environment in which Woppa and her family dwell.

Yet, the story transcends its local setting, resonating with the fears experienced by young girls and women globally.

The anxiety of walking home after dark is a shared experience for many women. “A Soul of Small Places” portrays experiences that regrettably are all too universal.

The lack of adequate responses strikes a chord, regardless of one’s place of residence.

What does this signify for Senegalese fiction?

Recently, Senegalese fiction has tackled vital issues within Senegal, ranging from homophobia, as seen in Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s “De Purs Hommes” (Pure Men), to gender-based sexual violence, as exemplified in “A Soul of Small Places.”

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Diallo and Diene penned their story in English, rather than French, the language of Senegal’s former colonisers.

This choice to write in English serves to challenge the neocolonial usage of languages based on one’s origin and the colonial history of one’s nation. In this context, English emerges as a global language.

The Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, where authors write in African languages, complements the Caine Prize, highlighting the dynamic nature of African literature and its ability to challenge the use of former colonial languages in diverse ways.

Senegalese literature plays a pivotal role in encouraging individuals to read, reflect upon, and engage with critical issues in the nation.

Literature serves as a tool for recognition, comprehension, and action. “A Soul of Small Places” stands as a poignant and terrifying testament to this.

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