Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Measure of African Fiction: The Caine Prize

By Rob Gaylard

The Caine Prize has established itself as the leading award for African short fiction. Many of its previous winners have gone on to establish themselves among the leading lights of a new generation of African writers.
This collection, African Violet and Other Stories. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2012 (The New Internationalist and Jacana), makes for rewarding and sometimes compelling reading. The stories are not characterised by formal experimentation, but they explore and dramatise the human situations of a variety of protagonists.
The most striking story in the collection is the prize-winning Bombay's Republic, by the Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde. This is an exhilarating introduction to a volume that celebrates the variety and vitality of African writing.
In this story, war is the locomotive of change: after his experience of fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma in World War II, things will never be the same again for Colour Sergeant Bombay, our Nigerian war hero. There can be no return to a world of fixity, order and stasis (the colonial world) where everything was underwritten by the authority of the god-like white man.
On his return from the war, Colour Sergeant Bombay occupies the old jail on the hilltop, and declares himself life president of his "free and independent republic".
His slide into delusions of grandeur mirrors that of any number of African tyrants and dictators who have occupied the post-colonial stage (from Idi Amin to His Imperial Majesty Bokassa I to Mobutu Sese Seko to Gaddafi to Mugabe).
For all its fantastic nature, the story is an acute commentary on this kind of African leader. The difference is that Bombay's delusions are harmless - he is, after all, the sole citizen of his self-declared independent state. Thousands do not perish at his whim; he commits no genocide: he is a ludicrous colossus ruling over an imaginary state.

Another entertaining, satirical tale is Stanley Kenani's Love on Trial. Set in a Malawian village, it deals with the almost taboo subject of homosexuality - supposedly an un-African and un-Christian activity, especially in a "God-fearing" country like Malawi.
The story exposes the folly of unthinking prejudice. Charles, who has been caught in flagrante in a village toilet, turns out to be articulate and unrepentant.
Interviewed for a popular TV show, Reach Out and Touch, he wins the reluctant admiration of many in the audience. His punishment turns out to have dire and unintended consequences for his accuser and for the nation as a whole.
This is storytelling at its most accomplished.
La Salle de Depart by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is set in Dakar and is a variation on a central theme of much African writing: the dissonance (often amounting to mutual incomprehension) between the favoured son (and it is always a son) who has studied overseas and made a new self-sufficient life for himself in the metropolis (here, New York) and those who have been left behind.
The story is focalised through his older, divorced sister, Fatima, who hopes Ibou will take her 11-year-old son back to New York.
The story is a sustained exploration of the irreconcilable perspectives and expectations of brother and sister. "Why was Ibou speaking in tongues?" At the end, as he passes through the passenger check-in, Ibou crosses into a different world, one forever beyond Fatima's reach.
The close observation and idiomatic rendering of Fatima's thoughts and feelings bring this situation vividly to life, and reveal the enormous gap between two different lifestyles - and between brother and sister.
Mama's Walk by Grace Khunou ("born and raised in Diepkloof, Soweto") is an understated, carefully crafted story, somewhat reminiscent of the stories of another Soweto resident, Miriam Tlali.
We observe a deeply dysfunctional household through the eyes of the daughter, Koko, who takes on the mother's familial and domestic chores when her mother finds work "in the kitchens".
She observes the changes in her mother and lovingly describes her slow-moving walk, as she returns home from her day's work - "there was a beauty in that end-of-day walk home".
One day, without explanation, the mother does not return, the father becomes more of a parent - and the reader is left to connect the dots.
Moving Forward, by Lauri Kubuitsile, is set in Botswana, and juxtaposes childhood dreams and the looming realities of adult life. It explores the stark choices facing Bonolo on his 18th birthday, which is also the anniversary of his brother's death, two years previously, in a coal-mining accident.
Excruciating family tensions are central to Table Manners, by the Kenyan writer BM Kunga.
Chege subjects his family to an ordeal by etiquette as they prepare for a dinner party. For Chege, "image was everything": he is determined to impress his boss, and deeply ashamed of anything that might betray his wife's (or her mother's) village background.
Table etiquette (and the need to quieten a crying baby) are the focus of the tensions that lead to an extreme act, one that shatters the fa?ade of the "happy family" that Chege has been at such pains to cultivate. This is a finely observed study of a woman in extremis.
Rehana Rossouw's nuanced story, African Violet, explores, via Lerato's engaging first-person narrative the rather unusual relationship that develops between two women living in a high-security complex in Joburg.
Lerato's new home is "a world away" from the Soweto street where she grew up, and another gulf seems to divide her from her neighbour, Dorothy. Dorothy seems rather "weird", never sets foot outside her apartment, and may (or may not) be a racist. A surprising discovery leads to an unexpected conclusion and forces Lerato to reassess her responses to Dorothy. It makes for an unusual and rather disturbing story.
Anger or indignation are not the keynotes of this collection of stories. They avoid dealing in stereotypes or clichés; instead they offer sustained explorations of a variety of recognisable situations. Rather than directly challenging their readers, these stories draw us into their imagined worlds. And they remind us again of the importance of the short story as a genre of African writing.

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