For Caine Prize Winner, Writing Went From Phase To Way Of Life

The Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded on Monday to Kenyan Okwiri Oduor. Oduor joins guest host Jacki Lyden, along with last year's winner, Tope Folarin, to talk about the prize.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Let's turn now to literary news out of Africa. In a moment, we'll pay tribute to South African writer, activist, and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, who passed away on Sunday. But before that, we want to hear about a new generation of writers from the continent. Now in its 15th year, and often nicknamed Africa's Booker Prize, the Caine Prize for African Writing is awarded annually to writers for a short story published in English. Previous nominees and winners include the celebrated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo and Binyavanga Wainaina. Last night, the prize of £10,000 - that's about $17,000 - was given to a young Kenyan writer, Okwiri Oduor, for her short story "My Father's Head." The judges described it as an uplifting story about mourning - Joycean in its reach. She exercises an extraordinary amount of control and yet the story is subtle, the judges said, tender and moving. It's a story you want to return to the minute you finish it. And we're lucky enough to have Okwiri Oduor joining us now to talk more about it. And also with us is last year's winner of the Caine Prize, Tope Folarin. Welcome to the show.

TOPE FOLARIN: It's good to be here.

OKWIRI ODUOR: Yeah, thank you.

LYDEN: And we want to say a huge congratulations to you, Okwiri. You just got compared to none other than James Joyce. So how are you feeling about everything that's happened today?

ODUOR: I'm still stunned, to be honest. It hasn't really sunk in. I think it will take a few days before that. I am surviving on about two hours of sleep, so...

(LAUGHTER)

ODUOR: Maybe later, I'll be able to process it, maybe. How was it for you, Tope?

FOLARIN: It was exactly like that. I mean, I don't think I slept at all the night before. And so I remember being in complete daze the morning of and you're probably more eloquent than I was.

LYDEN: Let's tell the world a little bit more about your story, Okwiri. This is called "My Father's Head." I absolutely loved it. And it deals with the narrator's struggle with the loss of her father and her attempt to re-construe him, to remember him. And this whole context, what was it for you? Was there a family member that you had lost? I understand that you did go through, at some point in your life, a sort of a period of remove or estrangement from your family.

ODUOR: Yeah, I had just left home. I realized I was transitioning from childhood to adulthood. One day I woke up and I was an adult and I didn't know what happened. And I was trying to make sense of it. I did not know what happened to my childhood I think I was grieving it. I was trying to understand it - also, the fact that I'd just moved away from home and coming to terms with adult things like mortality and, you know, realizing that your parents will not always be there. And you won't either. So...

LYDEN: Tope Folarin, you won last year's prize for your short story "Miracle." And I also thought that was incredible and that's a scene in which a young person is in the presence of an evangelist - we won't go through it all right now.

FOLARIN: Sure, sure.

LYDEN: It's a remarkable story. And I know that you've read the five short stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize this year. Tell us little bit about what stood out for you.

FOLARIN: Well, I liked Okwiri's story a lot because I was really intrigued by the theme of exile in her story. I think she's kind of referenced that a little bit in what she just said. But for me, the most deeply affecting part of the story was that kind of second person bit that happened towards the end of the story, when it's apparent that somebody - I'm assuming it's the main character - has come back from some time away and is trying to reconnect. But at the same time, recognizes that that reconnection may not be possible. And also, the idea that perhaps, she's trying to exile her father from death, as well. And so there's this really poignant and deep kind of connection between the narrator and the narrator's father because of that kind of trying to return from exile. Am I on the right path with that, at all, or...

(LAUGHTER)

ODUOR: Yeah, I think so but everyone has a different interpretation. And it just amazes me.

FOLARIN: Well, that's a mark of a great story, right? I mean, I think if people are assigning any number of interpretations to your work it means that you deeply impacted them.

LYDEN: I would entirely agree with that. Also, there is such a wonderful vibrancy in these stories. And, you know, I know that you live and work in D.C. now, Tope. There's been some questioning -what is it, you think, that resonates for American readers so much with these stories?

FOLARIN: I think in the case of my story, it was based in America and there's a kind of yearning for a desire to be placed here - a desire to be here and be somewhere else at the same time and maybe a desire to choose one or the other. And I think, again, with Okwiri's story, there's a sense that many of us, even if we spent our entire lives in the states, we sometimes feel exiled from where we come from or where we would like to be, in a way. It doesn't have to be like, you know, I'm from across the globe. It could very well be, I'm from another state. I'm a member of another family or even the sense that you're meant to be doing something you're not doing. That itself can kind of feel like you're exiled from something. And so I think in the literature that we're writing, that feeling of trying to connect to something and that sense that you're lost, is incredibly accessible because we're all writing from that place. We're all trying to write, in a way, back home. And I think that's what's so profound about Okwiri's story. She's trying to write back home, I think, in a very important way. And the character's certainly trying to get back home to her father's love. Trying to get back home to knowing who her father is and trying to get back home to herself, as well.

LYDEN: Okwiri, you are a short story writer, but I understand you're working on a novel, as well. What is the novel going to look at?

ODUOR: You know, when people ask me what the novel is about and I tell them it's about love and grieving and coming to terms with these things. And they tell me, yeah, you're rewriting the short story again? But I think there's many ways of grieving, like grief for a lost childhood, a grief for dislocation, not knowing where home is, exile and things like that. There are so many different things we're grieving for and my novel deals with that.

LYDEN: Have you named it yet?

(LAUGHTER)

FOLARIN: Break some news.

ODUOR: No. Yeah, but no, I can't share because it probably will change.

LYDEN: (Laughing).

FOLARIN: I know the feeling. I know the feeling.

ODUOR: It changes so much.

FOLARIN: I wanted to ask a very quick question. Binyavanga on twitter said, yesterday, that you've been on the verge of this breakthrough for past two or three years. You've been knocking on the door.

ODUOR: Oh, really?

FOLARIN: Yeah, it was really sort of interesting and I thought what a comment. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your journey and what he means by that kind of knocking on the door?

ODUOR: I had no idea Binyavanga was watching me.

(LAUGHTER)

ODUOR: Reading me.

LYDEN: That's generous comment.

FOLARIN: Yeah, it's a great comment.

ODUOR: It's very generous. It's very generous. I've been writing for a few years. Most of the time, it felt as though it was the wrong thing - rather, I mean, it's the right thing. I feel it's the right thing to do. But people around me thought it was the wrong thing. Always encouraging me - just snap out this phase and get a real job or go back to law school. Go to the Kenya School of Law and get your post-graduate diploma and be sworn to the bench and begin your practice as a lawyer. So for me, it just feels like coming full circle that for once people look at me and they tell me this is the right thing. It's, you know, it's not illegitimate.

FOLARIN: Where did you find the resolve to continue in those moments when people were saying, you know, go back to law school or do something else?

ODUOR: I just felt like I didn't have a choice, really. Nothing else felt right. I was only happy and fulfilled when I was writing. And I think I also wrote to escape and, somehow, also to reconstruct memories of times gone by, when I didn't have to make decisions like this. I think I was just procrastinating from my life and somehow it became my life, so I'm grateful for that.

LYDEN: Before we say goodbye, the award ceremony last night included a minute of silence for the South African writer and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. She passed away, of course, over the weekend. She was one of the patrons of the Caine Prize. How did she influence you? Do you have anything you'd like to say about her passing?

ODUOR: I just found her deeply inspiring as a woman and as a writer. She had ideals and she stood up to them. She was an anti-apartheid crusader. She was very vocal and that inspires me to just keep doing it, you know. My voice is necessary - my voice as a woman, as a writer, as a young person. She encourages me to push on.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much. Okwiri Oduor is the winner of the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing and she was kind enough to join us the day after winning that award from the BBC Studio in London. Tope Folarin won the prize in 2013. Tope, thank you so much for coming in. It was great to have you here.

FOLARIN: Thank you so much for having me.

LYDEN: And congrats again to you, Okwiri. It's just wonderful. Thank you for being with us.

ODUOR: Thank you so much for having me.

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