[The JRB Daily] The Caine Prize wasn’t what I thought it would be: Efemia Chela traces the real value of big literary prizes

In a piece for the Caine Prize blog titled ‘An Unexpected Prize’, Efemia Chela describes how losing out on the Caine Prize still left her with the real prize.

When she was just twenty-two, Chela’s first published story, ‘Chicken’, was nominated for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. She writes: 

I was working illegally in a job I was terrible at, living on the floors of my friends’ houses, moving in and out every week or so. Before that I remember thinking I couldn’t ever be a real writer or at least not for long. An abridged list of reasons—what more would I write? Would I like what I wrote? Would other people get my work? If I kept writing to entertain myself could I keep convincing people to come along for the ride? Could I even make any money from it?

Then I got the call that changed my life, and not in ways I ever expected.

Chela ultimately lost out that year to Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor, which she says her ‘immature mind took as a kind of rejection’. However, that first rejection motivated a kind of ‘professional masochism’, and she subsequently began reaching out for more opportunities, confident that she could ‘force myself to learn how to do them’.

Since that fateful visit to Oxford, Chela has worked for Short Story Day Africa, co-editing the competition’s 2017 Migrations anthology with Bongani Kona and running SSDA writing workshops; has joined The JRB as Francophone and Contributing Editor; and was invited to the Writivism Festival in Uganda. She has also been published by, among others, Brittle Paper, Short.Sharp.Stories: Adults Only, Wasafiri and PEN Passages: Africa.

In the end the Caine Prize wasn’t what I thought it would be. I erroneously thought only winning the big prize could make me a real writer but it isn’t about what happens in Oxford (beautiful as the Bodleian library may be). What made me a writer was what I did afterwards—scribbling away, keeping my creative channels open, talking about African writing with other enthusiasts, and gorging myself on life. I had thought there was only one way to be a writer. It took me a while to realise the real prize that I had been given was the knowledge that there are a several paths, up, down and roundabout that can lead to you to producing great writing, getting involved in meaningful projects and finding a literary family along the way.



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