Author Archives: kosherugali

It’s good, but…

Week 4 of the Caine Prize blogathon. This past week (I’m late) the crew reviewed Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ” [pdf].This post is a bit longer than usual (about 1500 words), so if you’re pressed for time I summarize my argument in the first two and last paragraphs. 

Of all the Caine Prize stories this year, the one I have the most mixed feelings about is Melissa Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ.” It took me a while to figure out exactly what my issue was with the story. It does a number of things so well: it’s structurally adept, it doesn’t condescend to its readers, it has some genuinely lovely prose. The story flows so immaculately it’s practically unquotable. And I love what it represents: the flight of an African imagination around the continent, not limited to her own small corner of the world. (It reminds me in that way of the Pilgrimages project, another outstanding example of African writers engaging with different parts of the continent.)

But everything that the story does well it also undermines. At its core it’s about a Senegalese brother and sister who are made distant by his emigration to the US. At that level it’s touching, engaging, and perennially timely. But Myambo clutters up their story with so many details – faint social analysis, tired metaphors of roots and wings, inessential character traits, and so on – that she mars the story’s beauty and blurs its message. At the same time she repeatedly takes aesthetic shortcuts that, I felt, were unworthy of a story that aspires to psychological depth. If I’m being harsher on this story than on any other, it’s because it’s too good a story to just let these flaws pass.

Brief summary: Two main characters. There’s Fatima, the long-suffering sister whose education and freedom have been sacrificed for the sake of the family. Then there’s her brother Ibou, the golden child who flew away to the US leaving Fatima behind. With an Egyptian girlfriend and an American salary, he’s now perhaps irreparably distant from his family and their demands. But now Fatima wants him to take her son Babacar to America, returning the favor that the family did for him. Ibou, on the other hand, is ambivalent about who he’s become in America and refuses Fatima’s request. Most of the story is a conversation they have in the back seat of a battered taxi, taking Ibou to the airport to fly away yet again.

My problem with the story started at the level of character. In fiction there are some characters who exist in and for themselves, and then there are others who exist to illustrate a point. The irritating thing about a character like Fatima is that she pretends to be the former when she’s really the latter. She herself sums up her raison d’être:

‘I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.’”

I admire this sentence for its lyrical encapsulation of Fatima’s character, but I’m annoyed at her character for being so easily encapsulated.

My problem isn’t even that her character is simple, but that it appears to be complicated when in reality it’s reducible to a single sentence. There an incredible amount of detail around Fatima – she has a child, she did well in school, she wears a long gold ring, she makes good pudding – but all of that is just mere information. It doesn’t come from anywhere inside her, nor does it reveal anything about who she is as a person, nor does it affect the story’s outcome. Here’s the thing: all this random detail is supposed to produce the illusion that she’s a real person. Real people aren’t drawn from a single idea; they’re constellations of many facts and facets that don’t all fit together. So Myambo dutifully accumulates miscellaneous facts about Fatima in the hope that they’ll make her look more like a real person. But they don’t make her look like a real person, because they’re too transparently a disguise for who she is: a well-drawn representative of a type. She’s a long-suffering African woman. She’s rooted in place. She’s traditional. She yearns for freedom. She has hidden strengths. Underneath the lyrical smudges, that’s what there is to her.

All the extraneous details and contrivances in Fatima’s character can’t hide the fact that she doesn’t really have a single aspect that would mark her as an individual. But then of course the whole feint towards individuality is a distraction, because it’s precisely the typicality of Fatima and Ibou’s situation that anchors this story. As Ikhide puts it in his review

“Every now and then one comes across a story that belongs in you, that should have come from you, that tells it exactly how you have been meaning to tell it, but you can’t because well, you are the story.” 

In other words what gives this story its key to Ikhide’s heart is how closely it encapsulates his own (and, he implies, many others’) experiences as an emigrant from West Africa to the fraught freedom of the US. I don’t share that experience and I wouldn’t want to deconstruct or gainsay Ikhide’s identification with the story. And if the story’s power comes from its typicality, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story.

But Myambo seems to have decided that in order to make the story speak to the experience of emigration she has to sacrifice real insight into a character as an individual, even while she clutters up the story with the putative marks of individuality. This is even more pronounced in the character of Ibou. Why, besides the bare fact that he’s an immigrant, does he cry in the shower of his new American home? Why does he resent his relatives when they ask him for money? Why does he become the president of the African Students’ Association? The only thing we know about Ibou before he moves to America is that he draws stick figures. Myambo may be pointing at some grand truth about Being an Immigrant, but why does Ibou have to be so depressingly vague?

Maybe it’s better that the story takes shortcuts, leaving us to import the psychological depth that it gestures to without providing, because when we start asking the difficult questions about assimilation, self-loathing, deracination, gender oppression, and so on that Ibou seems to raise, we find a level of psycho-cultural analysis that’s crushingly bland. To summarize: X is not America. America is cold, individualistic, lifestyle-oriented, mobile, and wealthy. X is warm, traditional, family-oriented, rooted in place, and poor. In X people live in intimate groups and they’re suspicious of outsiders. In America anyone from anywhere can meet and fall in love with any other anyone from anywhere. To move from X to America is painful to a person, because a person winds up torn between being X and being American. This is painful to the family left behind in X as well.

Of course, X can potentially stand for just about anywhere that’s “not America.” It can be India in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It can be the barrios of Chicago in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, or the ethnic suburbs of the same city in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or Myambo’s Senegal. What’s important is that the nature of X doesn’t really change, because it’s pre-determined by the need to contrast it with the same old cold “America.” Myambo doesn’t add any new ideas to this framework, nor does she appear to question its validity, though to my mind it wants questioning. What she does instead is produce an italicized sensorium in which the framework can endure. She traces the yellow curlicues of the father’s gray boubou, winces at the zing of the ataya, bumps along amid the lumps in Uncle Djiby’s battered Renault. The pleasures of “La Salle de Départ” are tangled up in this rich, immediate sensory experience, which tries to disguise the fact that the story is a skillful presentation of very stereotypical ideas.

Ikhide’s review made me feel that perhaps this is just not my story, and that I can’t appreciate it enough because I’m not subject to the same kinds of displacements and separations that the story describes. It’s just not enough about me to touch me deeply. And then I read it again, and again. And I realized that, really, the story should have touched me, but I was too irritated by its “literary” touches. I don’t like the characterization that relies on random details rather than individual insights. I don’t like the romance-novel similes – “the waves of hot, choking anger emanating from him, like the winds of the harmattan.” I don’t like the exotic details – why on earth does it have to be set during Ramadan? – that are dumped on top of the story like so much spice on boiled cabbage. I don’t like the conventional signs that are supposed to illustrate churning psychological depths, like Fatima twisting her gold ring. And I don’t like that the story points at important questions without opening up any way to understand them beyond our own imported resources. There’s so much skill in this story, and so much disappointment. 

Other reviews:

Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
bookshy
Loomnie
Ikhide
Ayodele Olofintuade
Practically Marzipan

Moralism and Ambiguity

Round 3 of the Caine Prize blogathon and I’m really excited about this one. Read this week’s story here.  

At a crucial point in Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” there’s a showdown between the young hero, Charles Chikwanje, and an interviewer from Malawi’s national TV station. Charles is a reluctant spokesman for gay rights, having been caught in the act and outed nationally by a local busybody, but the interview shows him more than equal to the task. He cites the story of David and Jonathan from II Samuel as a possible example of homosexual love, at which point the interviewer retorts that “the devil, as Shakespeare says, sometimes quotes scripture for his purpose.”

The interview goes on from here but my attention lingered. What does it mean, in the context of a story about homosexuality in Malawi, that the devil can quote scripture for his purpose? The interviewer uses it to shut down Charles’s subversive questioning; for him, David and Jonathan had a Platonic relationship and homosexuality is a sin, “full stop.” But Charles insists on asking suggestive, insinuating questions: “’Don’t you read more into that relationship than a simple friendship between two men?… Do you yourself have a male friend whose love for you is more than a woman’s?… He could have been bisexual, no?’”

The difference between the interviewer’s heavy-handed moralism and Charles’s agile questioning is crucial, since this story can be misunderstood as a simple, moralistic defense of homosexuality against the hypocrisy of its critics. That’s all in there, of course, but the story as a whole is much more subtle and canny about how moral truths circulate in society. Even if “Love on Trial” is an “issue-led story,” the issue that animates it isn’t just gay rights but what homosexuality means, how stories about it are created, and how they find impact in a media-saturated society.

For one thing there’s Mr Lapani Kachingwe, the man who outed Charles and who crassly sells stories about him:

“In principle his story is for free, whether he is sober or drunk, but in practice if you want to get down to the finest details, ‘the juiciest parts’ as he calls them, you have to buy him a tot of kachasu, the spirit distilled at Mr Nashoni’s Village Entertainment Centre on the outskirts of Chipiri village.”

What keeps people coming to the unsavory Kachingwe is prurient curiosity. They want to know “how is that possible between two men?… Who, in the process, was performing the functions of the man and who was the woman?” For these putatively innocent souls, homosexuality is about sex. Full stop. Naturally Kachingwe reveals just enough to make sure that he and his drinking buddies are kept permanently in their cups. His villainy, though, has nothing to do with homosexuality. He’s an unscrupulous storyteller who excites the prurience of his audience for his own gain. As a consequence, “Every day the story spreads like oil poured on a sheet of white paper.”

“Love on Trial” is also preoccupied with the media, who willingly provide reams of paper for the oleaginous story to be poured upon. Note that it’s Malawian media who have the largest presence in this story, not the international media that people who love Africa love to hate. Most of the story is taken up with the above-mentioned interview, which Charles gives to a national TV program called Reach Out and Touch:

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.”

Again there’s a relationship between storytelling and money, but it’s not necessarily perverse. In the most generous reading, the program produces what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.” It provides a way for viewers in the country of Malawi to feel deeply for a stranger who is ostensibly connected to them only by virtue of also being Malawian. What’s more, it allows viewers to transcend the distance implied by broadcast media and, by giving a donation, actually influence the fate of another human being, supposedly for the better. While the story offers more than a whiff of cynicism about this show – it’s about manipulating people’s emotions to give money, it’s about playing God with people’s lives – it also allows the show to be the forum where Charles actually does reach out and touch people with his eloquence.

For me the twin themes of storytelling and homosexuality come together in the question that the interviewer for Reach Out and Touch asks Charles: “’How do you do it, man to man?’” The question repeats the same prurience that the people who buy drinks for Kachingwe want to know: “How is that possible between two men?” But at the same time it encapsulates the promise of a show like Reach Out and Touch, the elusive promise of genuine interpersonal connection, “man to man.” Why would these two themes be linked in this way? I think it’s because the story is trying to look at homosexuality as being not about sex, or about right(eous)ness, but about love. That’s why the foreign countries that cut their aid to Malawi in the wake of Charles’s incarceration only make things worse – they’re treating homosexuality as an issue of rights, not love.

To say that “the devil can quote scripture for his purpose” is to promote a single reading of the Bible, in this case a homophobic one, at the expense of any confusion or ambiguity. In contrast, while Kenani’s story promotes the high-toned idea that homosexuality is about love, he doesn’t ignore the way that it’s also about law and power. By the end of the story Charles is still in jail and Kachingwe is dying because some western government has cut funding to the village’s AIDS program. So law and power are not ignored. But at the same time the story opens the possibility that telling new stories about homosexual love, and providing new interpretations of old stories, can actually touch people where it counts. It’s not a command, but a suggestion.

More thoughts on the story:

Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Cashed-In
aaahfooey
Black Balloon

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Zoning In

Round 2 of the Caine Prize blogathon! Conversation has been much slower than last week – did people relate less to this story? Is it too much to have 19 bloggers giving their thoughts on every short story? In any case I’ll keep this post much shorter than my last one.

Kenyans seem to love stories about bank robbers. One of the most popular books in Kenyan history, My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti, tells the inside story of Kiriamiti’s very stylish reign of terror as a bank robber in the 1970s. It’s a great read and has inspired a slew of imitations, including most recently a feature film. (You can count on me reviewing that one when it comes out.) The book remains popular – it’s one of the few Kenyan books from the 80s that hasn’t gone out of print – and has the rather special distinction of having become a bestseller here without being assigned as a textbook.

On the surface Billy Kahora’s short story “Urban Zoning” [pdf] doesn’t much resemble the Kenyan “bank robber” trope. The main character Kandle, “self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking,” seems more like one of Binyavanga Wainaina‘s blustering, angsty loners than the suave and dangerous Kiriamiti of legend. Yet the resemblance slowly becomes clear, not least because Kandle also steals money from a bank (though Kandle’s weapons are apparently family influence and fuzzy excuses rather than a semi-automatic). Both drink too much. Both imagine themselves minor heroes of the Nairobi rumor circuit. Both are obsessed with clothes and with putting on a slick facade. Neither is overly concerned with protecting those few people who are close to them. And both are able to bluff their way out of responsibility for their failures.

What Kiriamiti (the character) has in abundance that Kandle lacks is exuberance. Even at his most depressed Kiriamiti still pulses with vigor. Kandle, though, never seems to live fully in his own skin:

“As he went up Harambee Avenue, he realized he was well into the Bad Zone. Looking at his reflection in shop windows, he felt like smashing his own face in. And then, like a jack-in-the-box that never went away, his father’s dark visage appeared in his mind’s eye, as ugly as sin. He wondered whether the man was really his father.”

It’s the narrative voice that makes the link between self-hatred and internalized racism (dark = ugly & sinful), not Kandle himself. The anger Kandle feels towards himself isn’t resolved into anything like self-knowledge, it doesn’t dissipate, it just gets ignored as his attention shifts elsewhere. As a storytelling technique it’s incredibly wasteful – all that potential face-smashing energy simply passed over with a non-committal “he wondered.” But of course even if Kandle’s self-hatred is forgotten, it isn’t left behind. It haunts the story like an unsolved crime.

As an elaboration of an individual consciousness the story may not hold a candle to Bessie Head‘s deep swirling madness, and comparing it to Kiriamiti’s rebel in the city leaves something to be desired. What makes “Urban Zoning” compelling in its own right is the way it fuses these modes, the urban and the psychological, to develop what I think is an incredibly exciting style of writing about African cities. The story asks, in what way are the physical zones of Nairobi through which Kandle flickers like the mental spaces, the “Good Zone” and the “Bad Zone,” that he spends his life pursuing and avoiding respectively? While it’s no great revelation that Nairobi has some very good zones and some desperately bad ones, it’s a real mindfuck to try to think of these areas as analogous to mental states. What does that even mean? It’ll draw you into the same sense of unreality that you might achieve after drinking for three days straight. You might, like Kandle, wind up thinking that a month is a color.

As it must be clear by now, I find it much more compelling to read “Urban Zoning” as a William Gibson-esque urban thought experiment than as psychological realism, national allegory, urban grit, or any of the other modes that this rich, convoluted, defensive story suggests for itself. Among these I find the national allegory – a form that Stephen Derwent Partington recently called “a slightly boring form of arrested [literary] development” – the most distracting. Sometimes it’s subtle, as when the story shifts to a high school which has produced many of Kenya’s national leaders, shifts again to Harambee Avenue, and carefully includes names from several different Kenyan ethnic communities. Other times it’s more urgent, as when it throws in a bewilderingly random cameo by the President of Kenya, and speaks earnestly of a “national quiet desperation.” Every one of these gestures is awkward and unnecessary. The inter-generational struggle at the heart of the story – between an old guard that struggled for independence and now screws teenagers and watches its ass, and a new generation of media-saturated consumers who are cynical about all heroes – can and should stand on its own as a commentary on the state of the Kenyan psyche, if there is such a thing.

Still, this is a rewarding story. Among its many delights are a series of amusing (if brief) character sketches, and sprinklings of local idiom like “shenzi type.” (A Nairobi radio station has a regular spot where callers make fun of the chutzpah of boorish, uncultured “shenzi types.”) At that level it’s much more accomplished than the other shortlisted stories. Kahora is also well aware of the “disaster poverty porn” genre, exemplified for Nairobi by Uwem Akpan’s story “An Exmas Feast”, and takes welcome pains to make his main character much less likable and much less a victim, even though both stories equally associate Nairobi with degeneracy. But “Urban Zoning,” like its anti-hero, is constantly repressing its laughter. Both are too jaded, too unsentimental, too much about style and surface to let themselves go. If there’s a quiet desperation here, it’s that of a story that can only afford to let loose a deep belly laugh when there’s nothing all that funny to laugh about. The mood, not the message, is what proves the story’s worth.

Other bloggers weigh in on this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
Ikhide
Loomnie
ndinda
City of Lions
zunguzungu
Practically Marzipan
bookshy
Cashed In
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Soulfool

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“Bombay’s Republic”: Notes on Style and Storytelling

One thing I’m really enjoying about this year’s Caine Prize Blogathon, organized by zunguzungu, is reading everyone’s summaries of the story. Yes, it’s kind of the same thing over and over again, but I really learn a lot about where people are coming from – as well as what I’ve missed about the story – by seeing what they emphasize in their summaries. Here’s my take on “Bombay’s Republic” [pdf].

Bombay, a Nigerian volunteer in the British infantry during World War II, discovers to his chagrin that he has gone to war under false pretenses. Hitler’s army is not, in fact, poised on the border of Nigeria, ready to enslave half of the population and roast the rest for his dogs to eat. Those reports – not so true.

Instead Bombay is sent halfway around the world to Burma, where he learns more hard lessons in credulity. Turns out the starched, imperious British colonial officer he’d known in Nigeria – the one who got saluted, while the black man did the saluting – well, put him in a Burmese jungle and he might just fall apart. Bombay’s own British captain snaps under the pressure, collapsing into a shivering, whimpering, animal mess. Even more curiously, it turns out other people will believe the strangest stories about Africans: they’re cannibals, they can rise from the dead, they have tails. It’s a strange world, isn’t it, where a “native” like Bombay can even kill a white man and not just get away with it but get a medal. “Without warning, everything became possible.”

It’s at that point that the mood takes a sharp turn into farce – or as the story puts it, “wit morphed into reality.” Bombay returns home where he occupies the town jailhouse and declares himself an independent nation. He pisses on the colonial tax collectors (who happen to be fellow Africans). He puts up his own flag and establishes his own gallery of heroes’ busts. (Curiously, they’re all Europeans except for him.) He calls the colonial district officer by his first name and officially recognizes the new African countries as they follow his march into independence. And, in what must be a classic instance of bureaucratic don’t-rock-the-boat, the colonial and then independent Nigerian authorities decline to call his bluff. In fact he’s left more or less alone until he finally, quietly passes away.

That man, Bombay, is an intriguing character – not just in the way he develops but even more so in the style in which he’s written. On hearing that the Japanese believe Africans to be cannibals, he thinks to himself, “Perhaps human flesh may be prime grade meat but he had never imagined eating anyone for a meal or even as a quick snack.” This is a brilliantly written line. It captures at once an insouciant innocence, a canny rhetorical awareness, a growing consciousness of the way he’s perceived as an African, a wicked sense of humor, and a wounded, indignant pride. It flirts with racist stereotype in its depiction of Bombay as a folksy naif, but it does so in the context of a passage about racist stereotypes. It’s amusing, disturbing, and a fascinating way to build Bombay’s character.

**

Although the story announces right at the beginning that, after Bombay’s war experience, “everything became possible,” that sense of endless possibility is belied by what I’d call the story’s bullying management of style. Just when you think it’s going to give you one style, it wrenches it away and gives you another. Take the story’s masterful first sentence:

The old jailhouse on the hilltop had remained uninhabited for many decades, through the construction of the town’s first grammar school and the beginning of house-to-house harassment from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls, but fortunes changed for the building with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard.”

It starts with what might be the opening of a horror story – an abandoned prison on a hill and the bucolic town beneath; rolls into social satire (“the affliction called sanitary inspectors”); picks up a bit of linguistic color with “navvies” and “laying pregnancies”; adopts a winking tone in talking about lovestruck girls; swings around into old-school realism (“but fortunes changed”); and brings us back around to the jailhouse before plunging headlong into magical realism (“came back a spotted leopard”). Through all this there’s a stinging critique of colonial rule, which built its vaunted schools and railways in the shadow of a prison, as it were, and used even the town’s dirt as an occasion to sink its claws into the lives of African people.

It’s a dizzying, virtuosic sentence – and the only one like it in the story, which for me was a bit of a let-down. It also establishes a pattern of keeping the reader unbalanced by continuously changing the style. Some parts of the story read like satire, others as fantasy, others as farce. Some parts hold up the mirage of allegory, but then other parts blow it away. At times Bombay is a simple soul, “lost in bewilderment” at the insanity of war, while two pages earlier he had been using verbal jujitsu to turn his officer’s casual racism on its head.

Despite the story’s ostensible theme of liberation, for me the effect of all these stylistic changes is claustrophobic and unsettling rather than liberating. Where The Mumpsimus sees a kind of freewheeling fantasia in Babatunde’s use of language, I see the opposite – a style of abandonment and broken promises. The opening sentence gives us virtuosity, and then the rest of the story takes it away. It promises a man who becomes a leopard, but gives us a storyteller who dutifully explains that the round scars on his body technically come from leech bites. And then he growls at children. It tells us of a world in which “without warning, everything became possible,” and then shows us that world – it’s a man alone, in a jailhouse, surrounded by his own fancy titles, and free only to the extent that the authorities can’t be bothered to pull the plug on his prank. 

I’m calling attention to the issue of style in “Bombay’s Republic” not just because the story itself calls attention to its use of style, but also because the story raises style to the level of theme. A key place this happens is when Bombay returns from the war to Nigeria, where “politics was pungent in the air.” Politics is good for “spic[ing] up” the atmosphere under the village acacia tree – and, by implication, not much more. In other words Bombay regards nationalist politics essentially as entertainment. It’s at that point that he starts telling similarly piquant stories to the village children – stories about tiger leeches, about the crocodiles in the Irrawaddy with gold nuggets for eyes, the djinns in the jungle who wanted to buy his soul – and making cryptic, noncommittal pronouncements about the war. It appears that, for Bombay, storytelling and politics are both about the management of style. It’s a delightfully cynical moment.

But in the end while “Bombay’s Republic” provides a welcome jadedness, Bombay’s lonely fate acknowledges that being cynical may be a dead end. I think the great lesson Bombay learns about storytelling is that what gives untruths like imperial propaganda and racial myths their power is not so much that people believe them earnestly, but that they believe them enough. Just long enough for the British army to ship him out to Burma; just long enough for Japanese machine gunners to abandon their guns in the face of screaming black machetes; just long enough to imprison the world in boxes; just long enough to establish a small place with no one else in it. It’s the “weapons of mass destruction” scenario: the lies may collapse, but the effects are still there. It’s a stunning insight. I hope this is the kind of perception we can expect from Babatunde’s future work.

**

Now a number of commentators on the Caine blogathon have suggested that “Bombay’s Republic” is in some central way about stories and storytelling. In particular there’s been a lot of talk about the way stories – racial myths, “untold” stories, tall tales, propaganda, rumors, etc – move through society, the varying kinds of impacts they can have, and who tells them and why. In other words the focus has been more on the circulation of stories than on their creation. I think that focus aptly speaks to not only the concerns of “Bombay’s Republic” but to the larger context of the Caine Prize as well.

I wrote in my introductory post that the Caine Prize is essentially a publicity machine. This is huge for someone like Babatunde. Three years ago a blogger/interviewer wrote about him, “If you mention his name in most art and literary circles in Nigeria, the chances of drawing a blank are quite enormous.” That’s after he’d been publishing books, producing plays in Nigeria and Europe, and winning literary prizes for a decade. One way the Caine works is by attaching AFRICA to an author’s name by sheer repetition, so that AFRICA becomes a key component of the author’s brand. But another part of branding is of course about style, voice, individuality. There’s a close relationship between competitions like the Caine and the fetishization of individual style with which most contemporary literature, from poetry to TV, is preoccupied.

So if “Bombay’s Republic” is about the circulation of stories, and the Caine Prize is about making the circulation of stories happen, there’s one more piece of this circulatory system: the relationship between one story and another. Bernadine Evaristo, the chair of the prize judges, said recently that “this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives.” That is, these shortlisted stories are supposed to challenge existing stereotypes about Africa. Fair enough. But what about how these stories speak to other African stories? I loved the posts about how Babatunde’s story relates to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart [aaahfooey], Fela Kuti’s life story [loomnie], and Yaya Jammeh‘s self-promotion [method]. I’d also throw Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard into the mix, given the focus in “Bombay’s Republic” on tall tales and palm wine. They’re good reminders that Africa has its own literary prerogatives that don’t necessarily include enlightening Euro-American audiences.

I’d focus though on one more literary connection that a number of commentators have noted: Biyi Bandele’s historical novel Burma Boy (2007). There are a number of inescapable similarities between the story and the novel. Besides the obvious one of Nigerian soldiers in the Burma campaign, both main characters are assigned to work as mule drivers before becoming fighters; both have nicknames that start with B; both are attacked by leeches; both are ambushed with their squads; both see enemy corpses being burnt with flame throwers; and in both stories the specter of insanity haunts the Allied troops. (On the biographical side, both Bandele and Babatunde are playwrights in addition to writing fiction, and both of course are Nigerian men.)

However, despite all these striking similarities there’s really no way to say that this is plagiarism. What’s going on, I’d say, is parody. Parody is a primary way through which writers work out their relationships to the work that’s come before them. If in Burma Boy the main character is a boy who wants to become a man, it’s a fine joke that Bombay is a man who becomes a leopard. Where Burma Boy tried to bear witness to the devastating impact of war on Nigerian soldiers, “Bombay’s Republic” is essentially ambivalent. For Burma Boy, telling the story of the Burma campaign is an act of love and compassion. For Bombay, (not) telling stories about Burma is a way to distance himself from the expectations of nation and heroism.

In short I think the main target of the satirical parody in “Bombay’s Republic” is the idea that storytelling is a kind of heroic calling. And the destabilizing shifts in style are part of that, because they play against the individualistic notion of author-as-brand. It goes without saying that the heroic myth of the author is one stereotype that the Caine Prize is not at all interested in demolishing. On the contrary, it’s actively promoting a myth of the African author as myth-buster. And then here it goes promoting a story that calls that whole myth into question. How postmodern can you get?!

Read more about this story:

Accrabooksandthings
Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Bookshy
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Zunguzung
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Ikhide
Loomnie
To Make Poesis
The Reading Life
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Cut Off My Tongue

One of the great treats of living in Nairobi has been all the live poetry I get to see. The Kenyan poetry scene is a performance scene (ok well at least the part of it that’s not online) and there are events just about every week. After years of hearing about these events, reading the poetry, and talking to the artists from a distance, I can finally mosey over to any poetry reading I feel like. It’s just sugar.

Last week I saw Sitawa Namwalie’s spectacular Cut Off My Tongue at the Braeburn School. Unlike most poets who perform in Nairobi Namwalie is not under 30. In fact she makes a point of her age – nearly 50 when she started writing – because, as she explains, “a political regime that did not tolerate vocalization” stole her voice during her “fuming twenties” and “barely mellow thirties” (“Gifted Almost Fifty”).

Namwalie burst onto the Kenyan literary scene in 2008, in response to the disputed national elections which sparked vicious politico-ethnic violence. The first performance of Cut Off My Tongue opened barely four months after the fires were put out in the Rift Valley, Kisumu and Kibera. Many of the poems, such as “Would You” and “Language of Tribe,” thrust their fingers painfully into the still-hot ashes:

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,

Cut a stranger down?

Slash a man as he pleads with you for his life,

Lead the crowd baying for his blood? (“Would You”)

Out of the cinders the troupe “lit this poetry to roaring flame on stage.” The original show featured nine performers and two musicians, one on drums and another on a lyre-like stringed instrument, the nyatiti. They built a roaring flame to stand against the fires on TV.

In contrast, last week’s performance at the Braeburn School was stripped down, with a mood that was more reflective than furious. The school’s upstairs theater holds 100-odd people, and the seats rake down steeply to the stage so that the performers – Namwalie, Shan Bartley, Alice Karunditu, and instrumentalist Willy Rama – stood at the audience’s feet. The house was fully packed, with some audience members even sitting in the aisle.

The performance itself was something between a reading and a series of acted vignettes. The performers wore black (with some very dramatic jewelry), and carried folders with the poems. There was no intermission but the “set list” of poems was split into two distinct parts. The first half spoke in the language of aftermath: accusatory, demanding, but also anguished and doubting. The poems were personal, but offered a collective “Kenyan” voice in which to ask the searching, self-critical questions that the violence called forth – “You now tell me I must hate and kill?/ Must I cut off my tongue?” (“I Come from Everywhere”).

The second half, meanwhile, emphasized satirical humor and individual portraits: a police spokesperson apologizing for inadvertent good service; a rich woman (in gorgeous gele headwrap) lamenting the poor public image that her consumerism has created; an African leader lambasting his people for being “too black.”

Each of the performers brought unique gifts: Bartley, a beautifully expressive face and studied, wrought mannerisms; Karunditu, fierce poise and masterful comic timing; Namwalie, grace, strength, and voice that’s rich without being decadent. I especially appreciated the measured pace of their delivery. Unlike the poetry which dominates Nairobi’s literary scene, influenced by slam, hip-hop and spoken word, Cut Off My Tongue allows each line – at times each word – to echo in a brief moment of silence. I could feel the words entering my consciousness individually, and feel precisely the emotion with which each line was delivered, rather than chasing after them. The pace of delivery was ideal for Namwalie’s direct, communicative style.

I was curious about the choice of venue, the uber-posh Braeburn School. Something about it made me feel like I didn’t belong there, even though I was a paying audience member and I myself went to a (somewhat posh) private high school. The Ksh 1,000 ($12) ticket price (high for Nairobi theater and very high for poetry), and half-dozen tables in the lobby covered with books, t-shirts and other swag also contributed to an upper-middle-class atmosphere.

That said, for me the intimacy of the theater itself contributed to the thoughtful, reflective yet upbeat mood of the performance. I’d be interested in how other audience members read the intimacy of the space. It was a very mixed audience by race and age, much more so than most Nairobi poetry audiences who are almost all young and African. Many people laughed at the Kiswahili jokes, but more laughed at the English jokes. The audience may have sung the Kenyan national anthem loudly at the beginning (a first at a poetry reading for me), but I wonder whether people felt like the show brought them together “as Kenyans.”

Lastly, I’m interested in the differences between the show and the book that grew out of it. (The book contains about 15 poems that are not in the show, as well as several essays about the work by Kenyan writers.) Most significantly, in the show there’s very little of the “pleasurable danger of love and desire” that the scholar Keguro Macharia finds in his essay about the book. Macharia delights when Namwalie sings of “the intimate, risky forms of loving that have the power to transform our social and political worlds simply by being public and daring to exist.” The show, though, is much more about anger and guilt than love, unless it’s a (somewhat forced) love of country. There’s laughter, but it’s more the cathartic laughter of self-recognition than the delighted laughter of discovery.

When this current election season is over, will Namwalie sing about all the other things one can do with a tongue besides cutting it off?

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Buzzworthy: African writing and the Caine Prize

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing was announced May 1. This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing about the Caine Prize, including reviews of the shortlisted works. Thanks to zunguzungu for the idea and for organizing this year’s reviewers!

African literature doesn’t have many global-buzz-making events. There’s a handful of writers who reliably make big news when they publish, among them Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, and now Chimamanda Adichie. But when you look at the publicity apparatus for writers from Africa it’s mostly up to individual publishers, literary prizes, and Oprah.

As a result the Caine Prize stands out as perhaps the only well-oiled publicity machine dedicated to writing from Africa. In fact publicity is one of the rules of the prize: “Every effort is made to publicize the work of the shortlisted authors through the broadcast as well as the printed media.” So far it seems to have worked impressively: a respectable number of the African writers who have come to global prominence in the 21st century (Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Brian Chikwava, and Olufemi Terry) were Caine Prize winners. (The list of prominent shortlisted authors is equally impressive.) Wainaina took advantage of his early win to help found the Kenyan literary journal Kwani?, which in turn has helped launch the careers of a number of Kenyan authors – including one of this year’s shortlisted authors, Billy Kahora, who edits the journal.

One game-changing feature of the Caine Prize is that, unlike the Booker and Commonwealth Writers prizes, it regularly accepts work published in Africa. The significance of that move can’t be understated. As Aaron Bady points out, most of the canonical works of what audiences in the West consider African literature were published by a single British company: Heinemann Educational Books. The Caine’s decision to accept work published in Africa means that global attention and hard currency can more easily flow to African publishers, who are often desperately in need of both. [In contrast the Noma Award was given only to work published in Africa, but it did not attract the same cachet as the Caine and remained essentially an industry award.]

But even though it’s a British award the Caine Prize dramatically affects the intra-African dynamics of African writing. In other words it’s not just about Western audiences. To take just one example, in Kenya there’s been a hugely acrimonious divide between the literary establishment – which has its own writing prizes, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize and the Wahome Mutahi Literary Award – and the Kwani? scene. A major cause of this divide has been resentment on the part of the literary establishment that Kwani writers like Wainaina represent Kenya on the international literary stage, simply because they were favored by a British prize and an American donor agency. While there are also a number of substantive literary issues and outsize personalities at stake in this fight [to be discussed in a later post], the central issue is which writers get to speak for Kenya in the world and who gets to anoint them.

Lastly (for now), there’s the more abstract question of how the Caine Prize frames the works that it recognizes. The Prize bills itself as an award for the best writing in English by Africans. As such it promotes the idea that literature in Africa is essentially a competition among individuals to produce work of superior quality. So then what of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s assertion that literature is the expression of a community’s collective identity? Or Achebe’s belief that a writer must be a teacher? What about the half-century of scholarly work about African literature that emphasizes its roots in oral (i.e. communal) traditions and missionary education?

Let me be clear: the Caine Prize is a worthy institution. It makes African writing present to a potentially global public in a way that no African institution can match. However we readers should be acutely aware of how it promotes, not just individual authors, but a framework of literary individuality. And we need to be aware that this approach stands in painful contrast to some of the most hopeful and utopian thinking about what African literature could be.

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Karibuni kwangu

The rain is pounding outside the Chai House in downtown Nairobi. I’m sitting at a long empty counter which circles the cafe’s atrium, peering down at the darkly polished tables and white teapots. The cafe’s doors, which run all the way across the entrance, are always thrown open, so that the rain’s scent pushes up through the open atrium and folds itself around me. It’s a cold, dirty smell, redolent of fish from the City Market across the street, mixed up with the sprouty funk that a month of rain has unleashed throughout the central business district. Inside people rest their heads on their arms, or lean back languidly while their tea slowly cools.

It’s a slow day in Nairobi. The street is quiet, emptied for the May Day holiday. Also there was a big football game last night and I think a few people are still sleeping off the results. The sky is gray and bright, and the lights in the cafe shine warmly inside brass latticed boxes. It’s a good day to start a blog.

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