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Slum life, Sexuality, Gender and Violence: Caine Prize 2018 Short Stories Review

The 2018 Caine Prize shortlist provided another interesting blend of African writers. The five names included: Nonyelum Ekwempu (Nigeria) for ‘American Dream’, Stacy Hardy (South Africa) for ‘Involution’, Olufunke Ogundimu (Nigeria) for ‘The Armed Letter Writers’, Makena Onjerika (Kenya) for ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’, Wole Talabi (Nigeria) for ‘Wednesday’s Story’.

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 here. Alternatively, you can read the five shortlisted stories for free by visiting the Caine Prize website.

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Photo by: @vitalwritersblog


‘American Dream’ by Nonyelum Ekwempu (Nigeria)

My rating: * * * *

Summary/Review:

A preacher announces a young man’s destiny to leave the Lagos lagoon slum for a life in America. Despite the opening and closing of the text centring on this Western dream, America is not so much a tangible destination, but a distant mirage. Ekwempu uses the theme of escapism as a tool to wrench open a story about the hardships of slum-living, namely: poverty, family strife, disease, sex-work, violence and sexual discrimination.

Almost accidentally, this story stumbles on an intense evaluation of the intersection between patriarchy, masculinity and sexuality. A violent instance in the text leaves readers pondering the writer’s treatment of queerness. Some questions which arise are problematic: does this story suggest that queerness breeds femininity? Is growing up without a father figure an emasculating experience? Other questions are more favourable: does the text break down toxic masculinity and scrutinise the link between gender performance and sexuality? Does the story ultimately provide an alliance between masculinity and queerness? Read the story and decide for yourself!

Excerpt:

Tubosun was not like the other boys in the neighborhood. He never joined us for our fishing trips. He preferred to play hand and leg games with the girls. Once, when I and the boys came back from fishing, we sat in the boat and watched as Tubosun and some girls played Ten Ten in front of his house. In the middle of the foot-stomping rhythms, one girl’s braided extension dropped from her head and Tubosun picked it up and attached it to his own. He ran his hands over the length of hair repeatedly and tucked it behind his ear. The other boys and I laughed.

Nonyelum Ekwempu, ‘American Dream’, in Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2018), pp. 24-25.

Writer’s comments:

Unfortunately, Nonyelum Ekwempu did not attend the Q&A panel at the Africa Writes 2018 literature festival, so I did not obtain any quotes from this writer.

‘Involution’ by Stacy Hardy (South Africa)

My rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

A woman suddenly notices that an undetermined creature is living inside her vagina. This crude little piece is at once intriguing and unsettling, captivating and uncomfortable, as Hardy makes brilliant use of the uncanny in relation to the female physique. Much like the main character’s grotesque fascination with the creature, readers will not be able to divert their attention away from this curious short story. At its core, this text acts as a fun yet critical exploration of female sexuality.

Excerpt:

When she first discovers the thing, she reacts with fright. It isn’t just its outlandish appearance but also its proximity. Why, considering all the suitable nooks and crannies, the possible hidey holes in the vicinity, has it chosen her? In truth she might not have noticed it if it wasn’t for the itch. At first, barely noticeable, more like a humming, a low-level vibration somewhere in her nether regions, then louder, more insistent.

Stacy Hardy, ‘Involution’, in Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2018), p. 30.

Writer’s comments:

  1. Stacy Hardy on what makes a story ‘African’ (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“An African story is a story that offers a world view or comes from a space that is different to a Western space. I take ‘African’ to be enormously broad and probably encompass internationalism.”
  1. Stacy Hardy on what the Caine Prize means to her (Africa Writes 2018 Q&A panel 2018)

“My first thought when I was nominated for the Caine Prize is ‘oh my gosh they caught me’ […]. I think I’ll carry on writing the stuff that I write and have always written, however what it does mean is that you as a writer have a wonderful opportunity of reaching more readers. There aren’t answers in my stories, only lots of questions and I need my readers to bring those answers to my stories.”
  1. Stacy Harding on how science fiction helps her question issues of racism within South Africa (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“I’ve joked that this is a story about trying to decolonise my vagina. […] Much of my work is about what does it mean to be human and do we need to come up with another idea about what the human is.”

‘The Armed Letter Writers’ by Olufunke Ogundimu (Nigeria)

My rating: * * *

Summary/Review:

The townspeople of Abati Close receive a letter from the Armed Robbers’ Association kindly announcing their intention to loot the city. Like in Kafka’s ‘The Castle’, the police department is highly satirised, with the story centring around their comically useless investigation. However, underneath the humour lies a poignant critique of law enforcement, raising issues of corruption, inaction and police brutality.

Excerpt:

Hello Everybody,

We are coming for a visit soon. We will convey to you the days we will be visiting Abati Close by and by. We will appreciate your maximum cooperation. Do not aid the police in anyway. Please be warned that all trouble makers shall be dealt with, severely.

Olufunke Ogundimu, ‘The Armed Letter Writers’, in Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2018), p. 42.

Writer’s comments:

  1. Olufunke Ogundimu on the theme of poverty in African writing (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“I don’t think there should be any limitations on what can or should be written about. For me, place is a very important theme in what I write. Most of my short stories are set in Lagos. This is as real as it gets. The violence is always there under the surface. It’s what we deal with. Why should I not write about that? If it’s about my community, about the life that I live? It’s also a celebration about how people deal with that kind of thing, about how they cope: using humour.”

‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ by Makena Onjerika (Kenya) *Winner of the 2018 Caine Prize award*

My rating: * * *

Summary/Review:

This story follows the life of Meri, a curious beggar who stands out amongst the other women of the slums. Told by her peers, the story keeps Meri at arm’s length, maintaining an air of mystique about her character. Though she experiences the toils of slum life – violence, poverty, prostitution, pregnancy – somehow misfortune never completely touches Meri. She evokes both envy and sympathy from her female peers; though their resentment initially causes them to lash out against Meri, gradually, the women form a community of support and nurturance.

This piece won the 2018 Caine Prize, earning Onjerika £10,000. Although the story is certainly enjoyable, I cannot help but notice its broad similarities with last year’s winning piece, ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ by Bushra al-Fadil. Though the two writers have radically different styles, both stories are told in the third person, and both follow an elusive woman who meets a violent and ambiguous end. For this reason, I cannot help but think that another story on this shortlist would have been more suitable for the title.

Excerpt:

She was our sister and our friend but, from the time we were totos, Meri was not like us. If the Good Samaritans who came to give us foods and clothes on Sundays asked us what we wanted from God, some of us said going to school; some of us said enough money for living in a room in Mathare slums; and some of us, the ones who wanted to be seen we were born- again, said going to heaven. But Meri, she only wanted a big Fanta Blackcurrant for her to drink every day and it never finish.

Makena Onjerika, ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’, in Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2018), p. 56.

Writer’s comments:

  1. Makena Onjerika on the theme of poverty in her writing (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“In Kenya there is this idea that children on the streets are not children. That’s something that I wanted to explore – that they are children. The kind of little jealousies we had in boarding school when I was 10 to 13 is the kind of same play in relationships between girls that you see [in this story].”

‘Wednesday’s Story’ by Wole Talabi (Nigeria)

My rating: * * * * *

Summary/Review:

In this clever and inventive tale, the days of the week are personified orators, whose shared narrations speak stories into existence. Unable to continue with Monday and Tuesday’s mournful tale of violence and heartbreak, Wednesday goes off script, causing a tear to emerge in the time/space continuum. This piece is anything but linear; it loops back on itself, diverges into other stories and possesses several different versions. This makes it a self-conscious narration, sensitive to the art of storytelling itself.

Excerpt:

In the wounded space between Sunday and I, a filmy blackness is spreading like poisoned blood. It expands and expands and expands until it is a hole wide enough for three gluttonous men to fall through. I remove the timestone from the centre of it slowly and the blackness ripples but does not retreat. I dip my fingers into the darkness and the chill I felt initially returns like a persistent suitor. This time I do not withdraw from its frosty caress. I lean forward, letting my hand sink deeper and deeper. Beyond the cold is warmth, the warmth and humidity of tropical night. I continue to lean in until my face is only half a breath away from the blackness, and then I let myself fall into the inky sea that fills the hole I have carved between worlds, focused only on the image in the vision from Monday’s story, using the pain of its characters as a beacon to guide me to a reality shore nearby.

Wole Talabi, ‘Wednesday’s Story’, in Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018 (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2018), pp. 73-74.

Writer’s comments:

  1. Wole on storytelling as craft (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“Stories are political. Stories are how we understand the world. […] In African traditions, the story was history, science, culture, it was a way of holding an entire worldview. In that tradition, it is very important to be aware [that you are being told a story]. In modern fiction, the game is to be immersive. I wanted to harp back to the whole style of being aware that it’s a story, while also being aware of the power of stories.”
  1. Wole on the role of science fiction in African writing and its Western bias (Africa Writes Q&A panel 2018)

“Is there a lot of science fiction coming from Africa? Most people would say yes, I would say no. What you do get a lot of, is science fantasy. Science fantasy, is fantasy wearing science fiction clothes. It has the tropes of science fiction – spaceships, robots – things that look ‘science fictional’ but don’t actually take what I would consider a ‘science fictional’ approach to the story. A ‘science fictional’ approach to me […means…] asking ‘what if we built a robot that looked like us’ and then constructing a new world from that and using it to ask questions about what that world could be like. Unfortunately, we are not getting a lot of that – yet […]. The reason I’m making this distinction is that the ‘science fictional’ way of thinking is extremely helpful, not only in producing good stories, but in breaking the mould in your mind for what can be. Because when you ask a lot of Africans about what they think about the future, and when they write an African ‘science fiction’ story, it’s essentially Africa aspiring to be the West. Like the science fiction is: oh Lagos is New York now. That’s extremely limiting. Or it’s like: we have a metro now. Okay fine. Think bigger. Reconstruct an entire new transportation system. Think about what if we had never had colonisation. Never been introduced to the Western approach to constructing cities and road networks. What would the system look like now?”

While you’re here, check out my review of last year’s shortlist!

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