This is the third week of reviews for stories in the running for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani of Malawi. You can find the story as a .pdf here and you can scroll down to see reviews by other bloggers.
Homosexuality in Africa (especially southern and eastern Africa) has been in the news more and more, with countries recently cracking down even more while Western countries simultaneously decry human rights abuses. Most recently, and most encouragingly, Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda announced that she wanted Parliament to repeal the national ban on homosexuality. While far from actually repealing the law (as that headline would suggest), the speech could pave the way for a path separate from Uganda’s recent efforts to make homosexuality punishable by death. Enter Stanley Kenani, whose story is about a man arrested for “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males.”
What I really like about the story is its ability to weave separate stories into one. While the story is about Charles, the “offending” male, it is also very much about the local bar denizen who outs him, and, most importantly, about the intersection of religion and rights.
When Charles is interviewed by the presenter of a well-known television program, he comes with Bible in hand. When the interviewer asks Charles a private question, and he responds with a similarly private question, the interviewer chides him, saying that Malawi is a God-fearing nation and that they could not broadcast such obscene words. Later, the presenter cites the Bible to show that homosexuality is unnatural, and Charles responds:
We’re a secular state, by the way, not a theocracy. Only an individual can be regarded as God-fearing, but the collection of fourteen million individuals that make up Malawi cannot be termed God-fearing. Among the fourteen million there are rapists and murderers, corrupt government officials, thieves and those who sleep with goats.
Later, after Charles’ trial ends with a conviction, Western nations express their disappointment by threatening to withdraw aid funding. The Malawian Information Minister goes on the news saying that “donors are threatening to cut aid but we don’t care. We are a God-fearing nation.” The idea that Malawi’s 80% Christian majority could convert the whole of Malawi into a God-fearing nation, and by doing that require that homosexuality be a criminal offense, is something that we’ve all seen before, and not just abroad.
Kenani’s story itself is made up of a few parts. The parts centering on Lapani Kachingwe, the Chipiri resident that discovers Charles, touch on how Mr. Kachingwe gained his popularity by holding his story ransom for drinks, and how his health deteriorates after aid funding is stripped away from Malawi. The sections about Charles vary from his interview to his trial to a glimpse at his past through a woman’s attempts to woo him. What most of these sections share is a strong reliance on dialog, which I enjoyed reading. I like reading stories that have a good dialog, and this story has whole pages of conversation.
The only drawback to “Love on Trial,” and I’m not sure it’s a drawback or not, is that the message seems rather contrived, or at least forced. The story follows an almost predictable pattern, and the unexpected bits (like the end) come across as a fable teaching a child between right and wrong. While I agree that’s it’s probably bad to gossip about private matters that are also illegal, the ending of the story reads as Kenani telling me what happens, and not as me experiencing it as some literature can do. Despite this criticism, the story itself is good and deserves credit. More than anything, it was a good read, which is very welcome.
Note: The group-blogging experience has really made me do an about-face concerning Kenani’s story. I still think there are good aspects to the story, but my fellow bloggers have pointed out a host of problems with the narrative, the characters, and the writing. You should definitely take a look at what they have to say: