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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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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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