AiW Note: AiW’s annual Caine Prize review series is back. We’ve been talking about prize culture for a long time at Africa in Words; Kate Wallis started off this series in 2013. Over the five Fridays in July, we are reviewing the stories shortlisted for the 2020 Caine Prize for African Writing. Normally the winner is announced in July with a series of events and celebrations; this year’s exceptional circumstances have delayed the announcement of the winner and in-person activities until this fall. We don’t want to deprive you of some good reading, though! Enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories this month, and you’ll be more than prepared for the celebrations later this year.
Update 10 July: AKO Caine Prize have announced a virtual event to unveil the winner on 27 July! We’ll cover all of the stories before then and keep you updated on the winner.
Our first review, of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Grace Jones,’ is by AiW Guest Zahra Banday.
“Couldn’t somebody see that she disappeared into Grace Jones because the pain, the guilt, the loneliness of being herself was unbearable?” – Grace Jones
In her short story ‘Grace Jones’, Nigerian-born author Irenosen Okojie encapsulates the fragile beauty of the human soul. She explores what happens to a person when life has ravaged them with suffering and how they continue on in the wake of this. Her silky descriptive language illustrates the life of her protagonist Sidra, “a girl from Martinique with a degree in forensics…moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator.” A girl stalked by tragedy and trauma in a Roland Mouret jacket, “reaching for some untouched handful of earth as sustenance.”
Okojie writes with such elegant rawness and brutal honesty, a young Sidra’s discovery of Grace Jones being especially crucial to her narrative. Sidra was thirteen and watching television when she became mesmerised as “a woman who looked like her was on TV. Pulled to the screen by an instinct she didn’t quite understand, she stared.” Okojie captures the innocence of a young Black girl that has never seen herself represented before and the instant joy she feels of seeing someone so “unapologetically dark on screen.” Okojie uses Sidra’s youth and candidness to emphasize how much children need to see themselves represented in outlets like the media and how deeply important and life-changing this can be. Sidra’s eyes have opened, “the image of Grace was burned into her head as if with an iron.”
Later in the story Okojie describes a scene where Sidra is working a party with other impersonators. The performance the guests expect from Sidra mirrors the performed self society expects from Black women in general. Colonial expectations – which remain today – deem that any person of colour must perform their race to a rapt crowd, essentially placing a burden upon them to become the token spokesperson. The crowd, “gasping, barely restraining themselves from reaching out to touch her, chattering over each other”, mirrors the expectations and entitlement of the wider, whiter society. Sidra melts into her role, she relishes in this because this ceremony-like performance allows her to exit the plane of her existence and morph into another, where her constant bedfellow of trauma does not follow.
Okojie allows the reader to uncover Sidra’s trauma towards the end of the piece. Sidra laments, “forty minutes was all it took to lose everything.” She recalls coming home from shopping to find her family trapped inside their block of flats, engulfed with flames. In the most gut-wrenching moment in the story Sidra realises that she unknowingly locked her family in what would become their deathbed. In a haze of mania, “she tried inserting the keys inside their names as if they were locks that would open, materialise them in her arms so she could breathe again. Instead the keys stuck, refusing to turn.” Her searing loneliness is explained, her desire to become Grace Jones is all to forget the agony of her past. She later describes herself as “hollow and gutted”, the hallmarks of a person not only consumed by grief, but by the torture of blaming herself for creating that grief in the first place.
This scene has a poignant echo of the Grenfell Tower tragedy; it provokes the same instinct of burning injustice. Similarly, the victims were largely minorities, their marginalised voices silenced in the most horrific way. They were locked in like Sidra’s family, however it was the system of power that held the key and refused to unlock the door. ‘Grace Jones’ is not only an incredibly delicately written and compelling piece, it can also be seen as a social allegory reflecting the deeply fractured and broken society we live in today.
Sidra’s trauma comes full circle at the conclusion, with another fire. A fire can bring destruction but in this case, I feel it symbolises a rebirth. Sidra unearths the strength to finally articulate what she had been burying inside. “Couldn’t somebody hear her silently screaming inside for years? Couldn’t somebody remind her of her favourite thing about being alive since she’d forgotten? Couldn’t somebody be tender?” We leave Sidra weeping in the arms of her manager Hassan, the only man in this piece that has shown any real gentleness to her. He tells her that when she is ready she can tell him what she has been “scared to say,” thus, allowing herself precious time to process her trauma properly and emerge at the other end.
‘Grace Jones’ is an incredibly visceral and layered narrative that weaves a story of a woman making her way in the world. Okojie skilfully guides the reader through the personal experiences of Sidra as a Black woman, firmly obliterating the misguided narrative that a culture derives itself from one monolithic experience or voice. If Okojie’s writing is a drug, then the reader is an addict, plunged into her deliciously dark and twisted world. The real world.
Zahra Banday is a graduate of English Literature at SOAS, University of London. She works in Advertising, helping global clients find new and interesting ways to promote and enhance their brands. She has used her love of writing to copy write for several campaigns. Literature, film and art are some of her great loves.
Zahra also recently shared a Words on the Times response with AiW.