AND THE 2019 CAINE PRIZE WINNER IS…

In less than a month, the 2019 Caine Prize winner will be announced!

For those who are not familiar, the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was first awarded in year 2000, is an award “open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition” (source).

Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include (click on links to my reviews):

  • Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000) – author of novels Minaret, The Translator, Lyrics Alley, among other works. 
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002) – founding editor of Kwani?, author of memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place and the essay How To Write About Africa found in various literary magazines. *sigh* Rest In Power, Binya!
  • Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003) – author of the novel, Dust.
  • E.C Osondu, from Nigeria (2009) – author of the novel This House is not For Sale and collection Voice of America: stories.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo, from Zimbabwe (2011) – author of the novel, We Need New Names. 

Previously shortlisted writers include: (2001) Mia Couto from Mozambique, (2002) Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria, (2006) Laila Lalami from Morocco, (2013) Chinelo Okparanta from Nigeria, (2013) Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone, (2014) Tendai Huchu from Zimbabwe, (2013 & 2015) Elnathan John from Nigeria, among others!

The Caine Prize and the shortlisted stories play huge roles in the authors I read from Africa. Many Caine Prize winners and shortlisted writers have found great success and I’ve reviewed a good number of these writers’ works here on African Book Addict!


This year, the Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five talented writers with unique short stories (left to right):

(Image via caineprize.com)

Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) – Read her story: Skinned

Meron Hadero (Ethiopia) – Read her story: The Wall

Cherrie Kandie (Kenya) – Read her story: Sew My Mouth

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti (Cameroon) – Read her story: It Takes A Village Some Say

Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor (Nigeria) – Read his story: All Our Lives


There’s finally some diversity in the countries represented on this year’s shortlist! Ethiopia and Cameroon! And women are dominating, once again – I love it. So far, I’ve only read 3 out of the 5 stories and I’m feeling pretty good about them.

Cherrie Kandie starts Sew My Mouth with- “My lover can only love me behind drawn curtains,” taking readers on a rollercoaster ride of the relationship between two women lovers/friends and their forbidden love. I think I liked Kandie’s short story. The writing was very matter-of-fact, in that, she doesn’t mince her words in her descriptions. She does a great job of gradually creating tension and remorse between the characters, as one of them isn’t quite out as a lesbian, which causes heartbreak and pain (literally). The ending of the story was quite disappointing though. I found it anti-climatic and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I do hope Kandie is writing a novel though! I’d like to read more of her work.

Tochukwu Okafor’s short story – All Our Lives was very easy to read. I enjoyed how accessible and lucid his writing was. But Okafor’s story is not new to readers of African fiction. It actually reminded me of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names which I have conflicting feelings about. All Our Lives paints the picture of poverty in a Nigerian city – from the descriptions, probably Lagos, Nigeria. We follow the desperate lives of Yahoo boys/419 boys, trying to catch a break via deceit, ‘The cybercafes are our second home. They are tight spaces on ground floors in one- or two- storey buildings… Do not think we are searching for love. Love does not exist in this city. We are men of the night. Our reward is money.’

Okafor describes the plight of the poor very vividly, constantly reminding readers of the dire conditions in the city. But the ending of this short story had me confused! It briefly describes how some of these Yahoo boys all of a sudden start viewing gay porn and have a ‘longing to be explored by men’ and touches briefly on the consequences of these desires. I found this random mention of same-sex desire too brief, almost oversimplifying the true lives of LGBTQIA in Nigerian cities. For those who’ve read this short story – was the ending as random to you as it was for me?

The Caine Prize shortlist hasn’t been this exciting in years, so obviously I had to read the story by Meron Hadero, from Ethiopia! The Wall is a slow burn type of short story… I actually hope she’s developing this story into a full-fledged novel. I’m assuming the story is semi-autobiographical, as Hadero’s personal life seems to coincide a bit with the main character of the story.

In The Wall, readers follow an un-named young girl refugee, who recently moved to the US with her family from Ethiopia via Berlin. She knows very little English, but is fluent in German and her mother tongue – Amharic. By chance, she meets Professor Weil aka – Herr Weil, at a community potluck who generously offers to teach the young girl English after school, and they form a beautiful friendship. While Herr Weil helps this young girl learn English, he mostly creates space for her to express herself and her feelings about her new environment – in German. As I was reading, I was so scared that this old German man would take advantage of her in someway, but I was pleasantly surprised by his pure heart. There isn’t much to say about this short story with respect to an exciting plot, but Hadero tackles various issues – such as, loneliness, same-sex attraction, courage versus regret, friendship, ageism, the plight of the lives of refugees etc. The ending of this story had me wanting more and I will read anything Hadero writes henceforth!

I haven’t read Lesley Nneka Arimah and Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti’s short stories yet. This year marks the third year of Arimah making the Caine Prize shortlist. I wonder why she continues to compete for the prize, given the success of her short story collection from two years ago… but then again – why not? I raved about Arimah’s phenomenal work back in 2017 via What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, and I have no doubt that her current shortlisted story is breathtaking.

Even though I haven’t read all the stories yet, my money is on Hadero’s, The Wall to win the prize. It’s truly just a beautiful story. I hope you all get a chance to read some of the stories linked above. May the best story win!

Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the Caine Prize this year?

The winner will be announced in London at Senate House Library in partnership with SOAS, on 8th July 2019. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!

 

You can also check out past commentary on the Caine Prize below:

2014 | 2015  | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

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Mini Reviews | Houseboy & Tropical Fish

Hey everyone!

In an effort to reduce the growing backlog of book reviews I owe this platform, below are mini reviews of two excellent books I read a couple of years ago.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Date Read: September 22nd 2017

Published: 1991

Publisher: Heinemann

Pages: 122

The Blurb

This book is written in the form of a diary kept by Toundi, an innocent Cameroonian houseboy who is fascinated and awed by the white world, the world of his masters.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

*sigh* Oyono’s Houseboy is such a painful, humorous, tragic tale.


Toundi – the main character (the houseboy), is naïve of the realities of his world in the French colony of Cameroon. While he’s is a good natured boy with a pure heart, the French exploitation of native Cameroonians cause the demise of Toundi (this isn’t a spoiler, trust me!).

This book really highlighted how fearful French colonialists were of native Cameroonians and Black Africans, in general. They were so fearful, insecure, ignorant and mentally fragile that they constantly exerted their supposed superiority over natives with hateful, brutal abuse. Toundi’s innocence gave this novel so much humor. The ways he misunderstood the lifestyle of white people was hilarious and sad at the same time. The ways the natives spoke about the French gave me some good laughs as well.

No, it can’t be true, I told myself, I couldn’t have seen properly. A great chief like the Commandant uncircumcised… I was relieved by this discovery. It killed something inside me… I knew I should never be frightened of this Commandant again. (pg. 28)

This was actually the 1st African novel I’ve ever read (I was initially in love with African-American fiction before I ever started reading books by African writers… well, besides Anansi stories). My Mom encouraged (or forced?) me to read Houseboy back when I was about thirteen years old. Back then, I didn’t enjoy this book at all and found it difficult to understand the myriad of proverbial phrases this story is blessed with. Today, I finally appreciate this novel as a superb, underrated classic within the African Writer’s Series.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Houseboy on Amazon

 


Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana

Date Read: September 16th 2016

Published: 2008

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Pages: 158

 

The Blurb

In her fiction debut, Doreen Baingana follows a Ugandan girl as she navigates the uncertain terrain of adolescence. Set mostly in pastoral Entebbe with stops in the cities Kampala and Los Angeles, Tropical Fish depicts the reality of life for Christine Mugisha and her family after Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Three of the eight chapters are told from the point of view of Christine’s two older sisters, Patti, a born-again Christian who finds herself starving at her boarding school, and Rosa, a free spirit who tries to “magically” seduce one of her teachers. But the star of Tropical Fish is Christine, whom we accompany from her first wobbly steps in high heels, to her encounters with the first-world conveniences and alienation of America, to her return home to Uganda.

As the Mugishas cope with Uganda’s collapsing infrastructure, they also contend with the universal themes of family cohesion, sex and relationships, disease, betrayal, and spirituality. Anyone dipping into Baingana’s incandescent, widely acclaimed novel will enjoy their immersion in the world of this talented newcomer.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

After reading Doreen Baingana’s short story entitled ‘Tropical Fish’ in African Love Stories: An Anthology at the beginning of 2016, I knew I had to find her book.

I loved how nuanced this collection of interlocking stories were. Readers get a good feel of life in Entebbe, Uganda during Idi Amin’s ruling. I enjoyed the three sisters: Patti, Rosa and Christine Mugisha. I had wanted more insight into Patti’s life; she had a gentle, holier-than-thou demeanor that I wished was explored more. Rosa’s chapters were quite hilarious and poetic. I admired Baingana’s uncommon perspective on HIV/AIDS and sex through Rosa’s promiscuous lifestyle. Christine’s life (the youngest sister) is more closely followed in this book – from her days as a little girl playing in her parents’ bedroom to when she is twenty-nine years old and a recent ‘returnee’ from the States.

Baingana’s attention to the littlest things/feelings/observations we overlook in our daily lives made me love this collection. The writing was not overly descriptive; the commentary was witty, clever and overall, the exploration of life in Entebbe and the US was just heartfelt. I’m very fond of Baingana’s writing and it’s no wonder she was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa region and has garnered other literary awards for her writing. I hope she writes a new novel very soon.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe on Amazon

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Date Read: June 21st 2017

Published: 2016

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 380

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Before Behold the Dreamers was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the book last year, declaring it ‘book of the year’. I tried to keep an open mind while reading, but half-way through, I started to get agitated. If I hadn’t buddy-read this book with one of my favorite book lovers – Ifeyinwa, I would have put it down without finishing. Upon finishing the book, I felt Behold the Dreamers was a 2 stars novel, but Mbue’s succinct writing style made my reading experience quite fast and easy –  which I appreciated, hence a rating of 3 stars. While this novel was frustrating for me to read, I must admit Mbue did a great job of making Behold the Dreamers a layered tale on identity, social class, marriage, immigration, patriarchy, mental illness and xenocentrism.

I didn’t expect the beginning of Behold the Dreamers to be focused on the Edwards family instead of the Jonga family. As I turned the pages waiting to experience more Jende and Neni, I realized I didn’t care about Cindy and Clark Edwards’s failing marriage and the ‘rich people problems’ they endured. In fact, reading about their stresses vicariously stressed ME out! The plot, which heavily involved the Edwards’ marital and monetary issues dragged on for too long. Since several pages were dedicated to the Edwards’ family drama, I could clearly picture what Clark, Cindy, Vincent and Mighty Edwards looked like and all their mannerisms. This may seem trivial, but I wish Mbue spent more time describing Jende, Neni and their son – Liomi’s physical features so I could at least picture them in my mind.

This novel could have been a solid 150 pages, sans the drama of the Edwards family. A part of me feels like the publishers heavily promoted this book because Jende and Neni put America on a pedestal. To me, Jende and Neni were almost portrayed as African caricatures who viewed the white man as superior, their master. This novel was initially supposed to be called ‘The Longings of Jende Jonga’ so why the change of title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’? I’m guessing the former title wouldn’t appeal to white readers. Perhaps the change in title to ‘Behold the Dreamers’ also meant more involvement of the Edwards family into the storyline, to appeal to white readers. But I must say, the title ‘Behold the Dreamers’ is quite fitting – because the Jongas were portrayed as dreamers indeed. Through the lens of Jende and especially Neni, EVERYTHING about America was good and they would do anything to become Americans,

In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers… because while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York could offer a child. (pg. 362).

I became aggravated with how Jende and Neni often looked down on their country of origin/culture and revered America to the point where they didn’t see how desperate they were – especially Neni! Throughout most of this novel, Jende was more or less an ‘Uncle Tom’ in my eyes with how willingly subservient he acted towards the Edwards family,

‘So you think America is better than Cameroon?’ Clark asked, still looking at his laptop.

‘One million times, sir,’ Jende said. ‘One million times. Look at me today, Mr. Edwards. Driving you in this nice car. You are talking to me as if I am somebody, and I am sitting in this seat, feeling as if I am somebody.’ (pg. 44)

Neni (she got on my nerves, gosh! But my feelings softened towards her as she bears the brunt her family’s fate) would do anything just to remain in America and even started using her kids as a desperate justification to stay,

And Liomi was going to become a real American one day, she whispered in the darkness. He had taken so well to America, hardly missing anyone or anything in Limbe. He was happy to be in New York, excited to walk on overcrowded streets and be bombarded by endless noise. He spoke like an American and was so knowledgable in baseball and all the state capitals that no one who came across him would believe he was not an American but a barely legal immigrant child… They could never take him back to Limbe… He might become angry, disappointed and hostile, forever resentful towards his parents. (pg. 227)

While Behold the Dreamers was frustrating to read, I resonated and empathized with certain happenings, once the story shifted away from the Edwards family and focused more on the Jongas. Neni lecturing her son on the importance of education for us Africans/Black people struck a cord with me as it still holds true,

I’ve told you this, and I’ll keep on telling you: School is everything for people like us. We don’t do well in school, we don’t have any chance in this world. You know that, right? (pg. 68)

Jende’s lawyer warning him to steer clear of the police felt timely, especially with police brutality being a rampant occurrence nowadays. This novel was set between years 2008 – 2010 and its disheartening how 7 years later, we black folk – whether originally from Africa or Latin America, are constantly reminded of how the justice system doesn’t particularly value Black bodies,

The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh? (pg. 74)

Another aspect of the book that resonated with me was how some folks of the Diaspora (1st and 2nd generation Americans) identified. I remember having a chat with one of my cousins this summer in the States, and she confided in me about how she went through a phase where she actively distanced herself from her Ghanaian culture when she was younger. During this phase, she hated identifying with anything that had to do with Ghana or Africa. Shame plays a huge role in this novel. Mbue shows how some children of immigrants from Africa, who have no connection to their parents’ homeland (for various reasons – maybe the parents don’t have pride in their homelands themselves, like Neni and Jende) feel embarrassed and humiliated by their African roots,

When people asked where they were from, they often said, oh, we’re from right here, New York, America. They said it with pride, believing it. Only when prodded did they reluctantly admit that well, actually, our parents are Africans. But we’re Americans, they always added. Which hurt Fatou and made her wonder, was it possible her children though they were better than her because they were Americans and she was African? (pg. 358)

I read Behold the Dreamers back in June and its really been on my mind ever since. I’ve even been apprehensive about posting this book review because I feel my interpretation of this novel is quite judgmental as I’m interpreting the book’s happenings through my 1st generation privilege of never having experienced immigration ordeals. I recently discussed this novel with my parents and through our discussion, they made me aware of my Ghanaian-American privilege and encouraged me to try and accept Jende and Neni’s struggles as their (the characters’) truth and the truth of many Africans who strive to achieve the ‘American Dream’.

Reading and interpretation of text is highly subjective. The ways readers interpret and find meaning of books they read depends on their politics, morals, level of education, socio-economic status etc. I read this novel through a middle-class, 1st generation, pro-Africa/Black lens, so it was quite difficult for me to read and understand characters express self-hate and shame towards their African origins. Since Jende and Neni were of lower social class in Cameroon, was their xenocentrism of their country of origin justified? Most immigrants I know (of both lower and middle social classes) actually start deeply appreciating their countries of origin when they move to live in the States… but I do realize that for some folks, getting to America is truly their ultimate dream.

The ending of this novel felt realistic and made me appreciate Jende’s character evolution – flaws and all. While I disliked how Mbue perpetuates our self-hate through the characterization of Jende and (mostly) Neni, Behold the Dreamers strikes up conversation around immigration, identity and the need for African countries to better cater to their citizens (instead of us relying on living in Western nations to fulfill our dreams). In my opinion, this novel is popular because it perpetuates American nationalist views with African self-hate as a bi-product of it’s success.

Other compelling immigrant tales which I highly recommend over Behold the Dreamers are: So The Path Does Not Die by Pede Hollist, Americanah by Chimamanda N. Adichie, Minaret by Leila Aboulela, Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase Behold the Dreamers on Amazon