AiW Note: AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize is back. We’ve been talking about prize culture for a long time at Africa in Words; Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 reflects on this in the context of the many other forms of “prizing” African literature. Through July, we are reviewing the stories shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Normally the winner is announced early in July with a series of events and celebrations; under this year’s exceptional circumstances, AKO Caine Prize is holding a virtual event to unveil the winner on 27 July! Enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories in the lead up to then.
You can read the first review in the series, Zahra Banday’s review of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Grace Jones’, here, the second review in the series, Ellen Addis’s review of Rémy Ngamije’s ‘The Neighbourhood Watch,’ here, and the third review in our series, Joanna Woods’s review of Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘What to do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata,’ here.
We’ll cover all of the stories before the 27 July announcement and keep you updated on the winner.
Our fourth review, of Jowhor Ile’s ‘Fisherman’s Stew,’ is by AiW Guest Didem Alkan.
In his short story, “Fisherman’s Stew”, Nigerian author Jowhor Ile explores the notion of love in a heartwarming and sensorial way. This story first appeared in The Sewanee Review and comes three years after Ile’s success with his first novel, After Many Days, which won the Etisalat Prize in 2016.
The story begins with the depiction of the protagonist’s ordinary actions: “Nimi locked the front door and secured the slide bolt.” The meticulous description of the routine actions have nothing to surprise the reader. The omniscient narrator convinces the reader of Nimi’s reliability, since she already knew that her husband would return some day: “she’d always known he’d return, she’d waited for him to come home, as he always did.” The reader has no doubt of the protagonist’s mental state until she mentions her husband’s return to her neighbor, Ibufuro, who remains indifferent to this statement. Ibufuro’s reaction is followed by Nimi’s hesitations: “Nimi, undecided, weighed if she should repeat what she’d just said.” The narrator’s deliberate choice to make the reader suspicious of the protagonist’s perceived reality allows the author to renegotiate the notion of this reality. In other words, the distorted reality of the protagonist makes us question which reality is correct, or if there is one, singular reality regarding her husband’s existence.
This negotiation between these two realities is significant as Nimi indicates: “If it was a crack in her mind that had let Benji back into the world, she thought, then her intention was to keep the crack open, widen it.” Thus, the protagonist prefers to stay in this “imagined reality,” a sort of fantasy that functions as a survival strategy. The narrative stands as a liminal space, between the reality and fantasy of the protagonist, where the flashbacks inform the reader of the tragic accident that took her husband away from her. In this dreamlike narrative space, fantasies of the protagonist invite the reader to follow her own reality, and to empathize with Nimi at the same time. The fantasy mediates between the protagonist’s state of mind and the reader who progressively discovers her suffering after her husband’s death and her infinite love in the aftermath of this tragic event that allows her to survive emotionally.
The sensorial aspect of the protagonist’s descriptions adds the power of the narrative. The narrator begins depicting the imaginary encounter between Nimi and her husband: “She shifted on the bed and made room, and Benji met her—loose, sprawled, arched, with parted lips—and then pressed his body against hers.” These sensory details invite the reader to engage in Nimi’s world, to become a shared participant in her reality, a reality that is constructed and maintained by love. Another sensory element, food, intensifies the taste of the narrative: “Benji had put his nose against her hair and inhaled. He had always been stirred by the scent of utazi.” Although the references to the local ingredients such as “ukashi, uda, utazi, uziza leaves” reframe the geographical setting of the narrative, the narrator universalizes Nimi’s experience by characterizing certain aspects of love and the possibility of its transmission through cooking : “She knew that if you love a person and they love you back, you can cook for them something that ensures they find their way to you, should they be lost.” Thus, rooted in its locality, through the descriptions of the society and its components, the narrative stands as a path for celebrating universal values that construct humanity.
The climax of the narrative is formed by a flashback, through the conversation between Nimi and Benji, inviting the reader to reflect on the true meaning of love, as well as the absence of its boundaries: “When I come back, he said, in our next life, I will find you […] I will look for you too, she said. That way it will take us half the time.” This reflection on the eternal love, juxtaposed with the banality of the mundane life that is depicted by short sentences creates a contrast in the narrative, a tension that calls attention.
In creating this hybrid zone formed by our routine and the depth of certain values that we do not think consciously in our everyday routine, Ile’s short story stands as an invitation, a call for understanding humanity through love, whose characteristics are innate, but forgotten or distorted by the pace of the modern world. Nimi’s distorted reality allows us to see our own distortions. “Fisherman’s Stew” is an existential reflection on our own values, on what makes us human– a shared experience that each reader is invited to participate in her/his own way.
Jowhor Ile is a Nigerian writer known for his first novel, And After Many Days (2016). In 2016, the novel was awarded the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Ile’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Litro Magazine. ‘Fisherman’s Stew’ was published in The Sewanee Review (2019).
Dr. Didem Alkan is a scholar of Contemporary Francophone Film and Literature. Her research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Film Studies, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies and African Studies, in particular the representations of violence, trauma, gender, identity, and race. Dr. Alkan is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in French at Connecticut College. She received her Ph.D. in French, along with graduate certificates in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and in African Studies from Boston University.