By Ernest Ògúnyẹmí
“I am not sure just what the unpardonable sin is, but I believe it is a disposition to evade the payment of small bills.” — E. Hubbard
It is 2017 and I’ve just returned from school. I sit on the doorstep of my distraught-looking hostel, reading Arinze Ifeakandu’s “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things”, a Caine Prize shortlisted story, and I feel the sun not only pouring over my head, but rising in my heart. That warmth has paled now into the image of Lotanna skipping by the roadside, the roadside of my teenage years.
It’s 2018. I am in a food canteen with my father, eating pounded yam and vegetable soup. I am reading the stories shortlisted for that year’s Caine Prize and talking to my father about getting shortlisted one day. In the same year, I am walking home from my father’s office. I am in Sapon, Abeokuta, reciting parts of “Fanta Blackurrant” to myself. My English teacher sees her student and says, from a taxi, “Ernest, stop reading on the road!”
A few years later, Makena Onjerika, who won the prize in 2018 for “Fanta Blackurrant”, sends me a message on Twitter, and I get to teach my first workshop through the Nairobi Writing Academy; it pays well, but it means more to me because I remember that walk through Sapon. A year before, I had read Adichie’s “You in America”, which was shortlisted in 2002. I learned the art by imitating that story; I did the same with Tope Folarin’s “Genesis” and “Miracle”.
It’s 2020. I am bawling but I am also drunk and seriously depressed. I have just read Irenosen Okojie’s “Grace Jones” (the 2020 winner) and it does something to me. Is “disrupt” the word?
Perhaps the most important influence that the Caine has had on me, via its stories, is my love for Makoko. For that love, I am indebted to Nonyelum Ekwempu’s “American Dream”, which was shortlisted in 2018. Now I am a part of a team of young Christians who go to Makoko to share love with the little children there. Each time I go, I remember the Caine Prize. A recent poem I wrote was also informed by Ekwempu’s story.
It is possible that, rereading those stories now, I’d have different thoughts—but what we have had with the Caine Prize over the past couple years is a dwindling. This year’s shortlisted stories are, in particular, products of a severe depression in the prize’s character.
The judging panel for the 2023 Caine Prize is all-women, which is remarkable. More than that, all the stories shortlisted are about—to paraphrase Lesley Nneka Arimah—what the world does to daughters. What is less remarkable are the stories the panel has chosen. The craft of the stories does not bear witness to the case that they make. Three of the stories—Yejide Kilanko’s “This Tangible Thing”; Yvonne Kusiima’s “Weaving”; “Daughter, By Our Hands” by Ekemini Pius—are not where they should be artistically. One is inert, the other callow, and how Pius’s has arrived on the shortlist is bewildering.
Kilanko’s story, about a grandmother seeing her Canada-born-and-bred granddaughter for the first time, is written in an enervated—if not marrow-dead—prose (characters “exhale” five times; there is, among several smiles, “a shaky smile,” “a soft smile [that tugs] at lips”). The short story is two-thirds dialogue and much of it could have been cut. It is like something written for children, without the delight. The granddaughter, named Àjọkẹ (there is a story behind the name), has “a problem.” While she spends time bonding with her grandmother (this bonding we do not experience at all, the writer only jots it down for us in a manner that hardly seems to me like literature), the problem is solved. Close your eyes; open it. There!
The story points in various directions, suggesting things, but is quite predictable. When “Àjọkẹ’s eyes widened”—as if she caught a ghost stealing meat—my eyes only worried about why they had to go through this. Kilanko shows everything by telling it.
Nevertheless, there is a sentence worth keeping: “The antique Singer sat on a wooden table mounted on a cast-iron treadle stand.” But is that what literature is: one lonely good sentence, sturdy and lyrical, sounding nearly like something written in another language, waiting to be noticed among its energy-bereft kin?
Kilanko’s story also contains a fabulous treatment on How the Lizard Got a Red Head and Why All He Is Able to Answer in Response to Questions Is to Nod. Indeed, there are small signposts in the story that represent a rich subtext of fables and indigenous literature. A child is dropped in the forest in order to avert some disaster but gets rescued by hunters, recalling Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame. Igbó Irúnmọlẹ̀, the “enchanted forest” that gives the village where the story is set its name, makes me think of D.O. Fagunwa’s masterpiece.
These are mere signposts. The speculative undertones of the story are not acted upon. And for all its attempt at wisdom—cajoling Fagunwa, re-asserting the value of folktales, and perhaps sampling Ola Rotimi—“This Tangible Thing” exists on the surface of things, nothing moves within it. And we can take the Yeatsian title as an ironic comment on the art.
Often, an idea comes to a writer that has no use but to be thrown away. The idea that women—in any world, even the world of the imagination—can procreate by their fingernails is one of them. Yeats described images as “magical shapes.” Speculative fiction is magic, of course, but it is magic that has a form, however flexible. The form could be Pound’s water poured into a jar . . . but it must have form, it has to make sense within itself. Pius’s idea fails that test even in the world he has created. The reason is easy to see: he has attempted a pallid imitation of another Caine-shortlisted story, Nneka Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home?”.
In Pius’s story, as in Arimah’s, babies result from handwork: Arimah’s Ogechi weaves babies from hair, molds them from clay; Pius tells us that “the woman would glue a nail to her own finger and within three weeks, your genetic information would be replaced with hers, and once she inserted the finger into her vagina, it would swim to fertilize her eggs and she would become pregnant with a girl.”
In Arimah, we have “Mama Said Hair Emporium,” where Ogechi works and where much of the story happens. In Pius, it is “Mama Cynthia Fashion World.” Both Mamas are representative of “oppressive women”: Mama Said takes just a little of Ogechi’s joy and empathy; Mama Cynthia wants to buy Pius’s protagonist’s fingernails but chooses to fire her when the latter refuses to sell. In both stories, the ritual of surreal motherhood happens in a danfo.
When Aniema—Pius’s central character—goes to work and her potent fingernails have finally grown, we are told that “Aniema could sense a shift in the atmosphere already.” When Ogechi goes to work with her newly woven child, the story reads: “Mama walked in, she paused, sensing the shift of power in the room.” Arimah’s “Mama twisted [her apprentices’] ears for wasting merchandise.” Pius’s “Mama Cynthia walked over to the nearest machine and pulled the ear of the girl who sat at it.”
We may as well close shop if these two stories—as elected by Africa’s major literary prize—are considered even partly representative of the best that African writers are writing today. Is this the extent of our imagination, the worth of our sentences? If it is, let’s erect a House of Mourning and start singing—in clear, somber voice—God Be with You Till We Meet Again.
To read Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “Peeling Time” is to feel ourselves being called back from the dead into a livelier dead. The story reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in its harvesting of a strenuous psychological darkness. “The corpse of her voice hangs from the murdered legacy tree exhumed from the placenta of her being,” Tsamaase writes. “I am a proper woman, she sings. The burning tree blazes in the dark, the floor made of dark, the ceiling made of dark, the air—there is no air.”
That sentence is a little too much, but seems fair when compared to this one: “Inside her body, everything is a beautiful mess, a tornado of thoughts, anger and hatred spinning to a climactic explosion catapulting her to the stratosphere of her being.”
The most striking thing about this story is its curious hybridity. It reads like something a traumatised AI with an aptitude for myth-making and access to rap songs would produce. The story’s hero, Motsumi, is a rapper-animator who barges into the sleep of women and does what he likes. The techy ritual that allows him to do this may never leave my mind: this is the kind of story that should carry CONTENT WARNING in a very large font on the first page. When he returns to the world, Motsumi converts his night-activity into animations, writes songs to go with them. The animations help his career. He won’t stop until he meets his bright waterloo in Sewela, “the hit-maker bitch”.
“Peeling Time” sustains tempo for a remarkable amount of time (there are sleights of hand here and there). It begins to lose verve when we reach the section titled “[Bridges].” We get laughable moments (there is a “misogynistic stake”; a Soyinka-esque phrase, “phallic protrusion”) and propagandist soda (“Her body is power”—the italicised “is” is a mystery to me).
In a weird way, we are comforted by Tsamaase’s story being on the shortlist. It reminds us that the Caine has always had a taste for the quirky: Stacy Hardy’s “Involution”, Wole Talabi’s “Wednesday Story”, “Grace Jones” by Irenosen Okojie, Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”.
“Weaving” by Yvonne Kusiima works by its voice. The writer tries to cover up the story’s flaws by “naming” them as crucial to the story. In a passage, the narrator starts talking about “child endangerment” and moves from that to talk about rhinos:
“The thing is, of all the movies they could have been showing, they showed one about child abuse. Actually, they called it child endangerment. I’m being endangered! It makes me think of a poor rhino. People who were born in Kampala care so much about rhinos. It’s in our blood. We are always wanting to go to the zoo to see a rhino. Can you believe some evil people want to kill rhinos so that they can steal their horns? Such men are called poachers. If you know of such a person, please report him to Uganda Wildlife Authority unless you are the poacher. Please, if you’re poaching, stop, stop, stop. Hahaha! I’ve talked exactly like the man from Uganda Wildlife Authority. Sometimes, I really know how to talk like people.”
(The italics are mine.) This rhino-talk has no consequence for the story. The voice is sustained by what it accumulates; the rhino-talk is one of those accumulations. But why exactly is it there? It could be a mark of the character, something about her manner of being, or it could be the author summarising news. Kusiima’s narrator is an awkward encyclopedia of irrelevancies. She “knows” everything, even what she does not know:
Mama Kimbo’s bubblegum looks like some fat fingers squashed it into little balls and it tastes like the rubber on the back of a pencil dipped in oral rehydration salts; the ones they give you when you’re suffering from dios. For me, I have never suffered from dios. I just know things.
A fine description of bubblegum—that semicolon that gives us “dios”!—but she smothers it.
One is reminded of another Caine story that works this way: “Waiting” by E. C. Osondu, which won the prize in 2009. My take is that “Waiting” lacks depth—in its investigation of its characters, what they feel, the layers of it; it sketches its characters using things (the same method Osondu repeats in “Janjaweed Wife,” published four years after his Caine-winning story). It is a typical refugee story but even as it consolidates tropes (the poverty porn thing), “Waiting”—unlike “Weaving” (which also does the poverty porn thing)—is careful and coherent.
Kusiima’s incoherence, it could be argued, is a style. However, that does not hold because one realises that the carelessness hides an inability. The flaws in the work could be forgiven if the writer steadily and carefully shaped and inspected the story’s one consequential moment—a rape scene. She does not. She evades the payment of small bills. And in its perpetual fluttering, nothing in “Weaving” remains. Nothing, of course, but the voice.
There’s a deceptively feeble quietness in “A Soul of Small Places”. The prose is lucid, delicate, and firm. Think of the 2016 winner, “Memories We Lost” by Lidudumalingani, that gorgeous, heartrending tale about love between siblings, about illness, terror, about the useful “salvation” of fiction. I could tell you what “A Soul” is about, still I would have succeeded at telling you nothing. You must drink. Mame Bougouma Diene and Woppa Diallo’s sentences make love to your soul:
Senegal’s a dry place. Matam one of the driest, but not where we lived. In most of the country you can see a house for miles. Not here. The sands by the river are a fertile brown laced with baobabs and bushes, small verdant trees that pop up throughout the land, distorting your sense of space. They pepper the way to school and beyond, the freshness of the water a thin sheen on the air, soothing your throat and sprinkling your tongue in the rising shimmer of heat.
I have been on that paragraph for quite a while. I have read and reread it maybe twenty times. What is it about? Senegal? Matam? Where they live? It’s certainly about those “places,” but, more than anything, that paragraph is an astutely configured small country of the mind. Pay attention to these words: “place,” “country,” and “space.” These words are, broadly speaking, synonymous. Notice that “place” appears in a short direct sentence, at the start. “Country” appears in the midst of a series of words that are not adorned (no punctuation within the sentence: a sentence that qualifies dryness—the plains, like the sentence, are bare: nature, fertility, is absent). Before we turn to “space,” we meet these flippant words: “Not here.” When you read the first three sentences of the paragraph, your mind begins to form an image of dryness, of dusty emptiness. The sentence fragment (“Not here”) prepares us for a subversion of that image in our mind. In the fifth sentence: fertility, “small verdant trees pop up” between commas, and “space” occurs at the very end. The last run of this sentence consists of five words and it occurs in the fifth sentence of the paragraph: I think that the clause refers us back to each sentence and sentence-fragment that we have experienced before it. To put it differently, each word in “distorting your sense of space” carries its precursor. The “your” that occurs in the same run refers to you, the reader. “[We are] distorting your sense of space,” the writers say.
The word “space” is vastly different from “place” or “country.” I am thinking of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. If place and country refer to the physical landscape of Senegal, the “space” that meets us at the end of that sentence refers instead to the soul, or at least an aspect of it, to consciousness, which William H. Gass says is what a piece of fiction is, “a unique verbal consciousness.” Diene and Diallo “distort” our “sense” of the unique verbal consciousness that they create, and so deepen the pleasure that we derive in our experience of that consciousness. The last sentence makes it clear: “soothing your throat and sprinkling your tongue.” If once we distorted your space-sense, the writers say, it was to soothe and sprinkle. Each sentence reveals and modifies this peculiar aesthetic landscape. It is a moving landscape; its various layers (truths) become activated in motion.
I could talk also of the poetic structure of the story. I could talk of the way the story hypnotises you and then drops the viper in your mind, head cocked. After that paragraph, nothing prepares us for what comes next: “It’s in those bushes that the herdsmen ambush little girls on the way to school and rape them.” What does this paragraph imply? If it is our sense of space that was distorted, if our consciousness is a part of the verbal consciousness where the bushes grow (since it is sex, we cannot experience this unique consciousness unless we are a part of it), then the violence it describes, that horror, the potential for it, lives and feeds in the dark corners of our psyche. The story investigates—searches the reader; it prods; it implicates. We are made complicit by language, and language is not wrong.
The judges this year talk of “artivism”—a term I distrust. Art that has agenda (a political or political-seeming agenda) rarely e’er does well. The two “weaklings” prove that point; the propagandist soda that soaks the latter part of Tsamaase’s work also nods. Diene and Diallo’s story—if my reading does any good—certainly engages a serious issue. But its more serious business is its sentences—that is where it gets its power. Writers who take on large ideas usually forget that the large idea is not of any importance unless the delivery is good.
Last notes. (1) Speculative fiction is on the rise—a good thing. But what is happening to literary fiction? (2) African or diasporic anthologies are doing tremendous work in sustaining a lively and brilliant short story tradition in the continent and abroad. Last year’s shortlist, which was fairly strong, had stories first appeared in: an SSDA anthology (one), Accra Noir (two), Addis Ababa Noir (one), and an Afritondo anthology (one). Although Kilanko’s story is from one, Relations: An Anthology of African and Diaspora Voices, the two good stories on the shortlist this year are from Africa Risen, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Sheree Thomas, and Zelda Knight.
(3) It is against African journals that I have a case. A friend told me that he stopped reading the shortlisted stories in 2021, when Lolwe and Doek! had work shortlisted. I read “This Little Light of Mine”, Troy Onyango’s shortlisted story from that year, and also thought it was poor, which was saddening because Onyango is otherwise a fine writer. (His essay on attending the Caine workshop is beautifully written.)
Again, this year, the two stories from an African journal are a letdown. Is it good to eat and support homegrown stuff? Yes, but it would be unwise to make a rule of it. If better stories from eligible writers published in foreign journals are submitted, why ignore them for sallow homegrown stuff? (4) The Caine is no longer bringing anybody to the limelight; it did that successfully for twenty years. It is time for the Prize to not think of itself as supporting, but as appreciating the best that is coming out of the continent. This year’s shortlist represents some of Africa’s worst. Our beloved Caine is almost thirty; it needs a renewal. It should start by (5) giving the 2023 prize to Diene and Diallo. E
Ernest Ògúnyẹmí’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Kenyon Review, The Sun, Banshee, Mooncalves: An Anthology of Weird Fiction, and elsewhere. He is working toward a BA in History and International Studies at Lagos State University.