Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing

This amazing short story collection of 200 pages was one of the books NoViolet Bulawayo sent to me. It contains the ten Caine prize winning short stories from the year it started in 2000 to its tenth year 2009. “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing” begins with three bonus short stories by the three African winners of the Booker prize. And what a cracker as the opener. Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” left me speechless and breathless. What I love about the story is the way she wittily brings out the metaphor between village life in Mozambique and animal life in Kruger Park, as the characters flee from war at home and end up in a big tent in a different country. It’s such a beautifully crafted story. JM Coetzee’s short story, “Nietverloren” has that theme of a yearning for forgotten traditions. I still have to read his Booker Prize winning novel, “Disgrace.” Ben Okri’s “Incidents at the shrine” is typical Big Ben of Okri doing his thing; delving into the world of spirits, on the same wavelength with his Booker Prize winning novel “The Famished Road” which I read some months back. It’s about a man, Anderson Ofuegbu who gets sacked and returns to his village and is led to a shrine by his uncle. There at the shrine, he’s made to see spiritual images and the author brilliantly portrays his skills in magical realism.

Egyptian Sudanese writer Leila Abouleila won the maiden Caine prize in 2000 with her short story, “The Museum.” It’s set in Scotland and is about a Muslim woman, Shadia who’s getting to know a Scottish guy, Bryan. But there’s remarkable culture clash between them as she finds his wearing of an earring and his hair style very odd. Initially, there’s repulsion but she slowly gets close to him as she begs for his notes to help her understand her lessons and realizes he’s different and willing to change. She ponders separating with her fiancée back home for Bryan. When she visits a museum that prejudices Africa, she’s so hurt that she cries and ends the relationship. Helon Habila’s “Love Poems” won the Caine in 2001, a first by a Nigerian. It’s my third best Caine prize winning story. It’s about a journalist called Lomba who is in prison after being locked up for no just cause during Nigeria’s military regime. He’d gone out to do some reporting when he was arrested. In prison, he starts keeping a diary with dates and writing poems. Helon’s narrative of the story is fragmented and it also includes Lomba’s entries in the diary to portray the uncertainty of a prisoner’s life. When the warder of his cell, Muftau stumbles upon his poems and takes them home, his fiancée starts reading them and asks for more after he’s lied to her that he’s the one writing the poems. So Muftau asks Lomba to write more. And through his poems, Lomba sends coded messages to the warder’s fiancée. She eventually finds out the truth, that it’s a prisoner writing the poems and not Muftau. She calls off her relationship with Muftau and helps Lomba to get out of prison.

Binyavanga Wainana’s creative non-fiction story “Discovering Home” in 2002 beat entries by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Ngugi’s son, Mukoma Wa Ngugi to clinch the third edition of the Caine prize. Sadly, I didn’t get the point of his short story at all. All I know is that, it is creative non-fiction set in Cape town, Nakuru in Kenya and Uganda. Binyavanga Wainana used his 10.000 pounds prize money to set up the literary journal, Kwani? in Kenya and published Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s short story “Weight of Whispers” which won the Caine prize the next year in 2003 therefore ensuring that Kenya produced back to back Caine prize wins. It’s the longest ever Caine prize winning short story at thirty six pages. It’s like a small novella, about a Rwandan man whose family got stuck in another country due to violence in his homeland. His unilingual French skills did him no good too in an English speaking country. Zimbabwe produced its first Caine prize winner in 2004 in Brian Chikwava with “Seventh Street Alchemy.” Brian uses superior English language to execute this short story about police corruption, neglect, infidelity, repression and prostitution. I admire his great dexterity with language a lot. In 2005, Segun Afolabi won the Caine prize with his entry “Monday Morning.” It’s a short tale set in Europe about a penniless African family without papers and a father who works at a construction site. The father luckily and unconsciously avoids deportation when he accepts that he has papers when he actually doesn’t really have them. He works himself off and his wife complains bitterly about it. They refuse to go back to where they came from because there’s a war.

In 2006, South Africa’s Mary Watson won the Caine with “Jungfrau.” I don’t know what “Jungfrau” means, but its a German word. The narrator is a young girl whose mother is called Annette and her mother’s adopted sister is a beautiful woman called the Virgin Jessica. She calls herself the virgin Jessica because “she’s a special person like the blessed Mary.” The narrator has a perfect character impression of the virgin Jessica -pure and chaste. But as the story progresses, she begins to doubt it when she meets Virgin Jessica eating spaghetti after claiming she is fasting. The narrator’s illusoriness of her adopted aunt is completely wiped away when she meets the virgin Jessica naked, making love to her father and they call her name as she hurries away. Uganda delivered its first Caine prize winner in the year 2007 in Monica Arac de Nyeko with “Jambula Tree.” It’s a lesbianism short story and actually the first lesbianism write up to win the Caine prize. It’s written in the first person narrative and something of an elegy by a gay girl to her rich gay lover in London. It has a slight sense of private language about it with lots of non English words. The Jambula fruits of the Jambula tree are a metaphor for breasts and their relationship is seen upon as an act of shame. Taboo. The talkative Mama Atim catches them red handed during their love making and spreads the news. Despite efforts by their parents to separate them, the girls remain together, until the narrator’s partner travels abroad.

“Poison” by South Africa’s Henrietta Rose-Innes won the Caine in 2008. It’s science fiction set in Cape town. A chemical factory has malfunctioned and there’s a huge gas cloud in the air, leaning like a genie and “poisoning” the atmosphere. The Capetonians including Lynn, the narrator of the story are fleeing. The author powerfully describes the polluted air and cloud throughout the story of Linn’s fleeing experience. Lynn is a cigarette smoker and all the vomiting she does along the way after inhaling the toxic air makes her think it’s purifying her body. She decides to quit smoking and go on a proper detox after the cloud blanket has passed. What struck me about “Poison” is Henrietta’s use of brilliant simple language. The tenth and last Caine prize winning short story in the book is titled “Waiting” by Nigerian writer E.C Osundu. It is about the displaced experience of people caused by war and narrated through the eyes of a male child and his friends in a refugee camp. It’s a touching and very funny story about a life we cannot even begin to imagine. I must admit, I had a moment of respect when I read the beautiful “Waiting.” It is easily my best Caine prize winning story despite all the poverty porn criticism about it. “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African writing” ends with an Emissary by Nadine Gordimer.

I’ve been reading the Caine prize winning stories online for a few years now, so my thoughts continue. In 2010, it was won by a Sierra Leonian for the first time, Olufemi Terry with a short story dubbed “Stickfighting days.” It’s an innovative tale about a group of boys sniffing glue and mimicking fencing, fighting with long sticks shaped like swords instead of real swords. It is set over a period of nine days and the writer describes many fights in remarkable detail. It’s a highly graphic and cinematic write up that can be summarized in just one word “ambitious.” In 2011, Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo burst onto the literary scene with “Hitting Budapest". If you’ve read her Booker prize shortlisted novel, “We Need New Names” you will easily remember that it is the first chapter in the novel. But you must also be very smart to notice that the novel’s “Hitting Budapest” has been slightly reworked. In the Caine version in 2011, it was Uncle Polite who sent sweets. In the novel’s version, it is Uncle Vusa who sent sweets. It is about a gang of famished kids, six urchins including a pregnant one, Chipo from a poor neighbourhood called Paradise who go to steal guavas in a swanky neighbourhood with big, nice houses. On their way back, they stumble upon a woman’s corpse dangling from a tree and decide to steal the corpse's shoes to sell and buy bread to eat. It is a tale with moral weight and the prose poetry in it is well executed. The language of the story is creatively messed up too. I found it to be spirited comentary about soceital classism. “Hitting Budapest” is my second best Caine prize winning short story.

In 2012, the Caine prize was won by Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde with his clinical entry “Bombay’s Republic.” It is a darkly humorous piece about a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign in Asia during the second world war. What is special about the story is that, unlike many war narratives which usually end in tragedy for the characters, Rotimi’s narrative instead brings out the positive side in that soldier, by his achieving of psychological independence. Everything that he thought impossible before the war became possible after that. For instance, a superior white officer came face to face with the horrors of war in Burma to the extent that he went mad but Bombay didn't. Such experiences made Bombay to understand that, Europeans were human after all just like himself and returned to Nigeria with a certain fearlessness of Europeans that even the white District Officer in his area couldn’t tamper with him even though every other black man around feared the District Officer. But be warned, if you want to read that story you better look for a dictionary because Rotimi’s English diction is so high sounding, it’s like he has a problem with simple English words or something. Next, in 2013, Tope Folarin won the Caine with his shortie “Miracle” set in a Pentecostal church in the US. His win caused quite a stir in the African Lit world because he was born in the US but to Nigerian parents. He's technically qualified for the prize though. In his story, a young boy who is suffering from a visionary impediment and is always putting on reading glasses is ‘miraculously healed’ in a Texas church by a blind prophet. But the writer reveals that it was a fake healing at the end. This illustrates the gullibility of some of the plethora of healings in our society today. Tope Folarin’s short story, “Miracle” is an excerpt of his upcoming novel “The Proximity of Distance.”

Okwiri Oduor became the third Kenyan to win the Caine Prize in 2014 with "My Father's head". It explores the narrator's difficulty in dealing with the loss of her father and touches the themes of memory, loss and loneliness. The narrator works in an old people's home and comes into contact with a priest giving her the courage to recall her buried memories of her father. Zambia produced its first ever Caine Prize winner this year, Namwali Serpell with her shortie, "The Sack". (She had previously been shortlisted in 2010 with "Muzungu"). "The Sack" is published in the Africa 39 anthology and an excerpt of her forthcoming novel. It reads like something cut from a bigger piece. So what is her winning story about? Good question. That story eluded me. I first felt bad that my intelligence had failed me with simple comprehension. And I was like "how do you intend to win the Caine prize someday when you can't understand the meaning of a Caine winning story!" But when I read that, even the Caine Prize judges had to reread it again to get it, I felt consoled "Nobi only me one oh". But wait a minute, how did they put it onto the shortlist after a first reading when they hadn't understood it? Hmmm. Okay, its a dense, tough read, unlike other Caine winning material. And I don't want to make a mess of my intellect by commenting about it so I'll just go strictly with what was said about it on the Caine Prize website, "The Sack" explores a world where dreams and reality are both claustrophobic and dark. The relationship between two men and an absent woman are explored through troubled interactions and power relationships which jar with the views held by the characters." Wait, what the hell does the above statement mean? I still can't get that summary. I've said this thing that I personally sack "The Sack" because it is incomprehensible. It's a Gordian knob for me abeg.

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