A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?


For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”


African Writers Speak

Friend of the blog and post-doc at UT-Austin Aaron Bady has interviewed African writers quite a few times. I’ve enjoyed much of it, and I thought I’d take a moment to link you all to something new that Aaron is doing: it’s called “African Writers in a New World” and it’s a series of interviews with African writers published at Post45. The series will be leading up to a Symposium for African Writers this December at UT-Austin.

From the series’ introduction:

If you ask them, a great many contemporary African writers will tell you that they are not particularly invested in being called “African writers.” I know this, because as part of the “African Writers in a New World” interview series that will be running here on Post45 for the next four months, I’ve been putting this question to as many “African Writers” as I can. I might even be tempted to call it a trend, except for the paradox of defining “African writers” in terms of disavowal. After all, if they’re not “African writers,” then who are these people who, collectively, aren’t calling themselves “African writers”?

Perhaps it’s a better question than an answer. It’s many different answers, in fact. Some actively dislike the category, some are indifferent to it, and some accept it without particular enthusiasm. Yet nearly everyone I’ve spoken to expressesin different waystheir sense that the “African writer” category is a necessary evil at best, accurate without being particularly descriptive. If it is unavoidable, it is also not particularly illuminating; “I’m a writer and I’m African, so yes, I’m an African writer,” as Laila Lalami put it. But the sum might be less than the total of those two parts. At worst, the term is a ghetto: by expressing their literary in terms of identity, African writers are not quite allowed to be writers. Instead, they are called on to “perform their Africanness,” as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello put it, to be Africans who write about being African until the novel becomes sociology, politics, ethnography, anything but literature (Coetzee 51).

As a person who is interested in African literature, but has barely dipped a toe into it, I’ve found these interviews really enlightening – both about the authors and about their works. At the very least, it has built me a reading list – and it’s always interesting to see what authors have to say about their writing, their field, “Africa,” and other relevant topics.

It looks like the series at Post45 will be posting interviews into the new year, so for those interested, I would suggest keeping an eye in that direction. There are already two interviews, one with Maaza Mengiste and one with Laila Lalami, posted on the site. And, duh, if you find yourself near Austin this December, you should go to the Symposium and tell me all about it.

In the meantime, I’m going to find me a new book to read.

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:

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.