Caine Blog: “Memories We Lost” by Lidudumalingani

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Lidudumalingani’s story here as a pdf.

This story, one about losing someone to mental illness, and trying to navigate a path between bad options regarding it, is a beautiful one. Lidudumalingani manages to weave the narrator’s memories – flashes of her sister’s episodes of schizophrenia – with a story of coping, escape, and love among siblings. It’s also, as Ikhide Ikeloa notes, a story that sheds light on the precarious situation of South Africa’s rural population in regards to healthcare. The sister undergoes treatment after treatment that renders her docile, but not well. She has no episodes, but she also has no life anymore. Finally, their mother decides to take her to a healer with a frightening reputation:

[T]he next day my sister would be taken to Nkunzi to be baked. This is what they did with people who heard voices or demons, as they called them; they baked them until the demons left them. What was even more terrible than the baking was that people had come to be convinced of it. I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing then place it on the fire. He claimed to be baking the demons and that the person would recover from the burns a week later. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either.

Between medicine that makes you a vegetable and a sangoma that bakes you like one, the options of mental health here are not good. Recently, an interlocutor here in Uganda tried to explain an Acholi phrase to me. He likened it to being in a situation where all options are bad, and you must be prepared to leap at a way out. This whole story, as we move from one schizophrenic episode to another and to the community’s solution, I was hoping for a way out. An out to which the main characters indeed leap to.

This is surely a story about community – the village community that gathers during key moments as well as the familial community and the bond between sisters. But in addition to community, it is also a story about place. When the narrator describes the villagers as they search for her missing sister in the night during a particularly bad moment, for example:

Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

Surely some of the villagers are reluctant to go off into the night in the search, but they are a part of the community, so they do their part. They are also part of the space that they’ve existed in all their lives, and so they are able to go out into the dark. Later, when the narrator tries to whisk her sister away from their mother’s plan to have her baked, they must escape not just the situation, but also the community, also the place:

We walked by the river and then abandoned it, walked up a mountain and down the other side into a village. I was not sure whether it was Philani or another village. I had only ever been there once before and that visit was not even physical. My mother had mentioned it in one of her stories before she moved us into the new house – before a week later replacing our father, and us, with the Smellyfoot.

Once we descended the mountain and found ourselves in a strange village we would knock on the first house that had its light on and sleep there. That had been the initial plan, but it was flawed. Everyone in the villages knew everyone. I was convinced that whomever we asked for a place to sleep, even if we were to lie and give them false names, tell them that we were heading to the next village but something had delayed us, they would have recognised us, either because we have my grandfather’s ears or my mother’s nose or that they had seen us when we were toddlers, even stroked our buttocks. It had always been said that my sister had my grandfather’s forehead. The plan was too risky.

We are close, I told my sister. Close to where, I had no idea. All the same, we were going forward, and it felt like we had reached where we were going, which was nowhere in particular. All that mattered was that we were now far from home. We had no idea where we were going to sleep, what we were going to eat or how we were going to live, but returning home was not an option.

To escape the situation, they had to escape everything else. In the end, the sisters continue on, “to somewhere.” Anywhere but home – even nearby villages ran the risk of being part of the wider community that they were a part of. They needed to escape completely in order to help her sister. She might not be able to escape her mental illness, but she can escape the treatment and the sedation and the burning. But to do that she has to be removed from the community in a different way.

Caine Blog: “At Your Requiem” by Bongani Kona

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Kona’s story here as a pdf.

Bongani Kona’s story, a reflection by the narrator – Christopher – to his late brother Abraham about their lives growing up, moves in interesting ways. Mostly, as Aaron Bady notes, because it doesn’t move it all. “At the beginning of the story, the brother is dead; at the end, the brother remains dead. In seven short pages, we go nowhere.” The first page also includes a descriptive “rewind” as the brother is wheeled out of the ambulance, back to the tree from which he killed himself, and back into the house. From there, we dance around the event of the story and through stories of their childhood, their separate lives as adults, and to the funeral.

And yet, the story does go somewhere. While it may not feature the types of events that a short story is often centered around or at least uses to mark its movement, “At Your Requiem” nonetheless features a gradual emergence of a state of things. We find hints of what drove the brothers apart, what led to Abraham’s death, what sort of environment punctuated their lives growing up. In this way, by gradually sketching out a state of things, the story develops – in a perhaps indirect and all too brief way – an arc of tragedy in family. In this way it echos some of the other stories shortlisted this year.

Also like some of the other stories this year, it addresses illness – specifically drug and alcohol addiction. However, in “At Your Requiem” these issues are mere facts of the story – rehab is mentioned, alcohol abuse is spoken about – rather than features of the narrative being spun, in the way of Tope Folarin’s and Lidudmalingani’s stories. In fact, everything here is a moment, a flash in the story as we shift from one scene to another until, as Bady notes, we end up right where we started.


Caine Blog: “Genesis” by Tope Folarin

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Folarin’s story as a pdf here.

Tope Folarin has a way of telling stories from a child’s point of view. His 2013 Caine Prize-winning story, “Miracle,” was about a child at a church service in Texas. I loved reading it, and I saw him do a reading from his story in the Africa 39 collection, which was also very good. I’m glad I get to read more work by him (seriously when is that book coming out?). “Genesis,” Folarin’s story shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, is a really powerful story about mental illness, race, and family in America. It weaves these themes together in a really intricate, beautiful, and sad way.

The story is about a boy’s experiences living in Utah, including being the only person of color at school, or encountering religious differences (and racism) from the vantage of the naivete and vulnerability of a child. It also deals a lot with mental health, as the boy’s mother endures episodes of anger, violence, and even seeing things. These episodes lead the mother to eventually escape with her children to a shelter for a time. Viewed from a child’s perspective, these experiences have a sort of rawness that is really powerful. The story doesn’t just tell what happens, nor does it try to analyze it – the storyteller responds, and it colors the events throughout.

The story is also perhaps semi-autobiographical. Folarin was born in Ogden, Utah, to immigrant parents, just like the narrator of this story. He has also talked before about his mother dealing with mental health issues when he was little, ultimately resulting in her returning to Nigeria. Folarin’s work has always been rooted in his own experiences, which I think is part of what gives strength to the writing. When Aaron Bady asked him about his autobiographical novel-in-progress (from which, I would assume, “Genesis” emerged), Folarin said:

It certainly is autobiographical, I’m not going to claim it’s not. But I’ve discovered that even if I start with an autobiographical premiseyes, I was born in raised in Utah, yes, I went to high school in Texasthe moment I sit and attempt to pin down these ideas, it becomes something different. If a reader is reading my work, and they say “Now I know all there is to know about Tope, or “Ta-peh,” because of what I’ve read,” that would be inaccurate. I’m trying my best to tell a very particular story about identity that, in some ways, is similar to mine, and in some ways isn’t.

Moments in the author’s life surely shaped how and what he has written. This is likely true for many authors, but especially for someone writing fiction that travels in the same circles and paths as their lived life. Unlike Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, who took issue with a fictional story trafficking so heavily on autobiography (to be clear, Túbọ̀sún wasn’t critical of the story as such, but thinking through categorization and what the Caine Prize includes), I’d rather we shatter the categorical differences altogether. What makes fiction non-fiction? Buried many novels that take place in faraway worlds often lurks the “real.” And non-fiction can be written in a way that bends reality as well. Such categories obscure the complexities of a story. For a writer to write aspects of his life into a story that is also sometimes fiction seems quite fine to me, and if that process also leads to the story feeling that much more resonating, all the better.

Folarin has said that his “life has been kind of about moving on from one place to the next, and developing an identity that is composed of disparate parts. So my fiction is concerned with that kind of journey.” Taking this story, alongside his other recent works, a broader story of placelessness is surely taking shape, and it’s one that brings family, race, and faith together in very interesting ways.

Caine Blog: “What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arima

This post is part two of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download a pdf of Arimah’s story here.

When a man falls from the sky, it can mean many things. It could mean an accident has occurred, or that the man was pushed. It could mean he committed suicide. In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s interesting and ambitious story, it means that someone who had tried to use a mathematical equation called the Furcal Formula – an equation that explained the core of humanity and the universe – to defy gravity, had failed. Before I got very far into this story, however, it made me think of a different reason a man might fall from the sky. Witchcraft. Or, rather, failed witchcraft.

Let’s back up a step. Just last month I read Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio by Harri Englund. Not a lot to do with fiction and the Caine Prize, but bear with me. In this unrelated but otherwise very good ethnography, Englund highlights how a particular Chichewa news program in Malawi created a new space and new ways for listeners to think about the society they lived in – thinking especially about equality and about rights. One example he gives is a news story in which a man had been flying and flew over a house with powers that knocked him right out of the sky. Another example is a man who took his coworker across the country in a blink of an eye, but on the return flight the coworker let go and dropped in the middle of nowhere. I won’t go into Englund’s arguments, because that’s for another post someday, but it’s why I thought of witchcraft.

Witchcraft, especially witchcraft as it features in (Western) academic scholarship, is often a site of conflicting epistemologies. As far as I’m concerned, so is math and algorithms as applied to social (and emotional) life. And yet, in Arimah’s sci-fi short story we find ourselves in a world where math explains everything, and I mean everything. My own quant-wary sensibilities clutched their pearls as I read about how the formula could explain people’s emotions, and even change them.

Nneoma, the story’s main character, is a “grief worker” – a mathematician who specializes in “calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” This ability is derived from the formula, which explains the universe and everything in it. But when the man fell out of the sky, it fed rumors that the formula was imperfect. Unfortunately, we also quickly learn that being a grief worker is perhaps a precarious profession – one recently drove himself mad and killed himself, another simply disappeared. Nneoma uses her skills to make money removing the grief from wealthy parents who have lost their children. Meanwhile, her ex, Kioni, has dedicated her energy to refugees and other “distressed populations.”

When Nneoma goes to give a talk to some school children – an educational talk that also acted as a recruiting drive for those who could make sense of the formula – she described her job as “fix[ing] the equation of a person” by removing bad emotions. After her presentation, Nneoma faced two different responses – a protest and a plea. One student echoed his father, saying that “you shouldn’t be stopping a person from feeling natural hardships. That’s what it means to be human.” Nneoma dismisses this without a beat, arguing that the child and his father live easy lives free from the type of pain she alleviates (sidestepping the fact that she only works with wealthy parents, whose grief might be relatively less than victims of war, displacement, and torture. Immediately afterwards, however, a poor Senegalese immigrant and survivor of untold tragedy asked, “So you can make it all go away?” to which Nneoma said yes – but hedged that she could not help this girl due to regulations, costs, and citizenship. Despite this, Nneoma takes her grief away, soaking it up herself.

Grief workers don’t just make sadness and pain disappear. They take it. And it builds. When Nneoma tried to help your father get through the loss of her mother, she faltered because of the interconnected emotions. Just speaking with the girl unsettled her – which is why “she rarely worked with refugees, true refugees… the complexity of their suffering always took something from her.” When you subtract, it has to go somewhere.

Also embedded in this ambitious story is a whole setting on which the reader dwells. The story includes short snippets and nods to the Biafra-Britannia Alliance, an agreement the British used to gain asylum but one in which “one hand reached out for help [while] the other wielded a knife,” or to the French “Elimination” of the Senegalese. Or whatever America did to Mexico. These snippets include a paragraph that is packed with new information that we only get a glimpse of:

At checkout, the boy who scanned and bagged her groceries had a name tag that read “Martin,” which may or may not have been his name. The Britons preferred their service workers with names they could pronounce, and most companies obliged them. The tattoo on his wrist indicated his citizenship – an original Biafran – and his class, third. No doubt he lived outside of the city and was tracked the minute he crossed the electronic threshold till he finished his shift and left. He was luckier than most.

These sentences sketch out a truly dystopic world – one where North America, Europe, and Russia are submerged, and refugee populations have radically changed the social fabric of what used to be Africa – now the United Countries. But the sketch is only ever that – nothing comes into clear view, Arimah doesn’t linger on any of the context for more than a few sentences. But she lingers on the aftermath of all this grief work.

Nneoma’s experience trying to help her father, and her reaction to helping the Senegalese girl, give a prelude to the story’s tragic end. So to does the man falling from the sky, a signal that there is something wrong with the formula on which all of this work is built. If eating people’s emotions and suppressing them into distant memories is only possible through Furcal’s Formula, then a mistake in the formula could – and does – have dire consequences for Nneoma and her ex, Kioni. When Kioni finally appears in person, it’s only as what’s left after the grief within has consumed her. And in a last ditch effort to help her lover, Nneoma dives headlong into the “ten thousand traumas in [Kioni’s] psyche,” never to emerge.

In the end, perhaps the Furcal Formula was incommensurable with emotions, with human flight, with the universe and everyday life. Just as trying to explain witchcraft with functionalist analysis and explain political decisions with big data and even ranking burritos via data mining eventually run into problems, explaining emotions with x- and y-axes is a mission that is perhaps doomed to fail. And when you rely on math and turn out to be wrong, you face dire consequences. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those who rely too firmly on unstable epistemologies.

Caine Blog: “The Lifebloom Gift” by Abdul Adan

This post is the first part of a short series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Adan’s story here as a pdf.

This was the first story on the list, and I have to say I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. It’s creative, it’s interesting, it’s very original. It weaves the reader through senses and feelings in interesting ways. It’s also really, really weird. The story is about a narrator who has been suspended from his TSA job for “settling” on a mole on a passenger’s leg. But over the course of the story we find that this isn’t a one-off incident, but that he has an obsession with the so-called Lifebloom Gift.

Viewed as a story about obsession, about yearning, the story moves in interesting ways around the narrator and his friend, Ted Lifebloom. When the narrator meets Ted, he immediately begins to experience new feelings, expanded senses. “I thought I saw the universe in his eyes – the future and the past, and most of God’s holy best” for example. Or, when Ted rests his hand on the narrator’s shoulder and “I got carried into a greenish world I had only seen in dreams until then… It was a thing of the heavens.”

The heightening of the senses is something Ted brings about in the narrator, but Ted himself encounters the senses in a different way. He is tactile. When he was young, he clung to his mother. As an adult, he once asks to touch the narrator’s head to “reassure himself of my existence.” Ted himself says that “to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched.” But when he touched people, he brought about new feelings. As the narrator describes him – “Ted was love itself in human form.”

The obsession with this feeling, and with bringing about the feeling in others, leads the narrator and Ted to embark on a mission. They sneak into nursing home to find another potential “Lifebloomer.” They approach and overcome an old man, holding him down and touching his moles in an effort to awaken the Lifebloom Gift in him. The obsession with the Gift drives them to great lengths, but to no avail – he never calls the number they leave behind. This leads to Ted’s departure into the wild, and the narrator’s quest to find another Lifebloomer – a quest that leads him to a job and a firing at the TSA.

I agree with F.T. Kola that the story seems constrained by the workshop format (it was published in the Caine Prize anthology). There is a lot of potential in the story – a lot of things that could have been expanded and filled in. Instead, we have snippets – and snippets often work! but here I think the story could do more, could be more. At the same time, as a story about obsession deferred – a desire that never gets fulfilled – a story as short and incomplete as this works, in its own way. The yearning for more of the story is perhaps as close as one might get to the narrator’s hopes to feel.

Caine Blog: “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Here’s a belated addition to the Caine Prize blog carnival. The third story we’re reviewing is “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim from Nigeria. You can read the story as a pdf here and see other reviews linked at the bottom of this post.

I have had some trouble trying to figure out what to write about Ibrahim’s short-listed story. This isn’t because I didn’t like it, and it isn’t because there aren’t things to say. The story says a lot of interesting things about death, is written with some wonderful imagery, and tackles religion and magic in an interesting way.

Twice in the story, our narrator wishes for death. Both times he sees, or imagines that he sees, the world of the dead, the gates of heaven, etc. but is denied entry and forced to live first with his blindness from a car accident and then without the love of his life after she finds somebody else. It is after this second encounter with loneliness (he kept to himself for the most part after being blinded) and the subsequent phase of depression (interpreted by his community as possession by the devil) that he finally succeeds in encountering the world of the dead. He sees souls in the woods, and begins to see them everywhere, regaining a new type of vision that moves far beyond sight.

I’m curious how this plays against the first story we reviewed, Tope Folarin’s “Miracle.” In that story, vision and sight and religion and magic also played a role. But there, we were shown that the power of magic and religion from the blind was really a ruse. It was an attempt to convince people that it was real, an attempt that showed that the miracle wasn’t that the narrator regained his sight (he didn’t) but that everyone saw that he had regained his sight. They all saw the miracle happen, and in that way, the miracle was real. But the reader knows that the narrator still needs his glasses.

In “The Whispering Trees” we see a narrator begin to actually see, but not the same type of sight that he had before. But we, as the reader, see it the same way the other characters do – real. There is no ruse here, no trick to convince the masses or sell sermon tapes. There is only an attempt to free people, to free their souls, and to free our narrator from his waiting at the gates.

Other posts:

Caine Blog: “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist

This is the second review of the Caine Prize 2013 shortlist. This week we’re covering “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone. You can read the story yourself here [pdf] and scroll to the bottom of this post to see the other posts discussing the same story.

Pede Hollist’s short story “Foreign Aid” chronicles the return trip of its protagonist, a Sierra Leonean who has spent twenty years in the States, to his family and home.  The return doesn’t exactly go the way that our protagonist, Logan (formerly Balogun), expects. He loses his suit cases, quickly spends most of the money he brought with him, and encounters trouble in connecting with his family over their needs.  As Aaron has pointed out, this last part is precisely because the journey “is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.” Logan is no longer of Sierra Leone, he is only returning briefly.  While I agree with Aaron that this is where Logan’s problems begin, Aaron calls the return a vacation, and I would push to describe Logan’s trip back more as a debt payment or a journey of obligation.  After all, when he’s preparing for the trip, Logan is not ecstatic to see his sister again or eager to catch up with his parents, he brings gifts because he is “motivated by guilt and a desire to make up for neglecting his parents and sister for almost twenty years.”  If the immigration officer asked him if the travel was for business or pleasure, it’d be hard to discern by looking at the events that follow.

Once in the company of his parents, Logan offers to pay for things or hands money to his family no less than nine times.  But it is clear throughout that Logan has twenty years of debt to pay back, and he never seems to get close.  His gifts are lost, his cash depletes, and his sister isn’t interested in his offer to take her to America.  Finally, in his effort to confront Ali Sayyar, the father of his sister’s child, Logan encounters the hard truth.  Logan tries to put Sayyar in his place, accusing him of being a foreigner and demanding that he support the unborn child, when Sayyar reveals that he is not just the father of the child but he is also supporting the entire family through a host of loans, and that he is a native Sierra Leonean, something that Logan can hardly say for himself after spending half of his life in America.

When Logan explains the situation to his family, arguments break out left and right over the rapidly growing number of debts the family owes this one man.  Logan shrinks into solitude for the remainder of his trip, realizing that his absence had left his family in debt, and that his trip to repay his own debts to his family had done close to nothing. His last bit of respite is to go on a date with his sister’s friend Tima, and even this ends terribly.  After walking into the hotel “with high expectations, like an indebted gambler into a Vegas casino,” and then he is stood up.  His attempt at a last hurrah before returning home to his wife (to whom he might also be indebted, since she refuses to send him more cash as he requests) is dashed, and later explained by a note from Tima explaining her inability to date a married man. Is the house always wins in Vegas, perhaps Sierra Leone always wins when those who leave try to return with only money and intentions.

Besides the frequent presence of debt and obligation, the other major theme here is couched in the title, “foreign aid.” Logan engages in two types of giving, he hands out cash to all of the distant relatives at the party his parents throw for him, and he also gives specific amounts to his parents for specific purposes, such as his mother’s doctor’s visit and his father’s car parts.  He also works to change his family for the better, offering his sister a ticket to America and to help his parents understand the benefits of going.  As several other bloggers have discussed, this attempt fails miserably.  In his effort to set things right with Ali Sayyar, things fall apart even more.

In the confrontation between Logan and Sayyar, it is revealed that Logan’s nativist sentiments collapse under the realization that he is the foreigner in the situation.  While it is important to acknowledge that Sayyar is in some ways more native that Logan, it is also important to look at Logan’s prejudice against Sayyar as it relates to the theme of foreign aid.  Logan’s attempts at assisting his family, both through handouts and direct (shall we say conditional) aid, fail to meet his community’s needs.  Meanwhile, Sayyar is able to pay every member of his family regularly, to the extent that he virtually owns the family and literally owns their home.

Despite his Sierra Leonean citizenship, Sayyar is still a stand-in for the West’s growing competitors in African development: China, India, and the Middle East.  As Kola notes, the boy at the end of the story talks of an “opposite migratory pattern eastwards,” moving to Nigeria to learn to become a pilot rather than travel to America as Logan did.  I saw these as fairly explicit nods to the growing presence of the greater “East” in confrontation with America and the rest of the West.

Lastly, I feel the need to note how much this story reminded me of last year’s shortlisted story, “La Salle de Depart,” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (pdf of the story, my review).  It doesn’t remind me of the story because of the similarities, but for the differences.  In Myambo’s story, also of a man going back home to visit family, his sister begs him to take her son to America and he refuses because he does not believe it is a good decision and he is wary of its effect on his life back in America.  In Hollist’s story, another man goes home and tries to bring his sister to America, but she refuses, saying that “America has problems too” and that she has heard stories of friends who are “worse off in America than here.” I thought it was interesting to see just how directly opposite the two stories were in their depiction of the return trip and of life both leaving your home country and of life being left behind. While much of this story is long and ugly, I think putting it in context of other depictions of the divide between diaspora and home softens it up a bit.

Other bloggers’ thoughts:

Caine Blog: “Miracle” by Tope Folarin

This is the first of five review posts on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. This review is of “Miracle” by Tope Folarin of Nigeria. You can find the piece in .pdf form here, and scroll to the bottom of this post to see additional reviews and analyses by the other participants in the Caine Prize blog-carnival.

In the last two years that I’ve written about the shortlist for the Caine Prize, all of the stories have been set in Africa. It’s a welcome change this year that at least one, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin, is set in America. I think it’s fitting, since so many of these writers have spent at least some time outside of Africa (Folarin graduated from Morehouse and Oxford and now lives in Washington, DC), that some of these African short stories deal with non-African aspects of African lives. The setting is central to this story, as the narrator – a Nigerian in the Midwest – tries to define a miracle from the vantage point of life in the diaspora.

The narrator is attending a Nigerian church service in north Texas, and the gathering of churchgoers excitedly participates in the festivities of churchgoing. They’ve arrived, gathered from across the region, to witness miracles. But instead, they’ve often been left unsatisfied, or at least misled. For example, at the beginning of the church service, the churchgoers have to stop at the beginning of each song in order to figure out what song is playing because there is no cue, no leader to guide them through the music. Instead, they must fend for themselves. When they sing, they sing songs of hope, “hope that, one day soon, our lives will begin to resemble the dreams that brought us to America.” But even in successfully coming to America, a feat that can only be described as a miracle, they have been misled.

The prophet that is visiting the church tries to guide them, but it is literally the blind leading the blind. He leads his followers on a meandering road, telling them to thank God that they have been blessed enough to arrive in America, but in the same breath condemning America for making them accept their ailments. And yet, in neither instance is he leading his followers anywhere new. The narrator describes the needs of the community thus: jobs, good grades, green cards, a clearer understanding of identity, to replace failing organs and limbs. And what does the prophet attempt to fix? The narrator’s poor eyesight. There’s no effort to fix what needs fixing, only to get rid of the narrator’s glasses. When the prophet begins by chasing away the bad spirits, the crowd cheers without conviction. It’s no small wonder that the narrator has the same feeling on an individual basis once he has been singled out. He cheers, but with no conviction. His sight remains lost, just like the prophet’s.

If seeing is believing, and the narrator’s sight is still blurred in the end, then his participation in the event is worth noting. After the prophet performs his miracle, the narrator thinks back to his father’s daily reminder of their place in society – in America. Compared to the journey out of Nigeria and into America, his sight is a minor problem that is no need of miracles. Not when people need jobs and green cards and new organs. Not when he suffers from asthma. But his eyes are what the prophet tries to heal. And so, when the prophet sets about correcting the narrator’s vision rather than his breathing, the narrator plays along, aware that he must in order to keep up both the miracle of healing, the miracle of life in the diaspora.

From the co-bloggers:

Blogging the Caine Prize!

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced, which means a growing cabal of bloggers will be writing reviews/analyses about the five stories soon. This will be our third year going, and I’m really excited about it. The stories are always really interesting, and I get exposed to things I would never find otherwise. The shortlist itself is often more exciting than just the ultimate winner, and seeing the various types of stories that make it this far is really interesting. I’ve learned a lot from my co-bloggers in how to read a text, and it’s helped me recently as I’ve been organizing the African Studies Reading Group here at Yale, an ad hoc eating and close-reading group of folks, within our department this past year.

And so, with that, I’m excited to announced that I’ll be joining the ranks in reading the Caine Prize shortlist this year in the last week of May and throughout June. If you want a taste, feel free to click the “Caine Prize” tag and see posts from the proceeding years, and I hope you’ll check out posts by the whole crew of bloggers at the bottom of each of my reviews. If you’re interested in joining us, please do! Drop me a line and I’ll make sure to link to it.

The shortlisted stories for the 2013 Caine Prize are [links to pdfs]:

We’ll be tackling them weekly and in that order, starting the week of May 27th. Won’t you read with us?

Caine Blog: “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh

This is the fifth and final review of stories for the Caine Prize blogging endeavor. We are wrapping up with “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh of South Africa. You can read the story for yourself here and find other reviews at the bottom of this post. The winner of the Caine Prize will be announced next month.

This post is a bit late, as I didn’t know how to write about this last story. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out how to write this post, as I came away from the story with no idea what to think of it. Part of me wonders if that’s also why my blogging colleagues have also been late to review Constance Myburgh’s story. When reading, one often looks at the author’s purpose, but in giving “Hunter Emmanuel” two readings, I couldn’t find a purpose. The story just sort of occurred.

Myburgh’s short story comes out of the pulp fiction genre, or something like it, which is something I really didn’t expect in this year’s shortlist. I think all five stories this year have demonstrated the judges’ commitment to showcasing a new taste of African literature rather than the stereotypical war and poverty, which is a welcome sight. The story follows the title character, Hunter Emmanuel, as he investigates a crime after finding a human leg in the woods.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It follows him. The prose is well-done and includes some interesting imagery and dialogue, but the actual plot is weak. Hunter finds the leg, then has some short conversations with the police before going on his independent investigation. He talks to the woman whose leg was found, but doesn’t talk so much as accosts her because he “must” investigate because he is a man. It all comes across as not really making sense, and continues to get stranger as he intimidates a young troublemaker to find out where the leg came from. Finally, he ends up “solving” the mystery, if you want to call it solved, and the story abruptly ends without really explaining what’s going on. All that you really know is that South Africa has some weird shit going on.

As I wrap up this year’s Caine Prize blogathon, I think others will join me in saying that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story, “La Salle de Departe,” is my clear pick for the Prize. The story is a wonderful look at how migration affects Africans, it avoids the pitfalls of writing for Western stereotypes of Africa, and above all else it is well-written and interesting. In a distant second, I think I like Rotimi Babatunde’ss “Bombay’s Republic.” In hindsight, Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” was too preachy and expected and it clearly played towards Western readers. Meanwhile, I didn’t really get “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora, and I don’t think there’s much to get from “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh. I don’t really know what order to put those in, but they fell short compared to the other two.

All in all, it’s been a really interesting experience and I enjoyed doing it again. I look forward to the announcement and in the meantime I’ll be hoping for Myambo’s win. All of the stories avoided the poverty-porn issue that many were unhappy with last year, and there was a diverse range of topics and style this year. Plus, it’s been great reading what so many ot.  great bloggers have to say about these stories.

For the final co-blogging experience: