When I started to read “Love on Trial“(that link’s a pdf), my first thought was that it read like one of Teju Cole’s “Small Fates”. For those unfamiliar with these, Cole has been taking snippets of news, first from the papers in Lagos, more recently from old New York papers, and turning them into elegant, tweet sized reports. Cole talks a little about these here. Some examples below:
Children these days. Frank Oriabure, son of the deputy superintendent of police in Onitsha, would rather be a robber. (from the link above)
The reportage in Kenani’s story is has a similarly heightened, ornate feel to it; Mr Kachingwe’s stomach “was terribly upset beyond what he could bear”; with the popularity of his story, being his friend “has become a lucrative undertaking”. These early sections are hilariously exaggerated – people actually travel to the village to hear this man’s story. There’s the recurring and endlessly deferred question of how the two men had sex, which seems of more interest to the public than the supposedly immoral nature of the act. And there’s certainly a bit of mocking the media.
Reach Out and Touch is a programme on MBC television which reaches out to, and touches the hearts of millions of viewers. Ordinarily the programme is designed to bring rare human-interest stories to the nation’s attention, so that those who are touched to the heart might also be touched to the pocket to help the victim.*
Most of the central portion of the story is taken up with Charles Chikwanje (the young gay man) and his televised debate with the host of Reach Out and Touch. This is the driest bit of the story – everything about this debate has the feel of going through the motions. Bible quote, check; the Greeks, check; we’re just like you, check. Other people have read this as earnest issue-based fiction but I find myself unable to do so; I don’t see it as trying to convince or argue for its side in any way, but instead taking for granted that we’re all on Charles’ side here. And yet how convenient for the story that the first young man to be publicly exposed as gay should also be so eloquent, so well-educated, and so able to defend himself. These social markers are at work within the text, and do more than his actual arguments to get people on his side. “By the time he walks out, Charles has reclaimed much of his lost respect. Many people are talking about how eloquent he is”. As important as it may be to the world as a whole and to Malawi, in many ways the homosexuality angle is pretext rather than subject here.
Because we’re reading this set of stories specifically in the context of the Caine Prize, there’s a level of meta commentary involved. What do these stories say about Africa and African writing (and the idea of such a thing as African writing), yes, but also what do they say about the sort of stories that are chosen as representativeof Africa and African writing? Those who read the list of links at the end of my “Bombay’s Republic” post will remember that some people read it as partly being about this subject. I find myself wondering if “Love on Trial” does not contain an element of this as well.
At the beginning of the story Maxwell Kabaifa tells Mr Kachingwe that to continue spreading this story will ruin a young man’s life. Mr Kachingwe continues anyway, because “among the qualities of a good citizen of any state on earth, telling the truth was of great importance. He was reporting the truth as he saw it. The consequences of the truth were none of his business”. The consequences of the truth turn out to be very much his business; the arrest of Charles Chikwanje leads to international outrage, leading to a cutting off of aid to Malawi. Mr Kachingwe, who has recently tested positive for the HIV virus, finds that his ARV drugs are now cut off, and at the end of the story he has been coughing up blood for a while and seems close to death. This could be a mere aside, a horrible throwaway authorial punishment upon the character who, in a way, started this whole mess. But we’re not allowed to see it that way. Maxwell Kabaifa (who seems a nice, sympathetic man until we learn that he’s only trying to convert Mr Kachingwe to his own particular brand of Christianity before he dies) hammers the point in further with a fable that I’m not going to relate here. In beginning and ending the story with Mr Kachingwe, and by the use of this story, Kenani shifts the focus from what happens to Charles to what happens to Mr Kachingwe; it makes him the point of it.
By now everyone who is commenting on these stories has read Bernardine Evaristo’s call for stories that “move on” from the “familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa”. JP had a post responding to this in which he talks about the dilemma that he faces as an Indian writer when the truth of his experiences corresponds to stereotypes of the country. He asks: “if I am to reflect my own experience accurately, how do I ‘move on’ from the reality that the odours of slums and the aromas of incense both actually happen to be things I have extensive experience of?” I think Kenani’s story addresses this dilemma in part, though I don’t think it provides any clear solutions. I don’t think one can draw the simplistic conclusion that one should only write a particular sort of account of Malawi/Africa, or that certain truths need to be hidden. Charles Chikwanje goes to prison but he goes defiantly, he protects the man he loves (we never hear his name), and professes relief that it’s all out in the open. But there is at least an understanding that narratives of Africa have real world consequences.
*Insert Aamir Khan joke here for Indian audiences.
Other people’s thoughts on “Love on Trial”: