AiW Guest: Madhu Krishnan
In the just sixteen years that it has existed, the Caine Prize for African Writing has made an indelible mark, if not on African literature itself, then certainly on the critical discourses which surround it. With the same regularity with which the annual prize-giving ceremony takes place, so, too, have appeared a series of well-trodden arguments around the prize, its origins and its merits. Lying at the heart of these conversations is an anxiety about the ways in which the Caine Prize feeds into long-standing tensions around the relative merits of Afropolitanism, Afropessimism, so-called poverty porn, and its role in allegedly promoting what has been termed the ‘Caine Prize aesthetic‘ in African letters. With nearly as much written about the prize, as an institution, as the nominated stories themselves, the Caine Prize has seemingly taken on a life of its own, shaping and, at times, fossilising critical discussion of African literary writing.
It is very easy to read Lusaka Punk from a perspective overdetermined by this context. This, however, would be a mistake. In her preface to the collection, Director of the Caine Prize Lizzy Attree quotes 2015 Chair of Judges Zoë Wicomb, who describes the shortlisted entries as displaying ‘a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics’. When expanded beyond the shortlist to the collection as a whole, this statement encapsulates the extent to which the writers gathered in Lusaka Punk have found ways to partake in the act of ‘writing Africa’ on a world stage without falling into the binary determiners which have for so long dominated its reception. Exhibiting what Ranka Primorac, in her coverage of the Prize for Africa in Words, has termed ‘textual cosmopolitaism’, these stories challenge, extend and expand the delimitations through which we know African literature today. Placing aesthetic fluency alongside ethnical commitment, joining the seeming antimonies of political engagement with a universal – yet far from homogeneous – humanism, these stories engage with the potential of literary writing to speak from simultaneous and varied stances without giving in to the temptation to submit to a reductive geography of Africa and its others. Irrespective of one’s stance on the Caine Prize as a literary institution, the short stories collected in Lusaka Punk mark an important contribution to contemporary Anglophone African writing, displaying a startling range of subject matter, style, genre and voice. While an uncharitable reader may claim that the five shortlisted stories which open the collection bear a series of marked similarities in tone and content, the assorted thirteen stories which follow explode any such attempt to delineate a ‘new normal’ in African literary writing.
The stories collected in Lusaka Punk would be impossible to describe in a single category or a single sentence. With subject matter ranging from a lonely young woman’s grief for her recently-deceased cat, to the uneasy coexistence of a small village and the Chinese building crew who move in, the sheer breadth of experience which makes up the collection should put rest to reductive claims about the allegedly deterministic nature of African writing in the Caine Prize era. I was particularly struck by the ways in which these stories wove together reflections on the continent’s past with often-humorous observations on its present and nuanced speculation about its future. The story ‘The Writing in the Stars’, by Jonathan Dotse, for instance, marries the epic tale of The Guardians of the Mali and Songhai empires with vision of a technologically-charged future in which the continent is a hub of educational and scientific progress. The theme of technology is taken up in a slightly different manner in ‘#Yennega’, a story by Dotse’s countrywoman, Jemila Abdulai, which cleverly intersperses opposing social media campaigns into its tale of a media celebrity on death row. Shifting to a more intimate register, Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Burial’ explores a young girl’s grief in the wake of her beloved father’s death and her struggle to connect in its shared aftermath with her German-born mother. The relationship between mother and daughter is further explored in Pede Hollist’s ‘The Song of a Goat’ (Sierra Leone), a story which questions the notions of discipline, responsibility, religion and moral education as delimitations on the possibilities of youth. Still elsewhere, Nkiacha Atemnkeng’s ‘Wahala Lizard’ presents a satirical take on paranoia, mass media and corporate accountability through the travails of a group of beleaguered airplane passengers.
Of all of the stories in the collection, shortlisted entries included, I was particularly taken with the eponymously-titled ‘Lusaka Punk’, a story that displays a stunning sensitivity in portraying a segment of African youth culture which is all-too infrequently given notice in the Western media. The story is told from the perspective of Mbongwe, a seventeen year old regular in Lusaka’s punk scene, doing time to pass the compulsory ‘year of nothing’ mandated to take place between finishing his A-levels and entering one of the nation’s overcrowded and underresourced universities. Opening with a veritable roll call of twentieth and twenty-first century punk icons, Minor Threat, The Sex Pistols, Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth among them, the story effortlessly captures a range of reference which is both particular, in its rootedness in place and time, and boundless, with its themes of adolescent anger and despair. Equally vivid are the story’s descriptions of Lusaka’s neglected urban geography and its depiction of a punk scene that would not be out of place in London, Berlin, New York or anywhere else in world where disaffection breeds the impulse to create. Intertwining the poignancy of its narrator’s futile dreams of a different life lived abroad with his sheer, frenzied, enraged joy in performing, the story effortlessly opens itself up to the world, while remaining resolutely of its own location, exposing the fiction that African writing must always be an either/or proposition as the fallacy it is.
It is certainly not the case that Lusaka Punk is beyond reproach. One might point to the medium of language across the collection, which remains resolutely Anglophone, as an area where much remains to be desired. Indeed, the lack of literature in translation seems to speak to larger concerns about the Caine Prize, in particular, and the accessibility and quality of translated writing from the continent more generally. Equally, the stories collected in Lusaka Punk do not shy away from difficult subject matter, with multiple references to violence, poverty, sexual exploitation, paedophilia, AIDS and more. Yet, these issues, where they arise – and they do not arise in every story – are never treated reductively. Rather subject matter remains germane to form and vice versa, indicating a level of nuance and depth which marries the ethical to the aesthetic with a far greater complexity than any cries of poverty porn would suggest. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the collection ends with Aisha Nelson’s ‘Coloured Rendition’, a story which describes what happens when a group of school children are recruited to draw pictures for the benefit of a pair of visiting American volunteer workers. Contrasting the single-minded determination of protagonist Aku, who ‘refused to let her art by reduced to mere objects robbed of their voice and dignity mid-sentence, objects to tickle other people’s fancies and feed their prejudices’, with the acquiescence of George, always aware ‘that there were people to please’, the story explicitly plays with the continued potency of the image of Africa in a global imaginary. ‘Coloured Rendition’ ends with George’s triumph, the ‘truth’ of his paintings, so estranged from the reality of his life, heralded by the visitors as embodying the authentic Africa of their dreams. Concluding the story, and the collection as a whole, with this portrait of a world unaware of the paucity of its own interpretative inadequacies, Lusaka Punk, it seems to me, can ultimately be read as a call to read otherwise and imagine better.
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.
Lusaka Punk and Other Stories is now available from The New Internationalist. The Caine Prize 2015 anthology contains the 5 short-listed stories and those from the two week Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop which took place in Elmina, Ghana this year, with Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner.
The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi (Nigeria)
Flying by Elnathan John (Nigeria)
A Party for the Colonel by FT Kola (South Africa)
Space by Masande Ntshanga (South Africa)
The Sack by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)
The Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop Stories 2015:
#Yennenga by Jemila Abdulai (Ghana)
The Road Workers of Chalbi by Dalle Abraham (Kenya)
Wahala Lizard by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
Nehushtan by Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)
Swallowing Ice by Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana)
Lusaka Punk by Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)
The Writing in the Stars by Jonathan Dotse (Ghana)
Burial by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria)
The Song of a Goat by Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone)
Princess Sailendra of Malindi by Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya)
Blood Match by Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi)
Coloured Rendition by Aisha Nelson (Ghana)