OXFORD, England — A story that queries the antics surrounding celebrity adoptions of vulnerable African children won the continent's top literary award for a struggling Nigerian academic living in the U.S.
E.C. Osondu, 42, was selected from four other finalists to win the £10,000 ($16,000) Caine Prize for African Writing with his short story, “Waiting”, about two boys in a refugee camp.
“A tour de force describing, from a child’s point of view, the dislocating experience of being a displaced person,” said head judge Nana Yaa Mensah. “It is powerfully written with not an ounce of fat on it — and deeply moving.”
Orlando and Acapulco, named after the slogans on T-shirts given to them by the Red Cross in their camp, spend their days endlessly hoping to be adopted.
“Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do,” runs one passage. “We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run.”
The story was first published on Guernicamag.com. Cultural references in the story range from “Waiting for Godot” and “Oliver Twist” to a clutch of African phrases and war chants.
Amid tales of fighting over food, pus oozing from a bad ear and memories of war, the story also includes tree-shaded discussions by the boys of how all houses in America have swimming pools. They weigh up their chances of being adopted and discuss how to attract a new family by posing in their photograph.
The boys’ story is one of bittersweet hope, which chimes deeply with Osondu’s own experiences and the research he conducted with refugees from Sudan and Somalia living in America.
“There are still hundreds of thousands of refugees, in Kenya, Sudan, Congo — it’s an everyday reality, said Osondu. “The West is seen as some kind of sugar candy mountain but it’s very, very different.”
Osondu told GlobalPost that he once was so hard up that his U.S. students held a “keg party” to help him pay the rent to tide him over the unpaid summer months.
Osondu questioned the adoption trend in which African British pop star Madonna and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie have adopted African children in recent years. Mexican actress Salma Hayek recently breastfed another woman's baby in Sierra Leone.
"These actresses are still going to Africa to adopt. Would it be better for superstars to build schools or sink wells in Africa so that many can be saved instead of one child living in a castle?” asked Osondu.
Winning the prize — for which he was also a finalist in 2007 — is a big break for Osondu, a one-time Lagos advertising copywriter who took a creative writing course at Syracuse University in the U.S. thanks to a lucky break following a chance e-mail. He is now assistant professor of creative writing at Providence University in Rhode Island.
“It’s been very, very rough and tough coping, especially financially,” says Osondu, the youngest of seven siblings. “Prize money is supposed to buy a writer respite from the wolf at the door. I’m now able to take care of my bills and I see it freeing up myself to write.”
Under the high-vaulted ceiling of the Oxford University’s dazzling 15th-century Divinity School, part of the esteemed Bodleian Library that was also a set for the Harry Potter films, Osondu looked every bit the part of African writer.
Picking at a plate of smoked trout with avocado, grapefruit and rocket salad to start an elegant three-course meal seated among such African literary greats as Ben Okri and Aminatta Forna, Osondu said he was anxious before the award was announced.
He was ebullient when his name was announced as the winner.
“It’s a prize to die for, so there was a whole lot of anxiety. I don’t even know what day it is,” he said the day after winning on two hours’ sleep. “I’m amazed at the outpouring of good wishes. I’m feeling like a major rockstar now.”
While publishing opportunities in his homeland are few, he hopes the Caine prize — which includes a month’s residence at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. — will help him make the most of the growing appreciation for African writing worldwide.
“It’s probably the best time for African writers right now,” says Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, senior editor at Jonathan Cape, which is publishing a bumper crop of six books from African writers among its general literary fiction category this year. “Across the board the reviews are really good and the Caine Prize is really brilliant at showcasing talent.”
Allfrey has published books from several previous contestants and winners of the Caine Prize, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Patrons of the award, which was set up by former Booker Prize management committee chairman Sir Michael Caine, include Wole Soyinka, J. M. Coetzee and Chinua Achebe.
For Osondu, who is currently writing his first novel, the publishing path ahead is a long, stretching one he hopes he will be brave enough to tread.
“Uncertainty and doubt are the companions of the writer. Many moments I have asked myself ‘What I am doing?’, but the moment you are no longer afraid, I don’t think you can be a writer any more," said Osondu. “It’s good to win the prize, but it’s more important to write the book.”
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The unlikely home of Africa's Oscars