Tag Archives: fiction

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
Inkdrops
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
ndinda
City of Lions
Black Balloon
Soulfool

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