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Caine Prize Shortlist 2020

The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing’s shortlist for 2020 is out. The selection includes five short stories, all freely available via their website. It’s definitely worth checking them out. Below is a short review of each to whet your appetite.

“The Neighbourhood Watch” by Rémy Ngamije was published in The Johannesburg Revew of Books: Volume 3 Issue 2. It’s a stylistically accomplished short story that describes the weekly itinerary of its eponymous Neighbourhood Watch, a group of homeless people in Windhoek, Namibia, who have banded together in order to pool their resources. Each of the five has a role to fulfil, as the group’s survival depends on an effective division of labour, and each of the five has their own particular backstory. The dispassionate tone of the writing has the effect of rendering the experiences of the group, in turn humbling and horrifying, matter of fact in its representation of acute inequality. It paints a world in which even the flicker of hope presented by the kindness of one elderly woman serves only to highlight the overwhelming injustice of the streets in which they move.

“How to Marry an African President”, by Erica Sugo Anyadike, was published in adda: Commonwealth Stories. Written in the second person, it gives instructions as it tells the tale – both particular and somehow generic – of a secretary-to-First-Lady, rags-to-riches story. In form, it reminds a bit of Binyavanga Wainaina’s wonderful “How to Write About Africa”, which it mirrors in its cynicism and clear-cut dismissal of bullshit. In content, it seems to draw on the rise and fall of Zimbabwe’s ‘Gucci’ Grace Mugabe. It is a critique of the corruption of its (imaginary) African state, of the self-serving ambition of its addressee, and of the sexism that characterises responses to a woman who would take power. It’s an extremely readable piece.

Jowhor Ile’s “Fisherman’s Stew”, published in The Sewanee Review, is a softly written vignette on mourning and ghostly love. Set in Nigeria, it tells of Nimi and Benji, together for almost fifty years, whose ties to each other transcend mortality. In a mere ten pages, Ile gives his characters flavour and idiosyncrasy, and his ostensibly melancholy subject a hopeful lightness. He writes forthrightly about sexagenarian sex and deliciously about food preparation.

Chikodili Emelumadu’s “What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata” was published in The Shadow Booth: Vol.2. Emelumadu’s piece is presented as a ‘How to’ guide for parents dealing with the eventuality that their child might be in an interspecies relationship with a water spirit known as a Mami or (as is also possible but as the guide instructs, statistically less likely) Papi Wata. The guide treads a wonderfully ambivalent line between whimsy and political punch. In describing how to identify disguised Mami Watas, it calls for a testing process that would put any attractive vegan with a seafood allergy in grave danger. It also cites the films Sharknado and Splash as academic resources with disarming seriousness At the same time, it makes some pointed observations about the legal status of same-sex relationships in different parts of Nigeria. The bureaucratese register of a governmental pamphlet is mimicked so astutely, it might have you struggling to distinguish between the fact and the fiction – which is perhaps precisely the point.

Irenosen Okojie’s “Grace Jones” is taken from her collection of short stories Nudibranch, published by Little Brown’s Dialogue Books. It is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from the perspective of Sidra, a young woman from Martinique living in London. Sidra moonlights as a Grace Jones lookalike, attending parties for the rich who have a taste for such things. The story is embedded in Europe’s political present, featuring Hassan, the agency owner, who coordinates refugee relief in Greece, and a cab driver who tells wistful stories of a childhood in Damascus. It is about guilt, sex and violence. But it is really about Sidra, burdened by her past and animated by a certain pyromaniac energy. The story is powerful, and the language exceptionally evocative.

They’re all worth a read, but my pick for the win has to be “Grace Jones” for the sheer power of its language. We’ll have to wait and see what the judges decide.

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