The shortlist for the 2017 Caine Prize consisted of an exciting mix of African writers. The five names included: Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria) for ‘Bush Baby’, Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan) for ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’, Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria) for ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa) for ‘The Virus’. This was a record-breaking year for the charity as their shortlist contained Ifeakandu – the youngest writer to be shortlisted – and al-Fadil – the oldest writer to be shortlisted. Bushra al-Fadil ultimately won the 2017 Caine prize, making him the second Sudanese writer to win, and the first Caine Prize writer to include an illustration in his piece.
Here I rate and review each of the stories, and provide a few quotes from the authors. You can purchase this year’s short story collection in full by clicking here or read the five shortlisted stories for free by visiting the Caine Prize website.
‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria)
My rating: * * * * *
In an all-female world where babies are built and not born, one young woman decides to craft her child using the human hair she finds on the floor of a salon. This fascinating gothic-style tale uses the world of fantasy to touch on some very real social issues – namely, the sacrifices that come with motherhood, and the pain and greed that come with a society founded on class hierarchies.
Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2017), p. 14.
There needs to be something grounded that the reader can hold on to so you can feed them all of this fantastical narrative. It was important that the world felt real, familiar and Nigerian. The fact that she works in a salon, the language used to describe where she is going… it was important for me that that information was identical to what the story would have been if there were no fanatical elements. That was an important anchor for the reader and myself as a writer.
Lesley Nneka Arimah on location in the narrative (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
This is a stand alone short story that is part of a collection. One of the reasons writing stories with surrealist elements appeals to me is because we are able to take a snippet of our contemporary society that we consider normal and healthy – in this case, a woman’s desire for a child. We take that and put it somewhere unfamiliar, and watch it become grotesque. I really enjoy messing with our expectations, and by doing that, questioning them.
Lesley Nneka Arimah on her attraction to surrealism (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
My mother owned a hair salon in Nigeria. Almost every woman goes to some type of salon – whether you’re in your friend’s kitchen braiding your hair or an actual business. The salon is a recurring location in my work because it’s a place where lots of different kinds of women come together and interact in some way […] A character who is a woman living in a world of women and is seeking power and control would be attracted to this place where all these different types of women are coming to her for all these different reasons. […] The hair salon does allow for a range of different classes mixing together especially with the women working at the salon as well.
Lesley Nneka Arimah on the hair salon setting (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
Go where the fear is.
Lesley Nneka Arimah on advice to young writers (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
‘Bush Baby’ by Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria)
My rating: * *
A sister’s irresponsible younger brother comes humorously knocking on her door after gambling his inheritance away. However, the price of his debts are far more than either of them bargained for…This is a touching exploration of a sister’s unconditional love as she struggles to protect her brother from the supernatural powers that torment him. However, while the narrative possesses a lot of potential, the bulk of the story ultimately falls short of expectations for a shortlisted Caine Prize piece. *Spoilers alert* Stylistically, more could be done to drum up suspense and amplify the gory impact of the monstrous Bush Baby. For example, when we are introduced to the brother, he is already on death’s door. This means that the Bush Baby’s attacks have very little shock value – his body was decaying before the assaults, and it continues to decay after, in what become somewhat repetitive descriptions of his broken frame. Furthermore, the family dynamic remains one dimensional, as the narrative does not plunge deeper into the faults of the siblings’ relationship beyond the brother’s erratic spending splurges. For instance, one throwaway line mentions how the sister blames him for their mother’s death, and the text fails to follow up with any context or elaboration. The closing paragraph is well done, but comes on too hastily, ultimately forming a horror story that lacks the fear factor it requires to fully captivate its readers.
I cannot hear my own voice above the wailing baby, even though I know I am shouting. I can hear my brother’s screams. He rolls on the floor but my legs are held fast and I can’t move. Something is burning. The air changes, filling with smoke so thick, I can grasp it.
Chikodili Emelumadu, ‘Bush Baby’, in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2017), p. 40.
I was contacted to write this story by a group who wanted to do an anthology of African monsters. And I chose the Bush Baby because […as the legend goes…] it sounds like a distressed baby in the bush and whoever goes to help the distressed baby then meets their demise. That seemed very unfair to me. It went against all the folk tales in which bad people are punished and good people are rewarded. It bothered me as a child. It didn’t follow the rules that had already been laid down.
Chikodili Emelumadu on why she chose the Bush Baby monster as her subject (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
It was very much a film technique […] I really like when there is a timer on and so you’re racing to escape or to find something.
Chikodili Emelumadu on why her character was given seven days to survive the Bush Baby’s attacks (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
The art of oral storytelling has sort of died away. […Children in education…] learnt another way of telling stories that deviated from the oral call and respond that we already did […]. Oral story telling was not just a way of entertaining children, it was also a way of instructing them. Teaching them values and how to be upright members of society. That whole package got done away with when people started to go to formal education. Story telling has got to be given a priority in the home first. How can people have an imagination when they haven’t been taught how to imagine? […]. It has to start from the family unit.
Chikodili Emelumadu on how traditional African storytelling should precede formal education (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ by Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan), translated by Max Shmookler
My rating: * * * * *
A poet becomes enthralled by an enchanting woman he spots in a hectic street market. After a few brief encounters, this woman and her younger sister meet a tragic and bizarre end. This tricky but beautiful piece possesses a nostalgic current and poetic flow which beat against the forceful nature of the chaotic city. This story touches on feminist themes as it explores the violence and harassment against women in Sudan. Al-Fadil’s allusions to other Arabic poets as well as his frequent agricultural/animalistic metaphors alongside the recurring motif of the bus seem to suggest a story which laments a world that has been modernised by colonialism. This translated piece won the 2017 Caine Prize, earning Bushra al-Fadil £7,000, and the translator, Max Shmookler, £3,000.
The girl whose birds flew away skipped ahead out of joy. Her form wavered until she disappeared, the sweet ring of her bells still in my ear. The image of her eyes remained in my mind, growing bright then dim then bright again, her face still nourishing my memory with joy. Her birds flew away. Away. Away.
Bushra al-Fadil, ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’, in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2017), p. 57.
Unfortunately, Bushra al-Fadil was unable to attend both the Q&A panel at SOAS university and the panel at the Africa Writes 2017 festival due to issues involving his visa. Click here or here to read about what al-Fadil has to say about his work.
‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ by Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria)
My rating: * * * *
A young male student falls in love with a male pianist while his own family unit threatens to unravel. This heavy narrative deals with themes of broken homes, infidelity, sexual violence, religion and closeted romance. Thankfully, there are many glimmers of humour which manage to poke through the tragic tale. The narrative occasionally tips over into a somewhat cliché LGBT story of star-crossed lovers, but overall it is written in a way that is believable, beautiful and realistic. One of the most interesting stylistic methods is Ifeakandu’s use of direct address, which places the reader in the position of its main character, Lotanna (example below). This has the effect of eradicating the male-on male-implications by eliminating the mention of Lotanna’s gender. This technique also distances and deflects the character’s homosexuality onto the reader, perfectly encapsulating the feelings of self-alienation and denial experienced by closeted members of the LGBT+ community.
You called Rachael and told her that you couldn’t wait to return home for the holiday, you missed her so damn much. But the truth was, your heart beat too fast when his head rested on your chest. And you wanted too much to bury your nose in his neck and sniff the talcum powder he wore when going to bed. And then, every time you saw the tears in his eyes, making them look silvery in the darkness, you wanted too much to tilt his chin up and kiss him hard and gentle.
Arinze Ifeakandu, ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’, in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2017), p. 66.
Writing my story in the second person voice was not a conscious decision. The story just came.
Arinze Ifeakandu on craft and voice (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
‘The Virus’ by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa)
My rating: * * * *
An Afrikaner veteran discusses the effects of a current global cyber warfare, and reminisces about his time at war during the Apartheid era. This piece plays up an ironic turning of tables in which Africa becomes the ideal destination for first world refugees due to its patchy internet access and vast farmlands. The narration requires a certain level of concentration because, as our narrator takes a trip down memory lane, he blurs together what he deems to be the two major betrayals of his country. The first is the loss of the war to the ‘enemy’ – indigenous black people – and the second is the acceptance of American refugees or ‘cyvivors’ onto Boer land – an act which he views as a second wave of colonialism. Makhene provides a fascinating perception – that of an unsympathetic racist – which manages to unnerve the reader enough to encourage them to keep reading. I would advise everyone interested to go and listen to Makhene’s excellent reading of the text; such a crude and conversational piece requires an ear to enliven the narrator’s proper Afrikaner accent.
It was a regular shit show out there. I mean, you read these things wanting to shake your head and such your teeth a bit, feel a decent level of sympathy for these sorry bastards, but instead you ended up with stiff laughter choking through your throat, imagining the world’s so-called superpower being run by generals who considered a few weeks’ toilet pile-up a legitimate war attack.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, ‘The Virus’, in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2017), pp. 90-91.
Voice is what drives this story. It is the heart of the narrative.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on the importance of voice (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
‘The Virus’ is part of a short story collection. I’m working on stories that are interwoven and they are very much about ordinary South Africans. I’m very concerned and interested in the lives of people who are a lot like me. I don’t see a lot of stories like that on the page. So this collection is my exploration of the many different kinds of South Africans that I’ve known. […] The project to me is very much coming to grips with what it means to be South African. The very complicated, rich, disturbing, shocking past decades that have led me to this point. I’m attempting to unpack that on the page.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on her broader creative project (SOAS Q&A panel 2017)
At one panel at SOAS, another South African, described the story as ‘shocking’ […] Another young woman said she was very angry when she read the story […]. This is not a piece that you read and think ‘that was pleasant, that was lovely’. No, it’s not a cup of tea.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on her readership’s reaction to her work (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
One of the things that interests me is the way in which South Africans have a very interwoven identity that we deny. I think this is true for a lot of cultures that have suffered from racial oppression or colonialism or slavery. We carry each other’s blood but we refuse to see that blood in each other [….]. There is more that is shared than that is different. So I was curious, in this particular story, to start writing, with no intention of writing from the standpoint of an Afrikaner man, and then this beast – he just leapt out.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on South African identity and the narration style (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).
We need to go back to the basics and not act as though [success in writing] is some magic dumbfounding thing of ‘How do you do it?!’ You invest in your population. Give them a really strong education. And you make art a priority […]. If you imagine something then it can become real. It is impossible to change anything without first imagining it. Art informs reality – not the other way around.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on the importance of education (Africa Writes 2017 literature festival, the British Library, London).