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Nudity, Refugees, The Closet, Adoption and Online Scamming: Caine Prize 2019 Short Stories Review

The Caine Prize for African Writing has come round again! This year marks its 20th award, and the 2019 candidates did not disappoint. The shortlisted authors are: Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Meron Hadero (Ethiopia), Cherrie Kandie (Kenya), Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti (Cameroon) and Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor (Nigeria).

Here I rate and review each of the stories, and provide a few quotes from the authors, as obtained from the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel at the Africa Writes literature festival. You can purchase this year’s short story collection in full by clicking here, here or here. Alternatively, you can read the five shortlisted stories for free by visiting the Caine Prize website.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog.

The Caine Prize finalists. From left to right: Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Fareda Banda (chair), Cherrie Kandie, Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti and Meron Hadero. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

‘Skinned’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria)

My rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

In a world where only married women are permitted clothing, one woman chooses to remain single…

In this story we see how the patriarchy’s obsession with the naked female form impacts female friendships and romantic connections. Though outlandish, Arimah weaves in elements which make this story a convincing glimpse at a distorted future. For example, her introduction of a class-based system to the de-robing process is a subtle detail that brings this story closer to reality than one would wish it to be.

This is Lesley Nneka Arimah’s second Caine Prize nomination, having previously been shortlisted in 2017 for her story, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ – a tale about an all-female world where babies are built, not born. Arimah has only added to her impressive bank of feminist dystopias, creating yet another poignant social commentary using a clever metaphor for the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Arimah’s ability to craft immersive worlds which act as creative analogies for contemporary female oppression should earn her a spot in the canon right alongside Margaret Atwood. It is hence no surprise that Arimah was announced this year’s Caine Prize winner. Well-deserved.

Excerpt:

Ejem remembered their girlhood fondly, the protection of their fathers’ cloth, the seemingly absolute security of it. She had cried when, at fifteen, her mother had come into her bedroom and, stroking her hair, told Ejem that it was time to remove her cloth. The only people who could get away with keeping their daughters covered for long were the wealthy, who often managed it until the girls could secure wife-cloth. But Ejem’s father had grown up a poor man in a village where girls were disrobed as early as possible, some even at age ten, and it was beyond time as far as he was concerned. He knew what happened to the families of girls who stayed covered beyond their station, with the exception of girls bearing such deformities that they were permitted “community cloth” made from donated scraps. But if a girl like Ejem continued to be clothed, the town council would levy a tax that would double again and again until her father could not pay it. Then his girl would be disrobed in public, and her family shamed. No, he couldn’t bear the humiliation. Things would happen on his terms.

Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Skinned’, in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 Shortlist (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2019), pp. 18-19.

Writer’s Comments:

“Nigeria is a country that very much privileges married women. One of those rewards you get for fulfilling your ‘duty’ as a woman is that you don’t get treated like a single woman. In fact, if you try to get a passport for your children, places will ask for your husband’s permission. It’s a sort of false protection. I wanted to put that protection to something physical.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on the subject of single women in Nigeria (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“I write about women and the world of women because I find it to be so much more interesting because the further away you are from the centre of power, the more you have to either fight or compromise to find self-actualisation. And so, women being further away from the centre of power, there’s a level of texture that you have to develop in order to be happy in this world.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on why she writes about women (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“Class is something that complicates feminism. […] The idea of money being something that liberates women – it doesn’t entirely work. It’s an incomplete conversation. An incomplete victory. Because there is still somebody who has to exist below that level of privilege. So, what then? What happens with them?” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on class and feminism (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“I get asked often ‘How do you build a world that is alien but feels familiar?’ And I think of it as a process of essentially ‘minding your character’s business’. And by that I mean, you have your point of view character and they are going through this complex world and by limiting the things that you speak about to the things that are their own business – it’s a nice way of keeping things contained.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on her writing technique (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“It became the form of fiction that I loved the most. Just the possibilities. There are things you can do with a short story that nobody would put up with for an entire novel. You can be experimental.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on the short story form (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“We don’t yet have a model for a society that has done away with hierarchies. I feel that it is something we have to imagine to move towards. I do believe that it is possible. Do I think that it is ever going to happen? No. Sorry I’m a pessimist. The glass is half full and someone is going to come and empty it. *laughter* I wish I could be hopeful, but I feel that all we can do is medicate it in the spaces that we inhabit.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on how we can deconstruct gender hierarchies (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“I’ve written a story that had a relationship between two women, but it was also a story where the world had flooded and people could use mathematics to remove grief, and former colonialists were returning to former colonies on the African continent. And I very deliberately snuck that in and treated it with mundanity, because I think we need to do that more. We need to do more normalising of queer relationships because it’s part of our culture.” – Lesley Nneka Arimah on the inclusion of a queer relationship in her work (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).

Lesley Nneka Arimah (middle, left) reading ‘Skinned’ at the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel for the Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

‘The Wall’ by Meron Hadero (Ethiopia)

My Rating: * * *

Summary/Review:

An odd friendship sprouts between a young Ethiopian refugee and an older German man in Iowa as they discuss their memories living near the Berlin Wall…

In this story we do not just witness the eventual falling of the Berlin Wall, but far sooner come across the breaking down of the emotional walls that are constructed when one finds themselves in a faraway land, disconnected from a sense of ‘home’ by language, experience and vagrancy. We gradually see how a small bond, even a temporary one, can be enough to create a sense of community to catalyse one’s own personal growth, even in times of war and conflict. A bit slow and a bit patchy at times, Heron’s story overall comes across as a dreamy reflection on youth and the friendships that form us.

Excerpt:

Herr Weill didn’t reveal very much that first day, but opened up just to tell me he had been a refugee once, too, and had left home when he was a teenager because a war scattered his whole family. He spoke slowly and said little, but it was also an outpouring, I could tell. From then on, we talked often about these things, like conflict, violence, war, fleeing from it and the way it makes you tired and confused whether you’re running or still. We talked about scars, invisible and visible, instant and latent ones, all real. How hard it is not to keep losing things because of conflict, even once it’s far away, miles or years away, and yet how life fills up with other things all the while.

Meron Hadero, ‘The Wall’, in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 Shortlist (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2019), p. 49.

Writer’s Comments:

“The short story form offers certain things that other forms can’t. […] When I write a short story I hope that there is something that remains open so that it can continue to exist outside the confines of those few pages.” – Meron Hadero on the short story form (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“I took a trip from Ethiopia and retraced my family’s path – we came to the U.S. as refugees very young. From Ethiopia, [to Germany], and then Iowa. As an adult, I went back and retraced that journey and I talked to my parents and did a lot of research to be as responsible as I could with such a big undertaking. And I wanted to do justice to what I’d uncovered and I didn’t entirely know what form it would take. So this story came out of that.” – Meron Hadero on the story’s inspiration (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“There was an essay that I wrote for this book called ‘The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives’ where writers who have been refugees each contributed an essay to explore and share some aspect of that experience.” – Meron Hadero on where to find other works by refugees (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).

Meron Hadero (right) speaking at the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel for the Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

‘Sew My Mouth’ by Cherrie Kandie (Kenya)

My Rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

Two women attempt a romantic relationship in the face of familial hostility in Nairobi…

In this story Cherrie Kandie accurately shows how homophobia is not always loud and violent, but quiet, capable of hiding behind narrowed eyes, and lurking in probing questions about marriage and the future. This is a beautiful depiction of the hushed, tragic world of the closet. Kandie shows how, out of fear of public rejection, the couple’s home is forced to suffice for the whole city, as the pair shrink their relationship into the confines of their four walls. They attempt to make this space their own, but are faced with the frequent invasion of those aiming to scrutinise their relationship, pressuring them to such a degree, they just might tear themselves apart.

Excerpt:

Three hours ago [my lover’s mother] had bustled in, just before my lover’s father, a dark blue mermaid kitenge hugging her hips and flaring at her calves, her hair hidden in a matching scarf, her arms laden with baskets of produce from the farm, hugging and kissing us on the cheeks and saying, “How are you, my daughters?” “My daughters, I have brought you cabbage and potatoes and peas…” “You look well, my daughters…”

[…]

When we get to our bigger room, we lie on the same bed. If our lover’s mother were to come in and find us, she would exclaim, “My daughters!” This time, her mouth would slacken, unable to smile. Her eyes would become round, un-narrowed, because whose arm was whose? Whose skin was whose? Whose leg was whose? Our body parts would be mixed up together like pieces of meat in a stew, in a sufuria without a lid, exposed because the lazy blanket had fallen off in the middle of the night.

Cherrie Kandie, ‘Sew My Mouth’, in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 Shortlist (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2019), pp. 67-69.

Writer’s Comments:

“Immediately after the joy and disbelief of being shortlisted, I had to work through lots of anxiety over having the story publicly available, with my name fixed onto it. And it’s written in a very strong first person. That provides occasion for violent readings that could be displaced onto my person -either directly or indirectly. It’s a fear I had to work through. It’s a fear I probably still have to some extent. But on the other side: here is everything I want. So it’s good practice for life in general to live truthfully.” – Cherrie Kandie on the feeling of exposure following the story’s publication (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“You know how Africans are in everyone’s business? You invite them to your sitting room, and they want to see what your bedroom looks like. *laughter* I guess it was a metaphor for how there’s no geographical or physical space within which they can enjoy a sustained freedom. They can enjoy bits of it, but there’s always that sense of fear under every single intimate interaction they have – even in the privacy of their own homes.” – Cherrie Kandie on the characters’ constant rearranging of their home to make it look like the couple sleep in separate bedrooms (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“A good number of the questions I have gotten have been connected to Binyavanga Wainaina’s death, the failure to appeal the bill outlawing homosexuality, or the banning of the film ‘Rafiki’. So a lot of the questions have had nothing to do with my story. But I feel like people with wide imaginations can understand the story both through a political lens and in an every day, romantic sense. […] But, yes, I do hope that one day the activists on the ground are successful and that a story about two women in love is as mundane as a story about a man and a woman in love.” – Cherrie Kandie on the inevitable politicisation of her work due to the queer relationship depicted (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).

Cherrie Kandie (middle) speaking at the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel for the Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

‘It Takes A Village Some Say’ by Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti (Cameroon)

My Rating: * * *

Summary/Review:

When a Cameroonian couple in America discover that their adoption of a young girl from their home country veered on human trafficking, their dream of the ‘perfect American family’ collapses…

Here is a story about the possible arrogance and ignorance of the American adoption system, as it is gradually revealed that this charity case was more self-serving than it was selfless. Nkweti hence places scrutiny on the complacency of American families, breaking down their uninformed notions of Africa which cause them to perceive African children as poor and deprived – always in need of better homes in the West. The couple struggle to control their adopted daughter, dealing with instances of deceit, thievery and sex-working. As we hear from two accounts of the case – one told from the parents’ point of view and one told from the daughter’s point of view – readers may find themselves asking: what defines ownership and what makes a family?

Excerpt:

Volume I: Our Girl

Yes, Our Girl had all the appropriate papers. The girl’s parents? Her father, may he rest, would be so honored by this opportunity for his youngest daughter to live in white man country. Her mother? Back home, with Our Girl’s six younger sisters, happy to know that at least one daughter would go to bed each night with more than cold gari in her belly.

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti, ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’, in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 Shortlist (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2019), p. 83.

Volume II: Their Girl

Listening as they blubbered about all the things they’d done for me.

For me? Seriously? It was me who made them a family. I’m the one that made them real. “Wasn’t I worth it?” I asked. “I was snatched up from my loving family so yours could be complete. All this talk of giving me the American dream. Then just like that, you’re raiding my college fund.” (Nkweti,pp.102-103)

Writer’s Comments:

“I think stories tell you the form that they want to arrive in. […] For the most part, when I write a short story, my stories are very voice-driven. So my characters – they come to me, they tell me their story, they lead me down this path, and then they’re done. They feel that they’ve said all they had to say. They feel very complete to me. So I’ve never had that impulse to turn a short story into a longer narrative.” – Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti on her choice of the short story form (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).
“I think when people talk to African writers, they want you to have that big ‘message’. Because I’ve gotten questions about the trafficking. And I feel like one of the reasons I ended up making my trafficked girl have so much agency and be so fierce and be sometimes amoral herself is because I didn’t want it to be another one of those ‘Oh another poor, poor African child, another noble savage tale’ […]. As writers, we can’t control how people see our characters and our world, but what I can do is give my characters as much voice and autonomy so that they can have their own identity outside of what other people are going to project upon them, i.e. ‘poster child for trafficking’, or ‘poster child for sexual identity’. That’s all we can do is try to tell tales of real people who feel authentic to us, and all the rest is just what other people will see.” – Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti on representation politics in writing (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti reading her story ‘It Takes a Village Some Say’ at the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel for the Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.

‘All Our Lives’ by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor (Nigeria)

My Rating: * *

Summary/Review:

Young men from a variety of backgrounds come together in a large African metropolis with dreams of going from rags to riches, only to be beaten down by city life, reduced to scamming others on the internet…

Okafor has an interesting style, telling the story from the perspective of a collective third person. This aptly demonstrates how the city erases individuality, and conflates identities under a single umbrella: the disenfranchised. Though the story’s tone may be largely ironic, and we do get a tender glimpse into the young men’s vulnerability and loneliness at the end, much of the humour is founded on derogatory images of women, acting as a potential barrier to our enjoyment of the tale.

Excerpt:

“In the beginning, we fill in lengthy forms on dating sites. We keep a note of the sites we have signed up for: Matchmake.org. CupidHearts.net. DateMe.com. We begin with our sisters who live in the more comfortable African cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Douala, Windhoek, Accra. They are foolish, these sisters. See how they bare their breasts on screen, as though they are a thing for sale, raw meat displayed at a marketplace, flies and dust licking at them.

Whores, we call them. Darlings, they call us.

Will you take us to America? they ask.

Yeah, baby, we say.

Do we get to fly first class?

Yeah, baby. And you’re gonna roll in my jet and watch the world beneath you fade to nothing.

Darling, you are so sweet, you make me wet.

Yeah, baby. You are sweeter.

[…]

It is upon their eagerness that we feed. But this eagerness dies all too quickly when we ask them to send money.”

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, ‘All Our Lives’, in The Caine Prize for African Writing 2019 Shortlist (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2019), pp. 111-112.

Writer’s Comments:

“One of my biggest intentions was to humanise these fraudsters. It’s easy for us to think of them and dismiss them as just criminals. But they must also have their own ambitions. But then the path they go about fulfilling these ambitions – it’s not necessarily the path everyone in this room might take. So it’s just about humanising these people and telling stories in a way you and I can relate to.” – Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor on writing from the point of view of immoral scammers (‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2019, British Library).

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor (left) turning off his ringing phone at the ‘2019 Caine Prize Conversation’ panel for the Africa Writes literature festival. Photo by: Louisa Johnson.


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