Appearing in Weekend Australian – Review, January 28-29, 2017
The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016
New Internationalist/Jacana, $28, 292 pages, ISBN 978178263205
Too often, Africa seems to drift on the far horizon of the world, occasionally sending messages of terrorism, post-colonial hangovers, and unfulfilled potential. Not so, according to this collection of stories, the finalists of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016. It shows that there are outstanding writers doing remarkable things with the short story form, with a focus more on the personal than the political. The title of the collection alone is enough to catch the eye.
The Caine Prize has had a critical role in the development of African literature since it was established in 2000. The prize is named for Michael Caine, who was Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years and appreciated the kick-start value of competitions and awards. The prize itself is for UK£10,000 and a scholarship to study in the US, and several previous winners have gone on to publish well-received novels. Even more, it provides the opportunity for writers to discuss their projects and polish their work. This collection includes the five finalists plus twelve other commended stories that were workshopped at a conference organised by the Caine Prize committee.
Several of these stories deal with the downside of getting what you wish for. The narrator in Billy Kahora’s ‘Shiko’, one of the rising Nairobi bourgeoisie, is tormented by the possibility of losing a critical business deal as well as the attractive woman who might come with it. Oh well, at least he will still have “the Audi out in the parking lot … it is beautiful … the only constant.”
The cleverly titled ‘What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah takes a sci-fi approach, drawing a future world where a huge algorithm holds out the possibility of ever-expanding human potential. The Mathematician at the centre of the story is one of a few who can even use it to take away the pain of others. But the perfection of the formula might turn out to be not so perfect after all, eventually imposing costs that are as awful as they are unavoidable. Abdul Adan’s equally fantastical ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ speculates that the moles on a person’s body might, if touched the right way, be the path to enlightenment and true happiness. Or maybe they are just moles.
Ah, the unknown unknowns, the unforeseeability of consequences. This theme also features in the story ‘At Your Requiem’ by Bongani Kona, where the patterns of lives are unfolded in reverse, a labyrinth of intersections and departures. Likewise, in Kafula Mwila’s ‘77 Steps’ a transgression from long ago is uncovered and confronted. But there is a sense that not much has been achieved, and maybe some parts of the past are better left buried.
If this sounds a bit grim, it must be said that there are flashes of humour in this collection as well. The story ‘The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things’, by Okwiri Oduor, revolves around a boy, Dudu, who is so naughty and self-centred – “full of mud” is the wonderful expression – that his exasperated mother runs away from home. At first, Dudu thinks this is great news, but then he realises that she took the transistor radio with her. And without the radio, he cannot listen to his favourite program, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things. Dudu’s attempts to get his mother back – with radio – are comic, although there is a dark undercurrent of manipulation in his efforts. One feels that Dudu has a promising future in politics.
The winner of the prize is a mesmerising story, ‘Memories We Lost’ by South African writer Lidudmalingani. The narrator is a young girl who gradually becomes the protector of her sister, who suffers from schizophrenia. It represents the complexity of village culture in the twenty-first century, with attempts to cure the girl ranging from church sermons to numbing medication to exorcising rituals, including one known as “baking”.
I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing and place it on the fire. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either. I could not allow this to happen to my sister.
To escape the ritual, the two girls run away. They have no idea where they are going but they are slowly absorbed into the vast landscape, unhealed but together. It is a powerful but intimate story, told with an authoritative and authentic voice. “Secrets stay buried for so long, but one day they rise to open like seeds breaking free from the earth,” says Lidudmalingani. We can only hope to hear more of him.
Given the variety of voices, from Somalia to Zambia, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe, is it possible to identify a unifying African tone? Perhaps there is an underlying sense of fatalism here, a willingness to accept rather than change things. Some Western readers, more familiar with stories built around a three-act structure and a redemptive conclusion, might find this difficult. But really it demonstrates that there are many ways to tell stories, many ways to find meaning in the world. The contributors to this book, and the organisers of the Caine Prize, deserve our thanks for that.