Thursday, 16 January 2014
Diaspora writers dominating the Caine Prize
By Rob Gaylard
A feature of this year's Caine Prize collection of stories, A Memory this Size and Other Stories (Jacana), is the prominence of what one might call diasporic stories, such as Tope Folarin's prize-winning story, Miracle. Given the salience of novels like Brian Chikwava's Harare North and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, this seems to reflect an emerging trend in African writing. (Bulawayo was the 2011 Caine Prize winner.)
There are five short-listed stories of which four are, rather remarkably, by Nigerian authors (or authors with a connection to Nigeria). A further 13 stories came out of this year's Caine Prize workshop, held on the shores of Lake Victoria. Four of these 13 stories were submitted by Ugandans.
The first story in the collection is Folarin's Miracle - on the evidence of this story, the author is clearly Nigerian/American. He tells us, "I'm a writer situated in the Nigerian disapora, and the Caine Prize means a lot - it feels like I'm connected to a long tradition of African writers."
It seems pointless to debate whether someone who was born in America can be described as an "African" - one infers from the story that the author's Nigerianness is an important part of his identity, and he falls squarely within the definition of "African writer" inscribed in the Caine Prize rules.
The story explores the issue of faith and belief, and provides a vivid first-person account of a revivalist service at which a blind prophet performs what are alleged to be miracles. The story does not confirm that any miracle has taken place - but it does affirm the ties of family and community, and suggests that "both (truths and lies) must be cultivated for the community to survive".
The congregation consists entirely of Nigerian exiles or sojourners in America, and the story balances the narrator's scepticism against the repeated affirmation, "We need miracles".
The American connection is reinforced by the second story in the collection, Pede Hollist's Foreign Aid. The story is a deftly narrated, somewhat ironic, cautionary tale about the folly of the "Been-to" who imagines he can return to his native land (in this case Sierra Leone), rather like a deus ex machina, putting right whatever is wrong and making up for his 20-year absence (and neglect of his family).
As the story unfolds the scales are lifted from Logan's eyes and he comes to realise the futility of his efforts. His sister, Ayo, points out, "Out here. We manage. We do what we have to do". The story could have been subtitled The Americanisation of Balogan/Logan: it explores the dissonance set up by the manners and expectations of the returnee, Logan, the "self-made man from ICU (the Inner City University)", whose "fanny pack" of dollars rapidly runs out. One quotation will help to illustrate the inventiveness of the writing:
"Logan was left severely to himself. He felt powerless, useless like a kaka bailer who arrives at a large family latrine with only a small tamatis cup, unable to and incapable of handling the crap that had been generated."
Ironically, much of the "crap" has been generated through Logan's efforts to assist his family.
In contrast, Elnathan John's Bayin Layi, set in a Hausa-speaking and predominantly Muslim part of Nigeria, plunges us in media res. The narrator is Dantali, one of a group of homeless boys who sleep under the kuka tree in the town of Bayan Layi.
These boys "like to boast about the people they have killed". We are introduced to their seemingly amoral perspective: without the security or guidance of home or parents, they are easily sucked up into what seems to be standard election-time violence in Nigeria.
Driven by desperation or greed, they stop at nothing; in their hands machetes become lethal weapons. They seem to have internalised the worst aspects of the society around them. These include ethnic hatred (one boy is killed partly "because he has the nose of an Igbo boy") and homophobic violence (another victim is referred to as "a disgusting dau dauda" (or effeminate homosexual).
The effect of the plain, unvarnished narrative is chilling: "I am not thinking as we move on, burning, screaming, cutting, tearing. I don't like the feeling in my body when this machete cuts flesh so I stick to the fire and take the matchbox from Banda." At the end our narrator is running "far, far away from Bayan Layi" - but to what possible future? The references to Allah and the call of the muezzin form an ironic backdrop to the grim action of the story.
Chinelo Okparanta's America is, as the title suggests, another of the diasporic stories in the collection. The action of the story is located in or near Port Harcourt, in the oil-rich Niger delta region of Nigeria. America features as a kind of promised land, a longed-for utopia. The narrator is Nnena Etoniru, a high school science teacher, who hopes to obtain the magic green card that will allow her to join her lover, Gloria Oke, in the US.
Two central themes weave through the story: first, there is its restrained, understated treatment of the narrator's same-sex relationship with Gloria; second, there is its more overtly foregrounded environmental theme. The delta was once filled with mangroves: "birds flew and sang in the skies above the mangroves? 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." Young children emerge from the waters of the creek coated with oil. Oil, in fact, runs like a leitmotif through the story: the Gulf oil spill creates an ironic link between America and Nigeria and provides a pretext for Nnena's visit to America (she hopes to study the methods used to deal with the oil spill and apply them back home in Nigeria.)
In fact, the narrator's motives are mixed, and she is more torn than she realises. The story concludes with a deliberately ambiguous, open-ended folk tale. It skilfully links seemingly disparate issues, and deepens our understanding of the attraction of America. Will our aspirant eco-activist join those who have "(got) lost in America"?
All the stories were shortlisted for the Caine Prize. The stories in the second part of the anthology cover a range of topics and encompass a variety of styles. A Memory This Size by Elnathan John (again) is a simple tale simply told, dealing with the perennial subject of loss - in this case the loss of a younger brother through drowning. It explores a recurring dilemma: does one hold on to the memory, or does one let it go? "So I keep his photos close, and do not fight the sadness. I let fresh tears drop, 10 years after."
One of the most entertaining stories in the collection is undoubtedly Stuck, in which Davina Kawuna breathes new life into an old form, the epistolatory narrative. The story consists of a series of rather breathless, confessional e-mails about a "not-yet-affair", written by Nandi to her online "friend", Connie, whose response, when it finally comes, should be entered into the lists of famous literary put-downs.
Ecological concerns resurface in Stanley Kenani's Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile. Set on the shores of Lake Malawi, it deals with the concerns of a fishing community whose livelihood is threatened by the operations of an oil company. In grandfather's words, "to us, fish is everything. If you kill our lake, we are dead." Do they acquiesce, or do they resist, and what form can this resistance take? Should one try to appease "a smiling crocodile".
Gender issues are central to Wazha Lopang's The Strange Dance of the Calabash. It evokes the stark attitudes towards women and marriage in traditional, patriarchal Botswanan society, and contains an unexpected twist. The narrator, aged 13, is apparently being married off to a man she does not know (this isn't the twist).
Hellen Nyana's short but not-so-simple story, Chief Mourner, also deals with the loss of a loved one, this time a boyfriend. The narrator finds out about the death of her boyfriend via Facebook - and it turns out that this is no hoax. Her status is uncertain - their relationship has not even been made "official" on Facebook, and she is unsure about mourning etiquette. The story has more than one surprise to spring, and repays careful reading.
One or two stories are not really accessible to the general reader, and seem to require a knowledge of the local context. Fortunately, most of the stories are readable and entertaining.
The Caine Prize is now in its 14th year, and is supported by a number of African publishers, including (in South Africa) Jacana. In spite of misgivings about its representativeness, the collection as a whole lives up to Lizzy Attree's description, in her introduction: "These are challenging, arresting, provocative stories of a continent and its descendants captured at a time of burgeoning change."
They deserve to be widely read. - published December 1, 2013.