Well folks, they've just announced the 2011 shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing, featuring five short stories (all are available to read at the website linked). I'm joining the wonderful Aaron Bady at zunguzungu, along with a few other bloggers, in reading and reviewing the pieces before the winner is announced.
I'm going to be honest from the get-go: I cannot provide the depth and quality of socio-political analysis that Aaron can regarding the African continent, so I won't even try. I'm going to focus on the works from an English literature perspective with a touch of international politics.
The prize will be announced in five weeks, so you'll be getting one review per week. But enough business, let's move on to the first story!
"Hitting Budapest" by Noviolet Bulawayo
The first thing that strikes me about this story is its strong sense of internal rhythm, almost childlike, and certainly accidental.
There's an interesting juxtaposition of dream vs. resignation within the story, the consequences of which are conveyed through basic childhood emotions of greed or jealousy and desires for conformity (if I'm a miserable Bastard, than you need to be one too).
I'm usually a bit wary of having this type of story told through the eyes of children (often the results and so-called insights are banal and cheaply manipulative) but Bulawayo takes the "Lord of the Flies" approach of conveying difficult conditions through dark humor rather than the Barbara Kingsolver approach of "and then they must kill their own babies! See who horrible their lives are? Cry now."
This is the power of hearing these stories from the voices of the native writers. Western writers, no matter how well intentioned, cannot help but inject heaping doses of pity, cannot help amplify the misery so that they can make themselves feel more grateful about their own world.
Instead, we get to hear from writers for whom this is reality, not tourism. Because it's their reality, they learn to accept it, not spend the entirety of their time looking for greener grass. Even when Darling states his life plan of moving to America, we get a subtle hint that that's not just a dream, or a hope, but something more simple. He wants to lord it over his friend that he could potentially get out, and Bastard can't.
It's this tension between the harsh conditions and adolescent one upmanship that drives the story forward. In this simple childhood play lies the seeds of violence, of corruption. Right now, when faced head on with their deprivation in the form of lust for the visitor's tossed away food, they scream like animals outside her house. When faced again and again with that deprivation, how will these children contort? What will they become?
Here are links to other excellent posts on the subject (many are not as kind as I am, but I always say look for the bright side! And the line "because her grandfather made her pregnant" really does hit like a soppy ton of bricks. But jump into the conversation!