Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Gonjon Pin reviewed

The Gonjon Pin and other stories - Tendai Huchu shortlisted for prestigious Caine Prize award

by Diana Rodrigues

A version of this review appeared in Harare News

Before you turn the first page of ’amaBooks  latest offering to the literary world, The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories, spare a thought for the distinguished panel of judges who will have taken time off from their full-time jobs to read through the 140 short stories from 17 African countries that were entered for the 15th annual Caine Prize. Wasting no opportunity, Zimbabwean journalist and literary judge Percy Zvomuya even perused manuscripts while travelling by commuter buses between Harare and Chitungwiza, much to the interest of fellow passengers. Other judges included South African novelist Gillian Slovo and Nigerian Helon Habila, who won the Caine Prize in 2001, while the Chair of Judges was Jackie Kay MBE, Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

The Caine Prize for African Writing, now considered to be Africa's leading literary award, provides a great incentive for aspiring writers to have their voices heard. The prize of GBP10,000 is also a considerable attraction, and this year, to celebrate the Prize's 15th anniversary, each shortlisted writer received GBP500.

Every year a selection of talented writers are invited to a Caine Prize workshop, where they can hone their skills, receive inspiration from each other, and benefit from the guidance of dedicated editors and mentors. This year the workshop was held at Leopard Rock Hotel, in the misty Bvumba mountains just outside the border town of Mutare. Zimbabwean writer and activist, Isabella Mtambanadzo, described the recent workshop as 'a gift' and an opportunity to 'stretch creative imaginations and push down literary boundaries.' Stories that emerged from this workshop, as well as entries for the Caine Prize, also appear in The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories.

Although Zimbabwe cannot claim to have a vibrant reading culture, the country has nurtured a phenomenal number of gifted writers. In 2004 Brian Chikwava won the Caine Prize for 'Seventh Street Alchemy', a story about the denizens of the notorious Avenues in Harare; in 2011 NoViolet Bulawayo's 'Hitting Budapest' was the winner. Of the 17 stories appearing in The Gonjon Pin, seven are written by Zimbabwean authors, and among the five stories shortlisted for the prize is 'The Intervention' by Zimbabwean Tendai Huchu. Born in Bindura and educated at Churchill High School, Huchu now lives in Edinburgh and whenever his muse releases him from his desk, he plays chess or browses in bookshops. In 'The Intervention', Huchu highlights the cultural shifts experienced when Shona families leave Zimbabwe and bring up their children in Britain. Shona names like Simba have no significance beyond a reference to the Lion King to children born in England: when Simba attempts to explain that Simbarashe means the Lord's strength, the 'kid just looked at me blankly like I was talking effing Zulu.'

The shortlisted author Efemia Chela, who was born in Zambia to Ghanaian and Zambian parents, grew up in England and studied French and Politics at Rhodes University. Her short story, 'Chicken', describes a farewell party at her parents' house and her move to another city where she 'rented a room in the bum end of town' and 'plotted' her future. Foodies will enjoy the description of the 'culinary event' of her farewell feast. Her parents' 'cross-cultural' marriage inspired a Zambian/Ghanaian fusion of 'slow-cooked beef shin in a giant, dented tin pot' and 'swamp-like spinach stew flooded with palm oil, thickened with egusi, specked with smoked mackerel and quartered hard-boiled eggs.'
Because she hasn't followed her parents' wishes and studied a practical subject such as law, jobs are hard to come by and she works as an unpaid intern. After a one-night stand with a girlfriend who leaves a crumpled R100 note 'on the blue crate I called a nightstand' before leaving, her financial situation becomes desperate. Briefly considering prostitution she eventually resorts to selling her eggs to an ovum bank called FutureChild Inc. Although concerned about the futures of these yet-to-be-born children, there is enough honesty and strength in the narrative for the reader to assume that all things will eventually be well.

'My Father's Head', by Kenyan Okwiri Oduor, was the wining short story. Reminiscent of the magic realism found in Ben Okri's Famished Road, a young woman, mourning the death of her father in an accident with a cane tractor, tries to draw a picture of him, but finds she cannot remember the shape of his head. Eventually his shade appears on the verandah, ' slung over the wicker chair....just like in the old days...'
Unsure how to deal with his presence, she eventually invites him into the house and makes him a cup of tea. As they converse, we realise that Simbi has come to terms with her father's death. Although he says he will leave the house and go north to Eldoret, he will be returning to the spirit world. Oduor stimulates the imagination while continuing to hold the reader in a skilful and satisfying narrative.

Every year the Caine Prize for African Writing brings forth a wealth of talent and an exciting selection of short stories to delight readers everywhere. In the same way that avid readers look forward to the Man Booker Prize, now open to American writers, the public will be pondering 2015 and the inspiration that the Caine Prize brings to African writers.

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