AiW Guest: Katarzyna Kubin
This review of Stacy Hardy’s “Involution” by our regular Guest contributor, Katarzyna Kubin, is the penultimate of our series of the stories shortlisted for the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing, ahead of the announcement of the winner tomorrow evening, July 2nd, at SOAS, University of London.
We’ve been talking about Prize culture for some time here at AiW. You can find our Guest reviews published so far in this year’s series, previous years’ shortlist reviews and our coverage of the Prize from AiW here, as well as our discussion of the Caine Prize via the Anthologies, our first foray into ‘blogging the Caine‘ back in 2013, and of some of AiW’s notable moments – including mutiny! – in the dialogues around the Prize’s history.
Details of the full text of Hardy’s story, as well as that of all the other shortlisted stories this year, can be found at the end of this post.
The South African writer and conceptual artist, Stacy Hardy, once said: “I think all writers have a responsibility to provoke the imagination, to open up new worlds…I’m compelled to write against the mundane, against easy choices and learned responses, to take risks, to take liberties.” True to this statement, Hardy’s story, “Involution,” writes against social taboos about women’s sexuality, her narrative hovering nimbly, like a drone, panning and then zooming in from different angles and perspectives, boldly going into a subject most would prefer to leave untouched.
Set for the most part in the small spaces of bathrooms and a bedroom, “Involution” recounts a series of encounters between the protagonist – an unnamed, young woman, living and working in what could be Cape Town – and something, variously described as “the thing,” a “poor rural animal,” “a creature.” In the protagonist’s uncertainty about “the thing,” the story is a mock-mystery. The reader’s reward is not a grand revelation at the end that neatly ties various plot-lines together, but a growing sensation of being tickled intellectually. Questions, persistent and ever more inventive, punctuate the attempts to describe “the thing,” whilst also giving the narrative a reassuring inertia. What is the protagonist to “the thing,” the story asks. “A habitat?…A home? …if she is a nest, then is the animal nesting?” The story keeps you reading largely out of curiosity about how Hardy manages not to say what we are all aware she is talking about, whilst also knowing that it is something no one actually wants to talk about.
“Involution” reads, at times, like an endearing tale of self-discovery, as the protagonist’s reaction to “the creature” evolves from fear and disgust into a comfortable familiarity: “It is hairy, but the hair is neither long nor soft; it isn’t furry exactly, but it seems to have a sort of fuzzy quality, a kind of fluffy pertness that could be considered cute under the right circumstances.” Yet such light-hearted, even humorous, descriptions constantly shapeshift into less pleasurable, murkier, sometimes grotesque, images: “She imagines [the thing] beginning life as a ball of tightly packed radioactive flesh, raising itself up from the bottom of some medical waste truck, swimming through the debris of polluted biological matter…” The story is both deeply focused and thematically open, both funny and serious, conceptually stylized and cringingly raw. Hardy’s skill of storytelling (she has a published short fiction collection, Because the Night (2015), and a second expected in 2019) is on full display, and the precision of language, rhetorical playfulness, and metaphorical acrobatics entice to the very end.
Across Hardy’s multivalent projects – from Chimurenga and Black Ghost Books, to her writing and conceptual art – she actively engages with social and political issues. Originally published in the collection Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (2017), “Involution” too conveys such concerns. Understated yet inescapable, allusions to issues from environmental degradation to colonialism and women’s rights, anchor the conceptual play that can otherwise make the story seem ephemeral or intellectually solipsistic. The story also puts considerable trust in the reader to engage with a sense of humor and openness that match Hardy’s. Indeed, writing about “Involution” risks spoiling the curious pleasure that comes from reading it, so better explore it for yourselves.
More on Stacy Hardy from Africa in Words: “Flexible Forms and Publics…on Small Magazines”.
Stacy Hardy is a writer and an editor at the pan African journal Chimurenga, a founder of Black Ghost Books, and a teacher at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Pocko Times, Ctheory, Bengal Lights, Evergreen Review, Drunken Boat, Joyland, Black Sun Lit, and New Orleans Review. A collection of her short fiction, Because the Night, was published by Pocko Books in 2015. She is currently finalising a second collection to be published in 2019, and is also working on a novella.
Katarzyna Kubin has been contributing to Africa in Words since 2016. She is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). Her research explores affect in postcolonial texts, as an entry point to consider identity, representation, and authorial ethics. She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.