It’s been five years since 2013 when we first run the Short Story Prize. The 2013 judges were Ernest Bazanye, Zukiswa Wanner and Ayodele Morroco-Clake. Prolific Ugandan writer Ernest Bazanye made these comments on the submissions. We found that they are still relevant to all of us as writers.
“The problem with the arts is that there is a constituency of people who assume that the intention and effort are enough, that wanting to and trying to are sufficient. I have found that there are people who are so enamored of the glamour or prestige they assume comes from being an artist that they pursue these instead of pursuing art itself. They want to be writers. They try to be writers. But they don’t want to write. And they don’t try to write. Instead they just cobble together whatever will pass. And when we let them get away with it. Maybe because we believe that some credit should be given for trying, maybe because we believe that, being mere Africans, we cannot be expected to do better, after all, we are not like Britain, we can’t expect to have a Zadie Smith residing amongst our twenty-somethings. Whatever the reason, this is how we damage our own culture.
This is how we ruin our own literature. By allowing people who do not even have the respect for the art, let alone the basics, the very basic skills, to represent it. If you want to be a mechanic, you have to know the difference between what a spanner does and what a screwdriver does. If you want to be a basketball player, you have to know what kicking the ball entails, and you have to know that dribbling is essential. And if you want to be a writer you ought not be allowed to get onto the field with sentences that don’t begin with capital letters, with full stops in the wrong places, with cavalierly misspelled words. There are typos and mistakes. Everybody makes them. I am sure I have made one or two already. But then there is also flat-out negligence or carelessness or the casual refusal to learn. That is why I rejected most of these stories, they are just bad. Poor grammar and punctuation are criminal. They make a mockery of what we are trying to do as Ugandan writers.
This is a flood of wannabe mechanics attacking our car to try and change the tyres with feathers and brooms. These are people who won’t even bother to get the “Writing” part of being a writer in place before they bring themselves to the game. If it were a compilation of stories from rural UPE lower primary then some lenience might have been due, but these are things you should know by the time you pass PLE so if you are in your twenties, it is unforgivable. There is no place for people who write with bad grammar in literature. If other arts and disciplines won’t accept people without the basic skills, why should we do so and then expect to succeed? It didn’t matter what story was being told, or what was being said about Identity in the story. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to take me to a wonderful place. If you are trying to fly me there on a donkey, you are not to be rewarded.
I also rejected stories that lacked imagination and originality. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. Yes, it is a joke. Yes, it is funny. But if you tell it in 2012 you should not be rewarded as a comic because it has been told too many times. Everything that is just a rehash of an old idea, retold without any freshness, without any new eye, I turned down. Writing isn’t just about technical competence, it is about creating, and creating means bringing into existence something that was not there before. Repeating old tropes and clichés is not creativity. I also turned down things that were shallow, uncoordinated, unfocused, and merely boring. The one thing I did not do was turn down stories that tried to say something I did not believe in. In fact, I suspect that I might have given them extra consideration in the back of my mind, because one thing writing must do is challenge the reader.”