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

This is the fourth post of five on the shortlist for the Caine Prize. This is a review of “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe. You can find the story here and see more reviews at the bottom of this post.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story is centrally about two characters and the how much difference distance can create. One, Fatima, is a divorcee with a son living in Senegal; the other is her brother, Ibou, who has gone to America to study. A bulk of the story takes place during a car ride to the airport, during which Fatima works up the courage to ask Ibou to take her son to America, and the dialogue between the two goes very far to show how much distance – both physical and beyond – has grown between the two. Throughout their conversation the two face a sort of disconnect. Ibou constantly struggles to find the right words – literally as he translates from English and figuratively as he navigates how to explain his reasoning – to explain why he cannot take her son to America.

The conversation takes on a number of themes, but they all revolve around the growing divide. Ibou is a man, after all, and he can fly, while Fatima can only nest, an idea Fatima returns to several times when thinking about her life and her son’s. This understanding of gender is just one way that Myambo addresses the division in the family. Class also plays a huge role, especially when Ibou reflects on how his partner, Ghada, interacts with her own family. Ibou is one of the few members of his family to achieve the dream of gaining success in America. By doing this, he becomes separate and different from the rest of his family. Meanwhile, Ghada has a health relationship with her wealthy Egyptian family. This fact stresses that class, and not blood, is what makes strong family ties possible. I think the decision to take a story about a family member removed from home and center it specifically on the resulting division was a good one. In doing this, how Ibou changes is only part of the story, and how Fatima doesn’t change, or how she changes in different ways, is another piece. How the two characters interact with each other is significant, and the dialogue in the back of an uncle’s taxi demonstrates this expertly well.

The great thing about this story is how much responsibility the reader has, which was my big problem with Stanley Kenani’s story last week.  Myambo gives you a dialogue filled with tension and emotion, and the reader has to decide what’s really going on underneath. Where Kenani stated everything outright, this story keeps a lot of things hidden – things you have to dig for. Ibou’s firm decision to refuse to take Babacar home could stem from a cultural divide, selfishness, or his honest belief of what was best for his nephew. Fatima’s frustration could have roots in her love for her son, her anger at not being able to do the same thing her brother did, or out of seeming necessity. There are a number of ways to understand the conversation, all while watching two siblings struggle to talk. That’s what I found really powerful in the story.

To read the co-bloggers:

Caine Blog: “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani

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:

Caine Blog: “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora

This is the second of five reviews for short stories on the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s story is “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora (Kenya), and you can read the story here (.pdf). At the bottom of the post, I’ll be adding reviews from other bloggers.

It took me quite a while to get into reading Billy Kahora’s shortlisted piece, the writing seemed jumbled and disoriented, but that is what it’s supposed to be. The first portion follows the central character, Kandle, as he navigates the Zone – a state of mind described as “the calm, breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight.” It’s a place that really unhinges you, and it’s a place that has taken a number of his friends; one had nearly bled to death, one died in a car accident, another became suicidal.

The Zone is like a symbol of the damage that Kandle has endured and doled out, and is a precarious place to be. To me, the writing reflects this. The writing about the Zone changes speed quickly, alters between topics, and goes between the present, out on Tom Mboya Street and Harambee Avenue, and the past, in boarding school and back home. In one flashback, the reader learns of an incident of sexual abuse that exacerbated Kandle’s disdain for physical contact. His hatred for contact led to him giving up rugby and moving on to a different stage of life. But, “same with life and the street, in the city – you needed to be natural with those close to you.” Kandle gave up on rugby since his hatred for contact wouldn’t allow him to do well, but he couldn’t give up on life, where he faced the same problem.

From this revelation, the story moves forwards to Kandle’s arrival at Eagle Bank, where he works, or worked. After a recent spell of absenteeism and being indebted to the accountant for a loan, Kandle is met by unamused employees as they lead him to a meeting with executives and department representatives to assess his performance. Presumably still in the Zone, Kandle sits down and listens to manger after manager explain the reasons for his behavior and express sympathy or judgement for him. In the end, Kandle expertly manipulates his superiors with tears and stories that convince them to allow him to keep his job. Beyond this, he is able to take a longer leave of absence and even keep the loan. On top of it all, the branch accountant asks Kandle for a loan, and even offers a blank check as repayment. Kandle navigates the meeting as well as he navigates the Zone.

The story is, at its heart, about how much Kandle changed. In the meeting, all of the bank’s employees reference how Kandle was a smart and determined worker who never missed a day. In the story, however, the only Kandle we really know is one who is a manipulative, womanizing, uncaring, alcoholic thief. He has crashed down into a different world than he was intended, he has come of age in an unconventional way, epitomizing the failure to achieve. And yet, in the final scene, he and the accountant exchange a special kind of laughter, recognizing Kandle’s success in spite of his detractors. Kandle, continuing his downward spiral in society, navigates the bank like he navigated the Zone, and like he navigates Nairobi.


Caine Blog: “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde

This is the first of five posts in a series reviewing the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria. You can download the story as a .pdf here. Like last year, you can find links to a growing number of fellow bloggers’ posts at the bottom of this one.

This story starts off about an African soldier’s experience fighting in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War and after he returns. But the story’s motif is the expansion (and disruption) of his perception of reality. Bombay, the soldier, encounters numerous realizations that confound and expand his understanding of what is feasible. Some of the villagers in Ceylon visit the African soldiers in their showers to see if they really have tails, which Bombay finds to be absurd. The Japanese soldiers flee his platoon because they do not want to be eaten. Others dismember the bodies of dead African soldiers so they don’t come back to life. Time and again Bombay hears things about his people that he can’t even fathom. He seems to take it all in without comment, simply digesting the new ideas.

But another thing that he couldn’t fathom before war is the vulnerability of the Europeans. The story opens with a reference to the black Native Police constable saluting the white District Officer. “This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise,” Babatunde writes. But after Bombay’s captain goes mad when their search party comes across the tortured remains of his lieutenant, Bombay’s reality expands again. Bombay realizes that the captain had been transformed into nothing but an animal, and that perhaps the white District Officer back home could also be reduced to such a beast. War is constantly reshaping his understanding of reality. Driving this point home is Bombay’s killing of a rogue white soldier. Bombay imagines a scenario straight out of Things Fall Apart, but instead he is applauded for his quick action – flipping the traditional colonial reality on its head. The war ends, and Bombay goes home with new perspective.

But Bombay’s perceptions reach beyond reality, and he follows a different path than you might expect. While we expect his new take on life to disrupt the status quo of society, Bombay turns in on himself. Instead of joining activists after the war, he eventually calls the old jailhouse home and unilaterally declares his home a sovereign nation. The adults in the community mock him and ostracize him as he crafts busts of idols for his new country. He spends the rest of his years considering himself as the head of state of one of the first independent African nations, winning dozens of elections.

It’s no coincidence that his “independent” residence was an old jailhouse. Before leaving Asia at the war’s end, his platoon leader lamented that they were on the Forgotten Front of the war. Indeed, much of the fighting in South Asia is marginalized when compared to the rest of the Pacific. Bombay says that he doesn’t need memory, but his return to his home country is marked by his self-isolation from the changes around him. His reality becomes distorted upon his return, as he acts less and less like a decorated veteran and more and more severed from society.

I was expecting his encounters at war to shape his life back home – perhaps as a dissident or at least a sympathizer to the revolution. Instead, they changed him into a man who spends his time telling stories (to children about leeches instead of to adults about the Europeans’ war), until he finally sequestered himself in his jail. There’s a direct clash with what his experiences should have taught him, and what he did with the new knowledge. After freeing himself in Asia from the constricting realities of colonial life, he became constrained to his own jail in his own country.

And after seeing that a white man could be reduced to a creature and hearing that some people believe Africans have tails, Bombay transforms at home. He sees himself as turning from a veteran into a head of state, but those around him see him turn into a beast. His skin is dotted with burn scars from leeches. When tax collectors bother him at his house, he urinates on them. People even begin referring to him as a leopard. Ultimately, Bombay does change the status quo back home, but only for himself and his republic, not for the society around him. As the final sentences point out, he considers those of his birth country to be foreign, because he has separated himself from them (and they have kept their distance from him). To them, he’s just a memory, something which he never really cared for anyways.


The Caine Blog Returns

I’m not known for my informed understanding of literature. I was in AP English classes, but in my college career I took English 102 and that was it. I’ve always liked literature, but I’ve never really digested it the way some people do. Over the years, my reading list has been increasingly covered in history and politics – mostly of the African conflict variety (seriously, just check my reading page). But knowing the facts of an event or series of events is only one part of understanding it, and that’s where I’ve turned to African literature. Last year, I joined a team of bloggers in reviewing the five short stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Those reviews are here:

A couple of months ago, I finally read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which has been the model for African literature (for better or worse), and I’m continuing my quest for more reading. Specifically, in a couple of weeks the Caine bloggers will be reconvening, and I’ll be reviewing the five short stories over a five-week period. The stories are all from Anglophone Africa, which I guess is expected and – to some extent – accepted. However, based on the judge’s statement, it seems promising that there will be a diverse quintet of stories this year.

Starting next week, I’ll be reviewing these stories. I hope you enjoy the stories and – if you’re interested – I hope you join us in this endeavor. These are the finalists for the Caine Prize (links to pdfs):

Caine Blog: “The Mistress’s Dog” by David Medalie

Here is the fifth and final, albeit late, entry on the Caine Prize for African Literature. Today I’m reviewing “The Mistress’s Dog” by David Medalie, which can be downloaded here. Next week the winner of the prize will be announced, so it will be interesting to see where the prize goes. To see all of the co-blogging phenomena scroll on down for a list.

A quick glance at the co-blogging list shows that Medalie’s story, a concise story about a woman named Nola and the dog which she cares for, is a clear favorite. A number of reviewers have named it their choice for the prize, and I won’t begrudge them. But I’m not sure where I’m at. Perhaps I’m lacking the literary mind that my colleagues have. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the story was good. But it’s not a clear favorite for me so much as it is on par with Keegan (although they are very different).

The important parts of the story have all happened before it begins. The story itself takes place over only two days, chronicling the life of Nola through her eyes. She has outlived both her husband and his mistress, left with the mistress’s dying dog. No one has a name in her eyes, the dog’s former owner falters between her profession (the secretary) and her romance (the mistress) throughout, and Nola’s own husband is only referred to as “the powerful man.” That is all he is and ever was to Nola, it seems.

Nola’s background is one of subtle revenge. She describes the simple victories she had in belittling the mistress, from referring to her by calling her names to arranging dinner parties so that she sticks out like a sore thumb. She seems to have reveled in her small victories, but her best victory – the chance to leave the dog in Johannesburg – was turned down. She decides to keep the dog and in the end the dog becomes her only companion. It really tells the story of how Nola is trapped by her life’s past – haunted by a dog she never wanted, left over from a life with a powerful husband and his affair.

I thought the story was quite good, but I’m not quite sure which story is my favorite. I definitely came at this blog-a-thon with a foreign eye, never really being quite the literary critic. This story’s point was concise and the solitary main character was rounded by her view of others. I’m looking forward to seeing who wins the Caine Prize next week.

For the co-blogging:

Method to the Madness

Zungu Zungu

The Mumpsimus

The Oncoming Hope

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile

This is the fourth review from the Caine Prize blog-athon, and I’m glad you’re still with me. The story the crew is reading/reviewing this week is “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile from Botswana. You can and should find the story as a pdf here, and you can find the other bloggers’ thoughts at the bottom of the post.

This story is, when it’s all said and done, a really fun read. It’s a very interesting set-up and a fun story with comedic characters doing absurd things. It’s fun. The story is about sex, but it’s also about society and sex’s role in that society. It’s a pretty interesting take on the whole thing, providing an interesting and fun look at how men and women interact in this village. Plot summary: the village ladykiller dies (while performing one of his duties, fittingly), and the village responds in probably the weirdest way possible.

What’s interesting is the way the society had been set up in the first place. The men spend all of their time working in order to give their wives better lives, and the women are all greedy and mean to their husbands. While the men work a lot and are not good at pleasing their wives, McPhineas Lata doesn’t really have a job (nor a wife for whom to provide), but he’s mighty good at pleasing everyone else’s wives. Somehow, the town has adapted to this fact – it’s how the society works. Lata’s actions kept women satisfied so that men could keep working. The first lines of the story explain this: it’s not the rampant adultery that is causing a strain in relationships between couples, it’s the death of Lata that causes a rift between the two sexes.

And so, with Lata’s death, the story begins. After the burial, the women decide to go about humping his grave while the men commiserate over beer and try to figure out how to have sex right. The men’s decision is one of the more out-of-place reactions: they turn it into a science experiment – or, if you want to, they turn it into work. The men divide the labor amongst them and start trying things out when the women aren’t mourning Lata’s death, discussing successes (like three-minute massage of the shoulder) and failures (like attempting to milk a breast) at the local bar. The men methodically figure out how to please their wives and replace the vibrant memory of McPhineas Lata. It’s also worth noting that sex is continually referred to as “the business,” another reference to the men’s affinity for doing work instead of sex. In a similar vein, throughout the story no one is ever seen… working.

If the men’s response to use the scientific method to improve sex is funny, what’s even funnier is that the women immediately know that something is afoot when their husbands begin to try things, and many simply play along to see where it’s going. Their final response is to see that their old lover is continuing his tricks through their husbands, and the women take it in stride. Lata’s lifestyle was what held the society together, and his death caused a huge problem for the men and the women. Interestingly, the men and women find the silliest ways to reshape their relationships to make things work. And you can finish the story with a laugh, reassured that everything was okay.

Other co-bloggers:

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness


Sky, Soil & Everything in Between

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan

So, here is blog post number three of the Caine Prize series. This week the group is reviewing “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan of South Africa. If interested, you can download and read it here. We’ve got two more stories to review before the award is announced, so this post brings us past the halfway point.

For starters, this story was really good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I hope the last two Caine Prize readings continue on this trajectory. The story didn’t read like it was a story about Africa written for Westerners, it read like a story written for readers. Quick set-up: the story is about a woman and her reactions and actions following the news that her estranged daughter has been killed. The story follows her, but includes her angry brute of a husband to whom she is devoted and the inspector who is investigating her daughter’s murder.

A few things struck me in this story. The relationship between Molly and her daughter Sarah is strained at best, but the unrelenting conflict between the two is described as the glue that held them together. In trying to cope with the loss, Molly wonders “why should you change the habits of a lifetime just because your reason for being had come to an end?” It hits at how important Sarah was to Molly, despite repeated mentions of how difficult their relationship was. The story does a good job of driving home the type of relationship they had.

And it was two men that caused, or at least added to this strain. One is the son-in-law, Tommie, whom Molly resents for two reasons. She sees Tommie as the reason for Sarah’s estrangement. She believes that he filled her head with reasons to hate Molly and her husband, reasons to never go back, which leads Molly to believe that he is a bad person. She also sees Tommie as an outsider in every way. Not only is he black, but he is a Mozambican, an activist, a radical, a thug. With the story set in South Africa, it has special meaning to see the ever-present existence of an “other.” Because of her disdain for him (telling the inspector that she hates it when he refers to Tommie as her son-in-law), she eventually comes to the conclusion that her daughter’s no-good husband was also her murderer.

What’s interesting is that you never really get to know Tommie. You understand Molly’s opinion of him. Because of the type of person he is (black and foreign) you see both the inspector and Molly’s husband treat him with the same regard. But he’s the type of character I would have liked to learn more about. He’s Mozambican, but he’s half-Portugese. He’s an immigrant to South Africa, but he’s very involved in the anti-aparthied movement and is involved with the ANC. He’s a psychologist, and his wife was killed in their home. Everything else is left up to the reader to invent.

The only other character of any depth in the story is Molly’s husband, Rollo. He is a devil of a man – an aggressive drunk with a side of philandering. It’s clear that he beat Molly after spending evenings at bars, and that his presence drove a wedge between Molly and Sarah. His control of his home is so absolute that Molly wonders to herself whether or not he will want to go to her daughter’s funeral (and as a result, whether or not she will be able to go). He has no real redeeming qualities. When made aware of his step-daughter’s death, he shrugs it off and finishes his day at work instead of consoling his wife. When confronted with his upset wife, he tells her that, once she gets over the “shock” of her daughter’s death she’ll realize that she’s better off.

His devlish ways extend even further when Molly find a letter Sarah wrote to him, threatening to come forwards with what he had done to her – giving the reader and Molly a motive for him to be Sarah’s killer. The reader simultaneously realizes why Rollo was so quick to say that their lives would be better off without her and just how powerless Molly is in her own life. His control of Molly, and her dependence on him, lead to her turning a blind eye to his multiple sins – sins including drunkeness, infidelity, aggression, battery and probably rape and murder. But it’s not just him having control over her, it’s her full submission to the life she’s living. In the beginning of the story it is explained that she married him in order to find support and live a good life. But she’s not living so much as surviving, holed up in the house she never leaves, being beat and berated by her husband, not talking to her daughter (mostly because of the abusive husband). She’s forsaken any hope of agency or independence in the story, which makes the reader (or me, at least) want to shake this woman and make her realize what she’s doing. In the end, the story is about Sarah’s murder, but the focus is how Molly deals with everything, and it is that story which is really fascinating.

Two other themes occurred in the story that drew my attention. One is race. Race is a huge part of the story, but it’s very subtle. From the get-go you get the impression that Sarah is white and she left her family for Tommie, who is black. But this isn’t in writing until much later in the story. Not only is this kind of a metaphor for Sarah leaving the abusive white family for an activist black community (in which she was an activist), but it’s also a metaphor for South Africa at the time. Rollo says that Sarah had it coming, getting involved with those types of people – surrounded by radicalism and drugs, the comment seems to really be about race. The inspector talks about how people in the new South Africa are supposed to be equal, but he still views two types of victims: the ones that live sordid lives and get what they deserve and the ones that are innocent and quiet and should never encounter such crimes. You can probably figure out which is which. Molly’s hairdresser also makes comments on the interracial anti-aparthied couple living in a white neighborhood. And the pinnacle of the race theme is when Molly, Rollo, and the inspector attend Sarah’s funeral. The speaker draws attention to them, and the audience of black radicals turn to face the older, white people in the back of the room. While the reader doesn’t know how the eyes treated these characters, one does know that Molly becomes anxious and Rollo angry.

Another theme is memory. While I’m not any sort of expert on South Africa, I can imagine that this takes place before or in the beginning stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s main focus was to provide amnesty (in some cases) in exchange for testimony. It was seen more important to create a national history – a national memory of the tragedies – than to bring justice to criminals. And so memory has since become a foundation of South Africa’s state. With this in mind, there are two references to memory. In the beginning, the reader is made aware of why Molly dislikes Tommie. In doing his part to “turn” Sarah against her mother, Tommie helped Sarah face issues that she had in her past. Issues that she had repressed. Issues having to do with her family, and Rollo in particular. And so Molly sees this as turning her daughter against her, when really Tommie was trying to help Sarah face her memories. Meanwhile, the inspector tells Molly that he is beginning to get news about whether or not Tommie was involved in Sarah’s death because witnesses are beginning to come forwards. He tells her that the neighbors are beginning to remember more since he gave them a few days. A few days to dream up how to pin everything on the local black radical. Lastly, you see throughout the story that Molly has decided not to suppress memories so much as ignore them. Rollo’s sins are mentioned multiple times, and Molly clearly is aware of them, but instead of addressing them she puts all of the blame on Tommie. She takes her memories and turns them away. When faced with even more grave incidents in her family’s past, she destroys them completely.

So, in summary, the story about Molly really revolves around the type of person she is and how that changes given the circumstances. She begins as a woman you should pity who is stuck in a series of motions rather than life. She ends as a woman who not only rejected her daughter’s pleas but in the end even rejected any chance for justice, independence, or even satisfaction. The story was incredibly well-written, and I really enjoyed following the other themes as they went and watching the characters develop (or stay assholes), and this is definitely my front runner so far.  Because, you know, I’m qualified to award prizes in literature.

For the co-blogging experience!

The Oncoming Hope

Method to the Madness


Africa is a Country

Zungu Zungu

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka

Here is part two of my five-review Caine Blog series. This review is of the short story “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda. You can download and read the story yourself here.

Let’s start by pointing out that this story is by a Ugandan, about northern Uganda. Beyond that, let’s get to the first thing I liked about this story: it’s written in second person. I always felt that there was something alluring about writing in the second person – it really puts the story onto the reader in a way that I don’t think is really possible without using “you.”

The story is told from the perspective of what I presume to be a family member, to you, the recently returned victim of a Sudanese rebel group’s abduction – (the region and descriptions lead me to think that it’s more than likely the LRA). You were a little girl when you were abducted, but you didn’t return home until five years later – where you were welcomed home with open arms – once you were cleansed.

What I found interesting in this story was the struggle for the narrator and the rest of the family as they navigate through rehabilitation of the reader. The reader doesn’t speak, doesn’t smile, doesn’t really show any recognition of the family. Having buried her spirit while she was still missing, the family worries that they’re left with a shell of the girl who was taken, and there are quite a few short scenes that show her dealing with her demons alone. On top of this, though, the family struggles with their own circumstances in an IDP camp. One of the more memorable descriptions about the camps was this:

Our children no longer know how to hold a hoe. They have forgotten how the ground nut plant looks. Now, our land buries our children. Our gardens grow huts. We now live in a camp.

It’s a cruel revelation, that the reader has returned from abduction to see her family in a camp, with their livelihood ruined. This family wasn’t forced to leave their land behind like thousands of displaced in northern Uganda – they had their land taken from them by the displaced, as the government declared their land an IDP camp.  The narrator describes the “empty huts with empty people” who had lost their spirits – just like the reader, whose spirit had been buried.

We see ourselves – as the reader – go from a freshly returned abductee to being slowly rehabilitated in an IDP camp and eventually going back to school. We see the family struggle through rehabilitation and living in the crisis of displacement. There was little literal progression of the story line, but the narrator revealed more and more about the predicaments of both the family and the abducted girl as the pages went on, which gave a deeper dimension to me, but still it seemed like something was lacking. The writing toggled between past and present several times, which sometimes worked, sometimes made it feel disjointed; the writing also changed form a bit here and there along with the setting, sometimes as story-telling and sometimes as a sort of testimony. Maybe I just don’t have a soft spot for short stories?

In the end, the tone of the writing was what separated this piece from other “poverty porn” types of stories for me. Even then I’m kind of torn. The story is about a family’s struggle to cope with a crisis as much as it is about showing you how bad children have it in the North. While I would hardly expect a writer born in Gulu to shed the atmosphere in which she grew up, it is interesting to see how many of these Caine Prize stories will cater to the troubled-dark-continent narrative. At the outset of this co-blogging experience, Aaron pointed to this, a critique that the Caine Prize was judging African writing based on stereotypical Africa (as viewed by more developed, Western countries). The argument is that, over the last ten years, the Caine Prize has guided African writing into exactly what people here think about Africa already – ignoring the greatest satire on how not to write about Africa. (Props to my friend Heidi for first showing me that piece last month, by the way). Bulawayo’s and Lamwaka’s stories seem to fit that genre of look-what-happens-to-children-in-Africa. At least this story didn’t have a stereotypical Westerner in it too, plus it had a radio in the beginning!


Africa is a Country

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness

The Mumpsimus

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo

This is the first of five reviews of the stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This post is about “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe. You can download the story here if you’re interested.

So, it has literally been a couple of years since I have read anything literature. My reading has been dominated by academic non-fiction, and my downtime has miraculously been spent reading the same. This is my first foray into African literature (besides Beasts of No Nation a few years back), and I’m excited to see where these five stories will take me. If you want to read more reviews, scroll on down to the bottom where I’m compiling the list.

I would start with a summary of this short story, except I don’t really know what to tell you. Because not a lot happened in this story. It is told by a girl named Darling and it is about a group of children who head from their slum-neighborhood (ironically called Paradise) to the nice part of town (called Budapest) to steal guavas. They meet a British expat who takes their pictures, they steal guavas, and they find a dead woman in the jungle. They scream at the expat, they eat said guavas, and they steal the shoes off of the dead woman. But there’s no progression in the story, and no real conflict beyond what seems to be the normal bickering among children and some tension when the children’s regard for the British woman goes from curiosity to anger. The story isn’t really all that eventful.

There are interesting things in the story. For starters, the character Chipo is described as being slower than everyone else “because her grandfather made her pregnant.” That’s a heavy piece of information to be dropping mid-sentence a few paragraphs in, and nothing comes of it. It just becomes part of the setting. In the middle of discussing how to leave Paradise and become rich, one of the children argues that “I don’t need school to make money. What Bible did you read that from huh?” which presented an interesting dynamic of prosperity and proselytism in these kid’s lives, I suppose.

When they ask the British person what she has (asking about the food she is eating) she assumes they are asking about her camera, which they really don’t care about but which she must think separates her from them, but nothing really happens with that either. In the same scene she tosses what’s left of her food in the trash and it sets a stark contrast, as Darling explains that “we have never seen anyone throw food away,” followed by rebuking her for acting as if “she had never seen anybody pregnant,” referring of course to ten-year-old Chipo. What’s normal for one’s life is not normal for the other, but again – nothing comes of it. They let the woman take pictures of them and then they leave and scream at her for, apparently, throwing away food.

Maybe I’ve been away from literature for too long and I’m missing something. The uneventfulness of the story reminds me of the worst summer reading I ever did, A Separate Peace. But that’s about where the similarities end beyond children arguing and the story going nowhere. But, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. The story is very much a-day-in-the-lives-of-us, so I guess it shows that their lives are rather uneventful. At the same time, I feel like it’s attempting to show the ruin of Paradise – the kids aren’t going to school and living in good homes, they’re stealing food and they only have one set of clothes and one of them was raped and they find a dead woman on the road home, all while being the slum tourist photo op for the British woman. But I feel like a story needs to do more than show children being children or poverty being poverty. Overall, I’m not too impressed with this story, but maybe it’s just not my type of writing.

As for the co-blogging experience. Check out these awesome bloggers and their analysis of “Hitting Budapest:”

Zungu Zungu

The Oncoming Hope

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Mumpsimus

Method to the Madness

Africa is a Country

The Reading Life