Blogging the Caine Prize: Efemia Chela’s ‘Chicken’

AiW Guest Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

Efemia Chela’s ‘Chicken’ initially felt like two different stories told in three parts. This was until I gave it another read and realised its three separate parts tell an interesting coming-of-age story. Our narrator, Kaba, is at an awkward phase in her life – twenty-something and just graduated … so what next?

It begins with a graduation party thrown by her family and this beautiful opening paragraph:

‘It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely.’

Part 1 is also filled with such a delectable description of food it would make you develop a serious craving for what Chela is writing about:

‘My parents’ cross-cultural marriage made for an exciting culinary event. From my father’s side came slow-cooked beef shin in a giant dented tin pot. Simply done, relying only on the innate flavour of the marbled red cubes of flesh and thinly sliced onion getting to know each other for hours. It was smoked by open charcoal fire and lightly seasoned with nothing but the flecks of salty sweat from nervy Auntie Nchimunya constantly leaning over the steaming pot. Mushrooms were cooked as simply as Sister Chanda’s existence. Fungi was hoped for in the night and foraged for at dawn. My favourites were curly-edged, red on top with a yellow underskirt and fried in butter. My lip curled as someone passed me a bowl of uisashi, wild greens and peanuts mashed into a bitty green mess.’

Efemia Chela

Efemia Chela

For those that love words and love food, this is literary food heaven. As I read this part of the story, it brought me back to the works of South African Shubnum Khan’s Onion Tears and Ugandan-born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s memoir The Settler’s Cookbook, which write descriptively about food and cooking. While The Settler’s Cookbook is not solely about food – as food is used to tell a much larger story – I still fondly remember scenes, such as when Alibhai-Brown recounts the evening meal of Indian railway workers, which was a mixture of rice and lentils.

The second and third parts of the story, explore Kaba’s life after her graduation party and her entrance into the big bad world. Yet, Chela tells a different story – one not of ‘certainties and absolutes [or] in plans and futures’. In this part, Chela captures in familiar and unfamiliar ways the issues facing Millenials (or generation Y) – a university degree, the crisis is somewhat over, but there are no jobs. Take this global phenomenon, and situate it within the African job market, where there is such high youth unemployment (degree or no degree), and sprinkle it with a degree that is not seen as practical, and I can understand the frustration our narrator must feel.

While Part 2 shows that Kaba’s life post-graduation is not that great, it also shows how much of an independent minded woman Kaba is. Her parents want her to go back to school and study law (something more practical), but she ‘stubbornly … believed … [t]hat there was really a place in the world for what I believed in’.  So she ‘rented a room in the bum end of town’ and plotted her future. Her wealthy parents did give her some money, well ‘pittance for rent’, but the more she stood her ground for what she wanted, the less they sent to her.

Part 2 also introduces another theme – sex. Kaba may be unemployed and struggling financially, but at least she is not ‘starved for sex’. Here is where we experience the possibility of an almost threesome occurring, but also see that Kaba is not trapped by gender binaries or sexual boundaries. This is explored through a one-night stand with a woman:

‘I wasn’t dogmatic enough in my desire to be a lesbian but I liked the symmetry of being with a woman. Breast to breast. Gender didn’t matter really anyway. I talked to Alice over coffee about it. I remember saying, “Boys. Girls. Whatever. We’re always just two people searching… fumbling towards something.”’

Yet, by the time we get to Part 3, life is a lot harder for Kaba, whose ‘gait changed’. So hard, she even ‘consider[ed] prostitution quite seriously’. Instead, she opts to use a business card she stole from the pockets of the drug-addicted art director of the company she interns at, which she sees as her only chance for survival.

caine_coverChela’s story explores the awkwardness of being twenty-something quite well and the choices we make at certain junctures in our life. While many twenty-something’s might not have chosen the path Kaba chose, I did admire her ability to forsake her life of privilege and wealth in order to forge her own path. I am also sure some of us can relate to the confusion and uncertainty of being that age.

Chela’s writing also draws you in, not only through her description of food – which is one of the highlights of this story – but it also made me feel like I was in each scene. I was at the graduation feast and could see the ‘shiny mouths’ on her little cousins. I could also see the ‘bit of red garden egg’ stuck in her uncle with the ‘Ampapata nose’’s beard, the ‘chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table’ with the ‘stack of records’, and her older brother’s face illuminated by the ‘glow of a MacBook’.

Finally, there is the subtle and not-so subtle ways in which the title ‘Chicken’ itself comes into the story. There’s the obvious – during the graduation where ‘three plain white chickens’ are slaughtered for the feast (and well the feast itself). Then there’s the not-so-obvious – in her bed the morning after the night before when she finds an inner lip tattoo of ‘an egg.  A single egg’ on the woman she slept with. And it appears again in part 3 with the eggs ‘just lying around inside‘ Kaba. What then are the implied connections between the chicken and egg in these different parts of the story? Are there even any?

The beauty of this story lies in the fact that the possible connections between the chicken and egg could mean different things to different people. It could signify the many ways in which a particular situation can manifest – the death of the chickens at the beginning of the story could be Kaba saying goodbye to her university life and hello to the cruel world; the extraction of the eggs inside Kaba could also be interpreted as another form of loss, but it could also be a chance for someone else to bring an individual into this world that hopefully might not be as torn as our narrator. Or it could mean nothing more than chickens and eggs. Whatever it may be, ‘Chicken’ leaves you to consider these questions and more long after you finish reading.

‘Chicken’ was certainly a delight to read and, at 23, Chela is definitely a writer we should keep our eyes on.

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ZAH

Zahrah is almost done with her PhD in Human Geography and Urban Studies at the London School of Economics and also works as a Researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. When she’s not doing either of those, she’s blogging about her true love – African literature – at bookshy.

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Last year Africa in Words took part in ‘Blogging the Caine Prize’ – a carnival of week-by-week blogging around the shortlist for the annual Caine Prize for African writing.  While there is no ‘organised’ carnival going on this year, the prize continues to showcase some fantastic writing. Africa in Words will be sharing a review or comment piece each week on one of the 5 Caine Prize shortlisted short stories, by different contributors, some regular, some new

Inspired by the reviews on Brittle Paper, we are posting our own in the same order:
Billy Kahora’s ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’.  Read Rachel Knighton‘s AiW review.
Diane Awerbuck’s ‘Phosphorescence’. Read Katie Reid‘s AiW review.
Okwiri Oduor’s ‘My Father’s Head’. Read Doseline Kiguru‘s AiW review.
Tendai Huchu’s ‘Intervention’. Read Anthea Gordon’s AiW review.
Efemia Chela’s ‘Chicken’. 

The stories are all available to download and read for free on the Caine Prize website. Read them, our reviews and others, and let us know what you think.



Categories: Blogging the Caine Prize, Prizes, Reviews - Books

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