Meet Lesley Nneka Arimah, the Nigerian writer who won the 2019 Caine Prize

The winner of the 20th edition of Caine Prize for African Literature is Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story dubbed “Skinned”. The Caine Prize was launched in 2000 and it is awarded every year to the best writer of an English African story. The winner is awarded 10,000 Euros. The Caine Prize focuses on highlighting the biodiversity of the African culture. The 2019 Caine Prize award went to an amazing writer from Nigeria, Lesley Nneka Arimah for her story Skinned.

“Skinned” is a short story about a society where girls are forced to uncover themselves and walk naked until when they are ripe for marriage. Only then can the girls put on their clothes. The story features a young woman called Ejem, the main character. Ejem is a young girl uncovered at the age of fifteen. She tries to negotiate a rigid society following the breakup of a close friendship with Chidinma, who has gotten married. Skinned is a tale about body autonomy and womanhood and how solidarities are formed and broken.

Asked where the idea came from, Arimah says that the idea of this story came when she had a conversation with her friend who lives in Nigeria. She remembers how this friend narrated her story about growing up. Her parents always told her she will never get married if she never stopped doing that thing- whatever this was. Now the friend in her narration says she recently got married. She did not stop doing what her parents always told her- whatever this was.

This is not the first time Arimah is being recognized for her remarkable writing. In 2017, she won the African Commonwealth Prize for her famous book What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. During this year’s competition, Arimah did not expect to win. She was however very delighted that the efforts she put in writing the short story bore fruits. She advised the African writers to focus on the African gaze. And to the shortlisted candidates, Arima said, “Your stories have added to the profile of African Literature, adding to the many voices that we need to illuminate who we are.

She added:

“When I think of what literature can do and how literature has changed minds and opened imaginations, I want to say that we African writers must center the African gaze. We must center the Nigerian gaze, the Cameroonian gaze, the Ethiopian gaze, the Kenyan gaze. We need to be writing to and for each other, we also need to play. And what I mean by play is that when one knows a thing inside and out, say cooking, for example, the chefs who can do fusion cooking can do so because they know both cuisines that they are using intimately. I think of experimentation as a sign of expertise. And I think it is important that we continue as we started, as we have been, as we are doing always, that we continue to play within the bounds of our literature, between the bounds of our cultures, within the bounds of our worlds, that we challenge each other, we complicate our narratives, we complicate our histories, we complicate the ways that we understand each other. And I emphasize “each other” because yes, we must the African gaze. Thank you so much.”

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