Sana Goyal is a Doctoral Candidate in in the African Studies department at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on literary prize cultures- specifically the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize- and select 21st-century women writers, and interrogates the continental impulse and idea of “Awarding Africa”. She holds an MA in Postcolonial Studies from SOAS (2016), and a BA in English and Related Literatures from The University of York (2014). Goyal is also a freelance books writer for Vogue India and Mint Lounge, India, and regularly interviews authors, writes book reviews, and compiles listicles. She has contributed to Africa in Words, Brief Encounters 2 (upcoming) and various online publications. She is at home in both Mumbai and London.
Recently, Brittle Paper: an African literary experience announced the winners of their eponymous inaugural literary awards for “the best of African literature online” to mark the milestone of their seventh anniversary. The shortlist of 48 pieces (across five categories) was diverse and dynamic, and a testament to the blog’s commitment and continental vision. While literary superstars such as Nigeria and South Africa (and Kenya and Zimbabwe) were found in clusters on the shortlist, writers with connections to Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, DR Congo and Cameroon, and Uganda, Liberia and Namibia also studded it. Others with multiple affiliations—Ethiopia/Eritrea, an African country + UK/USA—helped establish that a prize list for literature published online can indeed be intra- and inter-continental, diasporic and global. And while the shortlist did inevitably feature the occasional piece published on international platforms such as The New Yorker and Granta, it is noteworthy that the majority of the works were published by Africa-based blogs, magazines, and journals.
Moreover, and most significantly, the Brittle Paper awards did not claim to act as a development tool of sorts, “discovering” new writers as they debut onto the African and global literary landscape; instead, with a shortlist that serves as a “gesture of gratitude to African writers”, those who have already created a niche and name for themselves alongside newcomers, their sole aim was to “recognize the finest, original pieces of African writing published online”. At a glance, its only glaring shortcoming lies in prizing African literatures published in English—with some exceptions such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s nomination in the fiction category for a work originally in Kikuyu and translated into 65 languages—but this is a common criticism across the constellation of African literary prizes, and it is a lacuna literary prizes must confront sooner rather than later. In the short term however, the Brittle Paper Literary Awards, with their distinct digital edge, are a welcome addition to the African literary landscape, where a handful of prizes are sometimes seen as a synecdoche for conversations around prize cultures.
In a pre-announcement email interview with Dr. Ainehi Edoro, the Brittle Paper founder gives us the backstory of the prize, its broadening of old literary institutions through its digital bent, and the burden on prizes to keep up with the changing life and times of African literature:
Besides the occasion of your seventh anniversary, what was the inspiration and impetus to launch the Brittle Paper Literary Awards?
The prize is an attempt to acknowledge the rich body of amazing African writing being published online, distributed solely on social media, and available to read for free. Literature, as a discursive field, a cultural institution, and a market, is changing. The way writers produce work and how their work gains influence is changing. The Brittle Paper Literary Awards speak to the changes in value and aesthetic practices implicit in these shifts. It’s just a way of saying that the best, most delectable, influential African writing, the ones that get us talking about things we care about can come from a little known website or blog. There is something freeing and beautiful about that.
Can you share more information on the five categories you’re awarding—and the general criteria and curatorial process?
The five categories are fiction, poetry, non-fiction, essay/think pieces, and the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award given to the best writing published on Brittle Paper. The scope of the prize is continent-wide and extends to the diaspora. My co-editor Otosirieze and I drew up the list. We reached out to a few folks in the community for input, but we mostly came up with the shortlist. Running a site such as Brittle Paper means that we have our fingers on the pulse of African literature in the global scene. I am a literature professor. Otosirieze is a writer and has years of experience as an editor. Brittle Paper is actually quite well known for documenting African literary production. We have curated lots of popular lists on African writing. Our “31 Best Pieces of African Writing in 2016” was extremely popular. Readers loved it and found it helpful for navigating their way through the super-abundance of online and social media publishing. For a long time we did a monthly digest on the best of the best in African writing online. So we brought all that expertise into curating the short list for the prize and deciding on the winner.
It’s just a way of saying that the best, most delectable, influential African writing, the ones that get us talking about things we care about can come from a little known website or blog. There is something freeing and beautiful about that.
-Dr. Ainehi Edoro, founder of Brittle Paper
You’re focused on prizing African literatures published online. Would you argue that the digital space is, what you call the “new technological environment”, where exciting, new African literary production is?
New African writing is being produced within other contexts. Traditional publishing still has a large share in the market on African writing, butut the digital space is where meaningful conversation is taking place about African writing. It is where writers are honing their skills and seeking out opportunities and communities of readers for their work. It is where the most experimental and boundary-pushing work is taking place. Writers are more open to taking risks on writings published online. Not to mention the wonderful sense of community fostered across continents and nations. A digital project such as Jalada is possible because writers from various backgrounds and parts of the world are able to place their love for African fiction at the center of community building.
In your announcement you mention: “This is also a celebration not only of writers and relevant works, but also of blogs, magazines, journals, websites and their editors and publishers who are challenging the gatekeeping of old literary institutions…” [In keeping with this spirit, the prize only considered works available online for free.] Can you elaborate on who/what such literary gatekeepers may possibly be, and how online platforms such as yours are challenging them?
Gatekeepers are literary institutions defined by exclusivity and a hierarchical system of circulation—publishing conglomerates, academia, and elite critics’ circles. These institutions are extremely powerful. Having access to their resources is great, but they are also exclusivistand- let’s be honest- like juggernauts, they don’t move fast enough with the times. That’s why sites like Brittle Paper, Afreada, Jalada, Short Story Day Africa, Enkare Review, The Johannesburg Review of Books—just to name a few—are a necessity. They simultaneously run counter and in relation to these institutional forces. In so doing, they are able to provide opportunities for new and establish writers based on the continent.
What does the arrival of new prizes such as yours, among others, mean for a literary landscape long dominated by conversations around (especially, but not exclusively) the Caine Prize for African Writing?
The Caine Prize was a game changer when it was first inaugurated in 2000. It contributed immensely to giving African literature a second wind after the decline of the 80s and 90s. But the prize is straining under the burden of a rapidly changing literary landscape. But that is why we should set up more prizes to address aspects of the African literary institution that the Caine doesn’t speak to. The Brittle Paper Awards is a good example. Instead of criticizing the Caine Prize for not adequately taking into account the ways that the digital context is shaping African writing, we decided to set up a prize that fills that gap. I like to remind people that the Caine Prize is just one prize. It cannot be everything to everyone. The goal should be to create a diversity of opportunities for writers.
Related MULOSIGE articles:
- Wanga Gambushe: ‘English an African Language? Hay’ khona! (Nope)‘
- Mohamed Bouya Bamba: ‘English is an African Language- the Language of Coexistence‘
- July Blalack- ‘To Win the Nobel Prize, Write in a European Language‘