AiW Guest Madhu Krishnan
Elnathan John’s ‘Flying’ opens with a dream and ends with a limping chicken. If that sentence sounds incongruous, it, like the story itself, is deliberately so. Throughout its course, ‘Flying’ – at only just over 4200 words – consistently plays with convention in order to let the unexpected emerge. On its surface, there is much about John’s story which appears to conform to what has become the new normativity in African writing. The story centres on a child narrator, Tachio, abandoned by his parents and living in the Kachiro Refuge Home. Over its course, we encounter regular references to violence, poverty, conflict and degradation. Even Tachio’s central quest to discover his origins is one which feels somehow already-anticipated the context of twenty-first century African writing. And yet, ‘Flying’ never falls into cliché, taking a range of well-worn narrative tropes and turning them, instead, into something entirely new.
I was immediately struck by the way in which ‘Flying’ uses its child narrator. Much has been written, of course, about the prevalence of children as central characters in contemporary African writing (Hron, Hawley, Coundouriotis). From Adichie to Abani, Dangarembga to Bulawayo, Kourouma to Okri, the child narrator seems almost omnipresent, transcending geographical and linguistic boundaries (and indeed, as Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree’s article ‘The Caine Prize and Contemporary African Writing’ in Research in African Literatures 44:2 or 2015 Chair of Judges Zoe Wicomb’s recent blog post highlight, recent Caine Prize shortlists and winners corroborate this trend). While critics have argued that its use lends itself to political commentary (Hron), where the child serves as an allegory for the postcolonial African nation, the child narrator in ‘Flying’ does something slightly different. By filtering the story through a child’s perspective, that is, John creates a narrative imbued with multiplicity. On the one hand, Tachio’s observations about the world in which he lives are straight-forward, even simplistic; at the same time, however, they gesture towards the simultaneous appearance of an incongruent, submerged narrative that is not so easily resolved. This occurs through the stylistic choices which John makes throughout the story. Tachio’s voice, while consistent, is curiously layered, punctuated by moments of gravity and maturity which do not cohere with his age and position in life. By so doing, a form of defamiliarisation dominates the story, transforming the quotidian into the singular. For me, this is the beauty of John’s story: ‘Flying’ takes that which could so easily fall into convention or cliché and turns it into something else entirely. Seemingly reductive oppositions between good and bad, happiness and sadness, friendship and enmity, flight and fall are renegotiated and shifted from binary absolutes to subtly nuanced modes of meaning-making. Even the story’s conclusion, telegraphed for several pages, becomes something unexpected, offering a symbol of resilience (and something not entirely like hope, but close) in the unlikeliest of places.
At the core of the story is a book, the records of the Kachiro Memorial Refuge Home where Tachio lives. The home is deliberately not referred to as an orphanage because, as its founder Aunty Keturah says, ‘the word orphan has too much stigma around it’. Tachio finds the book while cleaning out Aunty Keturah’s office one day, a privilege assigned to him by virtue of his status as dorm leader. Inside are written the stories of how every child in the home was found, records detailing babies abandoned in toilets and teenaged rape victims unable to even look at their newborn progeny. Tachio reads this book every day, finding in his discovery of his peers’ origins a feeling of strength that he describes as akin to the breathlessness which he previously only felt in his nightly dreams of flight. In many ways, there is an uneasiness in Tachio’s pleasure at his reading, what verges on a malicious glee at discovering the stories of his classmates, unknown even to them. This is a deliberate move on John’s part, which gestures towards the entanglement of narrative, power and knowledge, one of no little consequence to the (post)colonial history of the African continent. Yet, there is also an innocence at play in Tachio’s reading, what seems more likely to be a sense of schoolboy pride. It strikes me as particularly significant that the one record which Tachio cannot bring himself to read is the one which we might expect him to be most eager to – his own. And indeed, it seems equally important that it is only after he loses his dreams of flight that Tachio feels the need to learn the circumstances of his arrival at Kachiro. It is as though, despite his fear of knowing, only finding out the truth about his origins can quell Tachio’s anxiety at the thought of never again soaring into the sky, that only one form of breathlessness can fill the emptiness of another’s loss.
Throughout the story, Tachio comforts himself when he is bullied or made sad by thinking of the stories that he knows, the histories of his classmates and peers. By reciting their origins to himself, Tachio is able to forge a means of control over them and comfort for himself. Yet, when faced with his own story, he is unable to find a similar mastery, discovering only questions and few answers. John never resolves these, leaving both Tachio and the reader in a sort of limbo. Instead, in ‘Flying’, what we ultimately learn is that our conceit about the power of knowing is itself misplaced, a half-formed answer to a question unasked and perhaps unaskable. The partiality of stories and unfinished nature of knowledge is emphasized in the story’s sparseness. Despite the density of characters and actions over its course, we are given surprisingly little to hold on to at any length. Histories of loss and mourning are only briefly gestured towards, and even death, which takes a significant role in the latter half of the story, is quickly pushed aside. Yet, this does not mean that ‘Flying’ lacks closure or that the story is unsatisfying in any way. Rather, it is the fleeting nature of the story, its acknowledgement that ‘truth’ never fully arrives, that gives it its full complexity and underlies its art.
Madhu Krishnan is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in 20th and 21st Century Postcolonial Writing at the University of Bristol. Her research considers the construction and dissemination of an idea of Africa in contemporary African writing, interrogating the contours of representation in the creation of ‘global’ and ‘local’ African literatures. She has published numerous articles on African literatures and postcolonial studies in journals including Research in African Literatures, Textual Practice and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Her monograph, Contemporary African Literature: Global Locations, Postcolonial Identifications, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
For the last two years Africa in Words has been blogging the Caine Prize for African writing. As Kate Haines wrote in Africa in Words’ first piece about the Caine Prize, we acknowledge that “it is a ‘good thing, but it isn’t the thing’, and yet conversation about whether it is or is claiming to be ‘the thing’ is important and will still continue. The prize has undoubtedly played a significant part in shaping the production and reception of post-millennial African writing in the UK and beyond, and this needs to be recognised and explored critically.” As such, Africa in Words has been publishing a review or comment piece for the last five weeks on one of the five Caine Prize shortlisted short stories, by different contributors, some regular, some new. The shortlisted stories are:
- Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri Read “The Folded Leaf” Read John Uwa’s AiW review.
- Elnathan John (Nigeria) for “Flying” in Per Contra Read “Flying”
- F. T. Kola (South Africa) for “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story Read “A Party for the Colonel” Read Doseline Kiguru’s AiW review.
- Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) for “Space” in Twenty in 20 Read “Space” Read Nomonde Ntsepo’s AiW review.
- Namwali Serpell (Zambia) for “The Sack” in Africa39 Read “The Sack” Read Lilly Kroll’s AiW review.
The stories are all available to download and read for free via the above links and on the Caine Prize website. Read them, our reviews and others, and let us know what you think.
Elnathan John and Madhu Krishnan will be appearing at this year’s Africa Writes festival in London later this week. Africa Writes is the UK’s largest festival and celebration of African literature and is organised by the Royal African Society. The festival will run from Friday 3rd July – Sunday 5th July at the British Library. Africa Writes 2015 will bring together over 70 authors, publishers and critics including Ellah Allfrey, A. Igoni Barrett, Petina Gappah, Jackie Kay and E. C. Osondu.
Elnathan John will appear as part of:
The 2015 Caine Prize Conversation
Saturday 4 July
16.45 – 17.45, FREE
The shortlist for the 2015 Caine Prize, an award associated with mapping new directions in contemporary African writing, this year includes one past winner and two previously shortlisted writers. Join the five shortlisted authors – Segun Afolabi, Elnathan John, F. T. Kola, Masande Ntshanga, Namwali Serpell – in conversation with 2009 winner E. C. Osondu and Guardian First Book Award winner Petina Gappah.
New Nigerian Fiction
Sunday 5 July
12.15 – 13.15, FREE
With A. Igoni Barrett, Elnathan John, Irenosen Okojie, E. C. Osondu. Chaired by Ike Anya, co-founder TEDxEuston.
Launching four debut novels, Ike Anya talks to writers about their new releases and asks what new Nigerian fiction is. The session takes us from A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass (Chatto & Windus) – a Kafka-esque satire of a Lagos man who wakes one morning to find he has turned into a white man – to the dual narrative of contemporary London and 18th century Benin in Irenosen Okojie’sButterfly Fish (Jacaranda); from the story of African family and community told through one remarkable house in E. C. Osondu’s This House is Not for Sale (Granta) to a finely textured exploration of daily life and religion in Northern Nigeria told through a compelling coming-of-age story in Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Cassava Republic Press).
Madhu Krishnan will appear as part of:
Emergent Discourse on African Literature
Friday 3 July
14.00 – 15.30, FREE
With Ying Cheng (SOAS), Louisa Uchum Egbunike (SOAS), Rebecca Jones (University of Birmingham), Madhu Krishnan (University of Bristol), Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (Centre for African Cultural Excellence), Emma Shercliff (UCL Institute of Education) and Victoria Smith (University of Warwick). Chaired by Carli Coetzee, Editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies.
Academic discourse on African literatures is characterised by a continuous and lively process of debate, reassessment of theories and redefinition of terms. The very concept of ‘African literature’ is a problematic one because it conveys a certain homogeneity, ignoring the wide diversity of written and oral literatures stemming from the continent and the diaspora. This session brings together a range of exciting new scholarship from PhD students and early career scholars working on diverse topics from the relationship between radio and literature in 1950s Ghana to the contemporary novel – from women in the publishing industry to a Lagos-based theatre troupe’s rehearsal space. The aim is to showcase new and emergent trends in approaches to ‘African literature’.