Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Memory This Size: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

From: Harare News, Issue 9, April 2014

Review by Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Tinashe is a writer and editor. He read for a PhD in English at the University of Kent


The quality of the Caine Prize anthologies is always mixed but the gift of the Caine Prize to Africa has been to create a platform to share the continent’s rich terrain of stories and contradictions.

The book is in two sections. The first part comprises of the shortlisted stories and the eventual winner. Considering that these went through a rigorous judging process, they are certainly of high quality. The second section contains workshop stories.

What is quite intriguing on the list is the dominance of Nigeria. Are Nigerian writers far ahead of their African peers? And is Nigerian literature blooming while other African literatures are struggling?

The 2013 Caine Prize shortlist also highlights the fact that the African diaspora is increasingly shaping African literature, whereas before African literature grew out of the streets and bushes of the continent. What happened? Is it a shift of power? Or is it simply that the African narrative now has huge global demand? Whatever the case may be, thanks to the African diaspora for injecting life to an ailing literary culture. Our literature, African literature, is better off.

The creeping presence of America on the African imagination ties three of the stories together. Tope Folarin’s story Miracle touches on the issues of faith religion. Pede Hollist's Foreign Aid is a tale about the folly of a ‘Been-to’ who imagines he can return to his native land (in this case Sierra Leone). Elnathan John’s Bayin Layi unravels the violence in northern Nigeria. Chinelo Okparanta's America is, as the title suggests, a story about America as the longed-for-utopia. And Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees is a magic realism narrative of a young man crippled by an accident that killed him, but didn’t.There is something particularly striking about African literature as reflected in these five shortlisted stories. Three of the stories are directly concerned with diaspora life in America. It points to a geographical extension of the African imagination in most of the new writing. The literature is a window into the African experience beyond Africa, its global interactions with other cultures though not always pleasant.The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work and some of a less polished standard. As outlined in the Ernest N. Emenyonu edited volume, Writing Africa in the Short Story, the short story genre is not an easy form despite its urgency and potency. A lot of the struggling stories in the volume have weak endings. It could be that African literature has for a long time been fed with long and elaborate tales in the form of folktales or in the form of novels.However, the stories in the second part of the anthology cover a wide range of topics and encompass a variety of styles representative of the diverse pool of writers from various African countries. There is irony and dark humour (Melissa Tandiwe Myambo); pathos (Hellen Nyana); satire and magic realism (Rotimi Babatunde); haunting and topical (Stanley Onjezani Kenani) among many other sensations. It’s a book worth reading simply because it provokes and challenges.

A Memory of this Size is published in Zimbabwe by 'amaBooks. It is available at the Book Café bookshop, National Gallery and Avondale Bookshop in Harare and at the National Gallery, Induna Arts, Tendele Craft and Phenduka in Bulawayo.

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