Monday 17 June 2013

2013 Caine Prize Shortlist (2)

@omotayome For Twitter

  • Read the first part of the review here
Recently, I have been studying early American literature and Renaissance poetry. I found out that distinctive matters drive a literature of a particular age and time. Of the early American literature, the pursuit of the American Dream, the failure and the prospects of Puritanism were the bases for their writings. Renaissance poetry was so humanistic in its art, focusing all attention on the human feelings; the weaknesses and strengths. It is quite understandable that African writings of this present time are steeped in our prevalent messy economic struggle. Social insecurity still remains the continent’s most visible bane. It is in un/consciously following this pattern of writing that many of the shortlisted pieces mar their works. They are telling us what we already know in an ordinary manner. To this and for how to write, some add desperation to their narratives. Though there is some truth in what they write about, it is done with a poor or no attempt at necessary embellishment. This is bad. This is literature and not peer-to-peer small talks. I read Miracle and Foreign Aid and I mourned their pure ordinariness. Aside their conventional character types, nothing in those stories interested me.  If nothing, Pede Hollist should be praised for the creation of Balogun and the creative transition of the same character to Logan. There is some creativity at play there. But the story is stock and cheap anyway. This is not about being sniping; Miracle is just not it for this prize.

In this second part of the review, I focus only on the three other shortlists. Reviewing the five shortlisted pieces in sections is premeditated. You will find in these three stories, aside Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees, similarities pointing you to previously shortlisted entries. Bayan Layi’s child-touting theme and slummy setting bear semblance with Stickfighting Days. I wonder why only few co-reviewers are pointing out this similarity. Those who knocked Olufemi’s Stickfighting Days for its devilishly myopic single story should not give tasteless acquiesce to Bayan Layi now.  Perhaps, that only teaches one that most times what one calls objectivity is just a riled rumble of some class. Let the same people also hawk the Adichieesque single story this time and say Bayan Layi’s narrative is written with a dire desperation.

Like all children point-of-views are, they are not trustworthy and you cannot put a finger on what is really wrong in their telling. Everything is quickly overlooked. That’s the gift infancy bequeaths upon them. Adulthood forbids such mercy. Adults suffer the consequences of their least misplaced actions. So is it with Bayan Layi that one follows the child-narrator’s story without many questions. Inconsistences wrack Bayan Layi, the obvious desperation to achieve horror being one. Elnathan must have come under the child-narrator’s point-of-view to escape censure. But I see through Elnathan’s feint. Bayan Layi throttles simple chronology. The way of the ghetto may be volatile, but it does not change so rapidly in horror as Bayan Layi shows it. There are some loose ends in the story, beside some consequences not adding up to their antecedents, many things hurriedly happen without causes. Let’s examine this:

“No one dares come to steal in Bayan Layi. He tried to take some gallons of groundnut oil from Maman Ladidi’s house. Her house is ba’a shiga, men aren’t allowed to enter. She saw him and screamed. Then he ran and jumped over the fence. I like chasing thieves especially when I know they are not from Bayan Layi. I am the fastest runner here even though I broke my leg once when I fell from a motorcycle in Sabon Gari. Anyway, the groundnut oil thief, we caught him and gave him the beating of his life. I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch. So we sat this boy down and Banda asked what his name was. He said Idowu. I knew he was lying because he had the nose of an Igbo boy. I used my nail on his head many times, demanding his real name...
Like a bird in the sky he just flew past us. We couldn’t catch him this time. Banda asked us to just leave him alone. He didn’t reach Sabon Layi. Someone saw his body in a gutter that evening…
From the above, you ponder, why must Idowu die to serve the horror fare? Life may be so complex. But when you write, you don’t leave a careless vacuum for the reader to fill. That is just crude carelessness on the writer’s part. The story is already horror filled. The additional attempt only pushes it far.

Even the names of the parties (the Big and the Small Party) give so much away. And when you make it out in your head, the result matches the end of the story. Ask yourself, who wins between a Big and a Small party? In Nigeria, when that happens, what follows? When do the thugs come in when a small party is cheated? And the mayhem that follows, how does it change things? Work out those and you might write the same end-lines to Bayan Layi as Elnathan’s. So much for horror and desperate writing.

Chinelo Okparanta’s America bears a homosexual parallel with S.O Kenani’s Love on Trial, a 2012 shortlisted piece. While Kenani‘s focuses mainly on its gay theme, Chinelo’s rings the homosexual with the country’s woe and other shoddily inserted matters. When so many things are packed into a short story, first, length is compromised and the writer battles to manage the climaxes. In Chinelo’s America, there is the issue of immigration and homosexuality, both eventually ending in a fanciful resolution.

There is no clear manner as to when the stream-of-consciousness helps advance a story. I had read on it, there really isn’t. All that matters is that the story is advanced and it is non-intrusive. Chinelo needs not insert the stream-of-consciousness where she does in America, it renders the story bland and it does not add anything creative to the story. Consider this:

That night, my final night in the inn, I sit on my bed and I recall every twist of that folk tale. I think of crude. And I think of gold. And I think of crude as gold. I imagine Nigeria – the land and its people – as the hens, the producers of the gold. And I think that even when all the gold is gone, there will always be the hens to produce more gold. But what happens when all the hens are gone, when they have either run away or have been destroyed? Then what?

The reader does not need that. For writing sake, this is not an essay, it is a short story. Didacticism is always in the arts, you need not make it too obvious. When you do, that is tarty peachiness. The early Europeans destroyed African theatre for their knack for instructionalism over the arts. Thank goodness, we had the intelligent observation and subtle opposition of Major L.A. Natcutt and G.C Latham.

I once reviewed The Whispering Trees as a collection of short stories here. I observed that The Whispering Trees is one of the few worthy pieces in that collection though I didn't point that out. And I still stand by my then kept opinion; Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees mixes good language with an unpopular but creatively told story. The weakness of the story can only be attributed to the excesses on the author’s part. In short, the story is avoidably long. And when Ibrahim tries rescuing that, he too becomes preachy.  There is certainly no need for this:

“So it was that I lost my sight to find my vision, I lost my life to find my soul and I lost my vanity to find my purpose. Now, sitting here, in the The Whispering Trees, amidst all this beauty and these innocent souls, listening to this heavenly orchestra, I realise that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.”

There is no one way to telling a people’s story and no story is so dark as to be untrue. Learn how to write and tell your narratives too. And then, we will only have a balance in the way our stories are told.

  • The delay in publishing this second part of the review as against the 10th of June is much regretted.