AiW Guest: Temitayo Olofinlua
This is the third in AiW’s annual Caine Prize for African Writing review series, reviewing all five of the shortlisted stories of 2019’s offerings. We’ve long used the opportunity to talk through the writing recognised by the Prize, as well as prizes and prize cultures; Kate Wallis started off this series of conversations as part of the then “Caine Blogathon“ in 2013. Watch this space for other reviews from the 2019 shortlist and read previous years’ shortlist reviews and coverage of the Prize from AiW here, as well as our coverage of the Caine Prize workshop Anthologies. A series of events with the shortlisted writers are also planned in the UK in the run up to the announcement of the winner on July 8th.
“My lover can only love me behind drawn curtains,” is the opening sentence of Cherrie Kandie’s 2019 Caine nominated short story. The sentence stayed with me for days after reading the story. The sentence also centralises several masks that LGBT people wear just to be able to express love. This unease of homosexual love in Kenya, the setting of the story, runs through the entire plot, from the way the lovers deal with themselves, to the way they deal with family, to the way they deal with the outside world. However, it is the way this unease is inextricably interwoven with other issues—religion, mental health and maltreatment of women—while not losing its focus that is memorable.
This is the story of the crushing love relationship between twenty-seven-year-old Magda and the unnamed narrator. We see, feel and hear the crushing sound of their relationship, in the way Magda’s mother treats the anonymous narrator. First, when the two friends become close, they are “her daughters”; however, when they are too close for comfort, she begins to study her “like a specimen. She narrows her eyes, tightening her brow at the same time.” Yet, the narrator tries to measure up, because when your love is unaccepted, and you know that your love is unaccepted, you begin to second guess every action of the other as transferred hate; hear her: “I know that my lover’s mother likes avocado, so I bought ten of them, each for forty bob. But my lover’s mother does not touch them, and neither does she touch the plate of food that I served her.” So, her mind begins to run around, everywhere, finding reasons for the coldness.
The two main characters wear two different kinds of masks. While Magda swells up and becomes “big like her big drum father, big like her afro weaves, hiding herself under loud layers, showy like her fabulous mother”, the narrator becomes smaller, as she “shrinks herself to live”. Like the unnamed narrator, this is how homosexuals in many homophobic African countries shrink themselves, as they fold and fold themselves to fit into tiny crevices, just to fit in, just to be accepted.
While the reality comes with so much pain, the characters also survive their world by escaping into ideal imaginary worlds where “we hold hands and pretend that we are outside. We walk in Nairobi. Our matchbox flat becomes the large sprawling city.” They imagine a better world, a possible alternate world where their love is not a crime, where it is normal, where it does not have to be tolerated or accepted, just normal. In this world, the couple live in the full glare of the world without attracting stares. In this world, there are no masks, there is no folding, no squeezing, no blowing up, they are just themselves. However, they soon return to reality.
Reality comes with a knock on the door. It is Thomas, Magda’s “toaster” and potential husband. Immediately he knocks, they “scamper around our matchbox flat like rats; I think of green rat-poison pellets floating in a glass of Fanta Orange.” During the visit, Magda tries to blend in, offering him food, smiles and loud laughter, struggling to fit the mould of the ideal African wife. Through their conversations, we also see the double-standard attitude to homosexual relationships. Thomas is cool with lesbian sex but cannot imagine gay sex; he talks condescendingly of LGBT people, asking: “How many letters are there in that thing!” with a laugh. Magda joins him, revealing another mask that many homosexual Africans have to wear: to survive, you have to laugh with the devil.
More than this anxiety associated with LGBT relationships, it is the way the writer humanises her characters that is endearing, how we are able to see Magda and the narrator—even as she remains unnamed. Despite the unease, we feel their love. We see how the narrator sees the beauty of Magda’s hair, skin and “the scars on her thighs, it is love that is…”
Kandie paints a world where kitenges are worn, where ugali and creamed sukuma, with kuku kienyeji are eaten, where these words exist as they should be, not italicised into significance. Kandie writes in English, obvious enough, yet ever so often, I hear Yoruba in my ears: “She sits facing her father, who is tall and meaty. He laughs like a big drum. He eats like a big drum too; his inside is large, empty and hollow.” There is a rhythm in her choice of words that is more Nigerian than English, even though I know that the author is Kenyan. This could as well be a Nigerian story. The writer does not apologise for the Africanness of this story, we also see it in the way the parent-child relationship is crafted. How Madga and the narrator become “my daughters” to Magda’s mother. Her portrayal of Magda’s parents is poignant. It resonates with me as someone with Nigerian parents: the way they gaze at you without saying any words, and yet they communicate.
Even though Kandie succeeds at building the story and her characters, it seemed that the story eased into an anticlimax towards the end. It became about the weather, the rain and umbrellas, and I asked myself: what has the weather got to do with this sad, beautiful story? Perhaps, it is a distraction, the way we look away from ourselves and look outside. The way we look outside when it is clear that the problem is not us but a world that criminalises love. The way we look outside for acceptance, yet all that we get is rejection.
After a second read, I think this is true.
Cherrie Kandie (Kenya) for ‘Sew My Mouth’ published in ID Identity: New Short Fiction From Africa. Cherrie Kandie is a Kenyan writer and a senior at college in the United States of America. She also makes short films and enjoys dancing to Lingala (only in her room).
Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and editor who calls herself a content busybody. Her first and second degrees are in Literature-in-English. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the Insitute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.
For our next post in the Caine Prize review series of the five shortlisted stories this year, see AiW’s Ellen Addis reviewing Meron Hadero’s “The Wall”.
For the previous post, see AiW’s Joanna Woods on Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti’s “It Takes A Village Some Say”.