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