Coming to the Caine Prize blog party late in terms of Pede Hollist’s ‘Foreign Aid’, I’m aware that a lot of the ground on this story has already been covered – see the end of this post for links to other reviews as part of ‘Blogging the Caine 2013’ (organised by Aaron Bady). One of the things that has regularly come up is its length: it’s a long short. As Bady puts it, picking up on Kola Tobuson’s review, this is not problematic in itself, but perhaps needs justification. Which raises the already discussed question, again – why give so much space to such an ugly (I mean, soul -wise – although he is notably fat and greedy in a country where the most used descriptors for those around him include ‘gaunt’ and ‘wiry’), crude, blindly arrogant protagonist, Balogun? His narrative is full of threatened violence and (scarcely) repressed rage, of unrestrained sexism, and sexual predation, especially on and around markers of feminine deference (in the Fulani girl, ‘Ti-ma’, for example). There is a focus throughout on the exploitation involved both in the wage economy and the informal economies of sex, corrupt power, violence and the presence of the arsenal needed to enforce it, on inequality; the unthinking Balogun criticises aspects he is personally offended by, flattening these aspects out to embody the country (Sierra Leone) as a whole, whilst continuing to perpetuate the same stories to prop up his own hypocritical ego (and subsequent geographical allegiances). Apart from the clear satire indicated by the title, how do we get behind all that? Where to find the love and engage with this guy? For nigh on 10,000 words?
A story of displacement, carried by the main journey of Balogun heading back to Sierra Leone after a 20 year absence in the States – a spoilt boy who returns as ‘Logan’, with a sense of duty bred by his neglect of his family firmly packed in his Louis Vuitton ‘fannypack’ – ‘Foreign Aid’ also contains many other embedded journeys and displacements: of stories, of dreams – namely the American one, but also of family hopes, of parenthood, of relationships and community; of the ways that markers of belonging and status – home, son, relative, traveller, success – come to be held in place while actuality moves and alters around them; of survival; of value, currency, and the circulation of value. This returnee narrative evokes these journeys, and more, but frustrates expectations for them to yield ‘learning’ or epiphanic realisation and change. Instead, I think it points to ways that the stories we tell ourselves come to stand for truth, and how unthinkingly those processes can come to be completed; it approaches the ways the places and the lives within them that we no longer know become containable and tidy in this story form; and ‘Foreign Aid’ indicates, too, the ways these stories start to feed and prop up a kind of a moral landscape. Balogun’s entire narrative arc rehearses the strength of this need – his participation in the informal, ‘undocumented’ wage slavery of the States before he is ‘citizened’ is completely missing from the success story he presents back in ‘Salone’. His chucking around of 3 kinds of currency (Euros, dollars and pounds) to justify the individualistic, rampantly neo-liberal ‘American’ life-view he espouses can’t, in the end, protect him from the holes in his jingoistic thinking, or the fact that Salone, or life in it, won’t be contained by the neat parameters he has put around it and expected it to conform to. He finds, instead, his belief in the individualism of ‘there’ is built on shaky ground and he cannot sustain it alongside his desire to find a sustainable future for his family ‘here’. His politics produce anxiety, rage and frustration.
There is also something distinct in the style. The writing feels full, sometimes stiflingly so (something recognised by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva), laden with tropes and similes. This produces a kind of a surface texture and churns out a rhythm that reminds me of Logan himself: the complex set of quieter, more private stories and shifting political and social affiliations are dominated by the laden, value-rich ‘loud’ surface that sits on top of them. It also shifts linguistically, with Krio used effectively to open the terms of engagement further. Logan knows there are lessons being offered, but won’t/can’t learn or try to translate them – he has missed the developmental arc he needs in order to understand them. Revelations of informal economies of power in Freetown leave him reeling and wounded, and without the capacity to see the nature and consequences of his own intervention, he blunders through, forcing open the hidden, because shameful avenues his family have been forced into, trailing breakdowns of trust and belief in the wake of his fragile and unsophisticated ego.
Logan spends uncontrollably and without thought, the funds are utilised poorly, he treats people badly; he runs out of cash, has a number of encounters which make him realise he’s out of power, and then leaves. A familiar failed dependency narrative, driven by self-interest. But it’s not that ‘Foreign Aid’ is necessarily containable by that, or by a simple surface/depth, here/there split that leaves two distinct and irreconcilable worlds of understanding. The stories in ‘Foreign Aid’ multiply and become less and less of a tidy package, leaving open questions of what belongs where, and foreignness of all kinds. Neither location escapes its exposure. And Logan is as unattractive at the close as he is when we first meet him. A literary and satirical take on the problem of unsustainable foreign aid in Sierra Leone (see Hollist discussing this in an interview with Vitabu here), ‘Foreign Aid’, aided by the politics and relentlessness of its style, is a resistant narrative – refusing answers to the questions it provokes, or to offer itself as their resolution.
This post is part of the second week of Blogging the Caine 2013, in which a group of writers organised by Aaron Bady write about the shortlist for this year’s Caine Prize. Africa in Words will be posting on each of the shortlisted stories week by week.
For more on Pede Hollist’s ‘Foreign Aid’, read other responses from:
Beverley Nambozo at http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com
Veronica Nkwocha at http://veronicankwocha.com
Kola Tubosun at http://nigerianstalk.org
Aaron Bady at http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu
Keguro Macharia at http://gukira.wordpress.com
Ben Laden at http://uninterpretative.blogspot.com
Kate Maxwell at http://skatemaxwell.wordpress.com
- Aishwarya Subramanian at http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/blog
- Scott Ross at http://backslashscott.wordpress.com/
- And see Jeffrey Zuckerman for a series of the ‘Caine Prize’s Pre-histories’ at http://airshipdaily.com
Please let us know of any others and we’ll share.
If you’d like to participate in ‘Blogging the Caine 2013′ email Aaron Bady (firstname.lastname@example.org) or join the conversation here or on twitter (#caineprize).
With thanks to Kate Haines for organising Africa in Words’ contributions.