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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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - Billy Kahora's "Urban Zoning"

The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story, and once again, I am among the number. Here's a review for Billy Kahora's story "Urban Zoning" (pdf). Better late than never.

This one was a hard nut to crack for me.

Let's start with the plot, shall we? Kandle is a young man who rather prefers a constant state of drunkenness to sobriety. We meet him when he is 72 hours into this particular drunken spell as he walks the tight rope between good and bad zone, keeping his countenance equanimous, his thoughts positive. All this while, he is arranging his face, his thoughts, his mind for his ultimate "performance" the meeting with the board of the bank where he works.

In the course of the story, we learn that Kandle has a grown into a man wary of closeness to people, and possibly averse to commitment, seeing as every relationship we see him in has him abusive his position (with the house help), manipulative (with his employers), or without any sense of attachment at all (all the references to casual sex). We learn that he is a fair-skinned Kenyan man, and there are hints that his family is at least relatively well off. His name is Kandle, which brings to mind "candle", the inevitable burn-out of youth. We even see, at the end of the story, an attempt by Kahora to universalize him, calling his and his friend Ocuotho's laughter "a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation." In that final sentence of the story, we are to affix Kandle and his story in the fabric of larger Kenyan society (something I personally cannot speak to).

The problem is, I don't see what I'm supposed to do with all these observations. I wonder if there is some larger point to this story that I am missing, because the story is set somewhere I am not familiar with, or perhaps I feel this way because there is not much resolution here. We get to know this very interesting character, but then what? Urban Zoning is almost nothing but a character sketch. This is allowed, of course, in an Open City kind of way, but it is not quite enough for me in this particular case.

I'll give it to Kahora, though; he writes a hell of a story. My only grouse with the writing is how, towards the end of the story, the author "zoomed out" from Kandle's point of view, but even with that, you can't but love Kahora's observant eye, the darkness of the story, and the fantastic prose. There is a real rhythm, real music, to his sentences. I especially like the vividness of this section:

 Starting off toward Harambee Avenue, Kandle wobbled suddenly, halting the crazy laughter in his chest. Looking around, he felt the standard paranoia of the Zone start to come on. Walking in downtown Nairobi at rush hour was an art even when sober. Drunk, it was like playing rugby in a moving bus on a murram country road. Kandle forced himself back into the Good Zone by going back to Lenana School in his mind. Best of all, he went back to rugby-memory land, to the Mother of All Rugby Fields, Stirlings, the field where he had played with an abandoned joy. He had been the fastest player on the pitch, a hundred meters in twelve seconds easy, ducking and weaving, avoiding the clueless masses, the thumbless hoi polloi, and going for the girl watching from the sidelines. In his mind’s eye the girl was always the same: the Limara advert girl. Thin and slender. Dark because he was light, slightly taller than him. The field was next to the school’s dairy farm, so there were dung-beetle helicopters in the air to avoid and mines of cow-dung to evade.

I love a well-written story. This one just isn't for me.

Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:

Fellow bloggers' reviews of this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
The Mumpsimus

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babajide

It's the Caine Prize Blogathon once again! 

The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story. Check out his introductory post here. It's great to be a part of this for the second year in a row, and I'm hoping that this batch of story is an improvement upon last year's because... well.... yeah.

OK, here comes the first of the reviews. It's for Rotimi Babatunde's Bombay's Republic (pdf). Co-bloggers' reviews at the bottom of the page.

First of all, I like how the story was written. In addition to some gorgeous phrasing from Babatunde, the third-person narrative and the "clash of cultures humor" reminded me of the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy", especially the scenes where the natives thought the black soldiers had tails, or the Japanese thinking that blacks must be chopped to bits when killed, else they resurrect like zombies. The point of view also provided enough distance from the actual story  -- the war, the racism, the absurdity,  the pathetic circumstances for the black soldiers -- for some parts of the story to actually be funny.

I found Bombay's character very well-drawn. He was a simple man to begin with, content with the life of a soldier. I like how Bombay did not return to Nigeria and take up the role of freedom fighter for against the scourge of imperialism. All he seemed to want to do was return to his home country and live a quiet life. For a story that deals with racism and imperialism (The Oncoming Hope's review will deal with this more), it made sense to not have the lead character initially be exceptional. Too often in African literature, writers foist upon their characters the burden of their history. Babatunde's approach to this story -- from the narrator's distance to the humor and the characterization -- is a shrugging off of any attempt to have this story be much more than a piece of fiction. One could not but smile at District Officer's quandary over whether or not to punish Bombay over refusing to pay taxes, particularly on how Bombay may mount a successful attack against whatever soldiers would be sent to take him in. He had forced his humanity upon DO, made the British see him as a force to be reckoned with.

Everything Bombay's time at war showed him pointed to his humanity and the humanity of the British he was with. It made sense that he would resist paying taxes, or even use Bombay's Republic as a way of scaring off the British like he used his bellowing at the enemies during the war to scare them into retreat. I was not expecting at all for him to become quite so self-important as to draw up a constitution and call himself President. This new egomania seemed out of character, and it is indeed possible that he went mad. What makes Bombay's madness uncertain, though, is that you see no sign of it when he was in the jungle, and the narrator says nothing about any particular episode that haunts him.   

Further, I know the last bit about his birth country being a foreign one was meant to be funny, but I never got the sense that Bombay held any resentment towards Nigeria for "allowing" itself to be controlled by the British. After all, he did not even seem to really mind being a part of a forgotten platoon in the army. We know later -- and expect even while it was happening -- that also "forgotten" was to be the familiarity between the white and black soldiers, and whatever it is that black soldiers like Bombay had learned was possible.

In his own twisted way -- even as he channeled his inner Yaya Jammeh and the titles he gave himself became more and more grand --  Bombay's ambition never did grow. He learned so much about what was possible behind the thick curtain of imperialism and got a glimpse of what it was like to be seen as fully human by the white men that he soldiered alongside, but these were obviously never lessons he knew what to do with. Not that one could fault Bombay for that; what does one do with knowing that colonialist is as human as you are, when the state structures in your home country support the idea that he is not? if you're not of the temperament to agitate with the independence activists, what else could you do?

So when he did found his own republic, it was to rule himself, to make laws governing his one-man republic, and to get independence for no one else but himself. It may be just as well that Bombay never did get any more citizens (the jury is out on whether more citizens would have changed his behavior). For him, this independence was as good as it got, and there was no one to question him as he bestowed himself with titles that he had done nothing to attain. It was also just as well that Bombay was not a rich "country", and perhaps this failure of the lead character's ambition is Babatunde's point: you must check all colonialists at the door, even the ones that look like you.

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