Caine Prize 2019 Shortlist: A Review of Tochukwo Okafor’s “All Our Lives”

AiW Note: The Caine Prize has recently removed Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor’s “All Our Lives” from the 2019 shortlist, following a decision that there had been “failure to attribute an original source.” Short Story Day Africa, who awarded its 2017 Prize to Okafor for this story, released a statement detailing their history of working with the author, and placing this controversy within a longer debate about intertextuality in literature. Brittle Paper has also declined to remove the story from its 2019 Award for Fiction shortlist. Our AiW review of “All Our Lives”, written as part of our long-running annual Caine Prize review series of all the short-listed stories in the run-up to the prize, is still available in full below.

Managing Editor Kristen Stern closes out our annual Caine Prize review series this year, a series which dates back to the blog’s early days and the collective spirit of the “Caine Prize blogathon“. Check out our other reviews of this year’s shortlist (from contributors Temityao Olofinlua and Tolulope Akinwole, and from our own Ellen Addis and Joanna Woods) ahead of tomorrow’s announcement of the winner (July 8th).

Tochukwo Okafor’s “All Our Lives,” for which he previously won the Short Story Day Africa Prize, immediately pulls the reader into the identity of the complex, multiple narrator with its use of the second person plural. It seems at first like a simple but effective device to capture the reader’s attention, but as Okafor’s story develops, the reader discovers a more rich and complex exploration of gender, sexuality, and mobility, and the implications of the fluidity of these identities in online spaces.

Early on, the narrator describes “our” reflection:
Each morning before leaving for our workplaces and each evening before bedtime, we gaze into the mirror and touch our faces, thinking of ourselves as ugly, pimply, handsome, beautiful. Our noses are like those of our ancestors – bulbous, pinched in the corners, fat, aquiline, straight, or scarred. We braid our hair into dreadlocks or in neat cornrows, or we leave our hair to grow into Afros. We are bald. We crop our hair low, or our hair is unkempt, tufts of foam with lice nesting in them. We are black. We are not black. We bleach our skin. We refuse to bleach our skin since we toil under the sun – we do not want the heat to scald us, leaving patches of red here and streaks of black there.

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, image via the Caine website.

These lists of traits contradict themselves, almost daring the reader to identify with at least one of those descriptors (ugly, pimply, handsome, beautiful). Tochukwo thus partly sidesteps an accusatory “But who is the ‘we’ that you’re addressing here?” And while it’s not everyone – it’s clearly those from poorer, rural areas who migrated to the city – the narrator’s “we” accounts for many different, varied individuals. These differences are as serious and cliché as different regional origins, languages, religions; they are also as simple and everyday as who eats rice and beans, who eats salad and chicken.

“We” migrate from rural hometowns to the big city. It’s this departure that triggers one of the only moments of direct communication the narrator has with another person in the text—“our” mother. She speaks to “us” when “we” are caught touching ourselves, then again when “we” leave, telling “us” of her anguish. “We” stay silent when she asks who will take care of her in old age.

In the city, the Internet arrives, and “we” spend time in cybercafés. Physical or geographical migration now morphs into virtual migration—the narrator quickly becomes involved in what the reader recognizes as 419 scams, adopting whatever identity and origin story in fake online profiles will extract the desired cash transfers or bank account information from faraway contacts. James Yeku has described the 419er as “an Afropolitan antihero,” and he finds the characteristic Afropolitan migration expressed through the 419er’s “capacity for mobility in the Net’s rhizomatic pathways and his tendency for a multiplicity of identities—whether national or personal.” Here the multiple locations and identities are all virtual. Yeku explains: “As the email medium portrays, much of the mobility of the scam artist is digital.”

As the story continues, Okafor deftly shifts from reflecting on the narrator’s changing names or national origins, to the narrator’s observations of others’ bodies, and thus to different shifts in the 419ers’ sense of self. In this morally ambiguous practice of shape-shifting, does one’s physical identity in the non-virtual space shift as well? Even up to or beyond one’s gender or sexuality? It feels like perhaps the most risky moment of all is when the narrator adopts “our” own identity, in the physical world: wearing “our” own clothes, “our” Sunday best. It’s somehow the harshest role to play, when one steps away from the screen and the constructed profiles and pilfered photos:
We act like normal people who wish to love and be loved. We are humans, after all. Our own needs are valid, too.

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor (Nigeria) for ‘All Our Lives’ published in ID Identity: New Short Fiction From Africa. Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in the 2018 Best of the Net, the 2019 Best Small Fictions, The Guardian, Harvard’s Transition Magazine, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. A 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist and a 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow, he has won the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction. He has been shortlisted for the 2017 Awele Creative Trust Award, the 2016 Problem House Press Short Story Prize, and the 2016 Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize. He lives in Pittsburgh, USA, and is at work on a novel and a short story collection.

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Kristen Stern is Assistant Professor in Francophone Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is at work on a book on contemporary francophone writers from the African continent and the performance of authorship. She regularly presents and publishes on contemporary African literature in French, performance studies, and the sociology of the author. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University.

For our previous post in the Caine Prize review series, see AiW Guest Tolulowe Akinwole – on the WINNING STORY! Ed. – Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “Skinned”. Many congrats to Lesley.

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