Friday, May 25, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - S. O. Kenani's "Love on Trial"

Here's the third installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story is S. O.Kenani's Love on Trial (pdf).

This Kenani short story takes on the issue of gay rights in Malawi, but Africa more broadly. There was a real effort on the part on the writer to go after the rationale for the holding back gay rights and the dehumanization of people based solely on their sexuality. This frustration for any progressive-leaning person living in an African country is understandable, but one must wonder how best to tackle it in fiction (hint: not like Kenani chooses to here).

I found the title a bit misleading. I understand where “Love on Trial” comes from, but there really is just one person on trial here: Charles. This is not like that the gay couple arrested in Malawi for attempting to marry; this is a man who people have found out is gay and not has to defend himself in the open (lucky he is a lawyer, huh?). I quibble with this, because I think it is unnecessary in its call to our conscience, but also because I find it strange because there is an actual trial which ends in his being thrown in jail, and it was not thoroughly dealt with. We’re given a TV show spectacle instead.

The sad part is that there was plenty of potential for the story to take a more subtle, more illuminating path. By starting off the story with the drunken Lapani Kachigwe who used his recounting of how he came walked in on Charles and his lover in flagrante to get free alcohol for his friends was, to me, brilliant. It was a subtle way of showing how unthinking Kachigwe was, how little he considered that recounting the story over and again would do to someone’s life, and a nice way of introducing the question of privilege. He could have used the omniscient point of view to put Charles’s actual trial as the center of the question and really spend time teasing out the cultural issues and to fully flesh out the frame of mind of the people who are putting the young man on trial. Kenani could have used his story as a thoughtful rumination of privilege, a consideration of how we apportion humanity in post-colonial societies. Rather, he used it to shake his fists at our collective morality. Hell, he even ended the story with the parable.

I think one of the hardest things for African writers is to balance a deep political consciousness with the discipline to prioritize the writing of a good story. Kenani, with this story, focused too much on former than on the latter. In focusing on the brouhaha gathering around Charles, he offers only a cartoonish version of the townspeople and no real reason why his family, unlike the townspeople, is tolerant of their son’s homosexuality. When we get to the TV show section of the story, the writer almost forgets about setting and the importance of characterization of the people he is depicting. Charles is the gentle, intelligent gay man who is faithful to his boyfriend and wants to be a lawyer, but all we know about the TV show host is that he thinks homosexuality is a sin.

African writers can write about just whatever they please, like any writer anywhere else, but African writers who know of their cultural setting enough to write about must know the length and breadth of the humanity of those (s)he chooses to depict. As complicated as it is, there are plenty of good, intelligent, even morally-upright people across who would blanch at the thought of equal rights for gay citizens. Kenani, however, makes no notice of this albeit-inconvenient truth. While I agree on full human rights for gay citizens in my country, I take exception to the writer's inconspicuous kindness only at characters who agree with him, and I remain unconvinced that the best response to unresolved cultural issues is to resort to the smugness that will not allow us to see the humanity in those we do not agree with.

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