Review

Mami Watas, president’s wives, and a stew – The 2020 Caine Prize Stories

The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is awarded each year to one short story by an African/ African-diasporic writer. You can read all the stories online via the Caine Prize website. The winner will be announced on July 27th with a film by Joseph Adesunloye.

Of course, the question had to come up at yesterday’s 2020 AKO Caine Prize Conversation organized by Africa Writes and chaired by Ifeanyi Awachi: What about the dominance of Nigerian writers? Rémy Ngamjie and Erica Sugo Anyadike – the two non-Nigerian writers shortlisted, though Ngajie in a humorous act just claimed Nigerian-ess and Anyadike revealed to much laughter that she is married to a Nigerian – shifted their gaze away from Nigeria. Ngamjie, who also emphasized that he feels solidarity for writers everywhere as they are always “a minority”, said he thinks it’s important to have a look at what kind of resources specific communities have to keep people writing and reading. As the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Namibia’s first online literary magazine Doek! Ngamjie actively shapes the Namibian literary landscape, of course, but what all contributes to a vibrant literary scene? Anyadike stressed the importance of seeing reflections of you to imagine what is possible to become (“Nigerians have seen a lot of writers in their country”). She went on: “I am speaking a lot about craft to show that writing is not that ivory tower thing and you can improve”. Both writers again emphasized the importance to not take one story or one writer as representing an entire community or even country (Ngamjie: “I am not even representative of my street!”) but to engage with the intricacies of each story.

And this year’s shortlist brings together fantastic stories to do just that. The five stories cover a wide array of themes and topics and differ widely in their styles and approaches. Yesterday’s reading was kicked off by Erica Sugo Anyadike and her tongue-in-cheek story ‘How to Marry An African President’ (adda: Commonwealth Stories (2019)). This text told in 2nd person combines the vibes of a satirical general “How-to” (as the title implies) and the specific story of one protagonist who is addressed throughout. The tone is light and conversational masking the actual violence which lies beneath some of the short remarks and makes it even more horrifying. It is all fun until your laughter gets “stuck like a lump of mealie-meal in your throat”. While the story is very much inspired by Grace Mugabe (the secretary position, her rise in the Women’s league, the coup-not-a-coup are just some of the more direct allusions), the narration purposefully excludes names of people, places, countries. “The lacking specificity is an invitation to the reader”, said Anyadike in the discussion of her story. And while the lacking specificity invites the reader to realize that this story could play out in very different places, the use of the 2nd person narration makes the reader complicit in this rise to the top. In its core ‘How to Marry An African President’ is a story about power – and as Anyadike said “the limitations of power” – as it portrays the rise (beautifully captured in luxurious descriptions) and fall of the unnamed woman protagonist and its specifically gendered connotations. With reference to biblical tropes of womanhood (Mary, Magdalene, Eve, Delilah) it becomes clear that her deeds will always be judged differently than those from her husband who in the end still gets a respectful treatment.

Going from Anyadike’s story to Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Grace Jones‘ (“Nudibranch”, published by Hachette (2019)) deftly shows the variance of writing styles represented in this year’s shortlist. Okojie is known for her highly experimental short fiction though I felt this story falls – for her – on the less experimental side. The story follows a Grace Jones lookalike called Sidra and the unprocessed trauma she lives with. But as with most of Okojie’s stories, there are multiple layers to this text and her writing is distinct and memorable starting from the first sentence:

Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom: onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning, and she pressed her face against the space under the doorway crying, reaching for some untouched handful of earth as sustenance, the agency called, Hassan more specifically.


Grace Jones (Irenosen Okojie)

With alliterative phrases such as „stray parts of a singed scene“, words that rhyme, and the winded sentence structure a dynamic rhythm is created which draws the reader into the story. Sidra tries to lose herself in impersonating Grace Jones but is haunted by the draughtsman who is at once a projection of the protagonist and also his own story, his own ghost, with his own trauma. But while Sidra is struggling her shiny exterior is taken as granted by many. As the story asks: „Couldn’t somebody see that she disappeared into Grace Jones because the pain, the guilt, the loneliness of being herself was unbearable?“

The Caine Prize, of course, also comes with its share of criticism in its now 20th year. One being that the prize in the past seemed to have favoured stories which depict a limited set of topics (war, poverty etc) which play into stereotypes about Africa and cater to Western expectations. The 2020 shortlist as a whole very much exemplifies writing which falls out of this narrow box. But if there is one story which rubs against the stereotype, it is Rémy Ngamjie‘s ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ (The Johannesburg Review of Books (2019)). In this story, Ngamjie follows a group of homeless people and their constant struggle for survival contrasted with the lives of those who have a shelter, a home. But as poverty and homelessness are realities – and not only in Namibia (as Ngamjie said: „This person’s existence is universal.“) – it is only fair enough to try to speak to these.

In the conversation yesterday Ngamjie talked about the idea of time and questions of moving through time he tried to address in this story as well. With quotes such as “Today you need food. Today you need shelter. Today you need to take care of today.” flowing through the story, he dissects how experiences of time are socially constructed and dependent on many factors: in the midst of struggles for pure survival a specific temporality sets in; one which is rooted very much in the moment (“And there is only today”). But at the same time, the characters also counteract this notion as they engage in recounting past stories and their importance.

The story though fell short for me in its depiction of the one female homeless character, Omagano. Ngamjie emphasized in yesterday’s event that he thought it was important to show how gendered the experience of homelessness is and to shine a light on the specific experiences of a woman in this space. These are all fair points but Ngamjie also decided to not go into the thoughts and feelings of Omagano, saying „that silence is something which needs to be investigated, it speaks volumes.“ With rendering her ultimately silent, she remains on the fringe of the story and one could also say the reality Ngamjie seeks to criticise is ultimately reproduced.

In ‘Fisherman’s Stew’ (The Sewanee Review (2019)), Jowhor Ile tells a quiet story about a widow, Nimi, who is visited by her deceased husband at night. „I was thinking about food, I was thinking about a place“, said Ile when asked about his starting point for the story. The centrality of food also offers some glorious phrases such as “It spat like loud applause” describing onion hitting hot oil. And while this story might not be the most innovative structure-wise and there is a predictability about it, it is also not a simplistic, nostalgic narration. Ile writes with immense warmth for his character who within the story managest o carve out her own ways of dealing with grief, loss, and also desire. „She was old and wise enough to know what she wanted and go for it“, Ile said and that spirit makes the story incredibly readable and a joy to follow. As it says in the story just before Nimi steps out to shop for the titular stew: “If it was a crack in her mind that had let Benji back into the world, she thought, then her intention was to keep the crack open, widen it.”

Please note: ‘Mami Wata’ (also known in various other regions as ‘Mammy Water’) is used in this context as an umbrella term for both genders of the popular water entity (i.e. Mami and Papi Watas) and does not represent those other mer-creatures without the appearance of absolute humanoid traits. For these other non-humanistic water entities including but not restricted to: permanent mermaids and mermen, crocodile fellows, shark-brides, turtle crones and anomalous jelly blobs of indeterminate orientation, please see our companion volume, ‘So You Want to Kill a MerCreature?’ which will guide you through the appropriate juju framework to avoid or deflect repercussions and will elucidate general and specific appeasement rituals. See also, ‘Entities and Non-entities: The Definitive Legal Position on Aquatic Interspecies Marriages, Non-Marriage Couplings and Groupings’.

What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata (Chikodili Emelumadu)

The last to read yesterday was Chikodili Emelumadu. And if her story ‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’ (The Shadow Booth: Vol.2 (2018)) hadn’t been already my favourite to win before the event, it would be now. This story was her „way of mocking people who mock otherness“ she said after having stated: „It really bothered me that idea of who belongs“. Emelumadu’s story imitates the form and tone of writing somewhat between academic study and self-help book down to the footnotes. With a good portion of humour, the story creates a complex image of the Mami Wata (and Papi Wata) figure all the while using the story to dissect how people treat ‚otherness‘, ideas of femininity and how sexist, homophobic, and other prejudices play out. ‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’ is laugh-out funny and is at the same time a multi-layered text. Pulling literary and pop culture references from Flora Nwapa’s Efuru to Sharknado, there is a playfulness in this text which makes it stand out. The use of references also scrutinises the distinctions made between different systems and forms of knowledge. Emelumadu’s short story is one of those texts you read with a lot of enjoyment first – and with every subsequent reread you make out other layers, allusions, and turn of phrases which makes you appreciate the work even more.

If you missed yesterday’s event or want more in-depth conversations with these authors, I highly recommend listening to the energetic and music-filled Books & Rhymes podcast and reading the author interviews at Africa in Dialogue which are published over this week.

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