'African Booker' Defies Image Of Tragic Continent

The Caine Prize for African Writing recognizes an African writer each year for a short story written in English. This year's prize went to Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde for "Bombay's Republic." It's about a Nigerian soldier who fought in Burma during World War II. Host Michel Martin talks with Babatunde and CNN's Nima Elbagir, one of the judges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the wedding may have been perfect, but sometimes what comes next is so not. Just in time for wedding season, we'll hear about a new collection of essays about that all-important but often oh-so-challenging first year of marriage. That's coming up.

But first, we want to tell you about the latest winner of the Caine Prize. The Caine Prize for African Writing, often nicknamed the African Booker, is awarded annually to African writers for a short story published in English.

This year the judges said they were looking for stories that enlarge their concept of the continent beyond the, quote, "familiar images that dominate the media, war-torn Africa, starving Africa, corrupt Africa; in short, the tragic continent," unquote.

Earlier this week, the prize of around $16,000 and a month's writing residency at Georgetown University went to Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde, for his short story, "Bombay's Republic." It's about a Nigerian soldier who fought for the British in Burma during World War II.

Rotimi Babatunde joined us from the BBC studios in London shortly after his win. With him was one of the judges this year, Nima Elbagir. She is also an international correspondent for CNN.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, thank you for having us.

ROTIMI BABATUNDE: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Rotimi, congratulations.

BABATUNDE: Thanks so much. It's been an amazing journey and it's still sinking in gradually.

MARTIN: I have to ask. What were you doing when you found out that you had won and what went through your mind?

BABATUNDE: It was initially unbelievable. I just went, wow. It has also been a very humbling experience because the short list is very diverse, very strong, so winning the award itself has been extraordinary for me.

MARTIN: Nima, as Rotimi indicated, there were five stories short-listed for the prize. Could you talk a little bit more about what you were looking for this year?

ELBAGIR: What I was looking for was really something that managed to communicate an African-ness without falling into the cliches that so often are used to represent Africa and African-ness. Rotimi's story was just so beautifully ambitious, it felt more like a novel and taking the way that these veterans that came back from Burma, the impact that they had on the independence movement, just such beautiful lines in it, the sense that, you know, if these men - that the color sergeant was fighting and dying with - if these white men could bleed, then what about his colonial masters back home?

It was just incredibly beautifully written. And then we also had an amazing - if you believe this - Afrikaner investigator written in a noir style, which completely blew me away. We also had a very, very brave story about - one of the big issues in the continent is that real homophobia that's becoming associated with traditional African cultures. We had that from a Malawian writer. We just had some incredible stories this year.

MARTIN: Rotimi, we've already mentioned that it's based on an historical fact that there were thousands, were there not, of African soldiers who fought in World War II, and you focus on a veteran who was in the Burma campaign, so this is based on historical truth.

Can you just tell us a little bit about what gave you the vision for Bombay?

BABATUNDE: I grew up hearing stories about the veterans, even though it was decades before I was born (unintelligible) the war, but (unintelligible) the stories they brought back, their experiences, still lingers. I was looking for an opportunity for years to write about what they went through, so it was the concept of Bombay developed in my head(ph), I say, wow, now this time I'll go for it, and it was also very (unintelligible) researching that period of our history, which hasn't really been explored deeply enough.

And I think, also, in the official Western narrative of the war, the contributions of subjects for the colonies, from Africa, from Asia, in the - who fought as part of the forgotten army has not been properly acknowledged, so it's great to contribute a little bit.

MARTIN: The character is so vivid, but also just the broader idea that I think many people who are not from Africa or don't know anything about that period will recognize in events that have happened in other cultures as well, which is what happens when you leave home and you are exposed to things that you have not seen before.

One sentence jumps out at me just from the very first page. But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.

The other thing that I think it mentions is also the cost to the soldier himself after what he saw, and it's interesting that you put both of those ideas together. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BABATUNDE: When Bombay, as the main character in the story - when he left Nigeria to fight with the British Army, he encountered narratives about himself, which he never believed were possible, I mean that Africans (unintelligible) that when you kill them, they can resurrect, and he found it so absurd that he -that got him thinking about how his being has been distorted by the orders. So he began to find new - he found ways after the war to re-imagine himself into a new reality for his own self-determination.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde, who has just won the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing. Also with us, CNN's Nima Elbagir, who was one of the judges this year.

Nima, tell us a little bit more about why this story claimed the prize. What is it that took it over the top?

ELBAGIR: For me, it was the ambition. It felt like an entire novel in a short story. It was the transition between the different stages in his life, and there was an incredible amount of humor. Rotimi was just talking about the narratives that the protagonist started seeing about himself, and that's actually one of my favorite parts in the story, where one of the officers, clearly in a very contemptuous way, is saying to him, well, they think you can resurrect. And he's saying it almost like, you know, you primitive jungle beasts, that kind of Africa, the dark, the voodoo aspect of it. And he kind of listened and said, what, like Lazarus? Like Jesus Christ, your savior? And kind of went, huh, and took away from it something completely different than the insult that it clearly was meant to be. I loved that about it.

I also loved the analogy in the end when he goes insane, setting up Bombay's republic. It's almost like Rotimi had taken us through all the kind of - the stages that we've seen in so many countries, colonialism, independence, and then the heroes of independence becoming dictators and growing mad and giving more and more accolades to themselves.

It felt like a microcosm of so much of Africa's history, while at the same time touching on this issue that so few people remember. I mean, I know about it because my grandfather was involved in the anti-colonialist movement back home in Sudan, but so many people of our generation don't know the impact, much like the Tuskegee airmen, I think, the impact that that had in the battle for civil rights in the States. The impact these returning veterans had on the fight for independence in Africa was so huge and yet so little is known about it.

MARTIN: Rotimi, I agree with Nima completely, but you also, in my view, take the bold step of embracing Bombay's decline. You describe very vividly the cost to him of what he has seen and what he has been through. Was that a bold choice for you? Did you hesitate at all to kind of take the turn away from heroism into something else?

BABATUNDE: It was just the only logical development of the story. Bombay was so completely transformed and the sense of personal freedom that was so intense that it had to be ambiguous at the end. I thought it was better to leave it for the reader to judge the outcome of Bombay's transformation.

MARTIN: Well, Rotimi, congratulations once again on this significant honor. I want to mention that in addition to the cash prize, you are also offered a month's residency at Georgetown University, which happens to be in Washington, D.C., where we happen to be. I know this is very new news. You've just found out that you've won. Do you have any idea of what you'll do with that time? Are you going to accept? And what will you do with that month?

BABATUNDE: Surely, I'll accept and I think, one, I want to complete the novel that I'm working on, and secondly, interacting with the students will be a great adventure for me, and I hope(ph) for them when I come. So those students are what I'm looking forward to during the residency.

MARTIN: Rotimi Babatunde is this year's winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. CNN's Nima Elbagir also joined us from the BBC studios in London.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ELBAGIR: Thank you.

BABATUNDE: Thank you so much.

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