AN OVERVIEW OF THE 2017 CAINE PRIZE SHORTLIST by BasitJamiu
The stories up for the Caine Prize are of remarkable quality. They are full of memorable imageries that stay with you long after you have read them. This is also an auto-pacifier for me after the 2016 shortlist nearly broke what is left of my tiny hope for the Caine Prize. This year’s Caine Prize shortlist released on May 16, 2017 features three Nigerians, one South African and one Sudanese with voices so distinct they revel on authenticity and blooms of luminous styles.
Arinze Ifeakandu’s shortlisted story “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things” is a moving love story with emotional rhythms. The themes have little to do with the beauty of the story. The stronghold of the piece is in its seamless way with words. Towards the end, the narrator is surprised by his feelings: “You had never believed that you could love this way, your entire being absorbed in something in the air like that; that you could want someone always near you so badly it consumed you, so that when you were apart, it felt like torture.” This sentence is apt not only because it is lyrically beautiful but because it is a feeling of love that resonates with everyone that has ever truly loved anyone. Arinze is currently twenty-two years old and he is the youngest Nigerian to be on Caine Prize shortlist.
Nneka Arimah’s power on the short story form is too gripping, too masterful, too captivating to pass as just another writer trying her hand on style. She is a writer with genuine, authentic gift for storytelling and her shortlisted story has been celebrated long before its appearance on this year’s Caine shortlist. Being on the shortlist is just another way of affirming the story’s fresh and inventive form. “Who Will Greet You at Home” is a fantastical tale where women make babies using hair, paper, porcelain, and mud. Later the babies are blessed with life by the woman’s mother. Men have no place in this story. Most of the focus is on childbearing. Whether the absence of a male character is its weakest or strongest point likely depends on the reader’s engagement with the piece.
With just three characters: Okwy, Madam, and Idi, Chikodili Emelumadu weaves a mythical tale of a man’s encounter with a bush baby. The pace of the story is rooted in its slowly revealing plot. The whole story revolves around a popular myth. Bush Baby is a short and ugly spirit that moves with a lantern and a mat everywhere she goes; she sleeps with the mat and lights the lantern at night. It is popular myth in Nigeria that desperate personalities in need of quick wealth are always in the hunt for the mat because whoever can steal the mat and survive Bush Baby’s seven-day torment will become rich instantly. During these seven days, it becomes hard to sleep at night due to the torment of Bush Baby who cries and pleads for the return of its most cherished possession. Bush Baby also known as Gwei-Gwei or Egbere cries in the sound of a female baby and if the person gives in to Bush Baby’s persistence within the seven days’ ultimatum, the person dies. Although the story’s approach is inventive, the execution is not very neat. It reads like Chikolemadu is following a manual guideline and this mars the narrative heavily. The writer keeps trying to fit in everything and because of this, the story falls short.
Max Scmooler did an impressive effort in rendering Bushra al-Fadil’s shortlisted story into English but like all translated pieces, there is a feeling, reading through “The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away,” that something is lost in translation. It is a beautiful story with slow rhythm and poetic appeal reminiscent of Arabian writers. At some point, the poetic appeal loses its flavour over weighty and pointless overindulgence.
“The Virus” by Magodi Makhene is a haunting Boer and cyber war story of unrelenting and resonating voice-quality. In this story, Makhene said she took, “cyberwar to its natural end: a post-apocalypse world where only the least inter-webbed continent is spared, Africa.” It took me a while to get used to the narrator’s unconventional plot usage and its sharp sentences; it was both rewarding and challenging at the end. The story was published in The Harvard Review 49.
Lastly, as we commend the judges for selecting this tight and strong shortlist, we can’t help but notice that none of the stories were published by African magazine or outfit — in Nigerian parlance—we will say: but nothing spoil sha, e still dey kampe.
BASIT JAMIU IS THE FICTION EDITOR OF ENKARE REVIEW. HE LIVES AND WRITES IN NIGERA.