The 2012 Caine Prize Workshop (March 5 – 15) turned out to be one of the best literary experiences I have had. Good food, great landscapes, zombie baboons, an ice-cold Atlantic ocean, book-hunting in downtown Capetown, the great company of fellow writers, swimming with fish in a salty river and fishing with swim in a… I’ll begin with the main purpose of the workshop.
1. The Writing
The daily routine was rather monastic. I would get up at sunrise and get to work. 4-5 hours in the morning before the lunch bell went off at 12:55pm. Then another 3 hours in the afternoon. It was impossible for Gorilla to write at night as after-dinner readings and conversations went on past midnight sometimes.
I used the Prayer Hut for my morning sessions. This involved a 200 meter climb up one of the nearby mountains. I am not a Christian but a pagan, a multiple-god worshiping Hindu. Nevertheless, before starting to write, I would flip to a random page in the bible and pray, asking God for good luck and she did not let me down. A New Testament quote (John 1:5) helped me develop the main theme of my story. Besides, there was not a human voice to be heard when inside the Prayer Hut and the views of the valley and wine fields opposite were stunning. I was surprised nobody popped into the Prayer Hut all the days I was in there. On one of the days when it was pretty hot and the wind was not blowing so much (the second Monday I think), I took off my clothes and wrote naked.
The evening readings gave the writers a chance to gauge how an audience (the other workshop writers) would receive their work. Flaws were immediately identified — let’s keep in mind almost all the workshop participants were experienced writers (except for the youngish Kenyan contingent). This helped one to strengthen a story. Unfortunately, my story was laced with special effects and I left my audience dazzled and the flaws were not spotted.
However, in came Henrietta Rose-Innes and Jamal Mahjoub.
According to the official communique they were considered ‘facilitators’ or ‘animatuers’ or ‘editors’. I find these terms confining when describing the roles of the two. They were more like literary shamans who helped me get in touch with the spirits of my story. Three important ways in which they helped me:
The advice of Shaman Henrietta Rose-Innes – She pointed out the need for a reliable ‘geography’ in my story so that the reader had a clear picture of where the characters were. Turned out to be a smashing piece of advice as I came up with something funky and it also helped me to create some useful echo effects. She also pointed out some issues with the pacing of my story. In particular, the need for me to create ‘a sense of journey’ in the finale when the characters go from Nairobi to Rift Valley.
The advice of Shaman Jamal Mahjoub – He looked at the structural flaws in my story. Initially, I wanted to alternate points of view between my two main characters, Cephas and Erabus, but Jamal pointed out I would have a much stronger story by keeping to one point of view, Cephas’. I was skeptical of his advice but as I wrote the story it became clear he was right. It gave it way more force. Also, Jamal pointed out scenes I needed to delete. He said, “They are fun to read but they are not the story.”
When Gorilla wanted to eat the bananas his way – I was surprised that the Shamans let me tell my story in the way I did. I admit, coming into the workshop, I had a stereotyped notion of the kind of story the Caine guys would want us to create (based on speculative articles on the internet written by various bloggers etc). In the end, I discovered it’s up to the writer to decide what kind of story he wants to tell. There were some parts Henrietta and Jamal were skeptical of – e.g the weird love making scene that takes the story into the home straight. They thought it played no part. But I knew it had to be there so I wrote it out and showed them. Then they were ok with it. There was also the point when I showed them my story half way and they were wondering where I was heading and Shaman Jamal was a bit concerned but I said I was on the right track. They let me come up with the follow up and were ok with it. I liked this flexibility on part of the Shamans. It gave me the confidence to take risks and made the writing process fun.
I am happy with the story I wrote. I don’t know if it’s good but I know it’s not bad. It’s of decent quality. It’s called ‘ELEPHANTS CHAINED TO BIG KENNELS’. Watch out for Aeron and her infamous sagging breasts.
The Caine Prize Anthology comes out in July.
2. The Workshop Team
All the writers in the workshop got along very well with each other.
As a part of the rookie Kenyan contingent, it was an honour to rub shoulders with Caine Prize shortlisted authors (Lauri Kubuitsile and Beatrice Lamwaka), novelist cum journalist cum editor cum prize judge (Rehana Roussouw), novelist, (Yewande Omotoso), novelist cum ex-Caine Prize judge (Jamal Mahjoub), novelist cum Whitbread Fist Novel Award nominee (Rachel Zadok), novelist cum Caine Prize winner (Henrietta Rose-Innes), published poets (Tendai Rinos and Grace Khunou) and Caine Prize bosses (Lizzy Attree, Nick & Helen Elam).
And they were all very funny. Dinner time was simply great and the food went down well in such company.
During the evening readings it became apparent, at least to me, the individual stories clearly showed the unique voice of each author. I could match the story to the person. E.g, Waigwa’s stark chracters in ‘Bloody Buda’ are so him and Brenda’s cool finish to ‘Table Manners’ is so her. It was interesting to hear the different voices. It will be great to read the anthology when it comes out.
Some photos of the team:
The place where we were staying at was called ‘Volmoed’. A christian lodge of sorts. Very quiet place. Filled with ponds, baboons, waterfalls, mountains and sprawling fields.
Over the various lunches and dinners, we were treated to a menu of traditional Afrikaan dishes. Absolutely delicious. All home cooked and the kitchen was clean and right in front of the dinning table.
P/S – I want to add I spotted a neat phrase in the large washroom of the bungalow I stayed in. On the plaque next to the water heater. It said ‘GAS FIRED GEYSER’. I thought that was just beautiful.
4. Baada ya kazi…
We had good off the page fun.
First, a visit to a local river. There were fish in the river, it was salty. It was a hot day. Great setting for a swim and boat ride.
We headed to the ocean as well. The beach was beautiful. Pure white sands and there was no seaweed in the ocean. Only problem – these were Atlantic waters, fucking cold. It beat me how on a hot day there is a great beach but such a crap ocean to swim in! But we tried. Lauri seemed completely immune to freezing water and was frolicking in the waves like she was seven years old. I tried. I entered and immediately my whole body went numb. After a couple of minutes I got used to the freezing water. Then I felt fine and went deeper. Then I realized all the cold was concentrated in my balls and it radiated out to the rest of my body. It was painful. I came out of the water and sat on the hot sands.
I got a chance to see downtown Capetown. I wanted to buy books and it turned out to be a good book hunting expedition. I found a couple of second hand bookshops on Long Street. Bought William Buroughs and Jack Kerouac. Bought the Helon Habila edited Granta African Short Story for a bargain 50 rands. Also found a second hand Binyavanga ‘One Day I Will Write About This Place’ for 40 rands (you can’t find the book in any Kenyan bookshop. Strange.) The Capetown bookshops are well stocked and inviting places. I was happy to see one of them (The Book Lounge) stocking all of Don DeLillo. Local writers like Henrietta are well marketed via posters etc. Would like to see that in Kenya one day.
Table Mountain looms everywhere. It was shrouded in a slight mist on the day.