You should read this year’s Caine Prize shortlisted stories, they explore interesting themes. This year’s shortlist pulls away from Africa’s staple woes of hunger, hopelessness, lapsing institutions and what have you. One can say, recently, the Caine Prize has been toeing a relief path of newness. These stories touch issues that put imagination to test. Of the stories that stretch your imagination, Abdul Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky are fascinating examples. I love those stories for that. This is the age of internet writing. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story smacks of the kind of writing that keeps you glued to the web. Among other things, this year’s stories explore humanity’s tender psyche. In this year’s stories, transpositions of known events cause you to rethink and relearn things you think are common. Common occurrences are rarefied. Though you might find weaknesses in some pieces here and there, there is however an interesting attempt at translating our world to us. These stories portray many things; for one, there is a show of life in its haphazardness and fullness.
The pieces have uniform preoccupations. They explore similar issues like child disorientation, loss, and mental health. Those give them a link, and one wonders if they were chosen for this uniformity. An interesting thing is how these shortlists write back to a traditional centre. They challenge the banal and rewrite it. Again, you cannot just stop thinking about how Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story does that well.
Bongani Kona’s At Your Requiem begins at the end. This is the end of the love lost between two brothers, Christopher and Abraham. But are they brothers? Christopher sucks up all Aunty Julia’s love, and Abraham feels unloved and unwanted. Aunty Julia shows off Christopher and despises Abraham. This love Christopher has is expensive. It will take away his innocence and mar his childhood. Bongani Kona’s story articulates emotional traumas and their grievous consequences. Aunty Julia’s emotional crisis scars these kids into their adulthood as it thrusts a hard life on them. They never recover.
Bongani Kona has a way of making a story read like you are watching a movie. See how everything is put in a playback here:
“I rewind time to conjure you back to life.
The paramedics open the doors of the ambulance and wheel you out on a stretcher, your body covered in a white sheet. They walk you back to the jacaranda tree where we found you; your feet a metre off the ground. They leave your body dangling in the restless wind and drive out of New Haven Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre. Tears dry from our eyes as we fi le back to our beds and our sobs and screams suck back into our bodies.
Your vertebra snaps back into position and life returns, flooding back into your arteries. You open your eyes and reach for the knot around your neck and untie it. You climb down and make your way to the blue house. You enter through the kitchen and place the nylon rope where you found it in the first place, in the garage, next to the pile of old magazines.
The hours pass and the purple, ochre and orange hues of daybreak darken into night. I loosen the grip of my arm around your neck. And the sound of my careless words – ‘You’ve always been a weak son-of-a bitch, a mommy’s boy, Abraham! I don’t fucking care if you go and kill yourself’ – fade, like a fog scorched by the heat of the sun.
And there you stand, whole, restored.”
Bongani Kona is simply gifted.
Tope Folarin’s Genesis follows after the chequered life of a family. This is one of the stories that touch mental health on the shortlist. Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani is another. Tope Folarin has an absorbing way of starting a story. He does the same thing with his 2013 winning story, Miracle. In Genesis, when Tope Folarin begins the story with this spellbound opener, you are captivated:
“She told me I could serve her in heaven.”
That line really gets you thinking. What a nice way to talk about racism without even mentioning it. You will think the narrator is hallucinating here:
“She accompanied me to school each day. School was about a mile away, and a few hundred feet into my trek, just as my family’s apartment building drifted out of view behind me, she would appear at my side.”
Perhaps he is. You should read to know. Tope Folarin later flogs that gargantuan monster called racism ad infinitum. Genesis also leaves too much to our imagination for its own good. So many things spring up on you. Mama’s sickness comes out of nowhere and everything suddenly falls apart. The hate Mama has for father cannot be placed. You cannot even connect it with her illness. It is like the hate comes from something deeper, like marital betrayal. I was lost.
There are so many things to love in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky. The title reads like one of those captivating blogpost titles. If any story opener on the shortlist is grand, Lesley Nneka Arima’s opening is grander. You love this story from the start. You want to read every line over and again. What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky challenges you and never leaves. It grabs you. GRAB as in this:
“It means twenty-four hour news coverage. It means politicians doing damage control; activists egging on protests. It means Francisco Furcal’s granddaughter at a press conference defending her family legacy.”
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s speculative fiction rewrites history as it gives it a spin. The Biafra nation is a reality in this story. A twist is played on Britain’s contribution in the Biafra-Nigeria war, and Britain leans on Biafra for survival in a Biafra-Britannia Alliance. What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky interprets the usual with an uncommon deftness. You are drawn into the simulated world that is real in its unrealness. This is what Jean Baudrillard calls hyper-reality. The story creates an astounding world of its own. It explores how grief could be broken down to mathematics. How do you calculate grief in numbers? How do you serialise grief? How could they be transferred and managed? These things could be done. We all shoulder others’ grief when we lend a helping hand. We are all grief managers. But we break when we can’t take anymore. Neoma and Kiona are at the storm of the peace they had given. So much for managing others’ sorrows.
Lidudumalmgani’s Memories We Lost is both disturbing and interesting. Stories that portray mental health deeply set me on edge. Schizophrenia turns everything upside down for the narrator’s sister. There is a strong semblance between the narrator and the sufferer and what obtains between Ugo and Anna P in The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself by Penny Busetto. Nobody understands the sufferer except her sister, the narrator. She is the one who truly mourns because she understands, because she feels it more:
“Every time this thing took her, she returned altered, unrecognisable, as if two people were trapped inside her, both fighting to get out, but not before tearing each other into pieces. The first thing that this thing took from her, from us, was speech, and then it took our memories.”
The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan almost pulls it off. The prose is racy and confident. There is ease in the manner the narrator goes about his ordeal. Sexuality here is broadened. The word ‘settle’ takes on a semantic shift. There is a creative linguistic play on the word settle that runs through the story. The piece begins reading like a treatise when Ted Lifebloom’s life is being analysed for a journal entry. As significant as that part of the story seems, it clocks out the entertainment for me.
My prediction never wins. This year, I will keep my prediction to myself. When it wins, I might tell you.
Any story that wins may just be my prediction.
Follow Joseph Omotayo @omotayome