By the time you are reading this, it will be only hours before the announcement of the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. Five writers who identify as African will be headed to Oxford to hear which of their stories has been selected by the judges to win 10 thousand pounds. I like to think of it in naira. Not because I think of winning. Because “3 million naira” sounds sexier.
Competitions will be competitions. Many may claim not to care, but there is a spirit that invades people and does things to them. As one of those shortlisted, it would be a disaster if I became visibly angry or allowed whatever disappointment I feel in my heart make its way to my face or body. I will explain.
The prize is announced at a grand dinner with many important people. All eyes gaze intently at each of the five shortlisted writers. Many will be checking for the slightest signs of discomfort. Some will put their hands on your shoulder, telling you they hope you win. They will probably have said the same to the others, but that’s not the point. The point is that they care enough to say something they don’t mean. Some will ask if you are nervous and by doing that, make you nervous, because then you have to lie that you are fine and that it doesn’t matter who wins and that you love everyone on the shortlist dearly and that there is peace in the big bad world at last. Crap like that. That “I swear I am not nervous” speech that one is lured into is often followed by an awkward, exaggerated smile, which discredits everything one has just said. Then as the prize is about to be announced people start looking at all five of you even more intently. This is the killer. You don’t want your body language or facial expression to change too much the moment the winner is announced. If your smile suddenly drops, people will notice. If you appear too excited even when you have no reason to be, it will be artificial and people will notice too. Eventually, when you lose – because four people have to lose – the news will filter out that you were a sore loser. And the news will be exaggerated as it passes from ear to ear. It will end up changing from your smile dropping when you lost to you becoming distraught and smashing property belonging to the British government.
When I was first shortlisted in 2013, I had the foresight to visit a pub around the corner before the announcement and down many whiskeys. I will not say how many because I don’t want to be a bad example for children. But it helped. Plus my (I admit not very elegant) story was about a poor, starving child fighter and could not have won anyway. Poverty porn and all. But old things have passed away and I am on the shortlist again. This time, God be praised, the children in my story are not starving or killing people. They are mostly good, obedient, well-fed children. The children even have fruits in their diet. Mangoes. Ripe mangoes. However, there are other awesome stories on the shortlist. Stories that stop me in my tracks as I think of what 3 million naira can buy. Stories that make it necessary for me to practice my losing face. Because the thing is, if like me you have lost before, people will look even harder at you for signs that this time, you broke down and were devastated that you were rejected twice. Thankfully, I am not the only one who was shortlisted before. So statistically, at least two of us who have been on the shortlist before will lose. I will have company.
My plan is simple: I will visit that pub around the corner in Oxford. I will change the shots from whiskey to tequila this time. I will go into the dinner smiling, but not too much because if the speeches are too long then I will get tired of smiling and if my smile drops and suddenly the prize is announced and I lose, the stories will start. “Nigerian Caine Prize Nominee Breaks Down After Losing (Twice).” God forbid that bloggers use me to get hits. God forbid.
The good thing about the prize this year is that they have given each of the shortlisted writers 500 pounds. I am happy about this. It means I can buy an air conditioner and maybe even a small generator for my studio apartment in Abuja. Whatever the case, my levels have changed and even with a second loss (especially with my new air conditioner), God has kinda blessed my hustle. And that is all that matters.