Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Pede Hollist "Foreign Aid" and the Diaspora Conversation

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. This week's review is of Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid" (pdf).

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. So here’s the story of Logan, a man who makes good in America, goes home with a head full of ideas as to how life is supposed to be, and wants to dictate to those he’s left behind in Sierra Leone what kind of life they should live. The title “Foreign Aid” is interesting, because it recognizes Logan’s interventions as from an outside source, as foreign as the Westerner with full of good intentions and soft-spoken superiority. The messages in this story, warning of the dangers in de-contextualizing a nation’s problems and playing know-all, are clear. Maybe even too clear.

As far as the writing goes, this story was hard for me to muscle through. For what this story was trying to do, I think it is fair to say that it was entirely too long. There were entire scenes that could have been cut out – like the hedging at the beginning to give Balogun aka Logan a back-story that does not do much to explain the man that we see in Sierra Leone, or that entirely too long scene with the suitcases and the ferry. rather, I would have liked, for example, to know more about what gave Logan, who had lived in Sierra Leone until his twenties, the level of remove from where he grew up that what he met at home so surprised him. How different was the Salone he knew as a young man and the Salone he’d probably heard or read about in his years in America from the Salone he met upon his return? Did he have no friends of African descent in the U.S.? I simply do not buy that he came home a tabula rasa and needed to re-learn his environment. Also, those conversations between Logan and the many uncles were so obviously playing into a point the author was trying to make that I wish he had just written us an essay and gotten it over with.

The trouble is that I actually completely understand the world the writer is depicting here. Aunties and uncles abroad always joke about how they avoid coming home because the expectation is always that they spray around the money that they’ve acquired from the Land of Milk and Honey. I know how irritated I get when I meet Nigerians who live outside the country that act as though they have all the solutions for Nigeria’s progress, because those of us who currently live in the country obviously couldn’t trace our wrists from our elbows. Lots of people who have spent time away truly no longer understand how a nation could make it so difficult for people to survive, never mind thrive. But I am not every reader, and the way that each character is influenced by their time abroad also differs. It does take a lot of effort and care, but there is indeed a way to tell well-observed, beautifully written stories of this world that does everything that a good story must do.

The tradition of writing set in Africa that addresses contemporary social issues hearkens as far back as  those folk tales and proverbs, and is meant to both entertain and make you think, just like these other forms of storytelling. African writers have always felt the burden to have their stories mean something more than just the sum its plot, and that is definitely not a bad thing. The burden some African writers have felt since the post-colonial era to create work that speaks to the cultural moment has allowed for the creation of some very beautiful work by writers whose names still ring a bell today, but we most always remember that the best stories also understand the importance of putting a good story – not a message -- front and center. 

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