Monday 30 June 2014

2014 Caine Prize Shortlist (2)

  • Read the first part of the review HERE
If you are patient enough, you might like some pieces in this year’s Caine Prize than you thought. Just like how I couldn’t relate with Absurdism in my drama class, few things in some of these pieces, especially those I will be focusing on in the last part of this review, frustrated my reading. The internet does not allow you to easily give the kind of attention these stories demand. The internet is a jealous thing, you know.  And one with more interesting stories to offer. In my drama class, for the grade, I took to liking the Absurdist movement; if only to be able to fault it well and please my lecturer. In the nonsensicalness of Vladimir and Estragon (in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play text), I took up an interest, rationalizing everything in to make sense of everything. In the endless dribbles of Vladimir and Estragon and the bestial servitude of Lucky to Pozzo, I saw how humanity could be vain and nothing and wicked. And so with the responsibility that comes with completing this review, I have made some sense of The Gorilla’s Apprentice and The Intervention and I have dug up some interesting things in them; if only to be able to review them well.

These stories usefully make use of good subtleties. In Billy Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice for instance, nothing is directly quickly revealed. Before anything is really shown, you must have known, so that when it is eventually revealed, it does not then only become a revelation, but a knowledge that is made known to understand other things. Instances of this abound in Billy Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice. It is in the same use of subtleties, that Billy’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice and Tendia’s The Intervention share some writing style. 

In “The Intervention”, though politics is a noticeable theme, the writer does not make it dominant. He only turns it into a passing commentary that complements the squabble between the young couple of Tamu and Sarah, and the characters’ lives as exiles. With this, it is only in the sufferings and anxieties of these characters and their conditions as immigrants that commentaries on the devilish politics running down their home country are made. Interesting way of writing there. 

With “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” too, the author never pushes it to you that Kenya is in a political turmoil. After you may have been hooked by Jimmy’s obsession with the old mountain Gorilla, chips of political uncertainties are only made reflective: in how long the tourists will stay at the zoo; in the crazy attitude of motorists on the way to Jimmy’s house; in the screams and billows observed away from the zoo. All these subtleties make these two pieces somewhat engaging.

“The Gorilla’s Apprentice” by Billy Kahora

Nothing matters to Jimmy Gukonyo, only the Gorilla does. The zoo is his escape from many miseries. That boy really has suffered. From a torn home, to the miseries that come with being raised by a single parent and his sight condition; a young boy cannot have bargained for so much despair. Nothing bears him comfort than in the non-verbal company of the gorilla. So, it is understandable that life for the gorilla is also one for him. As the gorilla ails, Jimmy soon seeks a way to talk to it. Semambo is his solution; Semambo is the havoc.

Billy takes feminism overboard in this piece. It does piss me off! We should stop this vogue of making men unjustifiably cruel in literature. This is the kind of literature that preys on the common for some misplaced gender right. We are never informed of what happens to Jimmy’s father, why he leaves Jimmy and his mother. We do not know what he does or does not do. All the reader knows is that he is the devil and the cause for the broken home. The author does not tell you this directly though, but the manner Jimmy’s father is mentioned in the stories makes you assumes as much. When a man leaves his home and child, he is always the devil and the women a saint in her singlehood (as she finds life afterwards in all manner). Just make men the devils anyhow and female characters in our literature are instant heroines. Rubbish.

 “When Jimmy was twelve his father left them, and Jimmy began to come on his own, except for the year he had been in and out of hospital.” (pg. 1)
Why did he leave? Billy will not tell you. Billy will again tell you he left:

“Jimmy knew all about these children – had lived among them, and become one of them after his father had left and his mother had taken them to her parents’ in Kerugoya for six months.” (pg. 3)
And then the father will be called names:

 “‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’” (pg. 4)
The question for his leaving is still unanswered:

“ ‘You know, when your father left I thought that we would just die, but look at us now.’” (pg. 4)
And Jimmy’s mother is made a heroine:

She would smear on her lipstick and flounce out of the apartment to meet a new man friend. (I’ve no time for boys. I need a man. James, will you be my man? Protect me.)(pg. 4)

“The Intervention” by Tendai Huchu

This interestingly blends a large scale political turbulence with a trivial emotional issue. In this story, the characters are distanced victims of what is happening in their country. This is one piece that almost articulates the drivel and dribble of the exiled. It shows the hypocrisy of opinionated immigrants even as they are ensconced elsewhere away from where it burns. It is easy to wax rhetoric when you are removed off the heat.  For a long time, exile will always be better than home for third world immigrants. They might only say otherwise to constantly always remind themselves; that they have homes, that their exile is not total. But really, the exile is total.

Z will hope the opposition party wins the election here:

 “ ‘Change is coming to Zimbabwe,’ Z said.
‘It’s been a long time coming,’ said the blazo.
‘As soon as our victory is confirmed, I’m packing my bags, leaving this goddamn country and going home,’ Z went on.” (pg. 8)
But when something else happens, his hypocrisy is magnified:

The results were out. The Party had won. The Party had won. The Party had won. The Party had. The Party? I saw a joyful smile mixed in with relief on Z’s face, because the Party’s win was a victory for him too. He had an asylum claim pending with the Home Office and if the Opposition had won, he’d have been screwed. He quickly mastered himself and frowned, now wearing a new look, a cross between sorrow and anger. (pg. 8)

Does anyone understand the dumb poetic outburst of Samba here in the story?:

“The children of Africa cry
When they should be laughing
Can you hear them, can you hear them.
Will you help them, will you help them.
The land of the fat hippopotamus
The home of the mighty Zambezi
The mystical ancestors
The wide African skies
The children of Africa cry
Waa-waa-waa” (pg. 9)

Just what is the significance of that anyway? And don’t tell me it is a mark of some resignation. There are several other ways that could be achieved.

This year’s stories are mixed for me. They all have what you will like them for and otherwise.

Follow Joseph Omotayo on Twitter @omotayome

Saturday 31 May 2014

2014 Caine Prize Shortlist (1)


This year, it is not that some pieces are not politically marked and steeped into the usual third world concerns. They subtly are. You perhaps would think otherwise in the manner they have tried to roll abstractness around those concerns. We have abstractness alongside other worries shoddily inserted by some of the pieces. Interesting, however, is that some manage through their narratives to hold us, slightly, with these worries. They achieved that with a bit of imagery here and there, which is, anyway, some respite from the many issues these stories have.

These concerns I write of are the usual themes ruining down and reeking in most African stories – themes of deep-seated social tension, poverty, political instability and their murky likes. We have them stinking everywhere. Perhaps, what some of these shortlisted writers will be applauded for is that, in some way, they succeeded in toning down the usual paper gloominess for us. But their doing so hardly motivates. These stories take some easing into. Just why must one ease into a short story? It is not a novel! In a short story, if you can’t hook your reader early enough, boredom shadows the rest of the story for him. This is one problem a story like “Phosphorescence” much struggles with. Its reading demands patience.  

Clear enough, the many problems with these stories haven’t anything to do with their themes. Rather, it is in how they write about them. Your reading glee faints, slumps, subsists and dies. Another day, you pick them up from where you left off and your interest again dies and you doze off and slur. When this happens, you don’t have a reading problem, the stories only make it so. It is never your fault. I really wanted to believe there were a lot going on for the stories but stubbornly as I read hard, almost everything was pallid. I had to read these pieces many times over. I have never spent that much time with short stories. I was only overly optimistic that something in them might just connect for me. It took me some stubborn curiosities to go far with some of them: the curiosities to know what significance chicken has with Kaba and the whole grand scheme of things in “Chicken”; what makes Jimmy, a boy obsessed with a gorilla, a Gorilla’s Apprentice in “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” and other mental wanderings. You must be a traditional reader to finish reading these stories at a first pickup. To be a traditional reader is to want to dig up more in a story, a reader whose attention is not easily lost. When you are not, you’re quickly bored.

There are a host of short stories on the web starved of relative attention. Writing prizes are falling at archiving the best for us.  Sometime lately, I read Jowhor’s “Afternoon Street” here. If a piece like that could handle a theme as abstract as delirium with apt skill, why not Okwiri Oduor’s My Father’s Head?
-- The Shortlists --

“Phosphorescence” by Daine Awerbuck

“Phosphorescence” shows how pride most times influences what we make of people. With Alice, Brittany is an helpless and confused teenager. Perhaps she is. For most part of the story, the reader knows all what Brittany is from Alice’s eyes. But Alice’s view of Brittany might not just be the whole truth. What later turns out at Graaf’s pool will make you question Alice’s opinion of her granddaughter.  “Phosphorescence” stacks up the old with the young. This is a metaphor of many interpretations. In a way, one can relate Alice’s and Brittany’s brief walk-out-to-the-pool relationship as one that portrays the value of family. Just what could have been with Alice in the pool as the municipality calls?

For most part, “Phosphorescence” reads like an academic creative short story. Every sentence is over-edited. The sentences seem too careful. The language is rigid. It most reads like a submission for one’s lecturer.

“Chicken” by Efeima Chela

I don’t just get the first part of this piece. Tell me, how does it connect with the whole part of the story? Cut the first part off and read the remaining as a whole and tell if the story still not stands. It really does. This is one winding story. If the first part of the story is to provide a background to Kaba, then it fails with its numerous details about her family. And oh, it even yammers on as it chronicles Kaba’s extended life also. Again, what significance does the title bear to the story? Apart from a few slaughtered chickens, there is no other place that shows the relevance of the title to the story. This makes you want to ask; how are titles chosen for stories? However subtle, shouldn’t there be a correlation between stories and titles?

“Chicken” narrates the derailing life of Kaba. Her stubborn belief in herself will not save her. Numerous forces will haunt her. With families and home flung off for a (misplaced) belief, Kaba shoulders it all. And almost rises above them all with a keen spirit, soul and ovary.

“My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Odour

This is slightly dabbled with the imaginative to captivate. Simbi strides the real world and beyond to know what exactly her father’s head looks like. Around the delicate nuance of recalling the memory of a head are minutes of everything from banal religiosity to social imbalance.  The ability of a writer to tell so much in a short story often relies on the influences of remarkable images. For me, “My Father’s head” is just a story, nothing more. I believe the use of more images would have helped tell the story better. More engaging images as these:

“One moment I was listening to tales of Acholi valour, and the next, I was stringing together images of my father, making his limbs move and his lips spew words, so that in the end, he was a marionette and my memories of him were only scenes in a theatrical display.”

“…I could even see the thick line of sweat and oil on his shirt collar, the little
brown veins that broke off from the main stream of dirt and ran down on their own.


·         Read the concluding part of the review HERE

Follow Joseph Omotayo on Twitter @omotayome