In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Botswanan writer Lauri Kubutsile's In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata. Here is my post on the first, second, and third stories.
I’ll begin by saying that I really enjoyed reading this. It is great to see a fun, lively story from the African continent that is not terribly profound. The story was written to make you laugh, and it does. The story is written with a cock of the eyebrow in the reader’s direction, and I love that.
That is not to say that there are not major holes in the story for me. I really want to know how these men could have wives cheat on them so brazenly and do nothing but shrug. I know that the men felt threatened by McPhineas Lata, but it is not clear to me why the men did not react with anger, but with this need to one-up the man, or to please him better. I wanted something, anything, to show that these women were in a position of control enough that if they could cheat on their husbands they could manipulate them enough to feel threatened by this other man’s ability to please them.
On the other hand, I really appreciated how sexuality was not burdened by guilt or shame, nor was it studied or typed into datasets for analysis on population growth data and the like. Like everywhere in the world, sex just is, and I like how it is allowed here to just be. Sex does not feature much in African literature, and it is such a change to see it talked about and lamented over, all in such a humorous manner.
I have a gripe with the story's preoccupation with, well, itself. I’d have liked for the writer to zoom out a bit and show us some imagery, some backstory into how McPhineas Lata became the ladies’ man, or even how these men were beaten into complacency with this man going after their wives. The writer probably meant for the story to stay a funny piece, and probably feared sapping from the comedy with too much background, but I don’t think this need be the case. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth -- and On Beauty to a lesser extent -– was excellent for using background to make the story even more comical, and to really tease out what makes the scene so hilarious.
In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata is very different from all the other shortlisted stories in that it is the least topical. It is the one most about people and less about any profound issue. We definitely need good fiction on profound takes on the human experience in African countries and how they're shaped by socio-political happenings, but it is nice that stories like this can get the attention of international prize juries.
Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.