Kwani Writer Billy Kahora speaks on his Nomination for the Caine Prize 2012

Billy Kahora

Billy Kahora, a writer and Managing Editor at Kwani Trust was on 1st May 2012 announced as one of the shortlisted writers for the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Billy’s Story, Urban Zoning which was first published on, an online literary journal is up against 4 other stories by other African Writers;

Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) ‘Bombay’s Republic’ from ‘Mirabilia Review’ Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011)

Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’ from ‘For Honour and Other Stories’ published by eKhaya/Random House Struik (Cape Town, 2011)

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) ‘La Salle de Départ’ from ‘Prick of the Spindle’ Vol. 4.2 (New Orleans, June, 2010)

Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ from ‘Jungle Jim’ Issue 6, (Cape Town, 2011)

In her first year as Caine Prize Administrator Lizzy Attree stated,

“this year’s shortlist represents the best of short African fiction published worldwide. I’m looking forward to working with Ben Okri and Ellah Allfrey to continue to establish the Caine Prize as the mark of excellence in African literature.”

Selected from 122 entries from 14 African countries Bernardine Evaristo said,

“I’m proud to announce that this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives. These stories have an originality and facility with language that made them stand out. We’ve chosen a bravely provocative homosexual story set in Malawi; a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma Campaign of WW2; a hardboiled noir tale involving a disembodied leg; a drunk young Kenyan who outwits his irate employers; and the tension between Senegalese siblings over migration and family responsibility.”

The winner of the £10,000 prize is to be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 2 July.

The Caine Prize, Africa’s leading literary award, is now in its thirteenth year. Involved from the beginning, Ben Okri, the internationally acclaimed Nigerian writer was announced as the Vice President of the Prize last week (26 April 2012). Ellah Allfrey OBE, deputy Editor of Granta magazine is the new Deputy Chair.

We caught up with Billy shortly after the announcement as sought to hear his thoughts on this accomplishment.

KP: How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prestigious award?

BK: Great, always good to be recognised. It keeps one honest in putting in the hours on the keyboard. Brings in a huge injection of energy … that what one is doing is worthwhile … and worth one’s time and dedication …

KP: Your story, ‘Urban Zoning’ what is it about?

BK: Broadly, it is about Nairobi hustle circa the 90s interested in capturing what I feel were the spirit of the times when my generation was coming of age: Moi-ism, alcoholism, easy money, sexual (mis) adventure, generational conflict … a young man goes through all these things in the space of a few hours to capture all these things … and Nairobi as I remember it then …

KP: The Chair of the Caine Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, described your story among the other 4 as not being a stereotypical narrative, could you tell us more about that

BK: It depends on who’s commenting. This story within certain spaces at least in urban Africa wold be seen as the most stereotypical story of them all. A young man from the middle-class going bad – that is the stereotype within Nairobi or other African urban ‘middle-class’ spaces. You know this story, anybody who’s grown up in a certain space in Nairobi knows this story: failed youthful promise, alcohol, drugs, corruption … But of course within consideration of the ‘African’ story, it does usually take a back seat to … rural poverty, HIV/AIDS, war, political oppression etc As written narrative, the modern urban tale in an ‘African’ space is yet to mirror its existence in the ‘real’ … interestingly, the stereotypical ‘African story’ is a construct that in time has somehow managed a continued pseudo-lifespan – its death happened immediately it became a stereotype … years ago …

KP: How has it been being a Managing Editor at Kwani and still being able to find time to do your own writing

BK: Its been great being part of such an amazing project even as I’ve found very little time to write. But that is by choice. Also, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t worked at Kwani for many different reasons. But there is a time for everything. Part of me really likes being an editor, and for a long time I haven’t worried too much about writing. And doing it while I can do it while I’m involved in some amazing editorial and creative projects. But lately, more and more, I feel that I want to go back to writing more than being an editor.

KP: Kwani Trust was started by Binyavanga Wainana after he won the Caine prize in 2002, how does this make you feel, having been shortlisted for the same?

BK: I can see how people would draw some parallels and its great but there are many more amazing things that Binyavanga and I have done or been part of that are much larger than being shortlisted for the same prize. We’ve collaborated as editors and with many others, and been part of a great adventure for now at least 7 years, worked on many projects together, pushed Kwani to specific places. We’ve spoken for so long about literature and other related things between us and many other people and this is more significant to me than being shortlisted for the same prize, as great as that is …

KP: What are your plans with the £10,000 prize, are we likely to see the rise of another literary venture

BK: I’m not one to make serious plans till the money is in my account. That said, I’m very interested in taking this literary adventure that I’ve been on with so many people in certain directions and the prize would definitely help … I’m very aware that Kwani hasn’t done enough for the contemporary novel and maybe the prize would help push that or think through that in new ways … the prize would probably also help me in my making steps in that direction for myself as a writer …

KP: The last time a Kenyan won the Caine prize was in 2003, Yvonne Oduor, whose story was also published by Kwani, should writers seek to get published by Kwani for a chance to win the Prize? What would you attribute this good fortune to?

BK: My story was not published by Kwani. And three Kenyans have, since Yvonne, been shortlisted, and whose stories were not published in Kwani. Parselelo Kantai, Lily Mabura, Muthoni Garland. Note that Binyavanga’s winning story was not published in Kwani. That said, all Kenyans except one shortlisted for the Caine have been published by Kwani. And these have not been shortlisted because they write/wrote for Kwani but because Kwani seeks the best contemporary writing in the region. I think that all these writers would have been shortlisted whether Kwani existed or not. All these are writers who exist on their own terms like all good writers do … and who would have found their own way … that said Kwani also helped because writers need their own space ..

KP: Would you equate the Caine Prize to the Oscars for African Writing if so why?

BK: Yes, as far as they are both, in their own ways, big prizes to their relative industries, regions and artists …

KP: There are many writers of African descent who do not wish to be categorised as ‘African Writers’, does this prize ingrain the feeling that African writing cannot compete on the same stage with other international writing awards.

BK: There are regional prizes all over the world that are exclusively for individuals from the specific places that the prize originates from. And for that reason alone, the Caine Prize should exist. One should not extrapolate whether African writing is up to scratch because of the existence of an exclusive prize … but one can do some research on prizes that compare work from different regions to make a case on how ‘African’ writing compares with writing from elsewhere … I think looking at how well Africa is represented on commercial and critical lists of World Literature is a better indicator for making a case of the same argument … but to argue anything in that sense from a regional prize is a fallacy … and to question its existence when the rest of the world has hundreds of regional prizes is even more foolish …

KP: Tell us about the other two books you are working on, a novel ‘The Application’ and the other one on Juba

BK: I want the The Applications to be a novel that looks at the death of a significant part of the Kenyan middle-class during the socio-economic upheaval and political struggles of the 90s primarily through the eyes of a middle-aged woman who goes ‘mad’ in order to ‘survive’; so, dysfunctional family as a microcosm of Kenyan middle class society. And then at the members of her family after this collapse and how they react in different ways.

I’m working on an extended non-fiction narrative on Juba as an African city that is part of the Pilgrimages Project set up by the Chinua Achebe Center, Bard College. The question I want to answer: is what is a ‘new’ African city like Juba about?

KP wishes Billy all the best and looks forward to his upcoming novel.

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