Two Kenyans, Billy Kahora and Okwiri Oduor, have been shortlisted among the five for the annual Caine Prize for African writing. The awards patron, Nigerian great Wole Soyinka, made the announcement on April 22. However, it was notable that this year’s shortlist did not have a Nigerian writer.
The previous year had featured four writers from the West African country, out of a possible five.
Of the Kenyans, this is Kahora’s second shortlisting, his first time having been in 2012 with the story Urban Zoning. Billy Kahora is managing editor at Kwani Trust and is famous for the investigative non-fiction work, The short life of David Munyakei. He has also been involved in scriptwriting, Soul Boy and Nairobi Half Life being part of his oeuvre.
Okwiri, who previously used the name Claudette Oduor, has also been active on the local writing scene in Storymoja and Amka events, recently directing the Writivism Festival in Uganda.
She has published with Kwani?, Amka, Saraba, FEMRITE, The New Inquiry and African Writing online. Her novella, The Dream Chasers, was highly commend in the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012.
Kahora and Oduor’s styles are far apart. Kahora’s writing lets in large swathes of light and is slightly up tempo. The deft portrayal of character and use of symbolism are some of the shortlisted story’s strengths.
The Gorilla’s Apprentice is set in Nairobi during the 2007 post-election crisis. In the story, the gorilla ostensibly dies from taking upon itself the psychic load of the Kenyan collective at the time.
Meanwhile, Oduor’s My Father’s Head is a surreal and haunting narration of a young woman whose dead father has returned to visit. The story explores the themes of ageing, belonging and the meaning of family. The younger writer’s strength is in the sheer exquisiteness with which she spins words: “… smiles that melted like ghee, that oozed through the corners of their lips and dribbled onto their laps long after the thing that was being smiled about went rancid in the air.”
Other Kenyans that have been shortlisted since the inception of the Caine Prize 15 years ago have been Lily Mabura, Muthoni Garland, Parsalelo Kantai and Mukoma wa Ngugi. Only two Kenyan writers — Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor — have previously won.
This year’s award ceremony takes place on July 14 at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in Britain. Apart from Okwiri and Kahora, the other writers that made the short lists this year are Diane Awerbuck (South Africa), Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia) and Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe).
Efemia Chela’s Chicken is a strong contender for a win due to the story’s strong voice, vivid description and jaunty tone; it could very well take it. Okwiri Oduor’s is another very strong contender.
Kenyan writing quality is looking good; do not be surprised if either of these writers brings the prize home this year.