AiW Guest: Nnaemeka Ezema (Nigeria)
AiW note: we’ve been holding a series of critical conversations around the work of the Caine Prize, now the AKO Caine Prize, each year since we first joined its “blogathon carnival” back in 2013.
Today marks the first of our posts in the series this year, annual guest reviews of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award in 2022. The reviews will come in turn each day this week, preceding Q&As with authors and others working with this year’s Prize, all to be featured in the run-up to the winner announcement on Monday 18th July.
Today, AiW Guest Nnaemeka Ezema, from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, reviews Billie McTernan’s shortlisted story “The Labadi Sunshine Bar”, first published in Accra Noir (Akashic Books / Cassava Republic Press).
Billie McTernan’s “The Labadi Sunshine Bar” compresses time, multiple events and space into a riveting narrative of contemporary significance. Maintaining a terse linguistic economy and the concise plot of the short story form, McTernan’s narrative exploration centres on sex work in Accra, but goes beyond recounting the economic tensions that surround prostitution, its vicious competitive space, to raise questions about how “the ancient profession” could be a means for negotiating female freedom in a dominant patriarchal society.
While George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of the earliest interrogations in English literature on the moral dilemma of prostitution, African writers have further engaged prostitution and its pejorative portraiture in African society. Right from Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jaguar Nana, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Malaya and, more recently, Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street, African literature has taken a close glance on the cumulative effect of migration, urbanization, modernity, and economic challenges as the overriding catalysts for the infiltration of the culture of prostitution in the postcolony. While McTernan explores all these forces in this short story, she delves into more diverse complexities that surround prostitution in Africa with a close examination of a young Ghanaian sex worker.
McTernan’s story clearly depicts how the phenomenal growth of African cities and its attendant modernity coexists with reeking poverty and the economic quest to subsist by any means. While prostitutes are often seen as sexually liberated people, with great appetite for sexual pleasure, this story presents prostitution as one of the daily struggles for survival.
The narrative revolves around the elegant and ambitious Priscilla, otherwise known by her working name as Cici. Priscilla is intentional and strategic. She first leaves her village for the town of Aflao, which borders Togo, where she endures low wages just to gather the requisite experiences for the trade. Armed with those skills and a good body for the job, she moves to the big city for bigger pay. Arriving in Accra all the way from the distant border town, battling with the chaos and stress of the city, Priscilla remembers advice to go to Labadi, where she is directed to Madam Joanna, the owner of the Sunshine Bar. Upon interrogation and assessment, Madam Joanna offers Cici a space as one of her girls, where she is to replace Chrissie, one of the bar’s girls who has abruptly “moved on”, a disappearance that, on Cici’s later enquiry, seems to be so regular as to have become routine (97).
Unlike when she was doing the same job in Aflao, Cici makes more money in Accra, which boosts her ambition. Moreover, through her leverage of the cosmopolitan nature of the Sunshine Bar’s clients to make more money from people from diverse regions of the world – Brits, Europeans, the Indians and Lebanese, as well as those from other neighbouring African countries (100) – McTernan shows how the global interpenetration of the African region is contributive to the lucrative nature of prostitution.
Beyond that, McTernan provokes a profound question around the traditional values of love, marriage and the contested site of female liberty. While Madam Joanna’s warning to the girls not to get close with the clients can be seen from the business perspective of their job, Priscilla has more personal reasons not to stir emotional string with the male folks. She gives a list of her relatives under the yoke of love: from her mother, who is continually “kept pregnant” by it; to her grandmother, who has remained in the village waiting for her childhood lover who had gone to study abroad but never came back for her; and her aunties, who endure daily battering from their husbands – all in the name of love (100-101).
Priscilla has closely studied how “love” has affected the personal growth and development of these women and decides to steer a different route. Without wealth or the privileges of a noble birth, Priscilla refuses to be held back by traditional morality and so picks a trade that offers her upward mobility. This both highlights the imbalance in the traditional structure of marital relationship in a patriarchal society, and I believe, questions the place of a woman’s freedom, the real essence of her life, if her ambition is only appended to that structure and the whims of the male partner within it.
Female prostitution as a means for negotiating female freedom may raise some moral questions. One may ask the question as to why, of all professions, the text decides on this as an alternative to marital upheavals, to a dream-killing patriarchy. But that, I suggest, is to lose sight of the economic predicaments that have overwhelmed the state and which McTernan so skillfully draws throughout. It is clear from Priscilla’s choice that, apart from obedience to the societal norms, the women most subjugated in the text appear to endure on because of lack of economic power. The oppositional stance against the pervading cultural norm that “The Labadi Sunshine Bar” presents is in the face of dire economic downturn. From the story’s opening, the bad economic condition and the quest to break even is also seen in the several instances of bodies, mainly those killed with economic motive, that continue to pile up as the story progresses; and the accompanying several types of merchants and salvagers alike in the text, people who deal with these bodies in one way or another, and who cannot afford to see anything as straightforwardly criminal.
Perhaps most notably, the bar girls discuss a series of money rituals in the text, in which “roadside pickups” lead to disappearances and the attendant horrors of abandoned female corpses with their genitals removed, sacrifices made somehow in the service of “online fraud activities” (102). While it is not really clear whether the so-called rituals translate to real money, “The Labadi Sunshine Bar” clearly depicts how people catch the frenzy of the liberal capitalist economy in the face of daunting socioeconomic realities and inordinate quest for money. This is furthered in the denouement, which is deftly written, as the suspicious circumstances of Cici’s sudden transition through the ranks at the bar and the violently changed order of things quickly becomes business as usual, going on as if nothing has happened (108).
It is clear that McTernan combines multiple contemporary realities to highlight prostitution as one of the various aspects of daily struggles in an economically stressed state like Ghana. Instead of moralizing or casting aspersions on it, the author provokes central questions on its glaring realities as a trade, its challenges and attractions. While the sex workers can sometimes be seen as victims of exploitation in the hands of their customers and employers, they can also prey on any available victims. It is a game of survival, the type akin to a jungle.
Nnaemeka Ezema has a PhD in English from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He teaches writing and African Literature at the General Studies Unit of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He is a mentee of the British Academy. Dr. Ezema is a rising scholar with special interest in global mobility, postcolonial Literature and digital humanities. He won the 2022 /23 Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in Urban Connections in African Popular Imaginaries at Rhodes University, South Africa. He has published papers in reputable local and international journals on these fields.
Image and text c. of the AKO Caine Prize website
Billie McTernan is a writer and artist who experiments with literary and visual art forms. She has an MFA from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, and has published many articles and essays from her travels in West Africa. As a storyteller, she is drawn to the ways that stories are manifested, be it through the body in dance and performance, or through literature, sound and visual arts. She has been published in TSA Art Magazine, ARTnews, Artsy, Financial Times Life & Arts, Contemporary And, ARTS.BLACK and other independent artist-run platforms. She is currently working on a piece that falls somewhere between a short story and a novel.
Billie’s short story, ‘The Labadi Sunshine Bar’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘The Labadi Sunshine Bar’ here.
Please follow this link to read more from our AKO Caine Prize series.
The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.
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