SOUTH African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes’s powerful short story “Poison”, for which she has won the £10,000 Sterling (nearly SR75,000) Caine Prize for African Writing, gives a vivid and disquieting portrayal of people fleeing Cape Town in the aftermath of a chemical disaster.
The story’s protagonist Lynn, driving her old Toyota away from the city, runs out of gasoline and is marooned with other drivers at a gas station that has no fuel left. The huge black oily cloud over Cape Town “boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie.” Other drivers and passengers use their initiative to find ways of moving on from the danger, but Lynn remains strangely passive.
In an interview with Saudi Gazette in London the day after the prize was announced last week, Rose-Innes said laughingly: “What has taken me by surprise is how just about everyone seems to have found the main character really aggravating.” She added: “She is based on large parts of myself.”
Rose-Innes’s prose style is precise, yet subtle and mysterious. Lynn’s observations of the interactions between the people waiting at the gas stations, and of alliances unexpected to her, reveal shifts within contemporary South African society.
“Poison” won first prize in the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award. The story’s new success, with the Caine Prize, is further recognition of the literary gifts of Rose-Innes, who was first shortlisted for the Caine Prize last year with the story “Bad Places.”
Asked whether she thinks “Poison” taps into the wider anxiety pervading the globe, while having a specific South African context, Rose-Innes replies: “I think it’s in the zeitgeist. There’s a trend towards apocalyptic images in popular culture at the moment...The world is a pretty anxiety-ridden place, although at the time of writing the story it felt like it was very much embedded in the South African situation specifically”.
Apocalyptic stories have “a weird attraction; part of me is drawn to the idea of everything being wiped away and starting again anew.” She was a fan of science fiction when she was younger and “it’s interesting for me that a lot of those classic science fiction scenarios seem to have been discovered anew by mainstream literary authors.”
The Caine Prize was awarded at a dinner in the medieval Divinity School at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. The award was announced by the chairman of the Caine judges Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in London, and Chair of Culture, Ceremonies and Education at the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.
Kelly’s fellow judges were Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, Eritrean-born Guardian newspaper journalist Hannah Pool, South African poet, novelist and lecturer Jonty Driver, and Jamaican-born poet and critic Professor Mark McMorris of Georgetown University, Washington DC.
Kelly described Rose-Innes’s story as “a strange disorienting metaphor for leaving it too late...something is coming towards you and will destroy you. The narrative employed imagery that pushed the story forwards, and it showed a very sharp and rare maturity.”
This is the ninth year of the Caine Prize, established in memory of Sir Michael Caine who was Chairman of Booker plc, and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer of 3,000 to 10,000 words. The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – Nigerian Wole Soyinka, and South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee – are patrons of the prize, as was the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
This year’s shortlist of five stories included three from the anthology, “African Pens” published last year by Spearhead, an imprint of New Africa Books, Cape Town. The anthology contains the prizewinning stories from the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award, among them “Poison.” Malawian writer Stanley Onjezaeni Kenani was shortlisted for the Caine Prize with “For Honour”, and South African Gill Schierhout for “The Day of the Surgical Colloquium.”
The other two shortlisted stories were “Mallam Sile” from Ghanaian writer Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s anthology “The Prophet of Zongo”, and Nigerian Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s “Cemetery of Life”, published in Wasafiri magazine.
Rose-Innes was born in Cape Town in 1971. Although she wrote stories as a schoolgirl, it took her “quite a long time to come round to the idea of being a writer. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a long time, and in a way I think writing kind of solved that dilemma for me. If you write, you can dip into anything that interests you, and don’t have to commit to one sphere of interest.”
At university Rose-Innes did a year of English Literature and she then did various courses before obtaining a BSc Honors in archeology and anthropology. She then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Cape Town University under the supervision of J M Coetzee. Her first novel “Shark’s Egg” was published in 2000 (and nominated for the M-Net Book prize), and the second, “The Rock Alphabet” appeared in 2004 (the book was a Publishers Choice). The latter novel has also been published in Romanian translation. Rose-Innes is now working on her third novel, provisionally titled “Making Worlds”.
Summing up the experience of the being shortlisted for, and then winning, the Caine Prize, Rose-Innes says: “It’s been very valuable for me in term of discovering other African writers, and starting to access what for me are new networks of writers and publishers throughout Africa, as opposed to within South Africa.” Although South Africa currently has a very vibrant publishing scene, “It’s not a huge reading market and it’s very difficult to make a living from writing. But if you want to do that, it’s almost essential that you access international markets.” Rose-Innes has an agent in London, Isobel Dixon of the literary agency Blake Friedman, who handles her international sales and non-fiction. Winning the Caine Prize should boost her chances of publication outside South Africa.
The Caine Prize will also give Rose-Innes a chance to devote more time to her writing. However, she plans to continue with certain commitments including her involvement in the University of Cape Town’s Creative Writing MA.
At the same time she is teaching a relatively new online writing course, for the South African Writers College (at sawriterscollege.co.za) which also has a New Zealand branch, and plans to expand into Australia. Rose-Innes was asked by the college to construct the “Write a Novel” course, for which she is tutor. “And it’s actually really fun.”
The burgeoning of Rose-Innes’s writing career has led to her being invited increasingly to literary events and writing residencies abroad. Last year she spent time on a scholarship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart, Germany, which promotes and funds young artists. She will be returning there later this year. Also this year, as part of the Caine Prize, she is due to spend a month at Georgetown, with the position of Caine Prize/Georgetown University Writer in Residence.
Rose-Innes’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, most recently “Jambula Tree and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 8th Annual Collection.”
The anthology includes “Poison”, “Bad Places” and also “Boulders” which was written for a Caine workshop held earlier this year in Noordhoek near Cape Town.
Rose-Innes edited the book “Nice Times! A book of South African pleasures and delights”, published in 2006. And for some time she has been working on a collaborative novel, set in a shopping mall, with three other Cape Town women writers: Mary Watson (winner of the Caine Prize in 2006), Diane Awerbuck and Lauren Beukes.
One aspect of South African literary life of which Rose-Innes speaks with particular enthusiasm is the springing up of websites such as book.co.za, on which she has a page, and litnet.co.za, which hosts lively discussions among its members. “On these sites I get a sense of real community of writers,” she says.