Monday, July 11, 2016

The South African author with the swaggish name, Lidudumalingani wins the 2016 Caine Prize

My satirical online essay "We Need New Caines" inspired a lot of fans and a lot of trouble for me on social media. I received lots of acclaim (for presenting a compelling argument. Acclaimed Kenyan literary blogger, James Murua referenced it extensively on his blog a few days later and Nigerian writer, Basit Jamiu published his own “Caine-ache” article on Olisa tv and referenced my thoughts). I also received lots of disdain (for focusing on "foolish" off the page politics instead of the quality of the story in one writer's words). Someone asked, "Are you going to deny Serena Williams from playing and winning yet another grand slam because she's been winning them for so long now?” I received probably all my marks for humour. (One young brainy Nigerian reader, Obi-Young cited it as the funniest article in African Lit he had ever read). Pa Ikhide Ikheloa wrote back, "Too funny, I absolutely enjoyed reading this!”

I was even surprised the Caine people shared it on social media oh! And the anonymous respond to me went, "Thank you". I was like, "Ah ha, are you thanking me for lambasting your Prize's recent 2015 shortlist? Lizzy Attree said, "It would generate some discussion" and Leila Abouleila stated that it would be interesting to see how the Caine Prize organizers react to it. She even quoted me a line that resonated with her and said it was worthy of inspiring another essay in her opinion. Em, Mama Leila, I'm not sure I want to keep causing trouble to the Caine people oh. That prize has suffered too many lashes of the koboko since you won the very first one in 2000 already, from accusations of rewarding poverty porn, stereotyping Africa, child narrators, "only rewarding African writers in the diaspora" and then me about newness. But one thing's for sure. If I see Segun Afolabi and Namwali Serpell at a literary event anywhere, I would flee, duck and hide my head in the sand like an ostrich, though my troublesome small but will forget it’s exposed to the atmosphere for some spanking with a koboko.

It was on that note that I eagerly awaited the 2016 winner of the Caine Prize, after being served three new Caines on the shortlist a few days after I blogged my essay. They were Abdul Adan, whom I had coincidentally suggested in the essay, hence I became a prophet. (But hey, I don't intend to make it a profession, so don't come to me for Tope Folarin like miracles), Zimbabwean Bongani Kona and South African writer, Lidudumalingani. Lesley Nneka who is an old name and Tope Folarin who is an old Caine. I was waiting to see if Tope could pull off the "Miracle" of being the first repeat winner which would have been the "Genesis" of criticisms aplenty from the newness critics. But the judges weren't porcupines to fall for that trap. They awarded the prize to a new Caine with the longest name and made me happy, South African author, Lidudumalingani. Oh my God! What a name, 15 letters! Wait, have you seen my name, Nkiacha Atemnkeng? My parents only gave me those two and it’s got a total of 16 letters. Lidudumalingani stands towering at 15 letters. Just one word. Hmmm. I''ll not like to imagine the scene of a guy who stutters pronouncing it, Lidududududu-dudu, the guy will just get angry and call him dudu as if he's a dodo bird, that endangered species secluded to the island of New Zealand.

Lidudumalingani! But it's a very beautiful name oh, which I like very much, with one vowel coming after a consonant and another vowel coming after another consonant, ceteris peribus. Therefore vowels intersperse the consonants perfectly, making it an easy-to-read-easy-to-pronounce-swaggish-name, though it's so long every time I take my eyes off it I just forget it. Whenever my friends and family who always get their Caine news through me ask, "Ah, Mr. Writer, so who won that your ten million francs London Prize for African writers this year?" (I perennially wonder how my Cameroonian folk always remember the amount of money the prize offers but not the name of the prize itself. And it’s even the converted amount to Francs CFA for that matter. Not 10.000 pounds which sounds smallish. Ten million francs, that “plenty amount” sounds sexier because it’s bigger. Who will tell them that with all this Brexit thing, the ten million francs has already nose-dived to three million francs? Anyway, I'm usually the one telling them the names of the new Caine stars with a smile, the easy first names…"Olufemi, NoViolet, Rotimi, Tope, Okwiri, Namwali”

But this year is different. Whenever I'm asked “who won?”, I bite my fore finger and think and blink and shrink and tap my forehead with the forefinger but the name never comes, rather, in comes in just two syllables, Li..Li..Li..Lidu..Lidu..Then I sigh and just go, "I can't....Ahhh, it's one black South African guy with a long name!" Then to punish me more they insist, "But what is his name nah?" "Didn't you hear me say it's a long name? It's got about 24 letters, really long, like the great wall of China." That's only when they leave me alone. Chai, Lidudumalingani! But it's easy and sweet. I don't know why I just keep forgetting it. The name even sounds like a song to me, it's actually "singable". Every time I see it online, I always pronounce it beginning with a low pitch and I increase my cadence until it ends with a high pitch and high note in my gullet. I think Ladysmith Black Mambazo can record their next hit just by singing his name only on an entire song, Lilililili (Azumbawei) Lilililili-dududumalinganinininini. Those old, sweet hoarse voiced men with legendary voices. But Paul Simon won’t be able to pronounce the name-song. He’ll just dub the single, “Memories we lost”, since “Graceland” is just a memory now, though a legendary memory which cannot be lost. Lidudumalingani! Easy peasy. It is not like those Russian names with tricky consonants made out of tin that hurt and wound the roof of your mouth when you try to pronounce them -Rozhdestvenskij, Siroezhkin, Ryszard Kapuściński. What the hell is that? Lidudumalingani. See? It is very swaggish.

Lidudumalingani is the third South African Caine Prize winner after Mary Watson in 2006 with "Jungfrau" and Henrietta Rose-Innes with "Poison" in 2008. He's actually the first black and first male South African author to win the Caine Prize. Have I mentioned the longest name to win the Caine already? Ah, yes. His winning entry is titled, "Memories we lost". Oh, what a story! It's been a long time since I loved a Caine Prize winning story like this, maybe as way back as 2009, EC Osundu's "Waiting". "Memories We Lost" tells in a very simple narrative voice the emotionally charged story of a girl who acts as protector of her sister, whose serious mental-health problems cause consternation in a South African village. Her situation deteriorates as her care is entrusted to Nkunzi, a local man who employs traditional techniques to rid people of their demons. Lidu writes the story with the "ignorant voice" of a narrator whose sister is suffering from schizophrenia. She calls it "this thing" and does not initially know what it is. He describes without snubbing, the beliefs and attitudes the rural folk around the characters have towards mental illness and builds the protagonists well with her quest for her sister's mental problem and a solution, evoking emotions of sympathy.

The people around the two girls do not care much. They only invent theories about what is wrong with the sick girl and what to do with her. It reminds me of my people here though not as dramatic and diverse as in the story. We just bundle every case of mental illness into one category "madness...that man/woman dey craze!" Period. The climax of the story is when the healing ritual fails and the schizophrenic girl has to go through baking, an unfathomable process you would not even begin to imagine exists. But they escape into the wild and the story ends or "doesn't end" with suspense hanging all over. What if they are recognized and caught? Another interesting thing I remarked about the story was Lidu's wonderful description of scenery. He paints such vivid images in the piece, especially of South Africa's rural landscapes, you would not even begin to wonder why he's a film maker. It influenced his work to his narrative advantage.

The subject matter is timely too. I'd read a review which applauded the Nigerian TV series, "Tinsel" last year but accused them of not exploring mental illness fully, only skimming the surface, by portraying the character, Angela as a "mentally unstable woman" but not really reaching any depth with Angela's mental instability. The reviewer yearned for more African stories exploring mental illness. And then came, "Memories we lost". Lidu's story is a very good write up which paves the way on that topic. But I had the impression his "ignorant voice" of the child/teenager narrator and the beliefs and attitudes of the rural people towards it limits the depths he could have gone with the schizophrenia topic. What if the narrator was a well-informed person on the issue like a medical doctor or nurse telling the story about her mentally ill sister in Cape Town? We would have learnt a lot more about the sick girl and her predicament because most of the rural beliefs and practices would have been absent. But then, our South African author guy, em, what’s his name again? Em, I’ve forgotten again. Okay yes, Lidudumalingani pictured it exactly the way he did.