Interview with Dr. Lizzy Attree

This week’s interview is with Dr. Lizzy Attree, Administrator of the Caine Prize for African Writing.

She has a PhD from SOAS, University of London on “The Literary Responses to HIV and AIDS from South Africa and Zimbabwe from 1990-2005”. Her collection of interviews with the first African writers to write about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa was published in 2010 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and is entitled Blood on the Page. From 2002-2009 she organised literary tours of African writers in the UK funded by Arts Council England such as the Caine Prize 10th Anniversary Tour in 2009. In 2010 she was a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Rhodes University in South Africa.

Dr. Attree succeeded Nick Elam as Administrator in August 2011.


What was growing up like? How did it influence your writing career?

I think I had quite an ordinary upbringing in some ways, secure, loving and happy.  I was surrounded by books at home first in Wimbledon, then Bath, then Orpington.  Both parents were the first in their families to go to university, both went to Leeds where they met and fell in love and education was highly valued. My mother studied English literature, my father History so between them the house was like a library and I grew up reading everything from William Faulkner to Marx, far too young to understand them.  I would love to be able to write creatively, but found that writing about the books I had read was what I was good at.  I had an extraordinary English teacher at school who taught me that being able to communicate was one of the most powerful skills you can learn, particularly if you can set out complex ideas simply, so I set out to master the written word as best I could. The death of my father in the Gambia when I was 16 months old certainly pushed me to try and understand the continent he had worked in and loved from an early age.


2. You hold a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on “The Literary Responses to HIV and AIDS from South Africa and Zimbabwe from 1990-2005” and you are also the author of Blood on the Page, a collection of interviews with the premiere authors to write about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa. You seem to be particularly devoted to highlighting the HIV/AIDS scourge in Africa, what is the motivation behind this?

The motivation is simple and difficult to explain at the same time.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a pressing issue the world over and while I was growing up it was particularly frightening to hear of the dangers of unprotected sex during the 1980s and 1990s when I was a teenager and HIV was spreading and was untreatable.  As I got more and more interested in literature from southern Africa I tried to link the two subjects as AIDS was fast becoming the biggest killer in southern Africa, I felt sure it was having an impact on the psyche of young Africans and therefore writers.  I wondered why there had not been an equivalent cultural, literary and artistic response to the epidemic in Zimbabwe and South Africa, as there had been in the UK, Europe and the USA.  So my research began and took me from Joburg to Cape Town and Harare by bus initially.  I met some extraordinary people and some brave, interesting writers and felt that I could not leave their stories untold, particularly when Phaswane Mpe died so soon after I interviewed him.  The world has AIDS,” writes Adam Levin in AIDSAFARI “And if you give a shit about the world, you have it too.” I suppose these sentiments, very bluntly, explain how I feel.  HIV and AIDS are terrible afflictions and are preventable and now treatable, I (perhaps naively) hoped that literature could open people’s minds and change the terrible stigmatization that has prevented effective treatment in southern Africa for so long. So I attempted to research and write about the subject as best I could.  And of course in the process learnt a lot not only about myself but about the double lives people lead, and about the difference between personal and public truths.

3. How many books, if any, are you working on at the moment?

Unfortunately with a young son to take care of I only have time to work on the annual Caine Prize anthologies.  I still review books for journals and magazines when I can, but have no academic projects in process at the moment.  I hope to one day publish parts of my PhD thesis, and write a book about some of the African Footballers who play in the English Premier League, as I feel their personal stories are not visible in the UK.


4. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Film and Music are my private passions. I love to watch films, especially in the cinema and to listen to music and sing along. Cycling, running and yoga keep me sane as do my close friends who I like to eat, drink and laugh with as much as I can. I also enjoy writing email letters to those I love but who are far away.


5. Which is your favorite genre and book? And what do you think makes each great?

I love novels and short stories. Poetry has it’s time and place, when one craves distilled imagery and emotion. Impossible to describe what makes each genre great in a few words. My favourite book is Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera. I love it for its complexity, its lyricism, the infusion of music and poetry amidst prose that is searingly beautiful, painful and true.  Most of all I love it because it is about love and somehow the impossibility of idealism.

6. As a literary critic who now administers a major literary prize, what do you think makes a good story?

Again, this is a very difficult question to answer as each story is different and there is no formula for brilliance.  A good story makes you read to the end, and want to read again immediately, to savour the feeling and lingers long in one’s mind and changes how you think and feel about the world.

7. You have expressed hopes “…that the (Caine) prize will continue to champion African writers who break the mould, writing in diverse and exciting ways about what they like, and will ensure that the prize becomes more widely known on the African continent as a by-word for excellence, as well as in the UK and US, where interest in the prize is surging.” Against the backdrop of this statement, how much of an impact do you think the Caine Prize will have in developing African literature with particular regard to resuscitating the publishing industry and encouraging the reportedly declining reading culture on the continent?

I hope that by continuing to champion brilliant writing that readers will be drawn to read the shortlist and the winning story each year.  As the shortlisted stories are available on the Caine Prize website I hope that they are widely accessible for a few months, but I hope by publishing the annual anthology in more and more African countries that we will reach more and more readers year on year. We now publish in 7 African countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.  We hope to make winning stories available in e-book form and via mobile phones with partners such as Worldreader and will do all we can to promote the writers and stories on the continent in the hope that they will be more widely read and that this will encourage writers in Africa to write and submit their stories each year. 

8. Can you give us an insight into what the average Caine Prize juror looks for in a submission? What gives a juror that eureka moment?

I’m sorry but I can’t really offer a valid response to this question. Each juror is different and we set no criteria for them, so each judge uses their own insight and judgment to decide which stories they like best.  In general I’m sure they look for originality and a new perspective, as well as excellent writing, taut, exciting prose, but beyond that, I can’t be sure how each individual reaches their decision.

9. Do you feel African literature is getting better generally compared to Western literature?

I don’t think this question can really be answered by anyone. With each new novel and short story, each new publication, each new publisher and bookshop that opens and sells a book African literature is ‘improving’.  But African literature has always been good, if you know where to look and which stories to listen to.

10. What advice or suggestions would you like to give to budding authors and what message would you like to pass on to your readers?

My best advice is always to read as much as you can and to remember that writing is hard work and that (other than the Caine Prize!) there are usually few rewards, other than a sense of your own satisfaction in ‘elaborating the static’ as Philip Roth (not a favourite of mine) wrote  in American Pastoral, or finding it personally rewarding to place language on the page, a pleasing balance between experience and representation, a focusing emotion of sorts.  Binyavanga Wainaina writes in One Day I Will Write About This Place early on, when he is still at school, about 8 years old, that “I am starting to read storybooks.  If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in the world, this sound [congo music] and language [lingala] can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently… and in that place anything can happen to you.” It’s quite a wonderful reminder of how much reading affects you as a child and how much certain children hide in the books and stories they read.  Jeanette Winterson had a neat quote in The Guardian about Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize win, that I have carried around with me recently: “There is a simple test: ‘Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?’ ”  I think that’s what every author should aim for.


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