When British-Nigerian writer, Bernadine Evaristo was announced as chair of the Caine Prize, she stressed the urgent need for writing that does more than reinforce the already warn perceptions about Africa: “War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent”. She posed the question of whether too many African writers are writing for the approval of non-African literary decision makers such as International publishing companies and prize bodies, a question that had been preoccupying members of the Nigerian literati.
While one mightn’t say that the effort by the 2012 Caine Prize to find “exciting, provocative” short fiction has yielded the very best it can – the shortlisted entries still contain copious references to racism, homophobia, poverty, disease and the need for escape – the handling of the stories have been more nuanced than in previous years. Of the five stories, which I had read countless times to prepare press materials, a couple stood out in my mind. And it was with delight, if not surprise, that I witnessed the announcement of Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ as fourth Nigerian winner of the Prize – after Helon Habila’s, Segun Afolabi’s and E C Osondu’s works in 2001, 2005 and 2009 respectively
‘Bombay’s Republic’, described as “darkly humorous and soaring prose” tells the story of a Nigerian soldier drafted to fight in Burma during World War Two, but Babatunde wasn’t preoccupied so much with the usual: The victimhood of Africans made to fight a war that they had no business with – “Colour Sergeant Bombay… would quickly find that someone had confused his nation’s frontiers with a place half the world away” – or the racism meted out to the soldiers, with propaganda making the rounds about them being tailed cannibals capable of ressurection. Instead Babatunde focused on chronicling the gradual shattering of stereotypes and assumptions, and the liberating effects of a traumatic experience on his impressionable Sergeant.
Questioned by Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Chair of the prize, about why Bombay did not return to promote the independence efforts in Africa, Babatunde replied that, the former’s illusions having been shattered during the war, he could not return to “do the usual or predictable”. Instead, Bombay’s republic ends as an allegory on a self-perpetuating leader, like Allfrey’s own “dear president Mugabe.”
As I read and enjoyed Rotimi’s “Bombay’s Republic” for the umpteenth time, two things struck me: It was quite ‘genre’, and was easily expandable. This impression was further re-inforced when Ben Okri, Man Booker Prize winner and new Vice-Chair of the Caine Prize, in explaining the importance of a short story prize, likened the prose form to a seed, while citing examples of longer works- Don Quixote and Ulysses – that began as short stories.
A self-professed history enthusiast, hence the time and place setting of his story, Babatunde is currently involved in writing a stage play Sugar, a collaborative effort with four other writers, and a retelling of “the journey of Yoruba culture and religion, as it moved through slavery from West Africa to the Americas, a powerful story of exploitation, resistance and survival”. It is to be produced by World Stages London next year. So perhaps in answer to Evaristo’s query – “What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?” – the stage is finally being set for the diversification of African literature.
Also, besides being a stepping stone into longer form, the short story, in this internet age, holds infinite possibility of re-introducing the continent and portraying its present circumstances both within and without. And platforms like the Caine Prize, while facing their own peculiar challenges, create avenues for renewed discourse. And slow progress is being made, this year’s Caine anthology, African Violet, has been released in partnership with six African publishers, and is available in book stores and in e-book format.
The Ten Thousand Pound Man
Babatunde, who is also a poet and a playwright, is no ingénue, having already achieved some level of success in creative writing – his fiction and poems have been published internationally, and his plays have been staged in places like the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago.
However, on arrival in London, his manner had been shy and earnest. There had been an almost palpable nervousness about him. When he spoke at interviews and readings, it was with a hesitant intelligence, and he was given to frequent disappearances from the group. He appeared almost incongruous with his witty, tongue-in-cheek and articulate creative alter-ego.
Instead, quite like the character, Bombay, from his prize winning story, “Bombay’s Republic”, who bore with equanimity the probing stares of white natives, Rotimi exhibited very little emotion as he was ushered from his table with Ben Okri to the podium to give his winner’s speech. He spoke of his honour at being awarded the Prize, but mostly of being in such “good company as my fellow shortlisted writers”. Faltering slightly at the end of his memorised speech, he said a simple thank you to all and came down to congratulations and picture taking.
Though he will be the last to admit that winning the Prize and the £10,000 prize money has validated him in any major way, to my careful eyes, by the end of the media circus that surrounded him afterwards, his demeanour had changed slightly. His manner had become more self-assured. He still chose his words carefully, but they were delivered with the manner of one who had realised that people were eager to lap them up. And they were; he had granted no less than fifteen interviews in about two days, some well into midnight. Yes, he admits that it has been a fascinating experience, the importance of which will take some time to sink in, but he maintains that “writing is not about winning prizes but about writing well.”
As he recalls, his first memory of writing was when he created an illustrated story book around age six, but his craft did not actually take off until the early to late nineties when Nigeria was in the throes of military regimes. It was his awareness of events and need for self-expression in the stifling political atmosphere that led him to explore world literature by writers like Leonard Tolstoy, William Faulkner. Tolstoy, he said, “showed me what fiction should be like”. Closer to home, his inspirations came from Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola. These early influences still govern his craft till today.
While he doesn’t want to be immediately catapulted from Nigeria – as in his last few days in London he makes no secret of his longing to return to his home in Ibadan, there is a limit to the level of success that he can boast in Nigeria, especially as it concerns his work with theatre. “I do not write for Nigerian theatre“, he admits. “Nigeria stages do not have the facilities to support my work”. But he insists that a major achievement of literary bodies like the Caine would be to reduce the distance to Africa, to organise awards within the continent that will be a force for change rather than, as Evaristo puts it, merely “sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year”.
Five Strangers from One Very Diverse Continent
This year’s shortlist boasted what Jan Hart, Caine Prize facilitator for twelve years calls a “young crowd”. Jenna Cato Bass, who wrote as Constance Myburg, is a twenty-five year old South African film maker, and a publisher of pulp fiction. She infuses this cinematic element into her story, “Hunter Emmanuel”, which is set in Cape Town. In “Hunter Emmanuel” an ex-cop follows the mysterious trail that begins with the discovery of a woman’s amputated leg. Bass, a retired magician with an eccentric dress sense and a passion for collecting odd knick knacks, felt somewhat like Alice in Wonderland on this trip. She admits that it is the first time she has seen her fiction published in any media besides her own Jungle Jim, a magazine she co-founded.
I had spent two futile hours frantically scouring Google Images and Facebook to match a face to the name I was expecting on the morning when I welcomed Melissa Myambo to London. The only thing I knew about her at the time was her gender. I was later to find out that she has a loathing for having her images published online. During the process of the Caine events we took great pains to film her in profile or not at all. Chatty, and with uproarious humour, she could always be counted on to break the tedium of panel discussions with a quirky observation. And she had often maintained that “by far the most interesting thing about me is that I am aerobics instructor, and I teach Zumba dance classes”. Her story, “La Salle de Depart” was inspired by an elegant, dignified Senegalese house keeper she met during her stint in Senegal, and is dedicated to women like the latter who do not have the opportunity to see the world.
Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” is one story whose place on the shortlist I had wondered about. But to hear Billy explain this story of a drunken bank worker who manages to outwit his bosses just when they should be giving him the boot, one realises that it is replete with meaning and references that would be missed if you did not possess local knowledge of Kenya, or were not conversant with terms like “Peri-urban”. Slight, and with the mild irritation of someone who never slows down, Kahora is an editor at Kwani?, a literary outfit established by Binyanvanga Wainana, or The Bing, as Kahora fondly calls him.
Stanley Kenani has been on the Caine shortlist one too many times, he complains. He was shortlisted in 2008 and has seen and done it all before. But as an accountant for the UN, the experience was another opportunity to network with literary types. He lives a kind of sectioned existence, he explains. When he is away from “all the writing stuff” he is just a stuffy collar, who has no one to share his literary interests with; and oftentimes it is just when he is busily “crunching numbers” that his fictional characters come to tap him on the shoulder and request an audience. Writing, for him, has been a means of escape. It earned him a scholarship that has enabled him find a way out of the Malawian village he lived in till he was in his teens. His story, “Love on Trial“, is about a homosexual man discovered in flagrante delicto with his lover in Malawi. What follows is the persecution and prosecution of this character. Kenani confesses to having written this story solely for advocacy purposes: “I wanted to speak for a section of our society – gays. Some are friends, they are can’t come out or even post their pictures on sites like Facebook; and many of them are some of the best people I’ve met. Why are we denying them the freedom we have?”
The Caine Prize brought together five strangers from one very diverse continent, and positioned them as the representation of our varied literary accomplishment. The journey from their respective countries had seen their stories reviewed by twenty-odd blogs across Africa, some of them very scathingly (cue Ikhide Ikheloa and Ayo Olofintuade, two Nigerian bloggers, whose review made for many hilarious interludes among the writers), interviewed by a myriad of UK media outfits, defending and explaining their works at panel after panel discussion.
There were merry parts too: A midnight pub crawl in Soho London, the networking avenues with agents and publishers, and the upper class accommodation at Royal Overseas League, a Commonweath private members organisation, and being feted at the UK House of Lords by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, member of the House and founder of The Caine Prize. Only the baroness’ declaration that she single-handedly chose the national anthem of Kenani’s Malawi ruffled a few feathers within the group. That and the “less-than-minimum-wage” per-diem.
First published in The Guardian, Nigeria, July 15, 2012