The Caine Prize for African Writing has withdrawn Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor’s short story All Our Lives, which was on the 2019 shortlist, for “failure to attribute an original source.”
In June 2018, All Our Lives, a short story written by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, won the Short Story Day Africa Prize 2017. The Short Story Day Africa Prize, with roots in South Africa, showcases some of the most exciting contemporary short stories from this continent. The winning short story examining the lives of disaffected men who drift into Nigerian cities in pursuit of better lives, was described by judges as “wry, cleared-eyed, humorous and compassionate.”
The story was then shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 alongside Lesley Nneka Arimah, Meron Hadero, Cherrie Kandie, and Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti. It was the second time that a Short Story Day Africa winner was on the shortlist of the continent’s preeminent short story prize following in the footsteps of Okwiri Oduor. Oduor won the Caine Prize in 2014. The 2019 Caine Prize was won by Lesley Nneka Arimah on July 9th and that would have been the end of that.
Then last week, I received a suggestion that there may be something not-so right about Okafor’s story. My source suggested that I read Wanderlust by Laleh Khadivi published in The Sun Magazine in 2014 and compare it with All Our Lives.
Khadivi’s story follows women who are coming of age in Russia. Here is a sample of the first few lines of her story;
We are Inna, Yulia, Victoria, Yana, Snezhana, Tamara, Olesya, Nadesha, or Lena. We come from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kursk, Barnaul, Kharkov, Odessa, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, or Novosibirsk. Our hobbies are running, skating, biking and/or sailing, aerobics, dance and/or kickboxing, stretching and/or chess. We were born under the signs of Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Cancer, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Libra, Aries, or Leo. Some of us are 1.6 meters tall; some of us are 1.8 meters tall. We believe in God, or we are Orthodox, or we are spiritual, or it is not important. Our English is preliminary (need a translator) or conversational or excellent or fluent. We smoke occasionally; we never smoke. We drink occasionally; we never drink.
Here are lines from the beginning of Okafor’s short story;
We are city people. We live in wooden shacks alongside lagoons that smell of decaying fish and shit. We live in rented apartments with flush toilets and airy bedrooms. We live under bridges, with torn tarpaulins to cover us, feet pounding and vehicles speeding above our heads. The air in this city is rancid with sweat, gas flares, and sun-warmed garbage. Some of us live in face-me-I-face-yous. We are tired of the daily bickering with our neighbours. Of the lack of privacy. Of infections contracted from pit latrines. We wish we had our own homes. Homes full of servants and pets, with pretty gardens, and fences to shield us from the foulness of this city. We are Chikamneleanya, Ogheneakporobo, Abdulrasheed, Olarenwaju, Alamieyeseigha, Tamunodiepriye, Onuekwuchema, Toritsemugbone, or Oritshetimeyin.
While the words used are not the same, the stories appear similar. Both are coming-of-age tales of young people growing up in societies that is rapidly falling apart; one in Russia, another in Nigeria. Both stories focus on youth trying to escape their fates using the Internet. The characters in Wanderlust search for love on websites with names like RussianBride.com. UkranianDelight.com. YourRussianLove.com. The characters from All Our Lives also go looking for love in Matchmake.org. CupidHearts.net. DateMe.com.
Tochukwu was asked about how his voice sounded different in an interview that Okafor gave to Jennifer Malec’s Johannesburg Review of Books,
The JRB: From what I’ve read of your short fiction, ‘All Our Lives’ is something of a departure for you, in that you play with language and form quite a bit in the story. Was this piece like this from the beginning, or did it evolve?
Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor: Thank you for reading my work. The story began that way in my head. It was also chaotic. Perhaps this was why I tore up the first draft of the manuscript. So many things, so many people, were pouring onto the page, and I couldn’t control them. As I wrote and rewrote, I made new discoveries, with form especially. Language wasn’t much of a problem, as I had heard the story so loud and clear in the manner it wanted to be told.
I inquired from the Tochukwu who denied “any actual intentional appropriation of another’s sentences and paragraphs and showing them as one’s own.” He states that he shared the story’s influences at a public event in London, UK when he was there recently. The only thing he admits is “failing to attribute” his work on earlier occasions.
I asked the Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) Prize where Tochukwu’s story initially won whether they had a comment. They sent us a statement that included a quote from mentoring editor Helen Moffett where she states, “I found the voice in this story authentic – I recognised it as the author’s own. If I had known the story relied, especially at the start, on the structure of a short story on Russian mail-order brides by Laleh Khadivi (itself drawing from Julia Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic), I would have asked for an attribution. Better still, I would have suggested an epigraph from the influencing work, as a more elegant way of signalling intertextual borrowing.”
The SSDA statement continued, “No one on the SSDA reading panel, the judging panel or the editing team had read the initial work that inspired our author during his research. Right now, we are reading the materials under discussion. So far the consensus is that there has been no stark or deliberate lifting of phrases, sentences or passages, or an attempt to pass these off as the author’s own intellectual/creative work. When asked about their influences, the author has openly named the works (both Khadivi’s and more indirectly, Otsuka’s) from which they took inspiration, with no attempt to dissemble. If we had read Khadivi’s piece, we would still have published the story, as the writing is clearly original, if not the opening structure.”
The Caine Prize for African Writing took a different perspective from Short Story Day Africa. In their statement they state, “The Caine Prize for African Writing has been made aware of an allegation levelled against this year’s shortlisted story All Our Lives by Tochukwu (Emmanuel) Okafor. The Trustees of the Caine Prize referred this matter to the 2019 Judges for adjudication, and on comparison of All Our Lives and Laleh Khadivi’s Wanderlust, published in 2014, determined that there had been a failure to attribute an original source.”
The statement goes on to say, “Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Chair of the Prize, has corresponded with both authors and as a result of these communications, the Prize regrets to announce the removal of Tochukwu (Emmanuel) Okafor’s story from the 2019 shortlist. The Caine Prize is committed to holding writers to the very highest of ethical standards. It is accepted that in this particular case, the author’s failure to attribute a core source was born of inexperience and lack of familiarity with literary protocols.”
The statement from the Caine Prize goes a step further promising to look at future submissions anew. “The Prize will review our guidelines for 2020 submissions, and instil preventative measures to guard against such incidents. We hope that this process doesn’t detract from this year’s truly excellent winning story,” the statement said.
While the Short Story Day Africa Prize stand by their author and his story, they too intend to refine their processes in the coming year.
“SSDA commits to providing more solid and explicit training on and discussion of plagiarism and intertextuality, in our sought-after Flow Workshops held around the continent; and in the editing structures and materials posted on our website. So far, during editing, questions about influence have indeed been asked, but informally and in an ad hoc manner; we will now explicitly ask our authors about their sources of inspiration and influence. We also commit ourselves to learning more, from our authors and each other, and indeed the African publishing community, about these thorny questions, so that we can do better, and continue to move towards “best practice” models for our authors. We welcome constructive comments and suggestions from our peers on the continent and abroad,” their statement ends.