Reviewer: Nzube Nlebedim
Work Reviewed: 2023 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing Shortlist
Number of Stories: Five
Date of Publication/Release: Friday, July 7th, 2023
Review Word Count: 1321
The five Caine Prize-shortlisted stories this year are drawn from three new literary productions published in the past year, namely Africa Risen (“A Soul of Small Places,” and “Peeling Time”), RELATIONS (“This Tangible Thing”), and Isele Magazine (“Daughters, by Our Hands,” and “Weaving”). Like many of the shortlisted writers in the past years, the six writers who join the pantheon of new literary stars are generally candid-styled and genuine. Their writing shows no pretension, nor condescension to the fast-growing African readership today spoon-fed every day with lesser, conservative literature, especially since the past decade. Ekemini Pius’ story shares a similar cultural and linguistic colour with Chizoma’s “Collector of Memories” in the 2022 shortlist. Likewise, Woppa Diallo and Mame Bougouma Diene’s story echoes Luhumyo’s “Five Years Next Sunday” in its turgid language. The latter admittedly takes an upper hand as regards consistency and efficiency with style. The selected writers in summation this year are brave and cunning with their storytelling. They experiment with the prose fiction form in ways that confound and dazzle.
“Weaving” starts with Gran whipping the fingers of her young ward. The younger woman, Thomasina, a bubbly, outgoing teenager, is sexually abused by her boy crush. In prose much too quick to follow, the story shows the reality and effects of teenage pregnancy and rape. The writer works with needless speed and deflective pacing, and, for a long time, the story moves nowhere in particular. We traverse in circles until there is finally some action at the tail end. There is a lean direction eventually, and the story weaves into itself without reaching a truce early enough. But it does reach one. Thomasina is raped and then “rescued” by Gran who aborts the baby. There are very few things to unpack in “Weaving.” It stands as though unsure, told in a narrative style and voice that gets more queasy than intentionally puerile.
In “Peeling Time,” we are plunged head-first into language so dense and heavy it seems dreamy. But the story does set its readers in a dream state. Most of the characters work beyond the regular. Whether in the euphoric, or the spiritual, it’s hard to tell. The story is told in such contrived poetry, with short clumps of sentences here and there, a technique I find admirable, but which in unskilled hands can become tiring. But this story doesn’t get exactly tiring. Motsumi, something of a music video director, through sex, chains the bodies of his lovers for his use. The story has a sensual rhythm, with a plot that may be initially difficult to follow. However, the beauty of the work lies in its accessibility underneath. The message is clear: women are as powerful as men, and they can only work together to defeat evil in the world. In the end, Sewela destroys Motsumi when she “wears his taxidermized masculinity as a crown, chugs his death to the outro of her visual album, sits on the throne made from his bones and the leather of his skin.” There is only very little to hate the writer for.
“A Soul of Small Places” starts with such vivid promise. Quasi-memoirist, the language is measured, controlled and sure. When herdsmen start to rape girls in Tambacounda, a vengeful goddess possesses the narrator, Woppa. I came into the conflict of things, but the writers took me away from it with so much haste that the narrative eventually failed to make the right punches, and I could no longer empathise as fully with the characters. By the time Woppa makes her first kill, mid story, its plot drives so quickly that it’s nearly impossible not to swoon. And for the wrong reasons. The writers, possibly suddenly unsure of the story’s resolution, decided to land anyway.
“This Tangible Thing” is multithreaded. The themes in the story weave from one to the other with sweet, gooey transitions. The writer tells an intergenerational tale of love and sacrifice. There are stories to be discovered, the protagonist, Bibiire, tells her precocious grandchild. There are lessons to be learnt. The story is told with so much wild care and bubbly tenderness. The characters become real, true. We can relate with them on a personal level. They become tangible. The writer also makes effective use of flashbacks. She uses decent cuts, pacing, and social motifs that may likely resonate well with readers. “This Tangible Thing” tells its story with such subtlety, warmth and intricacy. The work shows the most artistic depth and maturity, and is my bet for this year’s win.
“Daughters, by Our Hands” is ambitiously speculative. A fictional re-imagination of human parthenogenesis, where women reproduce by themselves without the help of men, the story makes its premise clear from the start. And while there’s not much exposition on the nature or picture of the population outside the world of the characters, the story is compelling. However, with the restriction in showing or telling about the other half of the characters’ world, the characters stand the risk of being seen as undercooked, or even stock. For instance, there is no strong motivation for Aniema’s gifting of her fingernails. Was it in deliberate reaction against Eme’s greed, or was it by Aniema’s own will? Both are difficult questions to answer. In all, the story shows good strength and promise.
If “the depth and breadth of writing on the continent and beyond” is anything to go by, there’s an awful lot to hold chief judge Fareda Banda to account for. This year’s shortlist plunges us into a vista of options we have no choice but to accept. With the shortlist, including Tlotlo Tsamaase, Ekemini Pius, Yejide Kilanko, Yvonne Kusiima, Woppa Diallo, and Mame Bougouma Diene, we are played a mischievous game of roulette with five fully-loaded guns. I read the stories, strong in their own isolated ways, but they called out as though from a badly-curated collection. All the five stories in the shortlist have a similar focus. They speak towards the embracing of feminine fullness, superiority and power. They fight the unfair marginalisation of women in the world. They also call into court domestic violence, rape and feminine subjugation by men. Possibly a coincidence, but I had hoped for a more varied listing.
Nevertheless, this year’s prize marshals a stellar all-female judging panel including Banda, Jendella Benson, Kadija George Sesay, Warsan Shire, and Edwige-Renée Dro. The stories range from far-off, to almost delicious, but they all tell an important gospel. And they are strong, the women in these stories. They denounce the chains they are tethered to, to succeed and overcome. While some are aided by man-eating spirit beings, others are helped by fellow women. And where a woman fails to stand as surety for another, she is called to order. Women are encouraged, then, to hold the hands of other women until they reach a more favourable rung on the gender ladder.
I am excited that the five short stories selected this year are already entering the wider conversation on African short story writing, all considerations notwithstanding. Shortlisted writers from previous years have leveraged this opportunity to get representations, book publications, and spots in big literary festivals. We are fortunate that the stories share those experiences we want to hear and listen to, to act upon with all determination. The stories remind us of those ones we should be telling each day, and, somewhere in there, they recall in us all the need to beat rounder the dress of the situation and not be prejudiced. The stories instruct us all to look within us and pull out of our bellies a rose bud struggling to grow, to let it bloom in airspace.