Friday 4 May 2012

Thoughts on the Caine Prize

Aaron Bady is going to blog the Caine Prize 2012 shortlist on his excellent blog, zunguzungu. Wikipedia tells me that 'The Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer, whether in Africa or elsewhere, published in the English language'. Unlike half the world and her nephew, I happen to like short fiction a great deal. Furthermore, I haven't really read a lot of fiction from Africa - Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was one of the texts I studied in college (I liked it a lot) and a couple years back I read a novel by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie which didn't impress me much. Despite some searing passages set in the Biafra conflict, it felt like it was populated with too many characters, riven with too many soap operatic gestures, to sustain the power its subject matter deserved. I've also read novels by JM Coetzee, Andre Brink and Etienne Leroux.

Anyway. The Caine Prize is now in its 12th year. Perhaps to respond to criticism of the prize as lumping all African literature together and encouraging writers to pander to a simplified, West-friendly vision of Africa, Bernadine Evaristo, chairman of the judging committee, has said: 'I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?'

I thought about this for a while, and something struck me. It's as if there is an unwritten subtext here that we've had enough stories of the Tragic Continent. But is that fair? If there is tragedy, if a writer is sensitive to it and wants to chronicle it in her stories, should she be stopped just because she's African and 'we' have heard enough stories of that sort from there? Can we ever 'move on' from the truth, especially in the arena of fiction, which often has a firmer finger on the pulse of reality than reportage and history? I am sure Evaristo means well, but I can't help but find aspects of her declaration hard to swallow. As an (unknown, for the most part and probably deservedly so) Indian writer, I feel this paradoxical push-me pull-you, where I don't want to be limited to the twin tropes of exoticism and squalor that seem to dominate Indian writing in English, but if I am to reflect my own experience accurately, how do I 'move on' from the reality that the odours of slums and the aromas of incense both actually happen to be things I have extensive experience of? 

I've sometimes solved the problem of being true to myself without churning out the same old thing again by couching my stories as fables in some never-never land; one of my most recent stories is set in an unspecified urban setting. Like the ambiguously phrased love songs of REM, with gender-revealing pronouns carefully elided, this story is written so that it could be set in nearly any city. I wrote it with my city in mind, but then I put in details and left out details and created a setting that you could imagine as belonging to any nation you cared to situate it in.

Is that a cheat? If so, so is any fantastic fiction. (Of which, a little more a little later.)

More often, though, I set my stories in my city, Bangalore, explicitly or implicitly. And I've at least touched on the recurring themes that hover around this city - the rate of its progress and its human, aesthetic and environmental cost. I've written about slums, about poverty-stricken farmers, about the urban poor, about middle class crisis of identity. I've worked these themes into stories that have generous lashings of the fantastic and uncanny (I hope), but the recurring themes that are suggested by my life as an Indian living in India have not been evaded. I don't think it's time to move on from them, or that I need to.

Does that make my stories more of the same? Am I contributing to a stereotyped image of India as a nation of vast contrasts where immense poverty and dis-empowerment are the majority reality, obscured by the self-congratulatory rhetoric of a small bubble of privileged people on top? What if that image only became a stereotype because it happens to be true? At the very least, what if I happen to think it's true? Do I remain honest to my own vision of my country, my city, my own life as a boy in a bubble, that bubble of privilege, or do I 'move on'? I've perhaps done neither, not directly. I've found or am finding my own idiom, combining the Ligottian tale of cosmic emptiness with a sensibility shaped and sharpened on my native turf. And that brings me to another quote from Evaristo's post, one that perhaps better expresses what she was getting at, and what I think is a great wake-up call to writers in India too: 'For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader. '

A couple more thoughts on this passage and then I'm done. Remaining 'more than a passing fad on the world stage' can never be the motive behind a vital, genuine literature. I would stand by any writer who rejects Evaristo's kinda-manifesto on the ground of this phrasing and the 'look to Europe' rhetoric that mars much of this essentially sound declaration. But just as important, a vital, genuine literature needs the diversity Evaristo evokes. One of the best novels I've read about 'the holocaust' is Jane Yolen's 'Briar Rose' which is at least partly framed in the terms of the fairy tale source material Yolen draws on so often. Two of the most enduring fictional statements about 'communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships' are Orwell's fable, 'Animal Farm' and his dystopian fantasy '1984'. Literature should be diverse - not to 'move on' from enduring topics but to find ways to add more topics to their number and to find diverse, illuminating ways to approach those topics.

Right, I'm done for now. I've already started reading the stories in the shortlist and maybe I'll put up a post about one of them later today, and then on each subsequent Friday as suggested by Aaron.


Dinesh Raghavendra said... The best writer from the Africa is Ivan Vladislavic. If anyone hasn't read any of his books then they don't know crap about Africa.

JP said...

Guess that makes me woefully ignorant. Forgive me for wasting your time with this unlearned drivel.And thanks for using my favourite word of the day as part of your handle.

Nathan said...

And those who have read his books do know crap about Africa! And one South African writer comprises the entirety of the contemporary African canon!

(Disclaimer: I'm probably going to stick my foot in my mouth somewhere in the following paragraph.) I think I understand where Evaristo is coming from: she's reacting to what Adichie described as the "danger of a single story", which can certainly be seen in the way many people in "the west" (or at least in America; or at least in large swathes of America; I remain uncomfortable with such broad generalizations regardless of which continent or level of "development" they apply to, but I'm probably going to continue using them anyway) probably couldn't name many African states or nations or even a single African ruler but have some vague idea of Africa as a place of famines and AIDS and warlords and child soldiers and lions, and she's wary of promoting even more stories, regardless of how good or true they are, that will reinforce that idea of Africa in the western imagination. I think what she's calling for, despite some problematic phraseological choices, is not an end to "Tragic Continent tales," but rather the encouragement of a larger market (or audience) for other stories and other sorts of stories from Africa -- of which there are plenty, from Alifa Rifaat to Amos Tutuola to Mohammed Mrabet to Teju Cole. (And here we begin to approach the limits of my own exposure to African writers!) But since the Caine prize is for stories in English, maybe an alternative tactic for adding nuance to the western idea of Africa would be to push for more translation into English of non-English African stories than to push for fewer English Tragic Continent tales?

JP said...

I completely agree about pushing for more translations.In my experience of Indian fiction, it's the translated stuff (my knowledge of Indian languages is pitifully small and useless for reading more than street signs in two languages) that speaks with a more powerful, authentic voice. And I think I know why - a lot of Indian writers in English come across as if they're consciously or not posing for the benefit of a western audience.

And that's why Evaristo's attitude, which you describe (fairly I think) as 'she's wary of promoting even more stories, regardless of how good or true they are, that will reinforce that idea of Africa in the western imagination' sticks in my craw only to the extent that it suggests anyone needs to de-exoticise themselves for a western audience. My objection to this sort of thinking is grounded in a fear that literatures from 'the rest of the world' are overtly or covertly being asked to shape themselves for a western gaze, one way or another.

Manga has evolved into a literary universe rife with genres and subgenres unheard of elsewhere. And I think it's because manga evolved without that self consciousness of performing for a western or westernised audience that comes with being from Africa or Asia and writing in English and in a 'literary' format. I would suggest that an even more useful declaration would be something on the lines of: 'We are not writing for the eyes of the world. There is no world. There is only one reader at a time, waiting for you to take him by the hand and tell him the story you most want or need to tell and that he most wants or needs to hear, but doesn't know it until he hears it. Everything else is pretense and posturing.'