AiW Guest: Joseph Kwanya (Kenya)
Today’s post is the third of our annual guest reviews of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award in 2022. We’ll also be running 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, part of our series of longer critical conversations around the work of the Caine Prize, now the AKO Caine Prize.
Today, Joseph Kwanya reviews “When a Man Loves a Woman”, by Nana-Ama Danquah.
Danquah’s shortlisted story appeared in Akashic Books’ Accra Noir collection (2020), published in the UK by Cassava Republic Press, the same collection that featured Billie McTernan’s “The Labadi Sunshine Bar”, reviewed for us as part of our shortlist series on Monday by Nnaemeka Ezema. Yesterday, Megan Brune’s review of Hannah Giorgis’ “A Double-Edged Inheritance”, discussed another of the 3/5 stories shortlisted for the Prize this year, also published in one of Akashic’s Noir collections, Addis Ababa Noir.
NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers! This one – a tale that approaches the crime drama of noir, its fatalism, cynicism and moral ambiguity, from more than one direction – perhaps in particular. You can head them off by reading the story in full, available via the shortlisted stories page on the AKO Caine Prize website, or direct here.
Nana-Ama Danquah’s short story ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ published in a collection edited by Danquah herself, Accra Noir (2020, Akashic Books), is a love story that also tackles some urgent and important issues. The most striking is the manner in which it brings forward its noir content by celebrating the beauty of an enduring love, while at the same time seeming to mock the performative nature of marital vows beyond the altar.
The story is about middle-aged Kwame and his wife, Adwoa, who have spent most of their lives in America. The couple makes the decision to return to Ghana when Kwame is diagnosed with mild prostate cancer and undergoes surgery that significantly disrupts his lifestyle.
Their return to Accra, however, is not as grand as they had envisaged. While they had been sending money for the construction of what would be their dream retirement villa, they find out that Kwame’s brother, Fiifi, who has been receiving the money, has been deceiving them all along. He had appropriated the money to something else, not expecting them to return at all and the couple are forced into accepting their reduced circumstances.
From this initial, almost throwaway subplot of fraternal distance and betrayal, Danquah goes on to cleverly highlight the transactional nature of human relationships, whether committed or casual, exposing the different exchanges that go on which drive the noir points forward. This is primarily demonstrated through Kwame, whose health condition continues to present the biggest challenges of their homecoming.
His body continues to fail him and he finds he can no longer offer Adwoa their every morning lovemaking, with “all that informed it, defined it, drove them to it” (190), which he believes is the glue that has held their marriage together for the last twenty-five years. His subsequent feelings of inadequacy come laced with guilt, jealousy, and suspicion that his wife could be scouting for a younger, more virile partner to satisfy her sexual urges. We see this especially in the scene where, a few weeks before Kwame’s birthday, Adwoa informs him that she will be getting back to the gym to stay fit. While in their years in America they both have developed health conditions that demand healthier eating habits and exercising, Kwame’s fears of losing his wife are expressed in what becomes the dominant narrative device throughout, memory; from here, of a lighthearted comment to Adwoa made in earlier, more secure times, after their kids leave for college, that “you’ll trade me in for a younger model, some fit macho man you’ll meet at the gym” (193). Back in the narrative present in Accra, the thought that everything he can no longer provide his wife can be offered elsewhere leads him to a different kind of transaction, with the nameless prostitutes he visits at the nearby Cantonments roundabout, who neither ask questions of him nor have expectations of his sexual performance.
This same device, of the couple’s past closeness and trust in America intruding into the dissatisfaction of the Accra present, introduces the bizarre concept of ‘Homicide by suicide’: “a term Kwame coined while reading an article in his doctor’s waiting room … The article was about the number of deaths that occur every year as a result of people inadvertently taking the incorrect medication” (193). It is notable that Danquah introduces this immediately after another retrospective, a tender romantic scene, where, after their morning lovemaking, the couple appears to reenact their marital vows, with Adwoa assuring Kwame that “I will always want you. I will always want this. You are my everything.” Kwame on his part, mouths the phrase “Till death do us part” (193).
When he discovers evidence of his wife’s affair with his oldest friend, still close from their primary school days, Kwame turns to ‘Homicide by suicide’ as the most effective means of revenge, a way of eliminating his wife without anyone suspecting him. Strategically purchasing fentanyl – a strong opioid painkiller – from one of the prostitutes he visits, knowing they are unregulated to the point that they are “pretty much guaranteed [to be]… lethal” (201), he decides to to mix a single tablet in with her usual hypertension medication, so beginning the Russian roulette-style wait for the day she will take it without noticing its fatal difference from the others.
Danquah, therefore, uses the short story to capture the ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracies, also highlighting the realities of the effects of the counterfeit drugs trade on global healthcare in general and Africa in particular. That Kwame is able to test the concept of ‘Homicide by suicide’ with intent to murder, in Accra and on his wife, unmasks a lived reality of the geographies and socio-economics of health care access in many parts of the world, exposing the danger and risk involved in the trade of imported pharmaceuticals in Africa. Of especial interest is how the story implicates foreign nations, namely China and India, in narratives that position them as the major conspirators in supplying counterfeit drugs. Furthermore, there is finger-pointing at the foreignness of diasporic living, especially when Kwame blames his condition on the American lifestyle he has had for a better part of his life. In turn, this raises the more subtle question about some of the diseases that are currently common as being a direct result of the foreign lifestyle the continent has adopted.
What makes this story so powerful is Danquah’s cyclic and suspenseful style of storytelling. She carries her readers along by letting the narrative go back into itself to delay resolution, sustain uncertainties, or remind us of the strengths of what we have already come across, what we already know. The overall effect makes use of all her characters, each one of them highlighting some of the story’s key themes – life-and-death love, care, health and betrayal, and their exchanges in their very many manifestations — expanding out into the compact spaces of the short story form.
Joseph Kwanya is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at Stellenbosch University. He holds a BA (Literature and Political Science) and MA (Literature) from the University of Nairobi, and a PhD (English Studies) from Stellenbosch University.
Images and text below c. of the AKO Caine Prize website…
Nana-Ama Danquah was born in Accra, Ghana and immigrated to the US as a child. She is the author of the memoir Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression and editor of the anthologies Becoming American, Shaking the Tree, The Black Body and, most recently, Accra Noir. Her work has been widely anthologized and published in magazines and newspapers such as Essence, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times. She has taught at Otis College of Arts and Design; Antioch College; University of Ghana; and, NYU in Ghana.
Nana-Ama’s short story, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ here.
Johnny Temple, Publisher at Akashic Books, says: ‘We couldn’t be more honoured to have three stories shortlisted for the prestigious AKO Caine Prize from two outstanding anthologies in our Akashic Noir Series—Accra Noir edited by Nana-Ama Danquah and Addis Ababa Noir edited by Maaza Mengiste.’
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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