A decade into The Caine Prize for African writing, it has carved a space for itself as one of the more significant institutions by which new African writing gets an international audience. But like bloggers such as zunguzungu have pointed out, the Alglophonic nature of the Booker or the Commonwealth Writers prize signify the inherent problems and limitations of many of these competitions. And yes, as zunguzungu has pointed out, the Caine Prize is specific to writers writing in English, so “the short list seems to be dominated by the same half-dozen countries, with only very rare exceptions; the Caine prize’s ‘Africa’ more or less means South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and the diaspora living in Britain and the US.”
Before the winner is announced on July 11, along with a group of bloggers I’ll be blogging on the 5 stories shortlisted for the prize, beginning with Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” and Lamwaka’s “Butterfly Dreams.”
Here are links to all the shortlisted stories.
So here’s my first two reviews:
“HITTING BUDAPEST” by Noviolet Bulawayo
Crossing Mzilikazi Boulavard, for the characters in Noviolet Bulawayo’s story, is like crossing over to Europe: the “Budapest” of this story is a neighbourhood within walking distance, a cityscape of abundance, cleanliness, order, and big affluence that serves to impress the impossibility of crossing over. Though it is not necessary for the narrator to tell us that “Budapest is like a different country,” or that it is a “country where people who are not like us live,” we don’t mind the obvious statements, because we experience this day through the lives of children: “Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina” and “me,” the storyteller. It is an ordinary day, one like every other day, when the children walk away from the disinterested eyes of their own mothers (too distracted by gossip and hair to pay attention to setting limits for them), and the men of the community (too busy with a daily game of draughts) in “Paradise.” A brief journey, and they enter this extraordinary country of Budapest, where it looks as though “everybody woke up one day and closed their gates, doors, and windows, picked up their passports, and left for better countries.” This vast landscape is so silent, and so empty that the children’s entrance has the strange ring of conquest: it is as if they are the latest round of colonists, walking into the “empty land” that native inhabitants did not want, use, or need. Even the air in Budapest smells of nothing – no cooking fires send wisps of smoke to show that hunger and desire exist here, too.
The gut-chewing poverty with which the children are familiar, on a daily basis, is obvious from the start: this is a mission to steal guavas from Budapest—fruit that hangs ripe and uneaten in the screaming gaudiness of abundance. That their lives are riven by disorder and violence of the most intimate sort is also impossible to ignore, in the nonchalant way that hunger is always present, and in the way that ten-year-old Chipo’s pregnancy is mentioned: she is a hindrance on their missions, because she cannot run as fast as she once used to. The unreality of their dreams, possible only through dream-talk of escape into materially better lives, only serves to exaggerate impossibility. Each child, dressed in tattered clothes that bear the marks of other worlds—t-shirts that bear the name “Cornell”—know that escape from their “Paradise” will only be possible via the conduits of family members already abroad (a pipe dream, knowing that aunties and uncles abroad “clean poop” in hospitals, and disappear after a few letters), an education (one that we as readers know is not accessible to these children), or their physical beauty (an escape that we know will only provide a troublesome and temporary respite). The refrains “I’m going to America to live with my Aunt Fostalina,” or “I’m going to marry a man” who will “take me away from Paradise, away from the shacks and Heavenway and Fambeki and everything else,” ring like hymns about crossing the River Jordan and entering heaven.
As zunguzungu writes in his review of this story, “it traffics in the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography, by which I would mean that its ‘story’ is only an obligatory excuse for the parade of affect-inducing spectacles which are the story’s real reason for existing.” His is a legitimate criticism. Are these “lazy stories,” where writers purposefully skew plots in the direction of spectacular societal failure, in order to please the Caine Prize judges?
The nuances in the ordinaryness of the violence that the children encounter in “Hitting Budapest”—and the impossibility of mutuality, despite what Levinas writes about regarding the lives of Others—is executed in such subtle terms that the painful is sublimely beautiful at times. The intensity of the hunger and desire is so everyday and so immediate that even a dead body they encounter only leads to a joyful possibility of bread (selling the hanging woman’s shoes). The finesse of Bulawayo’s writing, I think, rescues this story from the grasping crassness of poverty-porn.
“BUTTERFLY DREAMS” by Beatrice Lamwaka
What I remember, as I read Lamwaka’s first words, is the way in which we woke up at 6AM in the cloud of rainy season river fog, to glue our ears to the shortwave: what a prize possession it was, in the early years we spent in Zambia. My father listened, with the worry and attachment of the nationalist, who had abandoned loved ones and nation, in a bid to secure himself, and those closest to him.
In Lamwaka’s story, we walk straight into the auditory dreaming of a “string of parents…who listened to Mega FM” every day, “[l]istening and waiting for the names of…loved ones…hearts thump[ing]” every time they hear familiar names of places or even the names of loved ones. After one hour of wordless listening, they “sighed after the programme” concluded. They listen to hear news of children lost to war and chaos, in the interminable waiting of a refugee camp. Though most abandon hope for their lost children, “Ma dreams of butterflies” filling the room, as if those wings, on their pilgrimage of renewal, are a harbinger of her child’s return. After five years of waiting, and rumours that others had seen their beloved Lamunu’s body “bursting in the burning sun,” they hear, on Mega FM, that Lamunu is at “World Vision, a rehabilitation centre for formerly abducted children,” where children are being “taught how to live with us again.” But when Lamunu returns, the facial scars scream the story of a child soldier, though the family hastily arrange for a ritual to cleanse that story out of Lamunu’s private experience, and their collective body. Lamunu obeys quietly, and remains silent.
It is then that the reader who is unfamiliar with the name learns that Lamunu is a girl – her “breasts were showing through the blue flowered dress that [she] wore.” The family wait, through her silence, to see when she will say something, laugh, and play the mischievous child they knew – to see if her tipu (spirit) has returned to her body. They have rituals to ensure that an abandoned tipu is buried into the earth with a body, but none for those whose bodies still exist above ground, with their tipu buried long ago.
“Butterfly Dreams” is a story about the interminable waiting of a refugee camp, and about how swathes of people learn to incorporate disruption as an everyday experience. Instead of groundnuts, their “gardens grow huts.” It’s a story about dreaming and aching for returns—returns of loved ones like Lamunu, or perhaps even for the life they once had—but as with the story of Lamunu, a return does not mean a return of the familiar or the comforting.
This story, though it reaches moments of revelation that are beyond “poverty porn,” does mine extensively from the cliché. Again, I have to return to zunguzungu’s anxieties about stories addressing the “Africa” of the Western imaginary, by which writers seem to be guided as they vie for prizes. Zunguzungu refers to Ikhide Ikheloa, who regards the Caine Prize’s shortlist as indicative of the How to Write About Africa syndrome, and as “a riot of exhausted clichés…huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty,” in which “[t]he monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader.” While zunguzungu is “not that interested in banning all stories that contain ‘huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty’ from the canon of Real African Writing”—since “it’s not like slums and poverty and social dysfunction are a ‘non-African’ subject”—commodifying it may be what’s obscene. In Lamwaka’s story, there’s an element of “mining” for misery that feels distinctly unsettling.
There is a powerful Jim Goldberg photograph I’ve written about (“New Europeans”): a man stands in the foreground of the image, radio pressed close to his chest. In the background are the layers and layers of tents, the life from which this radio allows a brief respite. He looks as though he is praying, as if all the words that pour out of this antenna-ed box contain and control him.
I wish that “Butterfly Dreams” was similarly able to transcend the clichés of African war, African refugees, and African horror, and reach towards a similar kind of communication about impossibility, dreaming, and the shadows that exist between the two.