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REVIEW: A Memory This Size and Other Stories

memory and writing

A memory this sizeA Memory This Size and Other Stories

Jacana

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.

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

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

REVIEW: We Need New Names

noviolet

we need knew names

NoViolet Bulawayo

Chatto & Windus

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

Penned under her unusual pseudonym, Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Tshele has turned “Hitting Budapest’’, her award-winning short story which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, into a ferocious, hard hitting debut novel laced with bitter gallows humour. It’s a cautionary tale, which made me quite literally flinch on occasion. Prospective readers should prepare themselves for the emotional equivalents of jabbing upper cuts and the occasional well-aimed gut punch to the solar plexus, as We Need New Names conjures a nightmarish vision of life in a corrupt, and politically and socially unstable African nation.

Does this get a bit much sometimes? Yes, it can. Does Bulawayo sometimes come dangerously close to creating yet another ‘trauma junkie’ portrayal of Africa? To a degree. But luckily she succeeds in balancing her often macabre vision with wonderfully irreverent passages and wry social commentary which lifts her book beyond the merely sensationalistic. Since the second half of her book is set in the United States, the juxtaposition of two very different worlds also puts a refreshingly different spin on things and creates a more nuanced end product.

The first half of We Need New Names has strong elements of a dystopian, surrealist modern day fable. The novel tells the coming of age story of Darling (also our first person narrator) who, when we meet her, is a street savvy, jaded nine-year-old girl living in an unnamed African country. (Readers will soon enough pick up that this is contemporary Zimbabwe.)

Darling is part of a marauding band of brutalised street children living in a derelict shanty town on the edge of the capital, the ironically named, ‘Paradise’. Their suburban homes have long ago been bulldozed by the overzealous Mugabe government, their schools have been closed and their teachers retrenched, their parents are out struggling to make ends meet. They are desensitised and feral and spend their days trawling more affluent suburbs stealing fruit and ferreting for booty, or engage in bizarre role playing and games most of which seem to bear some element of crassness or viciousness. They steal the shoes of a suicide victim for bread money. They pretend to be a band of presidential supporters beating an opposition party member to death. Bastard, their gang’s self anointed leader, is an unmitigated bully – a Mugabe enforcer of the future. These kids wear American College T-shirts donated by aid workers and expediently pander to the clicking cameras of do-gooders and pressmen in the hopes of handouts. Their daily activities and attitudes are there to offer readers a horrifying reflection of the spiritual and moral erosion of their society.

Bulawayo highlights mob brutality, the scourge of Aids, child molestation, the lightweight impact of international aid and other issues as she weaves her absorbing tale. It’s all rather menacing and creepy and depressing yes – but the strange fact is, these kids are also having fun, being creative and making the most of bleak circumstances. They haven’t lost their sense of vitality, no matter how tough life may be. So while Bulawayo’s weakness as first time novelist may be her urge to overdo ‘the horror, the horror’ (she can be heavy handed with the litany of woes), her child narrator’s delightful candour (used to great ironic effect), her lively prose which brims over with verve, and her insightful juxtaposition of Darling’s early life set against her later coming of age in the United States, justify her inclusion on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. The novel’s unpunctuated dialogue, however, can make for tricky reading. While it adds to the narrative’s surrealist edge, I would have been glad of quotation marks to distinguish spoken words in the text.

In the novel’s second half, Bulawayo cannily describes Darling’s adolescence as part of an illegal immigrant family headed by her Aunt Fostalina and Fostalina’s Ghanaian partner. While the author continues to blend bleakness with humour in this part of the story, as Darling’s skewed immersion into the false promise of the great, ephemeral ‘American Dream’ is described, the satire is gentler and in many ways far more effective. The author, who like her protagonist immigrated to the States as pre-teen, has great fun cocking a snoot at Middle American mall culture. Hankering for home, Darling changes her accent, goes shopping with friends, watches internet porn, takes on demeaning part time jobs and finds herself (along with fellow émigrés) inhabiting a conflicted state of economic and cultural limbo.

Bulawayo’s dense prose is layered with meaning. For every observation Darling makes, whether it be about a bogus lay preacher plying his salvation trade in a Harare ghetto, or about her Americanised aunt’s obsession with diets and Victoria’s Secret lingerie, there is much incisive social commentary in this unusual and thought provoking text.