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Zimbabwean woman wins top writing prize for tale of starving children

From Cynthia Wamwayi, for CNN
NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo wins Caine Prize for African Writing
  • Her short story follows a group of six starving Zimbabwean children
  • "This is a story with moral power and weight," said author and prize judge Hisham Matar

Oxford, England (CNN) -- Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo has won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "Hitting Budapest."

The story follows a group of six starving Zimbabwean children, one of whom is pregnant at age 10, as they go about fending for themselves.

Speaking at the award-giving dinner at Oxford University, in England, Monday night, Bulawayo expressed her joy at winning the £10,000 ($16,000) prize.

"I just want to go home and dance! I'm seriously excited," she said. "The Caine Prize is a big prize and I can't express my happiness enough."

Bulawayo was chosen from 126 submissions by a jury consisting of this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner Aminatta Forna and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Libyan author Hisham Matar, among others.

Handing over the prize, Matar explained why Bulawayo was chosen over four other shortlisted writers.

"The language of Hitting Budapest crackles," he said. "Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of 'Clockwork Orange.' But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight (yet) has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary."

I think writing and other forms of art can definitely push us towards healing because it starts a process of dialogue.
--NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of The Caine Prize

Fielding criticism that her story panders to the well-known "Africa genre" where children are consistently depicted as desperately poor and desolate, Bulawayo said her writing draws heavily from her own experiences of growing up in Zimbabwe.

"Some of the things I write about in Hitting Budapest come from my own life. The stealing of guavas, the growing up poor, having dreams; these are all from my own life," she said. "And when I write from personal experience like that it does not make sense for somebody to come and tell me how to tell my story."

Bulawayo hopes that Zimbabwe's current political climate will encourage more of her fellow countrymen to tell their stories, or in her words, to "pen Zimbabwe."

"I think writing and other forms of art can definitely push us towards healing because it starts a process of dialogue, as well as allows those stories that go untold to be brought to the forefront," she added.

This was also the remit of The Caine Prize when it was established in honor of the late Sir Michael Caine (not to be confused with the British actor of the same name) 12 years ago.

Having worked as chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for 25 years, he was working on the idea of a prize to encourage the recognition of African writing, its richness, diversity and long-standing story-telling traditions, when he died.

Today the prize's jury strives to accord African writers the same level of recognition in book stores and in review pages as writers from other parts of the world.

Ellah Affrey, jury member and deputy editor of new-writing magazine Granta, said: "I would like to be able to walk into a bookshop and not be able to tell where one can find the African writer because they'd be all over the bookshop -- in the romance section, the literary fiction, romance and travel sections.

"As soon as I walk into a bookshop and see that happen then we will have achieved what we set out to do."

The Caine Prize has become a near-infallible early warning system for new African talent. Often, just being shortlisted is enough to catapult African authors to international renown, as has been evidenced by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie.

Previous winners such as Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila and Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina have gone on to publish critically acclaimed works, as well as further the cause of writing in their respective countries.

Tune in to Inside Africa on Saturday July 30 to see more about the Caine Prize and how Africa's writing continues to evolve.