The Caine Prize for African Writing has a reputation of launching literary careers. Previous winners include Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Henrietta Innes-Rose. The Caine Prize collections of stories comprise each year’s shortlisted entries and pieces written during a workshop organised in conjunction with the prize.
By nature an anthology of short stories is usually a mixed bag. This year’s volume, apart from some excellent exceptions, is not particularly accomplished. Reading most of the contributions one senses amazing talent and potential, but the stories, even two or three of the shortlisted ones, feel unfinished. They intrigue, but do not wow despite varied themes, innovative approaches to form and content, and moments of stylistic beauty. All the elements of great short-story writing are present, but they hardly ever feature together in one piece.
African writing has a certain reputation, on the continent and beyond. Depending on individual tastes, readers either fear or count on stories of socio-political relevance, everyday hardship and disillusionment, the diaspora experience, violence and abuse, the HIV pandemic, neglect or instability. There is a prevalent feeling of ‘things falling apart’. The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories includes all of the above and in that sense does not disappoint.
The shortlisted stories stand out for their originality. In Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence (South Africa), a suicidal young woman bonds with her daring grandmother over the bulldozing of a city landmark. While following the election back home on television, a Zimbabwean family tries to negotiate between a quarrelling couple in Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention (Zimbabwe). Billy Kahora’s protagonist develops an uncanny relationship to a zoo gorilla in The Gorilla’s Apprentice (Kenya). And in the winning entry, My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria), a woman tries to conjure up her dead father by drawing him, but his head refuses to fit into her sketches.
The shortlisted story which impressed me the most, however, was Efemia Chela’s Chicken (Ghana/Zambia). A young writer of remarkable assurance, Chela has that rare gift of making you pause again and again to appreciate a striking image or a perfectly balanced sentence while never allowing you to take your mind off the story she is telling. Chicken is about a woman who cuts the ties to her family and tries to survive on her own in the big city by making some tough choices.
Of the twelve workshop stories, the titular The Gonjon Pin by Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana) and The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) were a true discovery. Reminiscent of the mad and irresistible story-telling of such authors as the Israeli Etgar Keret or the Welsh Alex Burrett, these surreal tales made me sit up, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the incredible power of the genre. Egblewogbe has his characters dealing with a man’s functioning genitals hanging on a study wall. Adan creates a world where an unusual man spreads cult love by stimulating people’s moles. It is gems like these that make reading anthologies worthwhile.
The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014
Jacana/New Internationalist, 2014
First published in the Cape Times, 10 October 2014.