Thursday, June 25, 2015

Space | Masande Ntshanga | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

Masande Ntshanga’s Space is a story that, on face value, doesn’t have much in it. Its title and opening paragraph are suggestive of an extraterrestrial tale. However, it settles into a story about a group of juveniles (CK, Thando, Thobela, and the unnamed narrator) doing what juveniles do—stuff that their parents or guardians would generally disapprove of, such as drinking and making sorties to dubious places. As the story progresses, we see the distance, alienation and isolation of an ill father being trumped by his son’s unashamed and simple declaration to his friends, 'This is my father.'

This appears to be the main point—and a subtly powerful one too. CK isn’t put off by the desolation and bleak existence of his father caused by his illness, and endeavours to show him to his friends. The characterization of the sick man as an ‘alien’ serves to dramatize his isolation and to present it as an abnormal situation that unsettles his son enough to somehow rationalize it in more palatable terms. Even at that young age, it disturbs CK enough to seek strength in alcohol, which he offers to his friends before showing them the ‘alien,’ saying 'You need a little strength for this.'

The narration of the story from the point of view of another young boy comes out great. The reader is put in the mind of a juvenile and the language he uses—for instance, ‘The way it’s getting hot is that when you go without shoes, you can’t.’ In addition, the writer is able to present situations to the reader without really making them obvious, couching them in a young mind that simply observes without fully understanding. An example is the scene at Thando’s driveway, which leaves the reader unsure whether Thando resents the return of his ‘father, the Bishop,’ or has been told to dissociate himself from his friends who have ‘collected sin.’

Hints, dropped in innocuous looking one-liners, seem to tell the stories behind the story. Readers who like cryptic mysteries would enjoy Space more. One can suppose, for instance, that Space is really about fathers—absent fathers. While we see CK’s father (who is sick and isolated), and are passively referred to Thando’s father (who has just returned), Thobela’s and the narrator’s fathers aren’t named. It is perhaps telling that Thabo asks the narrator not to pay him for the ride, that he ‘should count it as a favour to my mother,’ and that ‘we share a clan name.’

Masande pushes some boundaries regarding the depiction of juvenile behaviour. We see a bit of drinking and some manipulation, such as deliberately trying to fail Afrikaans class to avoid being taken to ‘white school’, which can be expected of kids of that age. However, we also see the scene with the stolen panties, which would perhaps not generally pass off as typical.

Typos don’t count for much, but I noticed 'Mrs. Sindiwe' in one paragraph and 'Mrs. Siviwe' in another, presumably referring to the same teacher.

All in all, Space is a story that demands some thinking from the reader, one that is easy to dismiss on the first read. It is nevertheless subtle in its depth, and seems to be open ended in terms of interpretation.

Picture Credit: Caine Prize

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Sack | Namwali Serpell | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

Namwali Serpell’s The Sack is an enigmatic story, revealing itself from alternating points of view—that of a narrator, and of ‘the man’. It is set in Zambia, and is about an uneasy friendship or comradeship between two men, Jacob and Joseph (one is simply named ‘J’ and the other ‘the man’, so I couldn’t quite figure out who is who). They are presented as having been friends/comrades (in a political sense) for a long time, a relationship that has nonetheless been complicated by Naila, a woman who both men loved or fancied, as well as the fact that J. is working, resentfully, for ‘the man.’

Serpell starkly paints a range of emotions and feelings throughout the story—resentment, disillusionment, love, longing, suspicion, and fear. These are interwoven beautifully through shifting points of view and symbolisms, according the story an aspect of enigma that intrigues the reader. ‘The sack’ appears to symbolize death. The use of the first person point of view to portray the man’s longing for Naila infuses a great deal of power and feeling into the story, and inexorably sucks the reader into the man’s fears and suspicions. The result is a picture of physical and emotional anguish that startles in its intensity, for the man’s dreams in the end appear to merge with a hallucinatory reality of death, which, whether by killing or by suicide, is a matter of conjecture.

Transformation also emerges as a key theme. It is suggested that Jacob, Joseph and Naila considered themselves equals at some point in their history, presumably when they were involved in liberation politics. Naila has passed away but is shown to possess an enduring influence over both men. This fact, the colour of the man’s skin (it is suggested he is white), and ‘how far (J) has fallen, sweeping and cooking for me like I’m a musungu,’ all transform their relationship to an uneasy, even hostile one.  In addition, one is better off materially, while the other is poorer, perhaps bound by some debt to the man. One is gravely sick, while the other is shown to flaunt his vitality. Changes in their material, physical and emotional aspects acquire a transformative influence.

The role of the boy in the story is somewhat puzzling. Is he the man’s son with Naila? He muses, ‘I know this boy is not my son but I have to concentrate to keep it in mind.’ In the ending, the boy has notions of hunger and fear in his mind, but also love—perhaps fatherly love that he longs for? That’s some puzzle to mull about!

Well, this was a bit of a tricky read. I enjoyed it more after reading it the second time. I would have preferred a little less mystery—straightforward naming of the characters, for instance, wouldn’t take too much from the story, which nevertheless is superbly written. I especially liked the wonderful descriptive snippets, such as ‘His breathing rasped, shaving bits of silence off the air,’ and ‘His words cut through the smell of fish and illness, through the boy’s whimpering hum.’

Fair to say, it’s an engrossing read, one of my favourites in the shortlist. Namwali Serpell was also shortlisted in 2010, and I am inclined to say, on the strength of this offering, that she stands a pretty good chance of winning the Caine Prize this year.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Folded Leaf | Segun Afolabi | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

The sixteenth Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist was recently announced, and as usual, bloggers give their thoughts on the stories. I begin with The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi, who in fact won the Caine Prize in 2005.

The Folded Leaf is about members of a congregation who travel to the city to seek healing for various physical ailments and disabilities through prayer from a celebrity pastor. The story is told through the point of view of twelve-year-old Bunmi, who is blind, and whose keen sense of awareness moves much of the story forward.

From a technical point of view, this is one of the main accomplishments of The Folded Leaf. It takes quite some skill to weave a story this way, and Segun does it well. Through Bunmi, we see the congregants’ hopes and faith before they set on the journey to the city; we feel their panic, fears and anxieties when traffic police stop them and when they are in church trying to get to the pastor; and their disappointment thereafter. We even get an allusion to gay love.

Most significant, I believe, is the sense of uplifting one gets at the end of the story. Bunmi doesn’t feel disappointed. He only chastises himself for having been ‘drawn into all this’, and accepts that ‘this is my life, that it is good enough’. He is thankful for the people he has, and realizes that his situation is in fact not the worst—he recalls ‘the boy dragging himself along the road in the middle of traffic’, who, despite his bleak situation, still has a smile on his face. Segun shows us that sometimes, younger ones can possess maturity and realism beyond their age.

I quite liked the way Segun makes The Folded Leaf a uniquely Nigerian story through use of local phrases that also infuse some humour, such us ‘commot for road’, ‘cannot you see we have been waiting?’, ‘Make we dey go now!’, and na so?’, amongst others. The lighthearted tone of the story makes for easygoing reading, and one might be forgiven for overlooking the underlying sense of desperation that morphs into resignation.

Perhaps one might feel a sense of déjà vu reading about a church, a rich pastor and a miracle that doesn’t happen—recall Miracle by Tope Folarin that won the Caine Prize a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t diminish the merits of the story. I think Segun has done a pretty good job despite the difficulty of telling a story from the point of view of a young boy, which normally entails infusing a measure of simplicity and straightforwardness.

Picture Credit: Caine Prize