The Caine Prize short story shortlist has always been a collection of stories I look forward to reading because of the creativity and variety of pertinent themes on which the stories are based. It is one of my favorite platforms that applauds African writing, thus encouraging a new crop of writers every year. The shortlist was announced on the 20th of May, 2019 and the winner would be announced on the 8th of July, 2019 to take home a whooping ten thousand pounds.
SKINNED by LESLIE NNEKA ARIMAH (NIGERIA) Published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 2018
Skinned is a story of a society imprisoning its own people by its laws. As their tradition demands, a girl must disrobe at her coming of age or even earlier depending on the wealth status of her father. The girls from poor homes disrobed earlier because they couldn’t afford the clothing or the taxes associated with delaying a girl’s disrobing. After disrobing, the girls go about naked until they are claimed by a man as his wife. Only then can they be covered again.
Ejem who is no longer at her prime and doesn’t have serious intentions of getting married, is still unclaimed and uncovered. This she wears like a shroud of shame which her society has forced on her. Even her fellow women mock and disregard her for not being claimed. The men sneer at her when she passes. This nakedness which she had no choice in deciding to partake has now become a social stigma. She’s getting ‘old’ and now everyone wants her covered. At this point, I can only ask, who made the rule in the first place? Why do you sneer at her and still leave her with no choice to cover herself? If the nakedness is so disconcerting, why is there even such a rule? What an irony!
Ejem struggles with her self-esteem and the difficulties her ‘nakedness’ has created for her until she meets Odinaka, a wealthy nonconformist, who chooses to wear clothes even though she’s still unclaimed.
This story mirrors the problems of our society in several ways. Societal expectations have become unspoken laws that guide the populace and deviations are seen as abnormal regardless of individual reasons. One of such is marriage which is expected of every woman that has come of age. Single women are constantly being prodded by family and friends including their fellow women about their marital status. Imagine if this story was our reality…
Skinned is a work of creative ingenuity and a call to action for us to live and let live. People should be allowed to make their choices and live with them in peace.
SEW MY MOUTH by CHERRIE KANDIE (KENYA) Published in ID identity: New Short Fiction from Africa 2018
Sew My Mouth describes a woman who has learnt to shut down her true feelings and emotions by not talking about them. She has chosen a way of life which her society sees as queer and even unspeakable. While struggling to stay afloat with her lover, everything about a conventional society stands against them and what they represent. Even between both lovers, their relationship is like an unspoken subject between them. They both know what they are and want but it’s not anything they can see happening with reckless abandon in broad daylight.
The writing here is really beautiful and rich with interesting metaphors and similes. I can read it again and again just to savour the taste of the creative juice and learn.
At the end of the story, the analogy of the behavior of rain with respect to Magda’s return, was initially okay but when it trailed on and on till the end, it became a bit off for me. I felt it was no longer necessary and the story could have ended in a better way.
Download Sew My Mouth.
IT TAKES A WHOLE VILLAGE SOME SAY by NGWAH-MBO NANA NKWETI (CAMEROON) Published in The Baffler 2017
What is that African proverb again? It takes a whole village to raise a child…
This story touches on sensitive issues like child adoption and child trafficking. Despite the seriousness of the above subjects, the writing was really lighthearted and humorous. I like this about the story and it didn’t in anyway make the issues trivial or less weighty.
It is told in two volumes where the first is a narrative by the Zora’s adoptive parents speaking in the third person about their problem of childlessness, process of adoption and their desire to raise their girl in the best way possible. The second volume is a narrative by Zora about how she came to be adopted and her salacious survival strategies as she grew older. I loved the way she ended her part.
I enjoyed the story as well as the writing style. Nothing beats anything that is creatively different.
Recalling the African proverb after reading the story, in the same vein I’d say, “It takes a whole village to ruin a child…”
And it’s as true as the original proverb. Whatever a child becomes is a product of whatever influence the child had around him or her during the formative years.
Download It takes a village some say.
ALL OUR LIVES by TOCHUKWU EMMANUEL OKAFOR (NIGERIA) Published in ID identity: New Short Fiction from Africa 2018
We hear the collective voice of men of the streets narrating their story in the third person and evoking thoughts in the reader about the unfairness of life. From when life was as simple as eating, playing and sleeping to waking up to the times of harsh realities which force them out of the comfort zone that is childhood into the uncertainty of adulthood. They face different battles for survival, of which poor jobs and cybercrime are their main weapons.
The time and progression of the story was consistent throughout. It started with the present, went back in time and returned to the present again. It was a simple and easy read.
Download All Our Lives.
THE WALL by MERON HADERO (ETHIOPIA) Published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 2018
Here we have an Ethiopian immigrant boy tell his migration story in America. He moved to America from Germany which is his family’s first port after leaving Ethiopia. Speaking mainly German, he struggled with communicating in English especially among his peers ins. His saving grace was stumbling upon a certain Professor who spoke German and was willing to teach him English. It was a peculiar bonding between an elderly man and a child and they shared a lot in common ranging from migrant history to language barriers. Time passed and his command of the language improved. Things got better for his family and they moved yet again.
This is a story that brings the immigration and refugee situation to light, its associated problems and how it affects people. It also touches on important notes in German history and got me researching about the Berlin Wall.
I read it twice and I’m still finding it hard to make head or tail of the story. What is the real essence of the story? I get the theme of migration and the barriers associated with it but something just doesn’t sit well with me. The story feels like an excerpt from a memoir by an immigrant boy ‘who-is-not-to-be-named’. So it doesn’t feel like the right story for a short story, if that makes any sense. I need the full story to grasp it very well. I don’t even understand why the author chose to leave the boy’s name to our imagination. It adds more mystery which doesn’t fascinate me. I’ve finished reading an excerpt from this boy’s life and still I can’t say I know or understand him. Let me know your thoughts after reading it.
Download The Wall.
The Caine Prize short story winner predictions
I think Skinned should win this prize for the creative ingenuity Lesley showed in writing this. It checks all boxes for me. Here’s a list of my order of preference for the winner starting with the most preferred.
- It takes a village some say
- Sew my mouth
- All our lives
- The Wall
What are your predictions? Which story did you like best? Leave a comment below.
Featured image from The Caine Prize.