The 2020 Caine Prize Shortlist: A Bit of Unsolicited Opinion│Ese Emmanuel

L-R, Erica Sugo Anyadike, Rémy Ngamije, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile, and  Irenosen Okojie 

In 2019, reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Caine Prize winning story, Skinned, revolutionized the way I thought about fiction, especially “African”  fiction. Since then, I had found myself in an unconscious anticipation- awaiting the stories that would the shortlisted this year, and the one story that would eventually bag the highly coveted Caine Prize.  

With the anxieties and drama of the current pandemic situation, the announcement of the stories shortlisted for the Prize provided a certain kind of relief that I did not know I needed. Motivated by a friend, I visited the Caine Prize website in an attempt to read some of the stories and I did this without any peculiar expectation, except perhaps, the full knowledge that I was bound to get a fresh wave of insight regarding the limitless ways of expressing and experiencing the art of African fiction.  

The stories shortlisted for the 2020 Caine Prize for African Writing push the boundaries of form, style, voice, character and basically every element of good fiction. The themes explored range from politics, through ideas of personal life and the magical realism of daily African experience, to identity and loss. While the stylistic representation of some of the stories are what we easily recognize and are familiar with, others are so experimental and savvy that one is almost tempted to believe that they have yet to see anything like them in all of one’s reading experience, and there is a possibility that they would be right. There’s humor, satire, political commentary and almost everything that reflects the African stream of consciousness, and generally, the human condition. 

This is an exploration of the five individual stories that make up the shortlist, and due to the sheer subjectivity of literature, it may unwittingly or purposefully turn out to be an expression of my personal opinions and preferences relating to the stories. Perhaps this is a note seeking pardon in advance. Or not. 

The first story on the list, How to Marry an African President, was written by Erica Sugo Anyadike, who is a Tanzanian short story writer that has been previously shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. This story was previously published in adda: Commonwealth Stories in 2019, and is reflective of the mind and life of a female protagonist, as is Erica’s literary inclination. The protagonist is an unnamed woman who appears to catch the fancy of an African President with a sick wife. They engage in an extra-marital affair and after the First Lady dies, the husband of the protagonist is disposed of, and she in turn, gets married to the President. The story details the complexity of such power-based relationships while highlighting the African political situation. There are coup attempts, rallies, political unrests and even the utter drama that seems to be a very popular phenomenon in African, and perhaps even world politics. It is also interesting to see how the concepts of gender-based expectations and misogyny are interwoven with political crises and domestic unrest. The story is an easy, flowing read with original characters but an improbable plot, which still manages to be somewhat predictable- at least for the African reader. Towards the end, I feel that the story almost loses its footing, as the flow of the prose wavers slightly, and becomes almost difficult to follow. Regardless, How to Marry an African President presents somewhat of  a new face to African fiction, and was a delightful and refreshing read. 

Chikodili Emelumadu’s story, What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata, published in The Shadow Booth: Vol. 2 in 2018, is a vision of style. Chikodili’s work, previously shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards in 2015 and Caine Prize in 2017, as well as winning the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize in 2019, proves to us once again the amount of dexterity possessed by the writer. Although What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata follows the popular subject of water spirits in Nigeria, it illuminates the subtle and not-so-subtle internalness of the popular myth in ways not previously thought  possible. One may be quick to classify this story under the genre of magical realism, but the manner in which the plot- if there really is just one plot – is expressed, resists classification. The story is written in the semblance of an academic research paper, complete with searchable references and convincing footnotes. It takes an effort to believe that this work of art is anything beside the result of years of research into the seeming reality of the Mami Wata existence. I think at face value, the plot of the story may be difficult to decipher, but a closer look shows a myriad of plot possibilities that is a noteworthy feat for a short story. It can be said that this story scores almost every point for originality. It is simply beautiful to see how fiction can be molded and remodeled in ways we hardly expect. 

Fisherman’s Stew is a delicate, personal story about longings. Written by Jowhor Ile, winner of the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, and published in The Sewanee Review in 2019, this powerful story explores the themes of love, loss, grief and bliss (which may come off as denial) in a nonserial manner. The writer, in this story, shocked me with one hand, and soothed me with the other. He rearranged timelines, as though they were only secondary to the story; as though the present is as equally consequential, or inconsequential as the past. I was completely drawn into the lives of the characters, and this is as much the result of the expert artistry of the writer, as it is about the intensity of the prose. The story is a view into the life and bed of an older woman, for whom her long dead husband keen on his promise to spend his all of his existence with her, returns. It is also about her determination to meet him halfway. This is a deeply personal story, so that in some moments, I did feel like I was invading the privacy of the characters. Fisherman’s Stew is a wonderful reimagination of the contemporary love story. Beautiful, really. 

Rémy Ngamije, a Rwanda-born Namibian writer, and editor-in-chief of Namibia’s first literary magazine: Doek!, with his story, The Neighborhood Watch, published in The Johannesburg Review of Books in 2019, captured my attention and my heart with the simplicity and acuity of his prose. The story is a narration by the invisible people of Namibia, who rummage through the bins of predominantly white neighbourhoods for their survival. Using the clearest possible language, Rémy depicts the unexpected intricacies of their lives, detailing their experiences and bringing to the foreground, their deepest longings. Although the character background has become somewhat recognizable in African fiction, (thanks to the work of the likes of Noviolet Bulawayo, a one-time Caine Prize winner), there is an unfamiliar intimacy to the characters and their narratives. The ability to capture this intimacy within the limiting borders of the short story is very impressive and is also reflective of the succinctness of the writer’s style. I especially like the economy of words employed in the story, the way every word did exactly what it was meant to do, in the best possible way. And then the voice, which is the quietly convoluted one of people who don’t believe that their stories are worth hearing, but who tell them all the same. The Neighborhood Watch tells of a blindspot in the Namibian- in essence- African story, and attempts to fix it. Amazing perspective.  

At the far end of the list, lies Grace Jones published by Hachette in 2019, and written by Irenosen Okojie whose novel won the Betty Trask Award in 2016. The story follows the experiences of a Grace Jones impersonator with personal contradictions and a dark secret. The theme of the story lies around identity, conflict, and community. Grace Jones also poses as speculative fiction- perhaps a horror story of some sort, although the actual genre is difficult to place. The characters are seemingly distant, but manage to be highly personal as well. The style of the prose is very experimental, as the story takes the form of a somewhat long epic poem. Irenosen seems to be inclined towards the musical manipulation of words, and the sentences are structured in a manner that is very much like poetry. The prose is very flowery, aesthetic, and the sentences seem to have a self-fulfilled air about them. At the beginning, the overt musicality of the prose made it difficult for me to follow the story,  but looking beyond the flamboyancy of the words and complexity of the sentences, one’s mind catches a glance of the delicacy and originality of the characters and the sleekness of the prose. Captivating really, as long as one gets past the first two pages. 

Given the degree of imagination and artistry that is found in this list, one can imagine how difficult it will be to pick favorites. Still, I think The Neighborhood Watch speaks the most to me. All of the stories have surprised, revived, and reminded me of the depths of humanity and they have each done this in their own individual and highly stylistic manner. I anticipate the final result to be announced by the judges later this year, and trust in their judgement in selecting the soon to be winner of the 2020 Caine Prize. Until then, I can fully bask in the knowledge that the Caine Prize has given me access to writers and amazing stories which I may not have realized existed any other way. 

Ese Emmanuel is a mad girl with an overwhelming love for books and humorously refers to reading as ‘the one true love of her life.’ She believes herself to be revolutionary and can be reached via Twitter and Instagram, @_eseemmanuel.

Lake Adedamola is a poet, writer, and editor with Nantygreens, who's worked with several other literary blogs including Brittle Paper. He has, since 2018, served in various capacities on the Lagos International Poetry Festival, LIPFest, team.

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