REVIEW: Maya Fowler
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said WB Yeats in his poem The Second Coming, his words famously echoed in the title of Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel. But does the centre still hold? Is Western tradition still the centre, for literature, after all?
At first inspection – and bearing in mind that NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-nominated We Need New Names and Nigeria’s acclaimed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah are both set in the States – the reader might think America is some kind of axis for the African imagination. Three of the five shortlisted stories are directly concerned with America. However, read on and you soon discover the majority of themes are tied to home soil. Even so, “[p]eople have a way of getting lost in America,” fears a mother in the story titled America. “America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go.”
This year’s Caine Prize was not without controversy. Things turned nasty after Adichie said in an interview that she wasn’t interested in the Caine collection, and didn’t think it’s where you’d find the best African writing. Shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responded with a swift “F*ck you” on Twitter, while Elnathan John revealed perhaps more than he should have of his feelings towards Adichie on his blog.
A Memory This Size and Other Stories consists of the five stories shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize – all of exceptional quality – as well as 12 new, specially produced stories created at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.
First prize went to Tope Folarin for Miracle, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in Texas. While I agree with one judge’s appraisal that Miracle is “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling,” I prefer Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid.
This story, of a man from Sierra Leone who emigrates to America and becomes fat on both fast food and on the worst of the values he finds there, was filled with the same cynicism as the winning story, but with perhaps even more dark humour. In this account of the protagonist’s return to his native “Salone”, a “Louis Vuitton fanny pack” of dollars strapped to his waist, we are shown what happens when a man behaves like a tourist in his home country. While the writer pokes fun at certain American ways, he does not shy away from illustrating Sierra Leone’s problems.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees contains elements of magic realism. A young man, dead but not dead, blinded by the accident that killed him but didn’t, emerges from the hell of depression able to see the souls of people and objects. The protagonist’s bad behaviour, in the darkest period of his blindness, held for me flashes of Orhan Pamuk. I love this story, but Ibrahim’s workshop story, The Book of Remembered Things, also included in the anthology, I love more. It deals with religious disbelief, but also zeal. It is a sensitive, moving portrayal of one family’s love, hate and hurt, and ways of protecting, that will stay with me for a long time.
Bayan Layi, by Elnathan John, is a brilliant and terrifying story of children running wild; boys without hope, without love, that speak the language of violence and of killing. I was impressed by the writer’s ability to make you warm to the protagonist, even though the child is someone you’d hate to meet in person. John’s characters are striking and complex.
Perhaps my favourite was Chinelo Okparanta’s America, in which a young Nigerian teacher, who dreams of being an environmental engineer, follows her lover to America. It is a poignant love story in which we are reminded that there are trickier places than America to be gay. The protagonist explains to the visa interviewer that she wants to go to America to study environmental engineering so that she can learn about recent oils spills in the US and how to apply the lesson in the Niger Delta.
The story speaks of some form of restitution. If, for centuries, colonial powers tapped Africa of its natural resources, with little regard for environmental impact, perhaps they can at least pass on knowledge of how to deal with environmental disaster today.
The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work, and some of a less polished standard. The short story is a difficult form for the new(er) writer, and especially endings can be elusive. This is clear from the weaker stories, which are sabotaged by their endings more than anything else. Yet there is no shortage of excellent writing in the workshop section.
Wazha Lopang’s The Strange Dance of the Calabash is a delightful dig at patriarchy and arranged marriage. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Blood Guilt is an ironic, chilling but darkly humorous account of post-liberation atrocity. Hellen Nyana’s Chief Mourner deserves special mention for its pathos and focus on relationships. Rotimi Babatunde’s Howl is a wonderful piece of satire and magic realism. Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s haunting Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile deals with environmental concerns. And Elnathan Johns’ A Memory This Size is magnificent piece of work. As it happens, John’s bio reads that he has “tried hard, but has never won anything.”
I’m willing to bet that last part will change.
- Fowler is a writer, editor and translator
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013