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Presidency, Sea Creatures, Ghosts, Homelessness and Impersonation: a review of the 2020 AKO Caine Pr

Corona has certainly thrown a wrench in the works, but one thing it could not halt was the annual AKO Caine Prize Short Stories competition.

Announced last night, the winner of the 2020 award is British Nigerian writer, Irenosen Okojie for her short story ‘Grace Jones’. However, this year’s batch produced undeniably enthralling stories, with the rest of the shortlist comprising of: Erica Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile and Rémy Ngamije.

Like every year, The Vital Blog will rate and review each of these stories, and provide a few quotes as obtained from a Africa Writes panel chaired by Ifeanyi Awachie on July 20. To read this year’s round of stories, visit the AKO Caine Prize website.

The 2020 shortlist (from left to right): Erica Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Irenosen Okojie, Jowhor Ile and Rémy Ngamije.

‘How to Marry An African President’ by Erica Sugo Anyadike (Tanzania)

Rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

One woman describes the dirty road to power, only to discover it comes at a cost…

In the style of an ironic how-to, an anonymous female narrator tells the story of her marriage to an African President and ascension to power. In the courtship that ensues, every element is meticulously feigned as the narrator fulfils patriarchal expectations merely as a way to climb the social ladder. This charade is less a tale of romance than it is a tale of chess: each sexual act, each loving coo, is planned and performed to a certain end. However, Anyadike shows that the more the narrator engages with this toxic sexism, the more they come to replicate the harmful aspects of it themselves. Anyadike ultimately implies that one cannot sip on power without becoming drunk. Further, through hints, Anyadike shows the colonialist legacy lurking behind the current political structure, and in doing so, holds it up for scrutiny. The narrator plays with fire by using sex as a weapon, but is eventually burned herself, demonstrating the difficulty for women to battle a sexist system from within it.

Excerpt:

Listen to him talk about his wife. Part of you will like that he is respectful – regretful even – that she will die from her illness and that there is nothing he can do about it. It is only a matter of time. Sympathise. But don’t forget to take the opportunity. Mention how you wish you had a devoted loving husband such as him. He will probe, try to get you to say more. Grow sad and quiet. Later – drop hints about how you and your husband don’t make love anymore. Say: Even women have needs. Giggle nervously, cover your mouth with your hand and apologise for being inappropriate. See his eyes brighten.

Erica Sugo Anyadike, ‘How to Marry An African President’, published in adda: Commonwealth Stories (2019)

Writer’s Comments:

“There are many roots to power. Women are often sold this image of how beauty is power; beauty can help you obtain many material things. I was interested in dismantling this idea of power, but I was also interested in showing the limitations of it. Power will grant class privilege, but it isn’t going to protect you from gender discrimination. […] I think most women end up internalising the patriarchy and perpetuating certain power dynamics — namely preventing other people from ascending as well and trying to repress and oppress them. It’s a learnt behaviour, and she’s learnt this from watching how her husband wields power against her.” Erica Sugo Anyadike on power and gender (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes 2020)
“I deliberately decided not to mention who the specific First Lady is. I enjoy the game with the reader, in the sense that they’re trying to guess who it is. But I’ll cop to being inspired by Grace Mugabe. But [the anonymity] was really to say that this kind of inequality happens all over the world. I struggle as an African writer with wanting to write things that I think are true and portray characters that I think are complex, but also not wanting to write about the continent in a way that will perpetuate certain stereotypes. I don’t want to have those limitations; I want to have artistic freedom. […] This perpetual silencing of women silences women not just on this continent, but on a global scale.” Erica Sugo Anyadike on the narrator’s anonymity and African stereotypes (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“What I like about second person is that it forces people to be complicit. Because you are using the ‘you’, you are encouraging readers to think about what would happen if they were in this situation and had to make these decisions. […] Using the ‘you’ was a way for me to shorten the narrative distance between the reader and the protagonist. It was important to have them be complicit and compassionate. When you are dealing with a character that is deeply unpopular, using the second person forces the reader to relate to the character.” Erica Sugo Anyadike on the use of second-person (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)

‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’ by Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria & UK)

Rating: * * * *

Summary/Review:

If you are puzzled over what to do with your Mami Wata, this guide might help…

This short story takes on a very unique and creative format: it is structured as an academic research paper. Although humorous, Emelumadu’s advisory essay format acts as a powerful subversion: in a world where African legends are often denied or neglected by the West, this story wastes no time attempting to convince readers of its truth, and instead posits the Mami Wata as undeniable fact. Meticulously detailed, do not skip a single citation as Emelumadu misses no opportunity for creative expression. Though based in myth, Emelumadu uses the Mami Wata to comment on the politics of everyday African life. There are subtle hints at Nigeria’s homophobic laws, FGM and animal cruelty. Through the invocation of magical myth, Emelumadu levels an innovative critique against society’s rather dull intolerances.

Excerpt:

Skimpy or revealing clothing: A Mami Wata is a slave to its own appearance and will often try to entice other men or women, even while they are with your son or daughter. Articles of clothing such as see-through blouses, tight trousers showing bulges (men), buttocks and thighs (women) and buttock-slits (both), singlets and vests in place of shirts, net vests, short shorts also known as ‘batty riders’ or ‘pum-pum pushers’, muscle shirts and deep V-necks (unisex) and dresses with cut-outs or overlong slits, are all possible signifiers.

Chikodili Emelumadu, ‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’, published in The Shadow Booth: Vol.2 (2018)

Writer’s Comments:

“I think the law states that you will be thrown in jail for 14 years if they find out that you’ve had homosexual relations. It’s about stripping people of their humanity — of making sure that they can’t form connections just because of their sexuality. When I grew up, men used to hold hands in Nigeria. And now…We’ve kind of inherited this really Victorian attitude of ‘men being men’ — you can’t show affection, you can’t touch your body. I think about young boys who don’t care: they will wear nail polish, dye their hair, wear earrings. That is more in tune with olden day Africa. Our men adorned themselves: they had earrings, holes, scarification, elaborate hairdos, chains — that is more in keeping with how I understood Igbo culture. So this was my way of mocking people that mock other men, or mock what is considered ‘Other’.” Chikodili Emelumadu on the mention of homosexuality in the story (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“It was a story that was always going to have a cheeky, irreverent tone to it so I wanted it to have a rigid structure in comparison. […] But also…we had similar beliefs all around the world, and then came the age of scientific reason. But to me, science is connected to the supernatural. I took my son to my village in 2017 and I met with the chief priest of my town. There were some things that he said which was actually just describing chemistry. They understand these things, but not in the same terms we do. It’s so silly to have that knowledge — and that expertise — be thrown away completely. That’s what happened with colonialism — everything that was African became demonised. I’m just interested in bringing back those things, and interlinking them to the now. Because there has been a resurgence in the belief in the supernatural — all the wiccans, Stonehenge, paranormal TV shows. I’m like: ‘But you stopped us from doing all of these things, and now you are telling me that I should watch your show?’ There is no difference! But once it’s African, it becomes fetish, illiterate, ignorant, unsophisticated. I’m here to put a stop to that.” Chikodili Emelumadu on the academic form (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)

Fisherman’s Stew’ by Jowhor Ile (Nigeria)

Rating: * * *

Summary/Review:

A widow discovers that her late husband has not entirely left her…

In this touching tale of romance, love knows no bounds — not even death. This is another story which is not interested in the denial of African experiences, and instead asserts its main character’s evening rendezvous with her late husband as fact, though she keeps it to herself lest she be accused of hysterical grief or madness. The stew becomes a way for her to summon her husband’s ghost, so the two can make passionate love. This graphic scene is refreshing to read, given the fact that this older age bracket is rarely permitted any sexual representation. Though beautifully written overall, the ending drops off rather suddenly, potentially leaving readers unsatisfied with this tale.

Excerpt:

She thought of her own sleepy-eyed astonishment when she awoke that morning to a bed in disarray. A current ran down her spine. If it was a crack in her mind that had let Benji back into the world, she thought, then her intention was to keep the crack open, widen it. Her plan was to visit the evening market, and then make stew. She knew that if you love a person and they love you back, you can cook for them something that ensures they find their way to you, should they be lost.

Jowhor Ile, ‘Fisherman’s Stew’, published in The Sewanee Review (2019)

Writer’s Comments:

I was thinking of some of the places I grew up. […] I spent a lot of time in the village. There’s a different world view. Something might happen, and someone else might describe it as supernatural, but it’s just a part of the world. I wanted to portray that — to tell the story from that perspective. Jowhor Ile on Nimi’s alternate interpretation of the afterlife (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“This is a story about desire dramatised. Desire on a really fundamental level. […] For Nimi, she knows what she wants and she knows the world is designed to sometimes prevent you from getting what you want, sometimes by generating concern [about your mental health]. […] She is old and wise enough to know what she wants, and she wants to go for it, and so she has to sidestep all the barriers.” Jowhor Ile on desire and privacy (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)

‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ by Rémy Ngamije (Rwanda & Namibia)

Rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

Five of the world’s homeless struggle to get through each day…

In this hard-hitting read, Ngamije explores the politics of poverty. The story follows a group of five homeless people of varying ages. The bond between them is based on survival, and each person’s presence fulfils a certain role. Ngamije accurately breaks down the sexual dynamics of the group, describing how the woman and younger man exist to satiate the elders’ sexual needs in exchange for physical protection. Taking us area by area, through the foraged findings of the bunch, we are able to ascertain each neighbourhoods’ wealth. In one particularly disturbing scene, two characters humorously recall their discovery of a dead baby in a bin. As they state: “poor people have nothing left to throw away but themselves”. Laced with Afrikaans, this story’s focus on homelessness means hardly any social issue is left untouched: gender, class and police brutality are all discussed. Perhaps most disheartening is the way homelessness robs the group the freedom to dream and imagine. Instead, time is warped by poverty, and each character is eternally confined to an unstable present.

Excerpt:

Everyone brought a past to the street and the present was always hungry. The street snacked on those who regretted, those who dreamt of a tomorrow that still required today to be survived.

That was the first thing Elias told Lazarus: the street has no future, there is only today. And today you need food. Today you need shelter. Today you need to take care of today.

Rémy Ngamije, ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’, published in The Johannesburg Review of Books (2019)

Writer’s Comments:

“I desire to write stories who have interesting people with hard choices. The characters themselves: it’s not hard to find them in my world, or in your world. These people exist everywhere. That universal personage is something that we all need to question: why do these people exist? But the characters in my story are specifically designed as a solution to a writing problem I had about how to break time into manageable chunks. Mondays for you and me or anyone with a roof over their head because we get to leave our houses and go to work. But is your Monday different from your Sunday or from your Wednesday if you do not have these other economic structures to your time. So my characters were really conceptualised as a means to get through the story, from A to B.” Rémy Ngamije on characterisation and time (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“Her existence in the story for me symbolises the silence of homeless women on the street. When I was writing the story and thinking of the characters, instinctively, all of them were male because that’s the idea we have about people without homes. But where are the women? This does not just happen to men, it happens to women as well. What is a woman on the street going to have to do in order to survive today, tomorrow and the day after? Her role in the story symbolises the very dire choices a woman on the street might have to make in exchange for a little safety and a little security — not a lot, just a little. […] Omagano is very silent throughout most of the story. But I think that silence is something that needs to be investigated. I think that silence speaks volumes. […] It’s less about the people on the streets, but more about the people in the houses. We are the people in the house, so we have some hard questions we need to answer.” Rémy Ngamije on the gendering of poverty (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“The first character that came to me was Elias. This former Namibian veteran who helped fight in the liberation struggle for the country’s independence and then ultimately winds up homeless and very disenfranchised in this new republic that he helped bring into existence.” Rémy Ngamije on which character he imagined first (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)

‘Grace Jones’ by Irenosen Okojie (Nigeria & UK)

Rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

A woman lost in grief begins impersonating Grace Jones as a form of escapism…

After her family is killed by a terrible fire in her tower block, a young woman who resembles Grace Jones begins working for a celebrity impersonation agency, attending lavish parties and sex-working. Engulfed in this one traumatic moment, the story effortlessly hammers architectural language and fire imagery into its foundation. For example, innocuous objects such as red lipstick and keyholes are repeated, until gradually, their metonymic function is revealed. The narrative structure is blurred by the trauma that haunts Sidra; just as PTSD interrupts the chronology of life, so does memory interrupt this tale. This story particularly resonates for London readers, who will naturally recall the tragedy of Grenfell as they read through Okojie’s gruesome descriptions of the all-consuming blaze. Sidra becomes obsessed with fire, perhaps in the hope that the flames that bore her trauma, can also purge her of it.

Excerpt:

Sidra had first seen Grace on TV. She must have been around thirteen at the time. She’d been chasing Carla and Dorian, who were playing with a set of screw drivers behind the sofa, darting forwards and backwards in a mock game of fencing, shouting “En guard!” sporadically, brandishing the screw drivers like long, elegantly carved swords. The washing- machine was spinning. The windows were open to hide evidence of her botched attempt at gumbo. The smoke alarm was broken. Half an hour earlier, it had beeped incessantly. In her frustrated efforts to silence it, she’d broken it with a broom. But none of that mattered because a woman who looked like her was on TV. Pulled to the screen by an instinct she didn’t quite understand, she starred. It was on BBC1. She’d never seen a black woman so unapologetically dark on the screen. It was beautiful and she was hypnotised.

Irenosen Okojie, ‘Grace Jones’ from “Nudibranch”, published by Dialogue Books (2019)

Writer’s Comments:

“I was particularly interested in the process of trauma and all the different ways it can manifest. Sidra carries this incredible guilt about her family dying because she’d locked them in the house as a precaution which backfired. Sidra wants to lose herself in the persona of Grace Jones because she has a real dislike of herself. But at the same time, she’s also re-traumatising herself by setting more fires. On the one hand, she might be trying to find her way through that grief, but on the other, she’s actively keeping it going through the figure of the draughtsman.” Irenosen Okojie on coping with trauma (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)
“The draughtsman is a ghost haunting the building, but he is also a projection of Sidra’s trauma — they are interlinked. But the draughtsman has his own story within the piece: the building was actually a printing press that he designed beforehand which was pulled down to be made into a block of flats, and now he haunts it in anger and fiddles around to make sure things go wrong. But he becomes an accomplice to Sidra, encouraging her to set these fires. His trauma and her trauma seep into one; they almost become indistinguishable. […] They are both anchoring each other, in a way, in a place of purgatory.” Irenosen Okojie on the draughtsman character (‘2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation’ panel, Africa Writes)

Irenosen Okojie, the 2020 AKO Caine Prize winner. Photo source: https://www.arvon.org/tutors/irenosen-okojie/

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