Where are all the African writers?
Tuesday, August 12th, 2014
What will the new Man Booker Prize entry criteria mean for African writers?

The sight of forty-one Scottish terriers marching around in a circle was enough–for me anyway–to justify the existence of the Commonwealth in spite of any chequered past or beleaguered present. They were invited to the Games as canine representatives of the different nations taking part: India, Australia, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Malta etc.

Terriers aside, the Commonwealth Games justify their own existence by the opportunity they give for new talent to shine. Some commentators complain that restricting participation to Commonwealth countries has a negative impact on the quality of sport. But this seems entirely beside the point. Where else could thirteen-year-old Erraid Davies from the Shetland Islands win bronze in breaststroke? Or England’s Claudia Fragapane win four gold medals in gymnastics. It is a chance to look at the athletes of the future rather than those dominating the present.

With this in mind, it seemed a great shame that the Man Booker decided to widen its remit to the USA this year – although, I have enjoyed very much the two books on the list I’ve read so far: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and The Dog by Joseph O’Neill. However, only one author who was neither American nor British – the Australian Richard Flanagan – made it. Never mind the shortlist, the Commonwealth in all its diversity was not even represented on the longlist.

scottie dog

Admittedly, the Man Booker doesn’t have a great record of recognising African authors. The South African site Books Live analysed the nationalities of authors on the long list since it was made public in 2001. JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Damon Galgut, all from South Africa, were familiar names and not exactly ‘new talent’. There have been some exceptions: unfamiliar names like Chimanda Ngozi Adichie have since gone on to justify their presence. There have been hitherto unknown authors of whom I am sure we’ll be hearing more. NoViolet Bulawayo, for example, who was shortlisted last year for We Need New Names.

The prize’s literary director Ion Trewin told The Guardian: ‘I just don’t think it is necessarily one of the great years for the Commonwealth.’ We’ll see whether this year turns into a permanent bad patch. His response–probably about the only thing he could say–smacked of a refusal to recognise the deleterious effect of widening the remit of the prize. Perhaps the International Man Booker will have to become the Commonwealth Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It seems like a complicated trick and a rather unnecessary one – in the way 41 scotties in a ring was not.

2014 was an interesting year for African literature. Teju Cole was typically experimental with Every Day is For the Thief. Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names received an excellent reception in the British and American press with the exception of a review in The Independent by Neel Mukherjee who, incidentally, was himself nominated for the Man Booker this year. Given that twelve or fewer books make the shortlist, their exclusion can’t be taken as a slight.

All competitions have various entry criteria: you can’t take drugs; you can’t have unrealistically long artificial legs; your novel can’t be in a language other than English; it can’t be short fiction… the list goes on. Entry specifications do not make the competition less authoritative or the winner any less deserving. But changing the Man Booker entry requirements seemed to belie this. The committee have forgotten competitions have to be curated to make comparison all the more illuminating.

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