South African author shares lessons after winning Caine Prize

Listening is important and reading is essential. These are just a few lessons Lidudumalingani Mqombothi gained on his journey as a writer. He won the 17th annual Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story Memories We Lost earlier this month.

Mqombothi believes he is a vessel, an instrument to tell precious stories. When he was asked if Memories We Lost is an African story, he replies: “I do not know what that [African story] even means. It is important to tell stories that might appear African or even South African. We should not make the mistake of thinking our experiences are uniquely South African.”

Mqombothi received his prize, £10 000 (about R188 000) at a ceremony at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. He told BBC Africa that a conversation with a South African friend inspired him to write Memories We Lost.

“My friend was trying to write a series of poems about her father who has Alzheimer’s. That was two years ago. Since then I would find myself either reading or watching something about mental illness.” Shortly thereafter he says the opportunity came to write a story about the illness.

Memories We Lost

“The winning story explores a difficult subject – how traditional beliefs in a rural community are used to tackle schizophrenia,” said chair of judges Delia Jarrett-Macauley. “Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists”.

Memories We Lost details the heart wrenching story of two sisters and how they deal with the mental anguish one endures. The narrator speaks of “This Thing” that sometimes transforms her sister, making her do bad things, and causes her physical and emotional pain. She remembers her sister dropping out of school. The reader also finds out about the false impressions villagers have about “This Thing”.

This short story is published in the Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You by the Burnet Media, South Africa, 2015 edition.

Listen to Mqombothi’s story here:

Mqombothi grew up in the Zikhovane Village in Transkei in the Eastern Cape. He was in his early twenties when he started writing poetry. “I attended a poetry session and felt I could write better poems. I could not, but I continued writing and now here we are.”

He is also a photographer and a filmmaker. On 7 July, a few his images featured in the Real City of Cape Town Group Exhibition held in the Bo-Kaap.

Mqombothi says his influences include poets, novelists, essayists, photographers, filmmakers, and the everyday man.

“To narrow it down to a few would be an impossible and an unfair task. To amuse you, I will give you a few names: Ben Okri, Bessie Head, Dambudzo Marechera, Lewis Nkosi, Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Rachel Zadok and Zoe Wicomb.”

Watch Mqombothi talk about his experience as a writer in South Africa:

More about Caine Prize winner

The Caine Prize for African Writing is awarded to an African writer of a short story published in English. The prize encourages and highlights the richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider international audience. The focus on the short story reflects the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.

The other authors on the shortlist were:

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,
  • Tope Folarin (Nigeria) for Genesis,
  • Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe) for At Your Requiem, published in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You,and;
  • Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) for The Lifebloom Gift, published in The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014.