Creative Writing Program alumnus wins Africa’s top short-story prize
A harrowing story about a child waiting to be rescued from a refugee camp has captured the 10th annual Caine Prize for African short story writing. The author is Epaphras C. (EC) Osondu G’07, a former advertising copywriter from Nigeria who earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Osondu was recently feted at Oxford University, where he was awarded a $16,000 check and a month-long residency at Georgetown University. The Caine Prize, named in memory of British businessman Michael Harris Caine, is Africa’s top short- story award.
Osondu’s winning story, “Waiting,” was published in October 2008 in Guernicamag.com. The piece, which details the harsh realities of refugee camp living, is told from the perspective of a boy named Orlando Zaki. “Orlando is taken from Orlando, Fla., which is what is written on the T-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from which I was brought to this refugee camp,” writes Osondu in “Waiting.” “Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do.” Osondu goes on to describe how Zaki and other refugees anticipate the arrival of food trucks. A fight invariably breaks out over food, for which people “struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run.”
Osondu said the idea for “Waiting” came to him when he volunteered for an SU program that helped children from war-torn Sudan and Somalia resettle in Central New York. “I was teaching them creative writing, and, naturally, we all began to exchange stories,” he explains. “They told me about their lives in the refugee camp prior to moving to America. [‘Waiting’] drew its inspiration from some of the things I learned that summer.” Nana Yaa Mensah, a Caine judge who writes for the British magazine New Statesman, calls “Waiting” a “tour de force.” “It is powerfully written with not an ounce of fat on it,” she says, adding that it vividly describes the “dislocating experience of being a displaced person.”
This year is not the first time that Osondu caught the attention of Caine judges. He was one of three Nigerians shortlisted in 2007 for his story “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes,” later anthologized in the Caine Prize collection “Jambula Tree and Other Stories” (New Internationalist, 2008). “I find myself twisting other people’s stories, giving them my own endings and wondering what I would do with the same material,” he told the BBC two years ago. In the same interview, Osondu lamented the fact that Africa has yet to produce a master of short-form fiction: “I am glad to be counted among the elected, so to speak.”
Osondu just completed his first year as assistant professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island. Before that, he served on the faculties of the University of Maryland and Onondaga Community College, and briefly worked in advertising in Nigeria. Osondu has published several other award-winning stories, including “A Letter From Home,” which was recognized as one of the best Internet short-stories of 2006. He is currently working on a novel about genocide.
The M.F.A in creative writing, housed in SU’s English department, is one of the oldest, most distinguished programs of its kind in the country. Small and intimate, the program encompasses 36 students in fiction and poetry who are taught by eight full- time faculty members. Recent graduates, in addition to Osondu, include M.T. Anderson G’98, Rebecca Curtis G’01 and Phil LaMarche G’03. More information is available at http://English.syr.edu/CreativeWriting.htm.