The Virus has been shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing. I read the other nominated stories and am delighted to be in such good company. I especially enjoyed Sudan's Dr. Bushra al-Fadil's story, The Story of The Girl Whose Birds Flew Away. His is a very delicate balance of bending traditional Arabic storytelling into something of a lyric fairytale exploding gender violence and cultural complicity. It reads magically, like a big ball of yarn unspooling--all at a go and all with a grace belying an unraveling mess. A fine treat.
The Caine Prize has a storied history of supporting strong talent at a nascent stage. It's important not to lose sight of that nurture and what it can mean in the writing life of a promising artist. That matters. But it's also important to understand literary prizes as playing a supporting role to, and not being, the thing that matters most: writing.
I was reminded of this in Petina Gappah's response to a young writer who laments not making the shortlist this year. Petina's advice to the young writer is to focus on writing without seeking external validation. In some ways, the letter could have been written to and for me.
Writing is such intimate and vulnerable business, it is a wonder prizes exist at all for the end result. I'm not arguing good writing shouldn't be celebrated. I'm saying that that sort of external validation has to be uncoupled from the core of what it means to be a writer. You have to write for yourself. What you create in that labour, what becomes bound in hard covers and gathers dust on bookshelves--that is a being who must ultimately live outside the self and stand in line for beauty contests and prizes; not the writer.
I think of how powerfully Sam Chang recently spoke on this point at One Story's Literary Debutante Ball. She spoke about the importance of a writer protecting and preserving a rich inner life. What is an inner life? I remember Sam asking us in workshop.
An inner life is my most whole and sacred self--the substantive parts that are my sustenance. Nobody will ever know this self, nor should they. They may encounter fragments of her smile torn onto the page, but even as I sit in communion with her to write anything of significance, even as I try channel her soul into something that hopefully sustains others, my job is to protect her.
And so. I am over the moon The Virus was shortlisted. It's such good news. Especially when you feel as if you've already won. And I applaud Arinze, Dr. Brushra, Chikodili and Lesley. Most of all through, I am holding onto Sam & Petinah's wisdom. Prizes are like an end of year bonus--I get giddy thinking The Virus may find new appreciative readers through this Caine shortlist. Writing though, like all noble work, is its own rich and singular award.