Review Caine 2021: Leaps of Faith – Troy Onyango’s ‘This Little Light of Mine’

AiW Note: It’s that time of the year again and AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist is back!

Every day this week, we are publishing Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn, as they appear on the AKO Caine Prize website.

We hope you enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories in the lead up to the AKO Caine Prize specially curated virtual event at the end of the month, announcing the winner.

Our fourth and penultimate review of the week is of Troy Onyango’s ‘This Little Light of Mine’, published in Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia, in 2020.

NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers! If you haven’t already, you can read the story in full, available on the AKO Caine Prize website, here.

Troy Onyango (Kenya) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lolwe. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Wasafari, Johannesburg Review of Books, Nairobi Noir, Caine Prize Anthology and Transition among others. The winner of the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize and first runner-up in the Black Letter Media Competition, he has also been shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, the Brittle Paper Awards, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of East Anglia, where he was a recipient of the Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship.

AiW Guests Sanja Nivesjö and Sigi Vandewinkel.

The main character in Onyango’s short story ‘This little light of mine’, Evans, strikes up a listless chat with someone on a dating app. His expectations are low: he has been in a bus crash which has resulted in him needing to use a wheelchair, his ex broke up with him because of his injuries, and now, two years later, he has allowed himself to become a recluse, sequestered to his home and dispirited about his possibilities of meeting anyone. Against his expectations, his date agrees to come over, but will they show up this time?

In his post-accident life, Evans has deliberately isolated himself; his self-exile frequently becomes a dark, closed-off space, illuminated artificially by his phone and computer screens. He thinks of the doors and windows, that cannot but let in natural light and the outside world, as annoyances. Outside the window that he is physically unable to close there are old friends he is embarrassed to meet in his (he feels) diminished state, as well as hangouts, clubs, and new love interests. Evans is perfectly capable of leaving his house and spending time with friends, but he is not ready to do so on the chair’s terms. 

The story speaks powerfully to the current moment of disease-induced quarantine. It describes (self-)imposed isolation, working from home, socializing through mobile phones, and a near-total dependence on the internet for entertainment and information. Evans’s face-to-face interactions are limited to issuing instructions to the cleaner and nodding in appreciation; real-world activity is restricted to brief shopping trips. The vital difference with Covid-19 quarantine is that while Evans sequesters himself at home, the world goes on without him, and his feelings about that are complex. Reducing himself to an internal life and wallowing in the cynicism of presumptive rejection have become familiar habits, but taking leaps of faith, necessary though they are, requires an emotional health that he may not yet possess. 

While Evans does text his date that he yearns for “a meaningful connection with someone”, his desire seems to remain an abstract longing for sex, with affection coming second. Onyango writes about the importance of physicality and independence, and where that rubs up against existence as embodiment. Until Evans has successfully experienced that this new body of his can be attractive to others, he cannot form emotional connections; and each new sexual rejection leaves him less willing to try again. 

An important point here is that the form that sexual and erotic connections take in the story is not made explicit. Onyango deftly avoids gendering Evans’ ex and his love (or sex-) interest, through a barely-noticeable avoidance of pronouns. It makes for a smooth inclusivity in storytelling. 

The story reads as an extrapolation across experiences of disability, embodiment, and fear of rejection. For one thing, the story is almost universal in its choice of motifs, told simply through basic oppositions between light versus dark, sound versus silence, open versus closed, body versus emotions, hyperspace versus meatspace. The timing feels equally indeterminate, even though the story is set in a period bounded by the Marvel film Black Panther as terminus post quem and Covid-19 as terminus ante quem (or possibly terminus in quo). And, finally, while Evans’ accident specifically occurred on the infamously-unsafe ‘Salgaa stretch’ of the Nakuru-Eldoret highway, there is a definite universality to the experience of limited mobility that he now cannot avoid that goes beyond a humanisation of the victims of the notorious ‘highway to death.’ In all, if anything, perhaps the story errs too much on the generic side of universal. 

The title of Onyango’s story, ‘This little light of mine’, hints at the double-sidedness that is an uncertain resolution. How positive can daylight be if you are physically unable to close a window? Is a little light enough to go on? The title is also a reference to a Christian children’s song, often connected with the civil rights struggle in the USA, that itself is open to interpretation, positive or negative. In-story, a parent plays the song for their child in the bus when the accident takes place. And while the lyrics express a firm resolve to not hide the titular light under a bushel, that resolve has to be stated and restated over and over again; the song’s positive message may also be marred by its facileness. 

‘This little light of mine’ deals straightforwardly but solidly with the lack of emotional health that is the oft-neglected complement of navigating crippling societal prejudices on top of physical incapacitation. It is also a story about the fundamentality of corporeality and sexual desire to being human, and about the process of mustering courage even after repeated rejections. Its take-away message, if any, is that leaps of faith are a continuous practice. 

Sanja Nivesjö is a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University and University of Salford funded by the Swedish Research Council. Her current research project concerns the depiction of interracial love in literature from South Africa and Zimbabwe, 1900-1950. Listen to Sanja talking about her PhD research on ‘Dis-placed Desires: Space and Sexuality in South African Literature’ here.

Sigi Vandewinkel is a research assistant at the Department of Linguistics and Philology at Uppsala University in Sweden. He has an MA in Germanic Philology, and is an avid reader. 

Every day this week, we will be publishing our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read them at the AKO Caine Prize website:

You can read previous years’ shortlist reviews, interviews with the writers, and other coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our discussions of the Anthologies.

And don’t miss out on the other reviews, chats and blog-alonga-readathons of the Caine Prize this year – a couple of them are at the Twitter links below – let us know if there are any we can share and your fave to win – we’d love to hear from you…

This is on today (Thurs 15th July) – promises to be, as ever, brilliant and cheeky…

And read on for reviews of the stories and other literary critical Caine chat…

And just a reminder, especially if you’re a “from then to now” type of reader… this year’s AiW review set comes after a long engagement with the Caine Prize stories, and as part of our discussions about prize culture at Africa in Words: Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 kicked us off, reflecting this critical angle in the context of other forms of “prizing” African literature.

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