Unless you haven’t been paying attention, the AKO Caine Prize is the definitive short story prize for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Fraught with its own criticisms, the Prize has seen a number of significant changes in the last few years in response to criticism from Binyavanga Wanaina and other African beneficiaries of the Prize who argued it being domiciled in the UK reinforced Western expectations on African writers. One of the changes in response to those arguments has been a rotating roster of judges for the Prize each year. In 2018, Dinaw Mingetsu chaired the panel for the awards, ushering a new era of stories that celebrated outside of the traditional canon of literary fiction. This year, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp will chair the panel.
Tharp is the director of the Africa Centre in the UK and has long been an active part of the African literary community, especially as collaborator who has helped a lot of African playwrights get their work to the stage. To judge the prizes with him this year is Audrey Brown, Gabriel Gbadamosi, James Murua, and Ebissé Wakjira-Rouw.
Brown is a South African journalist who is best known for her work with the BBC, Gbadamosi works as a playwright and poet whose work has wong the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize in the Best International Novel category for Vauxhall. James Murua, the Kenyan literary journalist will represent East African interests at the Caine this year, and Wakjira-Rouw who is of Ethiopian origin and advises the Dutch Parliament on art, culture and Media will round out the list of judges.
This year’s judging panel has a lot of work ahead of them. The AKO Caine Prize veered towards acknowledging and rewarding groundbreaking achievements in science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, genres that were traditionally looked down on by Western audiences in favour of gritty, literary fiction many termed as poverty porn. This transition was hard fought, and audiences will be watching if this new panel continues in that vein or returns to familiar grounds.