Archive for ‘Caine Prize’

July 10, 2013

Some prize-related news

First, the winner of this year’s Caine Prize has been announced, and it is Tope Folarin for “Miracle”. As I said in my last Caine post, “America” was my favourite of this year’s shortlist, but I can certainly see why Folarin’s story won. You can read the story itself here (links to a pdf), and my post on it is here.


And the shortlist for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards (of which I am a member of the jury) has been announced and can be found here. Obviously I have favourites; obviously I’m not going to declare them here just yet. But it’s a very good collection of books and short stories, and I’m glad to have had the chance to read them.

July 6, 2013

Chinelo Okparanta, “America”

Is this the only story by a woman on the Caine shortlist this year? “America” can be read here.

First, just for the prose this is the best of the finalists.

I tell him that decades ago, before the pipes began to burst (or maybe even before Shell came into the area – and of course, these days, it’s hard to remember a time without Shell), Gio Creek, for example, was filled with tall, green mangroves. Birds flew and sang in the skies above the creek, and there were plenty of fish and crab and shrimp in the waters below. Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all. And, of course, there are no fish, no shrimp, and no crab to be caught. Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil on their bodies.

Not much happens in “America”, though the story jumps around in time a bit. We begin with the narrator, Nnenna, on her way to a visa interview–apparently her third. The first two have been declined.We learn of her earlier trips to the visa office, and of the development of her relationship with Gloria, who she plans to visit in America.Of their romance, of which her parents disapprove.

There’s often an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) demand that African stories, Asian stories, basically stories that aren’t European or American be about Issues (shoutout to this tweet by Nicholas Ochiel). “America” very easily could be; there’s the Issue of Being a Lesbian in Nigeria, there’s the difficulty and assorted ignominies of the visa process, there are economic and enviromental issues:

the way things were going for the Niger Delta … all that bunkering going on, criminal gangs tapping the oil straight from the pipelines and transporting it abroad to be sold illegally. The rebel militias stealing the oil and refining it and selling it to help pay for their weapons. All those explosions from old oil rigs that had been left abandoned by Shell.

It isn’t about any of these; they are all things that happen, but they’re not made part of a narrative. “America” insists on its own focus on the personal. Nnenna’s relationship with Gloria only causes conflict (in the form of resigned disapproval, which isn’t the worst sort of opponent) within her family; we’re told that there are “penalties … for that sort of thing” in Nigeria but we never have to face them. In the visa interview that forms the focus of the plot Nnenna talks earnestly about the possible good she could do regarding oil spills in the Niger Delta, putting herself into a larger narrative, but we have access to her internal monologue and we know that her reasons are, again, personal. (And some of us who have done visa interviews and scholarship interviews also recognise this need to make ourselves seem more earnest, more socially-minded, more useful than we really are).

There is a part of me hoping that I will find that new life much less complicated, much more trouble-free than the one here. Still, I say it confidently, because saying it so might help me to keep Mama’s  fear from becoming a reality. Because I know that it might break Mama’s heart if I were to break my promise to her. But mostly, I say it confidently because Gloria is on my mind, and if I am to be granted permission to go and be with her, then I must give the man the answer I know he wants: an emphatic vow that I will come back home.

And I think this focus on the personal also becomes, for the narrator, a sort of strategy of avoidance. There’s the version of the Jack and the Beanstalk (Nnamdi and the udara tree, in this case) story that has Nnenna thinking about putting on limits on stories that might otherwise have no end–what happens if the resources all run out after the happily ever after? That ‘easier life’ that she quite understandably wants, the life that can be considered as a thing in itself, separate from Issues that is something we all deserve; it can be difficult to accept it when the consequences of said issues are around us all the time. And so many of us with the resources to get away and live lives of our own do, and we perform acts of unseeing to make it possible.

I tell myself to continue walking, to ignore all of this foulness, just like the owners of the big houses have managed to do. Maybe it’s even their garbage that saturates these alleyways, as if the houses themselves are all that matter, and the roads leading to them inconsequential.

But for me, it is a reluctant kind of disregard that stems from a feeling of shame: shame that all that trash should even exist there, shame that empty barrels should be there, between the fancy houses, littering the roads after the oil they once contained has been made to do its own share of littering.

So if “America” is about an issue at all, it’s about trying desperately not to be about one and finding it morally difficult to do. Which I can live with.


The winner of the Caine prize will be announced a few days from now. This has been my second year blogging the Caine prize, and on the whole I think I preferred last year’s shortlist to this one. Last year there were three or four stories I could quite happily think of as worthy winners.

But this year “America” feels far ahead of everything else on the list (with “Bayan Layi” a probable second). I very much hope it wins.


Other people’s thoughts on “America”

Kate Maxwell
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Chika Oduah
Veronica Nkwocha
Ben Laden
June 24, 2013

Elnathan John, “Bayan Layi”

The fourth of this year’s Caine Prize finalists, Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is set among a group of street children during an election in their town.It’s told from the perspective of one of these boys, in a voice that combines an innocence of how the world works and plenty of violence.

I like chasing thieves especially when I know they are not from Bayan Layi. I am the fastest runner here even though I broke my leg once when I fell from a motorcycle in Sabon Gari. Anyway, the groundnut oil thief, we caught him and gave him the beating of his life. I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch. So we sat this boy down and Banda asked what his name was. He said Idowu. I knew he was lying because he had the nose of an Igbo boy. I used my nail on his head many times, demanding his real name.

I say “innocence” because there’s an almost complete lack of cynicism in many of Dantala’s thoughts. An electoral win for the Small Party will make a meaningful difference to these characters’ lives (“Things will be better if the Small Party wins. Insha Allah.”). The adult men really respect his friend Banda. Banda himself is less sure of the essential goodness of the world.

“We will win these elections,” Banda says.

“Of course, who can stop us?” We are talking like real politicians now, like party men.

“Will they really build us that shelter?” I ask.

“I don’t like to think of that, all I want is that they pay every time they ask us to work for them. After the election, where will you see them?”

And of course the reader knows that Banda’s probably right.

Three out of the four shortlisted stories that I’ve read so far employ the first person narrator, but “Bayan Layi” and “Miracles” are the ones for which this style seems most vital. John fully utilises that gap in knowledge between his child narrator and his adult reader. It’s like a grimmer (because the death and violence are entirely real) version of Swami and Friends. That comparison with R.K. Narayan might just go further than the choice of protagonist; though their prose styles aren’t really that much alike, there’s a precision and a deceptive simplicity about both that I’m very impressed by.

It’s probably obvious that I have little of worth to say about this particular story, but I think it may be my favourite so far.


Other people’s thoughts on “Bayan Layi”:

Kola Tubosun at NigeriansTalk
Veronica Nkwocha
Beverley Nambozo
Kate Maxwell
C.E. Hastings for Africa in Words
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Chika Oduah
June 18, 2013

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, “The Whispering Trees”

(Terribly late with this one, sorry!)

The third of this year’s Caine Prize shortlistees. “The Whispering Trees” can be found here.

Context means a lot when you’re reading an author you don’t know. If you’re reading a slush pile you expect most submissions to be mediocre and you tend to only really notice the ones that stand out. If you’re reading an awards shortlist you expect most stories to be brilliant and if they’re not obviously so are willing to make the extra effort to hunt through them for what makes them good.”The Whispering Trees” has the most promising (lucid, deceptively simple) beginning and the most disappointing closing lines of any of the Caine prize finalists I’ve read so far, and I’m not sure what to think.

The story is about Salim, a young man who loses his eyesight in an accident, a month before he was to graduate from medical school and marry Faulata, the woman he loves. Having lost his mother, his career, and (he assumes) his fiancee all at once, he deals with his new situation first badly then well. Faulata stays and helps in a saintly fashion until she is no longer needed, then marries someone else. In recovering from this second great loss Salim discovers in himself the ability to see people’s souls though he can no longer see their faces; losing sight, he has gained insight.

A few here. Firstly, I suspect that if I was blind I’d be pissed off to learn that the magical power to see souls was an improvement I should be grateful for–but I guess that’s implicit in that whole blind prophet tradition, so perhaps it’s unfair to feel it more here than elsewhere.

Secondly, I’m not sure what the prose here is doing. Keguro Macharia’s post on the story is  very well worth reading, in this regard in particular.

Thirdly, those opening lines made me think for a moment that this story was in part fantasy or horror. I have a horrible habit of trying to read things that aren’t ‘really’ (whatever that means) SFF as belonging to the genre and I’m trying to resist the temptation to do so here. Because if it’s not a post-death story, it does have ghosts and supernatural powers. But the whispering trees that give the story its name and the possibly interesting dead childhood friend don’t feel to me like the focus here. What is the centre of the story then? Salim’s reconciling himself to his loss of eyesight, I suppose, and his difficulty with his faith in the wake of the tragedy.

On twitter a few days ago, Ben asked (half-jokingly? I guess? I don’t see why not?) if anyone was going to do a reading of “The Whispering Trees” as a sort of prequel to Tope Folarin’s “Miracles”. I’m not, but I think the juxtaposition of those two stories can be interesting. Because “Miracles” also touches on questions of faith, of personal (mis)fortune in the context of religion. Except that the religion of “Miracles” is something social; it’s something that acts within communities and it’s this quality that has our protagonist come out of the story uneasy. “The Whispering Trees” focuses almost entirely on the personal, and has its main character coming out of it obedient, contented, and with faith intact.

Saints are rarely fun to read about and I don’t like being preached to. I’ve been trying since I read it to come up with alternative narratives (none of them, I think, the story “The Whispering Trees” thinks it’s telling) that are more satisfactory to me. So the ghost story. The story where this story simultaneously debunks (he’s not possessed, he’s depressed; there isn’t a malevolent spirit haunting the trees) and affirms (the attempted exorcism does seem to help; there is a ghost haunting the trees) spiritual belief. The story where those opening lines are the truth; Salim is dead and the rest is all some sort of afterlife analogy.

None of them quite seems to stick. I keep thinking that all this story really comes down to is that weak last line: “I realise that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.” I really don’t want that to be the case.



As ever, other people’s thoughts on the story are here:

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Veronica Nkwocha
Kate Maxwell
Scott Ross
Kola Tubosun
Ben Laden


June 9, 2013

Pede Hollist, “Foreign Aid”

In Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid“, a young man named Balogun moves to America, reinvents himself as “Logan” and returns many years later to his family in Sierra Leone for a short visit.

When you title a story something as blatant as “Foreign Aid”, you’re already signalling something about what it’s likely to be, what it’s likely to mean, in this case what Ben refers to here as the “relationship between the individual/humanistic and the systemic”. And so Logan’s interactions with his family and other countrymen (and I’m using that word here only to deny it later) are framed as if to be read as some sort of analogy for the relationships between nations, and a reader ends up looking for what the story has to say about that. When the answer is “not much”, it’s too easy to entirely write it off as a disappointment.

Reading this story as an Indian reader is interesting because we (like most other postcolonial countries, I assume) have our own narrative of the NRI (Non-Resident Indian). I’ve never actually met someone who has changed the name Krishna to Chris; if I’m sure these people exist it’s because I’ve read countless books and seen countless movies in which they are either comic (look at the entitled idiot from abroad who doesn’t know how things work!) or tragic (look at this poor person caught between cultures!) figures. It’s a stereotype to me, and I suspect to anyone reading from a similar context.

And possibly to Balogun/Logan himself. Frequently in the story I got the impression that Logan was playing a part, that of the magnanimous visitor from abroad:

“Get us some drinks, Bro.” Logan dipped his hand into the fanny pack. Eyes trained on him and a hush descended on the gathering.

Ohmos, Sa?
“Two dozen beer and two dozen sodas.”
Soda wata, Sa?
“Naa, meh. Soda is what we call soft drinks back in the States.”
“Why, Sa?”
“Er … er … we do things differently in America, dude.” And with a flourish, Logan whipped out different-colored bills, fumbled with them for a bit—feigned exasperation when one dropped to the ground—and finally slapped a fistful of notes into Tunde’s waiting hand. The boy and his friends bounded off.

(Emphasis mine)
That’s a very tiny moment, and I don’t know if it needs to mean anything beyond the fact that obviously Logan is enjoying showing off how much money he has in the role of rich relative from abroad. The role that he thinks he’s playing and the role the reader thinks he’s playing need not necessarily be the same. But there’s a need to have his part acknowledged constantly- “I’m from the States, bro?”. Most of his setbacks seem to come from the fact that other people (perhaps they’ve been watching the wrong movies) don’t seem to recognise their parts in the story: his parents should have needed a little less money, his sister been a little more excited at the prospect of a trip to America, her friend Tima a little more willing to sleep with the exciting America-returned cosmopolitan. Ali Sayyar is the worst of all–not only does he not have the courtesy even to be properly foreign so that Logan can despise him on that count, but he’s also fulfilling his responsibilities towards Ayo and doing more to help Logan’s family than Logan could indignantly demand. And it’s funny, and it’s a tiny victory every time Logan’s vision of Sierra Leone is disrupted–when people argue with him instead of being grateful, when his suitcases are returned.

Read from this perspective, this becomes a story about thwarting the narratives placed upon it–by Logan, by the title, by its readers. And if I’m not sure it entirely works that could be because some of those narratives (like that title, again) are things it brings upon itself. Or because I’m completely wrong, of course.


Other people’s thoughts:

Kola Tubosun
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Veronica Nkwocha
Aaron Bady
Kate Maxwell
Scott Ross
Ben Laden
June 3, 2013

Tope Folarin, “Miracle”

I’m supposed to be blogging the Caine Prize along with a number of people, links to whose (considerably more worthwhile) thoughts can be found at the end of this post.We start this year with Tope Folarin’s “Miracle”, which can be read here. Unfortunately I’ve been rather out of it this week, so consider this post (which is late, anyway) a placeholder, with some unconnected thoughts that do not do anything like form a coherent thesis.

As pretty much everyone else has said, the pronouns are important here. “Miracle” is set among a congregation Nigerian Christians, gathered to see a “prophet”.  The first third (or so) of the story is full of “we”: “our heads move simultaneously”, “we echo his defiance”. These are not just shared actions, but there’s a sense of shared thought. That the narrator, whoever he is, is somehow tuned in to exactly what everyone else is thinking.

We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.
We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.
We need miracles.


And then the “we” turns into “I” as the prophet singles out our narrator; young, bespectacled and asthmatic (he seems more concerned about the asthma). A miracle is promised, and it might be delivered.


He shoves my head back until I fall, and the attendant behind me eases me to the floor. I finally understand. I remain on the floor while his attendants cover me with a white sheet. Above, I hear the prophet clapping his hands, and I know that he’s praying. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling are shining so brightly that the light seems to be huddling in the sheet with me. I hug the embodied light close.


It is not, or at least in any direct way. Our hero chooses to pretend it is, though, and the story explains that “a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive”. This seems rather ham-handed and obvious for a story that has, until this point, been composed of really lovely (if not very subtle) prose. But why is our narrator willing to go along with it?


I think part of this has, again, to do with pronouns. I think the narrative shows a visible, deliberate discomfort from the minute it goes from the “we” to the “I”. In addition, there’s the extent to which our narrator is doubled with the prophet. They both have sight-related problems (and there’s the whole tradition of the blind prophet who nonetheless has insight that is being drawn upon here), breathing problems. And since if anyone here can be sure of the extent to which the miracles work (or don’t) it’s the prophet, both prophet and narrator are tied together in their shared deception. Because apparently they know what communities need and communities sometimes need lies, and that’s just how things are.


But there was that moment of disorientation, when our narrator was singled out:


We remain standing because we don’t know to whom he is referring.
“YOU! You! You! YOU! Come up here!”
We begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly. I turn around suddenly, and I realize I’m no longer a part of the whole. I notice, then, that the lights are too bright, and the muggy air in the room settles, fog-like, on my face. Now I am in the aisle, and I see the blind old man pointing at me.


That first “we remain standing because”, like the “we”s that came before it, presumes shared thoughts and understanding. But with “we begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly”, we’re immediately proved wrong. Our narrator’s wrong about what’s going on in the heads of the people around him; this is what makes the glib “truth” about communities palatable.
Other people’s thoughts on this story:


July 3, 2012

Constance Myburgh, “Hunter Emmanuel”


The last of the Caine Prize stories. I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on this project, and the winner of the prize was to be announced today. I’m not sure why it took me so long to start writing about what was probably my favourite of the shortlisted stories (pdf here). This is an opinion that I don’t think most commentors on the prize share – and I suspect the difference is that I come to it as at least partly a genre reader. Because Hunter Emmanuel, Myburgh’s titular character, has read his noir.

The story begins when Emmanuel and his colleagues find a human leg hanging from a tree. Emmanuel is a former policeman who now works as a lumberjack, though we’re told nothing of the circumstances that led to this shift in career. When the mysterious leg shows up, Emmanuel is seized with a need to discover the truth. To do this he draws on his own training and contacts, but also on the crime fiction he’s evidently fond of reading.

Hunter Emmanuel’s debt to fiction is hard to miss. He’s constantly narrativising events as he experiences them, and the syntax of the story changes whenever this happens. An idle thought about the weather turns into “Either way, he knew the wind would howl tonight”; he needs the drama of story.

This concern with narrativising himself extends to the women in the story – Emmanuel is hideously sexist. Ugly women have no place in the story he’s writing for himself – he refers to the policewoman Sgt Williams as having failed in her duty somehow simply by not being attractive enough. When the leg is traced to a young prostitute named Zara Swert (“a one-legged whore. Friday nights didn’t get better than this”), Emmanuel’s attitude towards her is just creepy. He enters her hospital room under false pretenses, touches her face while she sleeps, and expects her to be someone he can confide in. “she looked like someone, someone he could talk to”. As for her physical appearance, “She looked washed-out, but after what she’d been through who wouldn’t be? Also, she was, he thought, probably prettier that way.” Later;

The world seemed suddenly very unpleasant, and Emmanuel had to imagine Zara Swart’s face and also her bandages from many different angles before it began to feel like a place he could deal with.

Zara asks Emmanuel why he is so interested in her case and his answer, I think, is central to this story.

He leaned closer to her, he couldn’t help ut.

‘I was there. I found your leg. That shit is traumatizing. I need closure.’

He loved those words. They made sense, even when they didn’t.


And so Emmanuel will pursue this mystery, not out of concern for the victim but out of a simple desire for narrative closure that is entirely focused on the mechanics of the case rather than on the people involved. But Myburgh will not give him that closure. The people responsible for hanging the leg up the tree are found; but their action was seemingly random. The people responsible for cutting off the leg are found – but Emmanuel does not learn what they wanted with it, or why they should have subsequently abandoned it in a forest. We know that the shadowy villains of this story are covered with Vaseline so that one cannot get a grip on them – this, apart from feeling utterly random (unless my reading of crime fiction is a lot narrower than I realise) could equally apply to the facts of the case. Emmanuel realises that “how” isn’t enough knowledge for him; he wants “why” as well, and it turns out that human motivations simply will not fit into the story-shaped spaces he has left for them. There’s a point to be made here about the arrogance of the detective story’s desire to know the world and to place it into ordered sequences of motive and method. And about its inevitable failure to do so.

And I think the story does its best to make the world seem alien and unknowable from the beginning. A couple of paragraphs into what seems a work of basic crime fiction we have the phrase “a hundred-year-old alien crashed to the ground” and we’re left hanging for a few further paragraphs before it becomes clear that we’re talking about alien pine trees.

It’s tempting to quote the whole of the final section of this story (please just read it and make it easier on us both); Emmanuel begs Zara for a reason, but she only connects his need for answers with a seeming masculine need to “save us” and walks away leaving Emmanuel to reflect on how differently this all should have gone.

Why was he here? He was so sure this would all end back in the forest, that whatever trail of blood he’d find would lead back to the shadows there. And yet here he was. On a fokkin street corner on Main Road. No, it was as he feared. The shadow was everywhere.

[ ... ]

If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t even solve my own fokkin life, thought Hunter Emmanuel, I could make a best ever, real-life private investigator.


Here are some other people who wrote about “Hunter Emmanuel”:

The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus



Earlier today, after rereading the story, I decided that my own favourites for the Caine Prize were this story and Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”. I think, based on the reactions of the people who blogged this award with me, that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s  “La Salle de Départ” was the favourite, and while I admired the story very much I’ll always pick messy and ambitious over well-executed and familiar. I stand by my seemingly unconventional reading of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, but the very fact that it was so unconventional means that perhaps it didn’t do as good a job of conveying what I thought it was as I thought it had (read back through that sentence, weep for the English language).  Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” pulled me in just with the sheer goodness of its writing but what is more important is, of all the stories on this shortlist, Kahora’s is the one that most strongly invoked in me the feeling that talking about and judging ‘African writing’ should be a complex thing, worthy of as much self-doubt as we can muster up.

The winner of the prize has now been announced on twitter, and it’s a choice I’m very pleased with. But I’d recommend going through all the stories on this year’s shortlist – it’s an exciting collection and I’m glad to have read it.

June 3, 2012

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, “La Salle de Départ”

This is the fourth of the five stories on the Caine Prize shortlist.

The nature of the Caine Prize makes it inevitable that we’ve all been talking about/dancing around the idea of Africa as a single literature-producing entity (as far as any place that has ever produced more than one book could ever be such a thing); Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is from Zimbabwe and her story “La Salle de Départ” is set in Senegal. Does that make this the most international story on this shortlist so far?

The story in brief: Fatima’s brother Ibou lives in America but has come to Senegal for a short holiday. Throughout his stay, Fatima has been trying to work up the courage to ask him to take her son to live with him next year. Most of the story takes place during the siblings’ rather fraught ride to the airport; Fatima struggles to understand Ibou’s refusal to take charge of her son, while Ibou in turn finds himself unable to explain his complex feelings about his own identity, and what his Americanisation has done for his relationship with his family.

I think, as Stephen Derwent Partington says here, that a large part of what makes this story interesting is its focus on Fatima, who was left behind and does not exist in two cultures, rather than Ibou, who does. We’ve heard Ibou’s story several times, we know that to be hybrid is a sort of never coming home – many of us know all this first hand. From the beginning Ibou does not come across as insensitive or heartless to me, because I’ve heard his story enough to sympathise with him. In some ways, though he is sympathetic, Ibou is more archetype than person for me.

Fatima is different. Partly because her apparent weakness is deceptive – the hints we get of her life indicate that her divorce was her choice, that she has built up quite a successful business on her own. She may think that her mind is slow, but we’re told that she finished lycée with high marks; high enough for her uncle to offer to pay for her university education. She is, understandably, a little bitter about the fact that this did not happen – women stay at home, men “fly”. But she’s also prone to stereotyping people (her remarks on the ‘loose’ Lebanese women). And her apparent depression is something that could make up a story in itself.

But at the heart of it this is really a story of two people who don’t know how to talk to one another despite (as the text makes clear) having multiple languages at their disposal:

“Je vous en prie,” she began in French and continued in Wolof, “Please.” Her voice was hoarse. “Only you can help him. Please help him to be like you. Do what Uncle Thierno did for you. Look how lucky you are, how successful. The success of one is the success of the whole family. Babacar’s future is the future of us all.” She clutched at him, her long ring scratching his wrist as she grabbed his hands, pulling him around to face her.

He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony.


To me the most obvious manifestation of this is in their differing perspectives over Ibou’s relationship with his partner Ghada. Ghada is Egyptian, and for reasons of class and income is comfortable with her family in ways that Ibou cannot be with his own. He sees her as an intellectual superior – he wishes that she could speak for him as she’d do a better job of explaining his feelings, he parrots her own words about her understanding of religion. It’s obvious that for all his estrangement from his family Ibou wants approval from his sister- when he gushes about his girlfriend he’s also waiting for a response, for Fatima to show interest or excitement over what matters to him.

“Ghada has read the whole Koran,” Ibou said aloud, echoing his long-ago letter. “Religion for her is something she truly practices rather than obeys. It’s something that she interrogates and interacts with, wrestling with its contradictions and inconsistencies, those within her and those within the religion itself. She is not afraid of them you see, she doesn’t deny them, she faces them head on. We can only understand God’s word as it is translated by and through men. God is great but all religions are man-made and are therefore imperfect.”

Fatima held her breath. Were these Ibou’s words or Ghada’s? He sounded like he was reading from a book but his hands were empty. She had never known Ibou to be either religious or philosophical. Not trusting herself to reply, she slipped the foulard off and then expertly rewrapped the thick, starchy material around her head. She lowered her arms and twitched her shoulders so that the heavy gold embroidery bordering her collarbone shifted to the side leaving her left shoulder bare in the preferred style. It was her most expensive boubou, the one she had worn for Maimouna’s fourth child’s baptism. This entire readjustment took almost two whole minutes yet Ibou’s gaze was still fixed on her expectantly. Was she actually supposed to respond to that speech? Her mind churned to no avail.

Finally relenting, Ibou looked away and pulled his red baseball cap further down on his brow and turned his iPod back on, jamming the headphones deep into his ears.


And so these two people cannot help but hurt one another.

I don’t think “La Salle de Départ” is particularly ambitious in what it sets out to do. But it’s a very human story, and one that is generous to its characters. It’s not my favourite of the Caine Prize shortlist, but it certainly deserves to be there.


Other blog posts on this story:

Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
Ayodele Olofintuade

May 25, 2012

Stanley Kenani, “Love on Trial”

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)

Tourists Neyes and Kistinn, at the Broadway Central and the Capitol Hotel, by revolver and defenestration, respectively, committed suicide.

Mysteries of the female sex: merely because women are not allowed to vote, Miss Belle Squire, of Chicago, has refused to pay her taxes.

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”:

Method to the Madness
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Black Balloon
City of Lions

May 19, 2012

Billy Kahora, “Urban Zoning”

“And I would put it to you that it is actually a lot easier for non-Africans to talk about “African” writing — both insightfully and not — than it is for non-Kenyans to talk about Kenyan writing.”

The quote above is from Aaron Bady’s post on “Urban Zoning” at The New Inquiry. I find myself more insecure about my lack of context for Kahora’s story than I was for “Bombay’s Republic” last week.And so I’ve waited for other people to write about the story, simply so I’d have something more to bounce off. Stephen Derwent Partington’s post, for example, was really useful; he provides some more background for Kahora’s position within Kenyan literature as a whole. Whereas Bady’s piece (linked above) teases out the implications of “African” writing and “Kenyan” writing, the general and the specific. This is in many ways the question at the heart of the Caine Prize itself, and central to Bernardine Evaristo’s essay here - what does African writing mean, what narratives of Africa are we seeing, what narratives of particular countries, particular districts within those countries, particular social classes; and I’m not sure where I stand on any of it. Which is maddening.


And so to “Urban Zoning” (a pdf can be found here) which, without much context I genuinely liked. Kahora’s protagonist Kandle is a young man, currently in what he calls the “Good Zone” (achieved by 72 hours’ drinking and keeping the level of alcohol inside one stable). But there’s also the Bad Zone, a place of self-loathing. The Zone has inflicted damage upon Kandle and his friends – we hear of a cousin who died in a car accident as a result, a friend who cut himself badly and whose wounds became infected, a girl who is sexually assaulted while in the Zone and goes into depression. Kandle’s comment on this is that the Zone “was clearly not for those who lacked restraint” and that all these are “examples of letting the Bad Zone overwhelm you”. So what is this restraint in the context of the story, and what is the level of Kandle’s control over how he experiences the Zone?

From the first, this seems a tenuous thing. Kahora’s prose heightens this sensation – it’s a little slurred, all-over-the-place, as drunk as his protagonist. An early attempt to fend off the Bad Zone by focusing on pleasant memories of school is a failure, as Kandle finds himself thinking of darker things that happened in school soon after. And yet.

Kandle’s dislike of touch is connected within the story to an incident of sexual abuse. Yet that refusal to touch also connects with a larger sense of detachment from everyone around him – even inadvertently catching a whiff of someone else’s sweat affects him to a disproportionate degree.

The “Zoning” in the title is presumably a reference to the good and bad zones in Kandle’s head. But there’s another sort of zoning as well. Early on, Kandle thinks about how he has made a mark in the city, and made himself known.

In many of the younger watering holes in Nairobi’s CBD, he was now an icon.  Respected in Buruburu, in Westlands, in Kile, in Loresho and Ridgeways, one of the last men standing in alcohol-related accidents and suicides. He had different names in different postal codes. In Zanze he was the Small-Package Millionaire. His crew was credited with bringing back life to the City Centre. In Buru he was simply Kan. In the Hurlingham area he was known as The Candle.

As it turns out, Kandle is really good at shifting between registers, being different people in different places. At one point, even as he stares at his own reflection and feels the self-loathing that comes with the bad zone, the face changes to that of his father, and his dislike is displaced along with it. His natural instinct to cringe away from touch becomes the means to charm a woman in the street when he moves out of her way.

Kandle’s control of his multiple, changing identities becomes clearest of all in the final pages, in which he’s charming annoyed secretaries, playing on the emotions of bank officials, and you have to wonder how far his control over all of this, his restraint has to do with his basic dislike of touch.

“You could never really play well if you hated getting close. Same with life and the street, in the city—you needed to be natural with those close to you,” Kandle thinks, but perhaps he’s wrong. Of all the characters we see in the story, he seems the best adapted to the life of his city.


Other people who wrote about this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions