2015 Reflections on the Caine Prize for African Writing Entries

I enjoy reading the Caine Prize nominated short stories each year because they are well written, innovative and thrilling. This year I was once again enraptured by the amazing writing and attention to detail. It was difficult for me to pick a winner, but I came to my selection after much consideration.

logoAcclaimed writer, professor, and Chair of Judges for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, Zoe Wicomb, announced the five writers shortlisted for the 2015 prize on May 5. Wicomb described the shortlisted prose as, “an exciting crop of well-crafted stories,” adding that, “the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics.”

The nominees are:
Namwali Serpell (Zambia) with “The Sack
Elnathan John (Nigeria) “Flying
Masande Ntshanga (South African) “Space
F. T. Kola (South African) “A Party for the Colonel
Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) “The Folded Leaf

Afolabi was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 and Serpell and John were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010 and 2013, respectively.


Although F. T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is the most traditionally written story it is my pick for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Kola takes the reader on a  long emotional journey and during the trip, the reader is forced to reconcile issues of physical and emotional isolation, rebellion, bondage, and racism. The dramatic ending, in particular, makes the story a refreshing and inspiring narrative worthy of the Caine Prize.

I must admit Kola clenched the victory for me because of the swift and impactful conclusion of her story. Right up until those final few scenes I had Elnathan John’s short story, “Flying” as the winner.  The misery and mystery of “Flying” reads like poetry more than prose. Clever yet approachable, John is able to spin a masterful tale through the eyes of a child.

“The Sack,” “Space” and “The Folded Leaf” are all fantastic stories. Within them I witnessed the beauty and tragedy of friendship and love; I lived, once again as a wayward child; and I found my sight through blindness.

Good luck to all the nominees.

An in-depth review of “A Party for the Colonel,” by F. T. Kola will be posted soon.

The Art of Honing Your Voice

I will soon transition from my current job as Director of Academic and Student Support in Alexandria, Virginia to a new job, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, in Washington, DC. This is a clear and definitive step toward my ultimate professional goal of becoming a Head of School. In thinking about my new and exciting career journey, I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering what it means to be a professional. I know that may sound odd to some people, but this is a real topic of concern for me. Trying to figure out what “being professional” actually is is harder than some people may think. While thinking about this new step in my professional career, I’ve realized that I’ve become far too comfortable in my current educational milieu. All of this thinking about being professional has lead me to reminisce about the first time I realized that I wasn’t being truly professional at work. That realization occurred at the end of my first year of teaching in Baltimore City.

first job me

My first year as a teacher; Baltimore City Public School system.

When I graduated from college in 2004 I truly believed that I could not only teach my high school classes extremely well but that I could teach my classes and the classes up and down my hallway perfectly well. Looking back now, I clearly thought at the ripe old age of 22, I knew more than anyone else.  In my mind, at the time, I thought I presented myself to my students and colleagues in a respectful and intelligent way, but looking back on those first years, with the lens that I have developed, I cringe. Honestly, at the time I didn’t realize how much of an arrogant and possibly offensive person I was. Ouch! Sorry!


My fifth year as a teacher; independent school in Washington, DC.

The saddest part of my story is that during that time none of my colleagues or bosses sat me down to tell me otherwise. I suppose they just thought that I would grow out of it and thankfully, for the most part, I have. Now instead of being arrogant I attempt to be thoughtful and understanding. I exude confidence, but I temper my understanding of a situation with the thoughts and feelings of others. The best lesson that I’ve learned in the last decade is to listen more than I speak and this lesson has allowed me to grow into being professional.

As I’ve come to my own realizations about professionalism, I’ve met many young teachers who remind me of myself when I was starting out.  They believe that they know everything.  They believe they are the smartest people in the room. Sometimes they even believe that they can do their job and the job of the person sitting next to them better than anyone else. It is clearer to me than ever before that some people need time to grow into being a professional. What may look like entitlement to the outside observer may simply be an eagerness to affect change—at least in my case it was.


I’ve transitioned from teacher to administrator.

At this point, my personal charge is to mentor the people who remind me of my younger self. I often tell them that their passion and insights are needed in the profession but that they need to listen more and speak less even when the urge to correct and/or inform their colleagues bubbles up inside of them.  Sometimes my mentees listen and grow quickly into being more professional and other times the fire to lead overwhelms them and they speak out of turn.

I implore veteran educators to regularly mentor young fiery educators in the art of honing their voice. This mentorship can and will improve the atmosphere of our schools and I believe that faculty morale will grow by leaps and bounds as a result of this tender yet firm touch. I’m planning on bringing this newly found knowledge and experience to my next school.

Book Thoughts: Sag Habor by Colson Whitehead

Sag-HarborBenji Cooper’s tale of adolescent summer fun in Long Island’s Sag Harbor is a classic one. With little parental guidance at the Cooper family’s summer home, Benji, his brother Reggie and their Sag Harbor friends—all of them black boys whose families own beach houses—reconnect and re-engage in childhood antics. From Memorial Day to Labor Day layers of strife are revealed—parents argue behind closed windows, kids steal ice cream and knick-knacks from stores, and white people train their dogs to devour black kids.

By the end of the summer, and consequently the novel, Benji’s goal of becoming an individual is achieved—no longer tethered to his younger brother Benji is well liked in the community and included in events around town (all the while bearing a small BB pellet near his eye—a war wound from a stupid adolescent game in the woods). Even though Benji doesn’t fully understand all the ways he is growing the reader witnesses the evolution of his personality by watching his interactions with the world around him throughout the novel.

Mind-WhiteheadSOFTReminiscent of a memoir, Sag Harbor is a collection of stories, memories. Pop culture, budding love, seething hate, growing friendships and economic power play well together in this novel set in a majority black environment with mostly black characters. It’s clear that Whitehead’s strong personal connection to Sag Harbor greatly influenced this story—it allowed him to craft beautiful and touching scenes while simultaneously reminding the reader that the idyllic moments captured at Sag Harbor weren’t necessarily repeated when these young boys grew up, (outside of Sag Harbor some of the young friends died of gunshots from drug related gang wars).

Overall this was a really fun read.

A tour of Sag Habor by Whitehead:

Related Information

On Saturday, January 3, 2015 Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network debuted a one hour special entitled “Sag Harbor”. Below are notes from the press release issued by the network:

Located in the heart of New York’s The Hamptons, this tight knit enclave was established as a refuge from racism in the early 20th century. With the recent housing boom, this once all African-American neighborhood is now fighting to hold on to its identity. Real estate prices throughout the three bay front areas of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills have recently skyrocketed. This seemingly positive economic reality is forcing the younger generations, now inheriting these cottages from their parents and grandparents, to face a vexing dilemma: To sell or not to sell?

The Pursuit of Excellence

My husband and I received a great deal of  flak from family members and friends for waiting until we were 32 to get married. We’d been dating since we were 19. We are currently receiving criticism because we have decided to wait a little while longer to have children. I believe that some people in our lives have overlooked the fact that during our extended courtship we have grown into mature, responsible adults.

My husband and I spent our 20s collecting degrees—mine from Bates and then Hopkins and his from Morehouse and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, two from Oxford. We then went on to figure out what we wanted to make of our lives—I decided to climb the ladder from teacher to curriculum developer to administrator and he decided to test out Pfizer then Google and now strategist in DC and internationally acclaimed writer. We’ve travelled the world together and individually. We’ve made exceptional financial decisions. And our relationship is stronger than ever because we’ve realized who we are as individuals and as partners. We made a conscious choice when we were 19 to live up to our potential and we strive each day to do just that. We’ve spent time thinking about what we want versus what we need and we make decisions that will not only serve us well in the future but will serve our children and our children’s children as well.

Now in our early 30s we are looking at the world with wiser, sharper eyes. No longer teenagers, we don’t long for childish things. We know what we need. We know what we deserve. And most importantly, we know what it takes to get what we want. We nurtured and developed drive, motivation, imagination and creativity. We’ve given birth to dreams, goals and visions of our future.

During the 13 years that my husband and I met, fell in love and became spiritually and lawfully wed, I’ve had time to figure out what I need and want out of my life. I’ve spent time reading, thinking, learning and experiencing the world around me. Lucky for me, I’ve had the security of being in a loving, healthy relationship with a man who has always encouraged me to follow my dreams and figure out my passions.

Together, my husband and I  are committed to pursuing excellence. We work hard and we continue to encourage and inspire each other. We hope that our relationship motivates other young couples to dedicate sufficient time to growing individually and as partners. We also hope that they are as unwavering as we have been in the face of criticism.


1 in 3

If you’re a black baby born today [in America], you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail. If you’re Latino, it’s a 1 in 6 chance. And if you’re white, it’s 1 in 17. And so coming to terms with these disparities and reversing them, I would argue, is not only a matter of fairness and justice but it’s, I would argue, a matter of national security.  -Nicholas Turner, President and Director of Vera Institute of Justice

Quote taken from an NPR article, 20 Years Later, Parts Of Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake, by Carrie Johnson posted on September 12, 2014

As a recently married black woman living in America, these statistics frighten me. I’m shaken, not necessarily because I fear that I might be imprisoned, but because I fear that my future children will grow up in a country seemingly structured to perpetually subjugate them. History tells me that if I raise my black children in the racialized social system of this country they will work until they drop with little to no financial gain. And as if that weren’t enough, statistics now tell me that they have a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned.

Where is the justice?


Black in Japan

Every time I see a black person I turn and look him straight in the eye. There is a major part of me that wants to reach out and connect with him. But every time I look at him he stares at me inquisitively. It doesn’t seem like he has a yearning to connect. Maybe he hasn’t been raised in a society that thinks so little of him. Maybe he isn’t a subordinate citizen here. It’s possible that he is not reaching out to me in the way that I am reaching out to him because he is comfortable, stable, free. I am still trapped in a Black American state of mind. Wanting, hoping, needing to connect to another second-class citizen… but where are they?


No One is Flawless: Embrace the Imperfections

I have a short toe on my left foot. When I say short I mean it! My middle toe is shorter than my pinky toe on my left foot and there is no bone inside of it, just a thin nub of cartilage that stretches barely half way up the tiny toe.

2014-08-04 17.03.52

I walk perfectly fine—actually I strut—the only major downfall occurs when I run long distances—by long, I mean more than 7.5 miles. When I run long distances the toes around my short toe get bruised from all the force. I’ve even lost toenails because of all the pressure (sigh).

I’m sharing my most prominent imperfection because I’m no longer ashamed of it. I wear flip-flops and go bare foot all the time, now. Okay, here is my full disclosure moment: when I was younger I wanted to hide my feet because I was so ashamed of my foot not looking like everyone else’s. I didn’t want anyone to see that I was different. My family ALWAYS made fun of my miniature toe, (thanks, punks!) and so of course I developed a little complex about it.

As I grew up and began to meet people with actual physical disabilities I realized that I was being supremely immature. I realized that no one is flawless and if the one thing that I’m ashamed of on my body is an undersized toe I needed to relax.

I’ve become thankful for this physical flaw and I’ve embraced it. I’m pretty sure that everyone on the planet dislikes some part of his or her body. I hope that everyone can take a step back and really think about their imperfection. Embrace it. Your difference makes you who you are.

No one is flawless.


My FYI on the ICC

Although this may seem morbid, I’ve been reading a lot about genocide and war crimes lately. I’m intent on figuring out why world leaders often stand idly by as genocide and other war crimes occur—setting aside morality as they debate political strategies. As I was reading, I found myself fixated on national (US) and international court systems and nonprofit organizations. In my exploration, I began studying the International Criminal Court (ICC) and realized that I knew little about it. Therefore, I created this post as my brief “for your information” about the ICC. I believe the ICC is one of the most important institutions in our global society and I want to make sure that my readers know what the ICC does.

The-International-_2166929bThe International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up through the Rome Statue in July 2002 in Hague, the Netherlands. Unlike the International Court of Justice, established by the United Nations in 1945 to settle disputes between countries, the ICC can prosecute individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity throughout the world. The ICC is charged with ensuring that individuals who might not be prosecuted in their own countries for crimes will have their day in court. For example, the ICC has charged six government officials from Sudan with genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes in Darfur, Sudan, understanding that these individuals may not be held accountable in their own country. One point about the ICC to keep in mind is that it can only investigate crimes committed since its inception in 2002. In my opinion, this is good and bad—good because the court can focus its limited resources on current events and bad because individuals who’ve committed war crimes prior to the inception of ICC may not be prosecuted.

As a US citizen, I’m ashamed to report that the US has declined to join the ICC. This refusal isn’t totally shocking to me since the US has also declined to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US has also declined to sign international agreements like the Landmine Ban Convention (ICBL) and the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming.

There is more information on the ICC website, but hopefully this brief FYI helps my readers understand the importance of this international court.

Related Information:
The Tower: Abbas Mulls Bid for International Criminal Court
All Africa: Kenyatta’s Defence Team Tells ICC to Drop Case Again
Foreign Policy: Threat of Justice: Israel fears prosecution in The Hague, and the Palestinians know it.

The Forgotten Rohingya in Myanmar

I’ve heard that the test of a fledgling democracy is not just how it cares for the majority, but how it protects its minorities. If this statement is true then the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, a new democracy, is failing miserably because it is not protecting its Rohingya minority.  According to the United Nations, the Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The leading political party in Myanmar is the Union Solidarity and Development Party made up of the ethnic-Rakhine majority, who are mostly Buddhist. It seems that because they are enjoying greater freedoms in the country they now control they have embarked on a brutal and inhumane campaign of what looks to be ethnic cleansing intended to drive Rohingyas out on Myanmar. Although most Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar since its colonization by Britain (1824 to 1948), the Rakhines in power see them as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.


Currently, 1.33 million mostly Muslim Rohingya live in Myanmar’s insolvent western state of Rakhine (Arakan). Since the country’s transition to democracy in 2010, Rakhine mobs have killed more than 200 Rohingya and displaced more than 140,000 others from their homes. The tension between the Rakhine and Rohingyas reached a peak in 2012 when riots broke out in the north. These riots came after weeks of sectarian disputes and as a result 75,000 Rohingya were displaced.

hqdefaultThe international community continues to claim that genocide will “Never Again” happen, but whenever I turn on the news or open a newspaper I see evidence of it happening or clear indicators that it is about to happen. I’m sure claiming that genocide will “Never Again” happen is meant with the best intentions; however, they are hollow words. Action is needed around the world to prevent genocide not just pretty language.

Related Articles
Foreign Policy: Preventing the Next Genocide: Burma’s Rohingya minority could fall victim to full-scale genocide if the international community doesn’t intervene
United Nations: Press conference by special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar
The Library of Congress: Bill Summary & Status 113th Congress (2013 – 2014) H.RES.418
SFGates: Desperate Rohingya kids flee alone by boat
Save The Rohingya, a blog by Jamila Hanan
The Economist: Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar


Chicken by Efemia Chela: 2014 Caine Prize Shortlist Review

Efemia Chela’s short story, Chicken, brilliantly revolves around a young woman attempting to find financial stability and emotional support in a world made for men.

africaKaba is a recent college graduate who finds herself entering into a job market that currently has no use for her. Her rich parents believe that she’s wasted her time in school pursuing personal passions instead of attaining a law degree which they believe will make her financially stable and independent. Defiant to the end, Kaba embarks on a difficult adventure. She moves to the poorer end of town and takes a position as an unpaid intern at a global firm. She hopes to move up the ladder to attain a paid position. But as time passes she realizes that there is no room for promotion in this particular firm, filled as it is with delinquent male drug addicts and thieves.

When Kaba decides to disobey her parents they elect to withdraw their financial support. Kaba is left to fend for herself for the first time in her life. Although her parents think this tactic of withholding financial support will bend Kaba to their will, in actuality it only drives her farther away from her parents and from the world she knows.

Efemia ChelaChela’s story is a coming of age tale that tackles issues of prostitution, egg donation, and same-sex relationships.This short story is written with the utmost skill and attention to detail. As a reader, I was drawn to Kaba’s passion and determination to live her own life free of her parents’ desires for her and demands of her. Chela manages to manipulate the reader into sympathizing and empathizing with Kaba even in situations where the reader may want to reprimand her for her poor choices. The craftsmanship and artistry of this short story is mesmerizing and inspirational.

After reading all the Shortlisted Caine Prize stories of 2014, Chicken is my pick to win.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is described as Africa’s leading literary award and is open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition. Nigeria’s Tope Folarin won the 2013 prize for his short story ‘Miracle’ from his forthcoming novel, The Proximity of Distance. ‘Miracle’ was first published in Transition, Issue 109 (Bloomington, 2012). Other notable winners of the Prize include: Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo (2011). Notable Shortlistees: South African Tim Keegan (2011), Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie (2002), and Djiboutian Abdourahman Waberi (2000).