Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Caine Prize

For NoViolet Bulawayo: We need new names

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves. (p 145)

-        We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

In the 21st century, in the age of twitter and Facebook-induced ADHD, when a hard copy book is able to engage you nonstop for two days until you get to its end, all you can do is stand up at the end and give the author of such a miracle a rousing standing ovation. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book, We Need New Names is such a book. Let’s just say the book did not make me cry but it certainly aggravated my allergies, something in the pages made a mess of my tear ducts. Bulawayo kicked this one way out of the ball park; dear writers, this is the book to beat. It is a beautiful book, in every sense; every sentence is pretty, you want to take each word home and cuddle up to it. The book may be dying, but Bulawayo is going to ensure that it doesn’t go down without a great fight. I have always thought that thanks to technology, the book at best would be relegated to an archival role, of dead history, etc. Nope, not with Bulawayo, this book is the most contemporary piece of literature I have read in a long time, it situates itself firmly in the 21st century, firmly in our sitting rooms, in our laptops, tablets and smartphones and connects communities, countries and continents with muscle – and Skype. Now, that is how to write a book. Yes.

NamesWe Need New Names punches gaping holes in Africa’s boundaries and oozes lovely echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, what is this book about? Defiantly starting with the winning short story that ticked me off during the 2011 Caine Prize competition (see How not to write about Africa), Bulawayo takes the reader through the enchanting, disturbing and amazing journeys of six urchins growing up in a place one suspects is in Zimbabwe. Six ten-year old urchins dressed in NGO castoffs – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and the protagonist Darling, dream of escaping their hell, a place called, you wouldn’t guess it, Paradise. Paradise is hell, a desolate shanty town with a street pregnant with despair named Hope, a place where people simply wait to die, nothing but death and misery happens here. In this part of the world, children are born and they endure waves of war that they did not ask for. Example: Chipo is pregnant – with her grandfather’s baby – at age ten. They are always hungry and they raid the wealthy enclave of Budapest to steal guavas and fill their stomachs until they are too constipated to be hungry. I will never look at a guava the same way again, ever. You imagine six ten-year olds, dressed in the detritus of the West (used Google T-shirts, etc), one pregnant, feet dusty from constant trekking, exploring their devastation, dreaming and scheming of America, a world away where they think there is no hunger, and your heart stops, just stops, this is so wrong. Paradise. Hope. Despair. A deadly joke resides in there somewhere:

We all find places, and me, I squat behind a rock. This is the worst part about guavas; because of all those seeds, you get constipated once you eat too much. Nobody says it, but I know we are constipated again, all of us, because nobody is trying to talk, or get up and leave. We just eat a lot of guavas because it is the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country. (p 16)

We Need New Names is an unusual work of fiction – in a delightful sense. Every chapter has a name and the book reads like a collection of eighteen short stories, whose titles strung together collectively tell one delectable story: Hitting Budapest. Darling on the Mountain. Country-Game. Real Change. How They Appeared. We Need New Names. Shhhh. Blak Power. For Real. How They Left. Destroyedmychygen. Wedding. Angel. This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images. Hitting Crossroads. How They Lived. My America. Writing on the Wall.

And what a story. Each sentence throbs with understated passion. Bulawayo doesn’t use quotes; she employs a delicious neat trick – the dialogue melts into the prose. In effortless dialogue, remarkable since Bulawayo dispenses with the use of quotes, Bulawayo connects the West with Africa in the universality of wars and dysfunction. When the protagonist escapes the hell that was her Africa, she comes face to face with America and her issues, wars that are just as savage as the one she just left behind. And she wails about it in some of the best prose poetry I have ever read in my life. Paradise is hell, Budapest is hope and America, and the road that connects them is named Hope:

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. (p 2)

Budapest is the America that the children see on television:

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled roads or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. (p 4)

These are stories that tell of triumph over the basest of adversities. We Need News Names is unflinchingly disturbing and dark (there is an attempt at abortion by the ten year olds, and there is female genital mutilation). The old ways of Africa can no longer carry her burdens, and her proverbs and sayings are increasingly effete in a new world of twitter, unmanned drones and Wal-Mart. This is a very dark place, most of it a consequence of the rank incompetence of black rule, post-apartheid and independence, many thanks to the selfishness and self-absorption of the intellectual and ruling class. There is deep darkness in this book. Bulawayo’s mind draws intensely dark portraits; a dead woman hanging from a tree, for instance, and children stealing her shoes to go buy bread. Quietly the anger seethes and seethes and seethes in the pretty sentences.

There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers, and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:

Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would both be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. (p 77)

But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her evocative words. Hear her:

Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had swallowed it. (p 23)

Bulawayo wrote this book with every ounce of her blood, the prose is so intense and personal, especially when she is writing about America, the protagonist’s adopted land. Bulawayo’s mind is a riot; it is as if she is a brainy lunatic. I love her quiet confidence, she does not italicize African terms and words, does not go all out to explain them either, reader do the research. I love that.

bulawayoIn We Need New Names, Bulawayo recreates the death of childhood innocence expertly. The details, seamy and dirty, seep out like shy determined children peeping at the world from behind walls of harried, abused mothers and at the end of the book, the portrait is complete – of human triumph over utter devastation. Rich complex imagery expertly folds into the reader’s consciousness in a manner that is just a wee bit more than matter-of-factly. The children’s studied indifference to pain is deliberate, as if to hunt, haunt and hurt the reader. It is what it is. Here are children raising themselves with the help of their mothers. In Bulawayo’s world, the fathers are absent, whenever they are around, they are no-good.

Bulawayo builds each character brick by brick like a master-builder and when she is done you are awed by the muscle of her gift. Bulawayo’s humor is quiet but insistent and once you think about it you burst out laughing in the darkness.  Here is a hilarious riff on the absurdity of imperial domination:

If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece, but a whole country. (p 20)

And the entire book is exquisite prose-poetry; here are my two favorite lines:

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. (p 34)

And:

It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the delicious earth around us. (p 89)

Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS into the reader’s living room:

We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws. I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)

We Need New Names seems to go nowhere and it is on purpose. Like a hungry, angry urchin, it sort of wanders around with a certain poetry, the reader follows these children of many wars, wandering, wondering, what manner of God would allow this perversion? Bulawayo is the master artist of grief. This is a complex book, just like life. Here she documents the coming of the Chinese to Africa – the new conquerors:

It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls, flip-flops, tennis shoes. (p 42)

Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy, unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away in shame and disgust. This book can “pinch a rock and make it wince”, so says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and products go to die.

Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the entry is jarring:

A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p 150)

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America.

The transition from Africa to America is expertly handled. The cultural shifts are jarring and alarming even. Even in America Bulawayo’s muse only sees darkness; there is little joy here, as if childhood trauma conferred a certain form of depression on her characters. But still there is much to laugh about. Bulawayo offers an unintended but hilarious update on Wole Soyinka’s epic poem Telephone Conversation in which Bulawayo explores the cultural and linguistic conflicts between immigrants and Americans as they negotiate the new land. (p 197) There is a good section in the book where there is an intense confrontation between two erstwhile friends; the African in the Diaspora (Darling), and the African at home (Chipo). This is simply brilliant writing, period; the most brilliant conversation on the anxieties of 21st century immigration I have ever read, again, this section of the book is Chikwava’s Harare North with depth.

Here is coming of age in America:

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the fucking Sudan. (p 218)

Here is alienation:

No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. (p 164)

Here is longing:

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)

Here is culture clash:

When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home. (pp. 156-157)

Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting, almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake. Suddenly you just want to go home, except no one knows anymore where is home, the passages are so deeply emotive. America the hopeful morphs into America the prison. Illegal immigration is the lot of many immigrants and Bulawayo handles it beautifully.  It is the truth, for many immigrants, exile in America is a long lament and Bulawayo beats the drums for the living dead.

Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing. You simply fall in love with the writing and the characters. Boundaries, communities and nations fascinate Bulawayo endlessly and she plumbs their depths and boundaries honestly and with conviction.  By the way, the characters text and IM – in an African novel, wow, what a concept. We Need New Names is the face of today’s fiction ported to yesterday’s media – the book.

There is not a whole lot to not like about the book. It is well designed and even though I had an advance review copy, there were precious few edits which I am sure would have been taken care of in the final copy. There is a sense though in which Bulawayo does not much depart from the protest art of post-colonialist literature. The book could fairly be called a political statement posing as fiction. But it is funny nonetheless even when Bulawayo is being supercilious:

I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (p 268)

Bulawayo’s world-view is out there for all to see, she doesn’t pretend that this is just fiction and one must shy away from those things.

You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice.  In this intensely personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:

When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But homesickness lodged like a stone inside me… When I began to write again, I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even when there is none to be sought.”

The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against the pigeon-holing of “Africans” into predictable labels – and stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay on being an African  and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. I don’t really care much for labels (Chimamanda Adichie has Nigerpolitans in her new book, Americanah) but I think it is a good thing that these writers are resisting pigeonholes.

We Need New Names is not a perfect book (but then, is there a perfect book?). Take this passage for instance:

When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)

It is funny, but then if the book’s characters were about 14 years old in 2009 (when Rihanna was mauled by Chris Brown) they would probably have been too young in 2001 (when 9/11 happened),  to be that politically savvy. Who cares? I am smitten.

Finally, I must return to my anxieties about the single story, of despair, gore and war as I expressed in my essay, The Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa. This is what I said with regard to the shortlisted stories of the 2011 Caine Prize which Bulawayo eventually won, and I stand by it:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

Of Bulawayo’s entry, I said this:

Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers… The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes.

For too long, there has been a disturbing trend in African literature in which Africa’s history is being distorted by a powerful minority of mercenary Diaspora African writers. Postcolonial African literature has been grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by this contingent of writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. I remain deeply concerned about the reality that much of African literature is defined by a certain type of fiction, as articulated in books, much of it predictable poverty porn. I propose again that those who seek to catalogue the robust range of Africa’s stories must in addition to books, look to Twitter, Facebook, online journals and blogs for relief. The book alone is a wretched barometer for gauging Africa’s anxieties and triumphs. The sum total of those stories shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize stamped a pejorative on Black Africa and I had a huge problem with that. Apparently the Caine Prize organizers were concerned enough to declare a moratorium on submissions that smelt of poverty porn in 2012. I am happy that they listened to these concerns. Bulawayo’s debut novel in my view does not qualify as poverty porn. Everything depends on context, taken as a whole it tells a powerful story of hell, identity, alienation, longing and the restlessness of life’s journeys in both worlds – Black Africa and the West. Bulawayo proves with stunning literary muscle that there suffering and savagery are universal dysfunctions. Bulawayo will be back with more stories. This reader can’t wait.

#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: Hunter Emmanuel

So, I read Hunter Emmanuel, the fifth story that made the 13th Caine Prize shortlist, written by Jenna Cato Bass, a 25 year old white South African writing under the pseudonym Constance Myburgh. The story features Hunter Emmanuel, a Walter Mitty type of loser, a misogynist jerk who loves playing detective. He finds a woman’s leg up on a tree and the story builds from there as he chases down the owner, a one-legged “whore” and “slet.”. It is an improbable story even as magic realism goes (which this story probably is not), but there are subtle plays on many anxieties in today’s South Africa: racism (Hunter is black), urban violence, feminism, misogyny, etc.

I imagine this story may be classified as genre writing under the umbrella of pulp fiction, I am not sure. Bass is a good writer, expertly delivering muscular prose and believable dialogue. She is also the editor and co-creator of Jungle Jim, a pulp-literary magazine for African writing. There is a good piece on pulp fiction here but let me provide some context that may be disconnected from historical reality. I believe that television’s main purpose in coming to the world was to get rid of pulp fiction. The good pulp fiction writers went on to be successful scriptwriters in Hollywood. Bass is in the wrong business though, genre writing now exists on television; she should go make financial hay while she is still young.  As a writer she would do quite well in any TV station. The story read like the third draft of a made-for TV script. One more draft and it would have the oomph it so badly needed. Many times, I felt like reaching for my remote control to either turn on the volume or shut down the infernal noise from the silence of this story that gently goes nowhere.

The story is actually in my view, a morality story, another opportunity to sermonize about the evils of misogyny, etc., much like Stanley Kenani’s Love on Trial, only in a more sophisticated and subversive way. It is subtle but relentless though: Women are objectified and ridiculed with obscenity-riddled sentences. Even the forest that bears the woman’s leg is named Cecilia Forest. About the leg, it “had been cut off right at the crotch, at the dip he liked so much, probably his favorite place in a chick.”  From that point on, there are all these cheesy plays and puns on chicks and cuts, like a drunk staring at cheap chicken cuts garishly displayed in a greasy spoon. It gets old and tasteless after a while.

I like the way Bass she was able to get into character and flesh out the protagonist, Hunter Emmanuel. Hunter is a trash-talking misogynist who manages to make an entire (largely pointless) story from body parts, mostly of the female sort. Dark meat meets dark man.  I don’t want to over-analyze, but I have this sneaky suspicion that in her faux anonymity. Bass sought to plant her views on feminism, race, misogyny, etc. on the head of a black South African male. I wondered about the derogatory language deployed here against women; who is more likely to speak like this; a white or a black South African? Interesting. For once I wished Bass had explained all the South African words in her story, it gives it a very provincial, colloquial tint. I did not feel motivated to go looking for the meanings of the many Afrikaans sounding words. This was largely because the story is laconic and listless; it does not inspire much of curiosity in the reader. Besides, when Bass calls a “whore” a “slet” you tend to get the meaning right away.

Bass, the writer has my respect. There is a lot of imagination here, even if most of it is inchoate and disconnected from reality, thanks to perhaps a desire to arrive at a story’s (non) conclusion. She will only get better as her demons mature in the darkness that is her South Africa. She should probably be given the Caine Prize this year if only to encourage her to keep babbling. It would make great copy. I can see it now,

“The Caine Prize goes to faux anonymous Constance Myburgh who spends the day in real life as Jenna Cato Bass, a 25 year old white South African lady who founded the uniquely named pulp fiction rag Jungle Jim magazine that features black men running around weird neighborhoods muttering dark fantasies about female body parts and slets and whatnot. No italics necessary.”

Pulp fiction is not new. As a boy, I read all of my father’s True Detective magazines and his dog-eared copies of the exploits of John Creasey’s Inspector Roger “Handsome” West in a fiction series about a Scotland Yard detective. As children we were also enthralled and entertained by picture plays. There was Lance Spearman in African Film and Fearless Fang in Boom and of course the tear jerker Sadness and Joy. Tunde Giwa has a lovely 2008 essay on the pulp fiction of my generation in this must read. He captures the era wondrously thus

“Growing up in Nigeria, in what I choose to remember as a halcyon era with TV that ran from 6pm to 9pm, the Internet had yet to be invented, no one had ever heard of computer games, you played with your imagination and objects you found around you and comics were a great love. We treated them like gold and devised an elaborate barter system to establish what each one was worth. “I’ll give you two codis (tops made from garden snail shells) or 1/16th of a fizzie if you let me read your comic”. Being as it was, the immediate postcolonial era, these comics, regardless of where they came from, uniformly featured white characters.”

And he continues:

“Into this culturally colonized milieu came a new comic published by Drum Publications called African Film featuring Lance Spearman, a raffish and nattily-dressed black super cop with an ever-present Panama hat. And we all instantly fell deeply in love with him. No one forced Spearman on us. For the first time, we had a comic hero who was actually black like us. African Film was very different from other comics of the time. Not hand-drawn as other comics were, it was a photoplay magazine that used actual photographs of real black people with the dialog typed at the bottom of each panel. Located in an unnamed but strictly urban setting, Lance Spearman was cast as a black James Bond type. It featured several recurring characters including the unforgettable eye-patch wearing arch-villain Rabon Zollo who once made his escape from certain capture using a jet-powered flying wheelchair. Obviously, as with any comic, they were not shooting for plausibility. But when Spearman took on a young sidekick called Lemmy, many of us almost died of jealousy – we so wanted to be in his shoes. African Film used cliffhangers to great effect, keeping us wanting more and eagerly expecting the next serial installment.”

How does Jungle Jim as a purveyor of pulp fiction compare? I don’t know, but this is Jungle Jim’s mission statement:

“Jungle Jim is a bi-monthly illustrated print publication, aiming on spreading narrative, imagination and concept-driven African stories. Taking from the pulp tradition, we publish short and serialized fiction that entertains and engrosses in all dramatic genres (horror, sci-fi, crime, detective, western, romance, adventure etc.), accessible to all, but with a high quality of writing. We seek to publish stories that explore the collision between visceral daring of pulp and the reality of living in Africa.”

Television is here, along with the Internet, competition is stiff, and the publishers will have to do more than the story Hunter Emmanuel to hold the reader’s attention. I read this story three times: Black guys mugging colored guys, mayhem, racial tensions, misbehaving sexist racist cops. The subtext under all of these pretty sentences: post-apartheid South Africa has a lot of issues. We knew that, Ms. Bass.

#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: La Salle de Départ

Every now and then one comes across a story that belongs in you, that should have come from you, that tells it exactly how you have been meaning to tell it, but you can’t because well, you are the story. La Salle de Départ shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize was stolen from inside my soul. I should sue the author, Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo for doing this to me. This is one of the finest stories I have ever read. It features vivid soaring searing imagery with profound insights, yet tender, sensitive, touching. Still, Virginia Woolf’s gentle but insistent spirit comes bleeding through, holding the hands of her brown sisters. I salute you, Myambo.

What is this pretty story about? A young man (Ibou) ends up in America thanks to the generosity of the extended family. On a visit back home (Senegal), he balks at taking responsibility for the future of his nephew Babacar who the mother (Fatima) wants to go to America, the land of milk and honey. The dream is America; the nightmare is the nephew, Babacar. The extended family spreads poverty and the protagonist kicks against this new imposition.

Where do I start? Pretty does not even begin to describe the prose. The dignity of this story spoke quietly to me and comforted my soul. Bravo. La Salle de Départ is a familiar story revamped in colorful black and white. In untrained hands, this would have been another tired tale of home and exile. Instead, Myambo pulled it off as a thoughtful treatise on that movement we call immigration. Quietly, everything is laid bare: The politics of blood and (un)belonging in the era of globalization.

A good story should be like good sex, you want some. I got some in this story. The reader’s mind floats on a lazy river of laconic prose, built on the sturdy backs of painstaking research and searing attention to detail.  It is interesting, Myambo barely moralizes or editorializes, for once, this is a story, what a concept. You enjoy it quietly, sigh, and then the story’s issues start to tug at your conscience’s shirt, insistently thus: “Can we talk about this?” And for once the italicized words did not draw my ire; they seemed to dignify the words, drawing you in, inquisitive at these French words that are now the other against Senegalese words. It is brilliant how she explains the words – with dignity and pride. Nice.

Rather than a tired tale told perhaps for profit and a desired audience, this story comes across as a lovely time marker of an era when all the civilizations came together under a gnarled baobab tree and amused each other with the strangeness of (not knowing) the other. These civilizations and their technologies, tools and toys brush against each other like strangers overflowing in an overloaded elevator. And the reader is reminded: Halcyon times are dying, love letters giving way to the intensity of digital texts and (e)motional affairs. Myambo’s eye for detail is complimented nicely with exquisite prose poetry. Hear her describe those Baroque buildings that are the hallmark of American university campuses:

“Father nodded at her to begin reading the letter and it was only then that she noticed the photograph that had slipped out from between the pages. Picking it up, she gently shook the dust off of it and wiped it on her pagne. It was Ibou with two other young men and two girls standing on the steps of what looked like a library or some other majestic university building propped up by ornately-decorated columns. To Fatima, it looked like a concrete wedding cake.”

“It looked like a concrete wedding cake.” Anyone who has ever been in an American university campus will enjoy the brilliance of that quote.

It is very clever how Myambo buries the clues to the meanings in subsequent sentences, like a lovely and enchanting egg hunt.  To get a sense of how beautiful this story is, think about Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth),  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun), Chinua Achebe (No Longer at Ease) and Camara Laye (The African Child).  Behind all that beauty and powerful prose she fearlessly examines and updates notions of physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries. This she does with careful research, exquisite pacing and lovely prose poetry wrapped in a familiar but enchanting ambience. And yes, there’s technology jostling for space under the Baobab tree. People actually text in Africa! What a concept:

““It’s a text message from Ghada. I can’t believe my roaming is finally working again and of course, just in time for me to go to the airport.””

Where there is a certain viewpoint, it is not a cloying, in your face unctuousness; you simply catch a whiff of it. And they are real issues, e.g. patriarchy, the extended family system, immigration, etc.

“Perhaps she would have more choices if she had more brothers to rely on. Brothers were like the wind, they could go places she could not. She was like the sand. She could only be blown by the wind. But now she had a son and Ibou had to help her build wings for him. Her dream for Babacar was for him to go and live with his Uncle Ibou all the way, theeerrre in America, to go to school there, sow success for the family there and harvest green US dollars to bring back here.”

Everywhere the reader’s eyes roam, there is sad beautiful prose:

 “Again. He was always leaving. Her memories of him were distilled down to a series of departures, snapshots of ever leaving. And now he was leaving without having agreed to take Babacar with him. It was her turn to fix her gaze on him, willing him to respond in the affirmative…”

And again:

“I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”

The story reminds us that daily familiar themes are renewed in our consciousness even as we fight our individual wars and get comfortable in the new municipality of the individual, the ME. In Senegal, we witness culture clashes, with hygiene as proxy, resulting in alienation at home and in exile.

“Delicious! An excellent cook, but why was the squat toilet never flushed properly? Why were there always lumps of other people’s shit floating next to the foot pads? He pushed the carrot around with his tongue, trying not to think about that and he wished he felt guiltier for constantly thinking about it. But he couldn’t stop himself. Ghada was luckier in that sense, she was closer to her family. But then again, her family was different.”

The advocacy here is more sophisticated than I remember. All through Myambo expertly takes us on ride through sleepy streets pregnant with the fragrance of fried beignets and cold bissap juice.  Lovely.

The new nuclear family is about cutting clean through the umbilical cord of poverty and family ties. Or is it? Are we breaking free past the shame of self-loathing?  Is this self-loathing, liberation, acculturation or mindless assimilation?

“He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony. When his mother passed away in October of his first term at university, a strange aloofness was born in him. He never mourned her. It all happened so far away, in another time and place. Instead, all his childhood memories were slowly suffused with a sepia tint typical of old-fashioned photos, the type of photos one looks at but feels no connection to. Somewhere along the way, Senegal had died for him. It was all too abstract, too removed from his daily reality; family responsibility weighed on him but not as heavily as he felt it should. How many years had he been away? Half his life had been spent in another country, in another culture, where the ties of family do not strangle one’s bank account and stifle one’s emotional resources. He wished he felt more guilty. If he were a better person he would.”

We see the tension between home and exile and the expectations of the extended family that ironically funded the protagonist’s new independence:

““When we sent you to America, it was for the good of the family. We sent you to study for us.””

This story cut me all over like a playful knife and it ends too soon for me, gifting me with the best sad ending I have encountered in a long time:

““Goodbye,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” Awkwardly, he embraced her rigid shoulders and then quickly turned and pushed into the crowd putting their luggage through the X-ray machine. He took his carry-on and put it on the moving belt. Then he took off his watch, his iPod and his cell phone and put them in a tray along with his laptop. He stood in front of the metal detector. When the official waved him to come forward, he stepped through the metal frame, trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers, silhouetted against the bright light of the other side. Time teetered; she held her breath. But then he was through, into a world where she would never venture. He looked back at her and lifted a hand. Then he was gone. She would wait for his plane to take off.””

I have thought hard about what I did not like about this story; I am not coming up with much. The themes are familiar but they are still here with us and Myambo addresses them expertly in real, rather than in nominal terms. Of all the writers on the Caine Prize short list that I have read to date, her writing comes across as the most polished and sophisticated, it is almost as if she is overqualified for the competition. She is not; there are many more where she came from. As an aside, Myambo must lead a very interesting life, a Zimbabwean writing so convincingly and evocatively about Senegal.

Finally, as I was trying to figure out how and why Myambo’s La Salle de Départ spoke to me so beautifully, I chanced upon Jasmin Daeznik’s poignant and at times sad New York Times piece,  Home is Where They Let You Live. And then it came together for me personally; both pieces made me refocus and reflect in a profoundly personal way on the notion of home and exile and the responsibilities and burdens I have had to bear and in some instances jettison on the way to crafting a sustainable self-identity. Home is not always home.

Related posts:

Stephen Derwent Partington “On Admiring Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’”

Ayodele Olofintuade – Long Drawn Out Departures

Backslash Scott Thoughts Caine Blog: “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: Urban Zoning

I am enjoying sharing my thoughts on the stories on the Caine Prize’s shortlist as part of a collaborative effort with the blogger Aaron Bady.  Last week, I offered my thoughts on Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic. So, what do I think of Billy Kahora’s Urban Zoning? I can understand why it made the shortlist; it tries to be different, and features some good writing and a lot of promise. Indeed, this story speaks to the vision articulated by Bernadine Evaristo, outspoken chair of the prize’s judges, in her essay on the Caine Prize. Evaristo’s essay astutely acknowledges the reality – that Africa faces new wars, and, yes, triumphs, issues that should be addressed in addition to the conventional anxieties and trauma that seem to define Africa as a sad cliché:

“I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?”

In Urban Zoning Kahora explores urban life in Nairobi, Kenya through the drunken eyes of a protagonist called Kandle. Kahora throws a lot of issues into the stewpot – dysfunctions birthed by little people in ill-fitting suits living furtive lives in dusty nightmares. There is petty corruption, alcoholism, rape, misogyny, same-sex sexual abuse, etc.  It is ugly, Nairobi is a haven of depravity, fueled by Africa’s new wars, he documents the emptiness of a displaced generation and the reader detects whiffs of sweaty incompetence, day-old used tea bags, sex and shit.

When Kahora is good, prose poetry trots jauntily with the ease of a good rapper’s rhythm:

“A philosopher of the Kenyan calendar, Kandle associated all months of the year with different colors and hues in his head. August he saw as bright yellow, a time when the year had turned a corner; responsibilities would be left behind or pushed to the next January, a white month. March was purple-blue. December was red.”

Kahora can be funny – and dark as sin:

“After completing third form he had dropped rugby and effaced the memory of those clutching hands on his balls with a concentrated horniness. He became a regular visitor to Riruta, looking for peri-urban pussy. One day, during the school holidays when he was still in form three, he had walked into his room and found Atieno, the maid, trying on his jeans. They were only halfway up, her dress lifted and exposing her thighs. The rest of those holidays were spent on top of Atieno. He would never forget her cries of “Maiyo! Maiyo! Maiyo!” carrying throughout the house. God! God! God! After that he approached sex with a manic single-mindedness. It wasn’t hard. Girls considered him cute. When he came back home again in December, Atieno wasn’t there; instead there was an older, motherly Kikuyu woman, ugly as sin.”

Sadly, it is not only the protagonist that has alcohol abuse issues, Kahora’s sentences are all drunk, staggering in the streets, drunken lisping sentences drained of spirit, waving at strangers:

“In a city–village rumor circuit full of outlandish tales of ministers’ sons who drove Benzes with trunks full of cash, of a character called Jimmy X who was unbeaten in about five hundred bar fights going back to the late ’80s; in a place where sixty-year-old tycoons bedded teenagers and kept their panties as souvenirs; in a town where the daughter of one of Kenya’s richest businessmen held parties that were so exclusive that Janet Jackson had flown down for her birthday—Kandle, self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking, had achieved a footnote.”

My pet peeve: Kahora carefully italicizes and explains indigenous words – murram, mjengo, nundu. Word to the African writer, do not italicize our way of life, and stop explaining us to the world, that is what Google is for!

I must say that it is hard to date the era in this flat one-dimensional plot – to use the term loosely. This makes the setting incomplete. The writing is supercilious, cynical to the hilt. There is no joy in this droning semi-autobiographical, self-absorbed piece. It is slathered with rank cynicism which mushrooms into self-loathing, mocking an existence already bereft of purpose, defined by dark drunken labels: Smirnoff. Red label. Vodka.

Reading Urban Zoning is like walking into a cavernous hall only to be entertained by the sleepy insistent drone of indifferent echoes. Cute at first, it gets old soon enough. The reader wants to bang the head on a mjengo truck. There are all these inchoate character sketches of human beings who never rise above the indignity of caricatures or cartoon characters: “Mr. Koigi, a rounded youth with a round belly and hips that belied his industry. He had had an accident as a child, and was given to tilting his head to the right like a small bird at the most unlikely moments.”

Kahora showcases a lot of talent here, most of it misdirected. For once, I wished he’d gone to an MFA diploma mill to learn the elements of a conventional short story; setting, plot, conflict, etc. The good thing about Urban Zoning is that the story makes me pine for Binyavanga Wainaina’s genius. Kahora is no Wainaina. Wainaina’s book, One Day I Will Write About This Place features lush undisciplined prose, Nairobi comes alive, and the reader falls in love with Nairobi, sex, shit and all (read my review here).

My best lines are at the end but first you will have to wade through thickets of self-absorption to enjoy them:

“They both laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge. The laughter was a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation.”

What did I learn from this story? Well, Kahora is a good writer, he is going places, but not with this story.

Related blogs and resources:

Interview with Billy Kahora on his nomination for the Caine Prize
Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life

Loomnie
ndinda
City of Lions

 

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