The 2016 Caine Prize: The burdens of identity and fading memories

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The 2016 Caine Prize shortlist is out and the stories have the African literary community  abuzz: Abdul Adan’s, The Lifebloom Gift, is a dark, troubling story about sexuality and other identities; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, is a dark, fascinating, and brilliant story about identity, and gentrification; 2013 Caine Prize winner, Tope Folarin’s Genesis, is a dark, haunting commentary on mental illness and a heart-warming story about children growing up in the shadows of their parents’ and Utah’s anxieties; Bongani Kona’s At Your Requiem, is a dark tale of childhood wars (rivalries, child sexual abuse, etc.); and Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost, is a dark, affecting tale about sibling and communal love and mental illness. You get the point. It’s all dark, these writers thrive on the edges of a dark, dark, world.

Identity. There is a good conversation to be had: What is African Writing? Who is the African writer? What should the African writer write about? Should we care? This year’s stories shove those questions in the reader’s bemused consciousness. These stories, apart from their unremitting darkness, seem to be about identity (bending). It is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, however it would be interesting to do a study of the places of abode of all the shortlisted writers since inception. African writers love to settle in the West; those that are left behind might as well be in the West, because where they live and love in the lush spaces of Cape Town, Abuja and Lekki could hardly be classified as the Africa of their stories. The Ugandan writer Bwesigye bwa Mesigwire’s question, The Caine Prize for African Writing: Offsetting the continental-diaspora deficit?, remains a debate. Last year, four out of the five shortlisted writers lived abroad in the West. Of the five shortlisted writers of 2016, three live abroad and the other two live in South Africa. Maybe we should call it the Caine Prize for Diaspora Writing. Nah, let’s just call it the Caine Prize, period.

Did I have trouble staying awake while reading the stories? Well, a few  of the shortlisted stories are well written, feature muscular thinking and a truly engaging, but in some cases,  it is a chore for the average reader to stay engaged. Why? Let me make bold to say that this is no longer how we enjoy our stories, not in the 21st century. Today, literature as we know it struggles, and is becoming a dying middle class pastime. As I read some of these stories, I could see people reading them, shrugging halfway, dumping them and moving on to a heckler’s social media timeline. There is a new army of storytellers on the Internet and social media; they have become incredibly influential even as traditional writers jostle for space in the cafes of America and Europe to write traditional pieces for literary prizes.It is our loss, thanks to a failure of (literary) leadership. There should be an innovative way to bring the literature of old to social media and let the  young feast deep on beautiful – and instructive stories. How that is done remains a mystery but it is clear that the traditional way of looking at literature is becoming threatened by the new writing.

 abdul_adanSo what are these stories about? Much of Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift reads like creative nonfiction, sometimes like mere reportage, but it is fairly engaging nonetheless. There is a good interview of Abdul Adan here; I would like to ask him where he rents his demons from. In this story he fights terrifying images that include “giant snakes slithering on bare backs of sunbathers, the kisses of toothless elderly Kazakh couples, the penetrative mouths of hyenas as they disembowel fleeing prey, the longing eyes of Akita dogs, the sweaty waists of African female dancers, the heaving chests of death-row inmates on the execution gurney, the tight jaws of some vindictive men.” And the reader is awed by Adan’s inquisitive energy:

 Ted himself told me that to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched or at least brushed shoulders with. The untouched individual, he said, is a nonentity. To claim a place in Ted’s gloriously green universe, the individual has to be touched.

Arimah-320Arimah, the Africa regional winner of the 2016 Commonwealth short story prize is a highly regarded writer whose stories regularly make the rounds of prestigious literary magazines. Here is a good interview of her in the New Yorker. Her story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is perhaps the most complex and innovative offering on the shortlist. It is playful, experimental, ambitious and quite innovative, with disciplined, gorgeous prose thrown in. This sci-fi story is about love, longing, sexuality, race, racism, boundaries, and class. Arimah upends traditional notions of boundaries and identities with sweet muscle and deftly returns the reader to the present reality. This is not just back to the future. This is back to the future – and the now. Imagine a  near apocalypse:

 Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds.

In a delightful play on today’s global reality, there is a global upheaval, and those that were displaced and offered succor (whites) triumphed and the hosts (people of color) were none the better for their generosity. You chuckle wryly as  the protagonist observes that a roomful of the children (of color) of the displaced “was as bare of genius as a pool of fish.” It is a lovely story, there are all these sophisticated sentences showing off deep beauty:

The only time she’d felt anything as strongly was after her mother had passed and her father was in full lament, listing to the side of ruin.

folarin

Oxford. 8/7/13. Bodleian Library. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013. Winner, Tope Folarin. Picture by: David Fleming

Folarin’s Genesis is about a tough childhood that manages to touch all your emotional spots. In this seemingly semi-autobiographical piece (Folarin is quite candid about his mother’s health issues as this interview shows) every word is a living breathing witness of the struggles of young children trying to survive a war:

There is the sweet pain of the parents’ exile in America, away from Nigeria:

But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and began a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while Mom explored the city, and at night my parents held each other close and spoke their dreams into existence. They would have more children. My father would start a business. They would become wealthy. They would send their children to the best schools. They would have many grandchildren. They would build their own version of paradise on a little slip of desert in a country that itself was a dream, a place that seemed impossible until they stepped off the plane, shielding the sun from their eyes, and saw for themselves the expanse of land that my father had idly pointed to on a fading map many years before.

 There is the deep pain of the burden of the mother’s descent into mental illness and resulting marital abuse:

My mother’s illness began to reveal itself to us shortly after we moved into our two bedroom apartment, a tiny place near the center of town with pale yellow walls and bristly carpet. Mom’s voice, once quiet and reassuring, grew loud and fearsome. Her hugs, once warm and comforting, became cold and rigid. And then Mom became violent—she would throw spoons and forks at my father whenever she was upset. She quickly worked her way up to the knives.

 Kona’s At Your Requiem is your traditional African writing fare. Delivered in the first person, it reads like a piece of a long work in progress, perhaps a book. It is ostensibly about childhood and the ravages of adult dysfunctions and the quiet horror of child sexual abuse:

One night Aunt Julia was naked when I got under the duvet. It was winter. I remember the percussion of raindrops splashing against the tiled roof. She held me close, tight, my head pinned against her breasts. I pushed her away, or tried to, but she held firm. She unbuttoned my pyjamas. I lay in there, limp, my eyes wide open. I felt her bony fingers, cold against my chest, circling lines around my ribcage. ‘My beautiful boy,’ she whispered, as she kissed my belly button. ‘You’re my little husband. Who’s my little husband? You’re my little husband.’

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

bongani_konaThis was my least favorite read; deadly proxy for the stereotypical African writer’s cringe-worthy self-absorption, narcissistic, with a false sense of the invincible reeling out paragraph after paragraph of familiar, tired reportage. Kona’s story dredges up familiar issues, it is social commentary (child abuse) wrapped in the dignified toga of fiction, like stories made to order for an African NGO’s  hustle. The design is awkward, defective even. It is a forgettable story considering that it is a crude attempt at magic realism; one of the two main protagonists commits suicide, is hastily resurrected, presumably for the benefit of the Caine Prize, goes back in time to assist the author to tell a too tall tale. Too bad; the character – and the story should have been left alone to die and rest in peace. It doesn’t help that Kona’s story suffers from sloppy editing. There is documented evidence that at one time the story may have been written in the third person. And the attempt to resuscitate Dambudzo Marechera’s spirit: “You got your things and left.” SMH

Lidudmalingani It is easy to fall in love with Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost. It seems autobiographical, this tale of a community’s attempt to help a family deal with mental illness, but don’t be fooled; Lidudumalingani is an awesome artist, and he writes as one who knows and loves his corner of Africa intensely:

 I stared out into the landscape that began in my mother’s garden and stretched far beyond sight. The sun was setting behind the forest and dust was floating everywhere. Where the dust was dense, one could see it sway this way and that way as if in the middle of a dance. A sophisticated dance, the kind that, I imagined, happened in other worlds, very far from the village. The village was settling into repose. The cold summer air had begun to torment the villager’s bare legs and arms. Everything was in silhouette, including the horses that trotted across the veld, the cattle that lowered their heads to graze, and the water that flowed down the cliff. The mountains, ancient but nevertheless still standing, were casting giant shadows over the landscape. The shadows stretched so far from the mountain that they began to exist as if they were solid entities on their own.

 … Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

 And on and on the narrative goes in seductive prose; portraits everywhere. Lidudumalingani’s eyes are a pair of powerful cameras that combine with his talent for prose to engage the reader on a journey of love and pain. Incidentally there is a good piece here on his eye for photography. I thank the Caine Prize for introducing me to Lidudumalingani’s restless and eclectic world. And oh yes, I have a long review of his story on Brittlepaper (here).

So what do I think about all of this? It is interesting, Alison Flood, writing in the UK Guardian about Tope Folarin, notes the comments made by Delia Jarrett-Macaulay about the emergent theme of the Caine Prize entries.

The five shortlisted stories were chosen from 166 submissions, representing 23 African countries. Chair of judges, the writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said there had been an increasing number of fantasy and science fiction stories submitted this year, also noting a “general shift away from politics towards more intimate subjects – though recent topics such as the Ebola crisis were being wrestled with”.

The shortlist, she said, is “an engrossing, well-crafted and dauntless pack of stories … It was inspiring to note the amount of risk-taking in both subject matter and style, wild or lyrical voices matching the tempered measured prose writers, and stories tackling uneasy topics, ranging from an unsettling, unreliable narrator’s tale of airport scrutiny, to a science-fictional approach towards the measurement of grief, a young child’s coming to grips with family dysfunction, the big drama of rivalling siblings and the silent, numbing effects of loss,” said Jarrett-Macauley. “The panel is proud to have shortlisted writers from across the continent, finding stories that are compelling, well-crafted and thought-provoking.”

From my perspective, apart from one or two stories, I did not see much in terms of risk-taking and innovation. There were some good attempts but writers need to do more. And then there is the issue of the purpose of the prize, in the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, the Caine Prize has done all the right things in the pursuit of excellence in writing among writers of African descent. Over the years, a robust conversation has ensued as to the purpose and trajectory of the prize. Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize spoke to some of these concerns in this interview with Nick Mulgrew. Last year’s Caine Prize winner, Namwali Serpell, caused a stir when she gave some candid feedback to the organizers of the prize and split her winnings with her fellow contestants. Identity has been an issue; who should vie for these prizes? An unintended consequence of the competition for the Caine Prize in this question: Where is the equity in seeming to pit Diaspora writing against indigenous African writing (by those based at home)? What should folks be writing about? Who should be the audience? Is it appropriate to allow previous winners to continue to vie for the prize? So many questions.

The Caine Prize is in search of a fresh purpose; today’s Africa is not really the postcolonial Africa of old, and all prizes targeted at African writing should reflect the new realities of writing and Africa, especially in the age of the Internet and social media. In the initial years of the prize, one could honestly say that the Caine Prize helped in identifying new talent; indeed many of them went on to become internationally renowned stars. That is changing, and I don’t think it is a good thing. A few hopefuls are repeat returnees to the shortlist (Elnathan John being the most famous) and this year, Tope Folarin became the second prior winner to be on the shortlist again (Segun Afolabi returned last year). Does Arimah really need the Caine Prize? Some would say she is already a precious commodity anywhere in the world where serious writing is judged. She is already a word goddess, what is the point of holding up to the light people who are already blinding the world with the brilliant lights of their literary stardom?

Those who criticize the Caine Prize raise excellent points, but I concede that to the extent that it is directed at the Prize, the criticisms give the impression of entitlement and privilege. Today’s writers should bear most of the blame. The reader seeks genuine innovation in the writing; bold and energetic pieces that keep folks glued to the reading monitor. This is the 21st century. In all seriousness, I pray daily that the equivalent of iTunes comes to rescue the vast majority of African writers from the tyranny of orthodoxy. They seem to spend the best part of their productive lives hoping to land that book contract or win that prize. The odds are beyond intimidating. Which is sad. And frustrating. The best writing of this generation of writers is on the Internet and on social media. And it is really good stuff. Sadly, but understandably most African writers have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the lottery that passes for traditional publishing.

 Again, let me be honest, there are good pieces on the shortlist (Arimah, Folarin, Lidudumalingani were my best reads) but, beyond those pieces, even with them, I’d rather be on the web reading. Let me repeat: Traditional, analog writing is losing readership and influence. Writing (especially in Africa) is becoming a dying middle class pastime. Why? I see innovation on the web, I see precious little of that elsewhere. Meanwhile, really brilliant writing is being read for free by gleeful readers. Writers should be paid for their innovation and industry on social media. There is hope. Soon, an app will come that will lock down all these offerings and allow readers access to them – for a modest fee. I am having way too much fun. For free. That is not the fault of the Caine Prize. It is what it is.

Finally, and this is important, we must reflect on why the Internet and social media have introduced true, indigenous African English to millions of African readers, and why as a result traditional writing is suffering from benign neglect. I previously wrote about this in this essay, Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories and I said this:

The West deserves credit for almost single-handedly sustaining African literature with funding and an eager paying readership. However, it has come at a cost on at least one important level; many African writers eager to be published and salivating at prestigious literary platforms have largely allowed the West to distort the literary language in their books. It is almost understandable, these writers are not negotiating from a position of strength, so they watch helplessly as words and terms that make sense in African settings are jury-rigged for Western tastes by Western editors whose awesome editorial skills are hugely compromised by their cultural cluelessness. As an aside, I really believe now that Western editors need to collaborate with the few African editors out there as they prepare African literature for the print shop. The Western reader enjoys the new language of discourse but it is painful to read as an African. So much in contemporary fiction in the books published in the West has been distorted for the simple reason that there is a buying audience that needs to understand these things. It is an economic decision but the implications for Africa and the trajectory of her stories are enormous and mostly tragic.

In these works of fiction, we see the unintended consequence of Western patronage of African writing – a crippling loss of language. And a muffling of powerful voices drowned in the alien applause of an adoring Western audience. It is not all bad, there is some hope; the advent of a robust literary culture on the Internet and on social media has amplified this issue; the democratization of story-telling in the digital space has allowed an emerging generation of writers to just be themselves – to simply write in their own “African English” language. Sadly, to the extent that African literature is judged almost exclusively by books published in the West, it is appropriate to address the distortion in language – and trajectory of the narrative, because the gatekeepers of African literature continue to ignore the fact that the vast majority of African writing today is on the Internet.

I rest my case. Now, let me go back to typing “LOL” on salacious, delightfully inane crap on Facebook. LOL!