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Guernica writer E.C. Osondu wins the ‘African Booker’

July 9, 2009

Virtually every news item about E.C.’s award includes a quote from the Caine’s chief judge, who declares E.C.’s story to be “a tour de force.” Anyone feeling dubious about such praise should just read the first few sentences of the work.

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By Meakin Armstrong


meakin_armstrong-small.jpgE.C. Osondu’s story in Guernica won the so-called African Booker—the Caine Prize for African Writing. Read more about Africa’s most prestigious writing award (it comes with a cash award valued at $16,000), in The Guardian or BBC online.

Virtually every news item about E.C.’s award includes a quote from the Caine’s chief judge, who declares E.C.’s story to be “a tour de force.” Anyone feeling dubious about such praise should just read the first few sentences of the work:

My name is Orlando Zaki. Orlando is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is what is written on the t-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from which I was brought to this refugee camp. My friends in the camp are known by the inscriptions written on their t-shirts. Acapulco wears a t-shirt with the inscription, Acapulco. Sexy’s t-shirt has the inscription Tell Me I’m Sexy. Paris’s t-shirt says See Paris And Die.”

We’ve all read awful works of fiction in national magazines, from writers who have been living off their past. Or perhaps we’ve been mystified by the works of some hot young writer whose allure we just can’t grasp—and in our despair, we’ve mused darkly on golden Rolodexes and cynical backroom deals.

E.C. came to Guernica in the ideal way: I didn’t know him, nor had I heard of his earlier work (he had already had a strong reputation as a writer, but I was unaware of it.) I remember having read some fifty stories that day, hoping to find a fiction piece that I could believe in, and want to share. I was feeling disheartened, because I wanted to find a story from that so-called slush pile. I try to regularly include something from there, because I feel that by accepting something, I’m helping to set the world aright.

Connections and reputation shouldn’t matter. But they do. We’ve all read awful works of fiction in national magazines, from writers who have been living off their past. Or perhaps we’ve been mystified by the works of some hot young writer whose allure we just can’t grasp—and in our despair, we’ve mused darkly on golden Rolodexes and cynical backroom deals.

Guernica regularly solicits fiction from writers of reputation. That’s a given and we intend to keep on doing that. But as the fiction editor, I strongly feel that the talented unknown should—no, must—be found. I don’t believe in that phrase, “Talent will out.” Talent can wither, and in despair, even die. I’ve seen too many people give up on their art, because they were never given a chance.

On the nonfiction side of Guernica, we’re known for our small-d democratic values. We tend to write about such things as the infringement on human rights or maybe we interview that activist you haven’t heard of, who is nonetheless doing vital work. If I operate on the fiction side without taking into account those in-bred Guernica values I’m letting everyone down. (Here, I have to add—we’re not looking for political fiction in the obvious sense. Read Waiting—it’s political, but in a refracted way. It’s also “international.” That’s what we want.)

Also, I must add that I’ve been rejected. Lord knows, my fiction has been rejected. Insulted, even: “Meakin, I just don’t think you’ve a future as a writer,” some magazine wrote to me once. The magazine went out of business. Turns out they didn’t have a future (and here, I snicker).

So please celebrate with Guernica: E.C. Osondu’s story, Waiting won a major award. E.C. didn’t know anyone on our staff. No one bullied us into accepting it. No back room deals were made. It was a straightforward transaction: I read it, loved it, and wanted to share it with you.

Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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