Monday, July 4, 2016

A MAJOR international literary prize will be awarded this evening! Read on for more info!

Link to the main page of the website.

I am, in case you're stumbling across me and my blog for the first time, a major consumer and reviewer of short stories. These bite-sized bits of a writer's consciousness are, ironically, much much more difficult to write well than is, say, a novel. I recognize this in a deeply personal way as I have tried to write short stories and failed miserably at it. I realize that I'm hollering down a well by trying to get the civilians on the street to try reading short stories. From deeply bitter experience, I can assure you people recoil in horror from my urgent shoving of any book at them, pleading eyes and begging tones notwithstanding. But even regular readers seem to shy away from short stories. I've heard every explanation in the world, I think: "it's too hard to change gears that fast," "I can't see why the author doesn't just make this into a novel," "ew! a BOOK!" ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

But a funny thing happens when I trick people into reading my story-by-story reviews of anthologies and collections (the first has many authors, the second only one). Some get intrigued. A few seek out other reviews I've written of collections and anthologies. And, even though I seldom hear about it directly, I notice more reviews for some of the collections I've raved about. That is *the* most gratifying result a reviewer can have. You'll notice a complete lack of advertising here on the blog. I'm only affiliated with one other blog on a regular basis, The Oak Wheel, whose senior blogger, Jeff Martin, lets me push story collections at his way-bigger-than-mine audience the first Thursday of every month...for free. In short, I have no profit motive for doing this, I am rewarded by 1) free books from *most* publishers (frowns and grumbles at the unwilling and/or cheapass holdouts), 2) thank-yous from the occasional grateful author, and 3) the sheer joy of reading, thinking about, and analyzing books, then reporting my findings. I love it. I can't not do it. (Well, there was the time I tried to off myself and ended up in the goofy garage for a while, but I kept notes of the *flood* of books my dear, wonderful, generous, and saintly friends sent to me.) I have a TBR pile that has its own gravity, a wishlist that fills a lot of server space, and not one but two facility libraries composed of 90%-plus my read and donated books. (The goofy garage and the assisted living facility I currently occupy.)

And that means that I am, or think I am, pretty au courant with the world of books. I keep a weather eye on the literary prizes, watch for outsider/indie authors whose work speaks to me and therefore might speak to others, and generally organize my social and material life around books, writing, and readers. Imagine my horror when NOT ONE PERSON I knew had a clue what the Caine Prize was! These are regular readers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! Nnedi Okorafor, Ph.D.! Leila Aboulela! And the prize wasn't familiar...because it honors short fiction. *sigh* I have a lot of work to do. So I'm starting this US Independence Day, the day the Caine Prize winner is announced, to shout and wave my arms and point to more works by African writers as often as I possibly can. While I consider that an announcement, some will see it as a threat...all those hard-to-pronounce names, all that cultural information that's not familiar...but I ask of all of you that you google everything you don't get, spend some time immersed in a world you don't have referents for, and try your damnedest to enjoy the escape from the insanity that is 2016's USA into the largest continent in the world. Please? C'mon, it's no harder than immersing yourself into a fantasy or SF novel! Honest!

I've read all five shortlisted stories for the influential Caine Prize for African Writing 2016, presenting its seventeenth annual award. I've reviewed them all individually because this prize is the starting gun for its nominees and winners, launching their various careers into a more prominent and prestigious orbit in the world's literary firmament.

The Caine Prize Shortlist reviews (titles are links to story PDFs) in the accustomed Bryce Method:

The Lifebloom Gift
Abdul Adan, Somalia/Kenya

Abdul Adan is the second shortlisted author I'm reviewing for the run-up to the 2016 Caine Prize for African Fiction, announced on the 4th of July. He presents us with the life story of Ted Lifebloom, a 30ish mama's boy living in Missouri. Ted is, in some odd way, a carrier of the rarest of qualities: Pure happiness, a green world of love, comes to those susceptible to it merely by Ted's touch. The narrator describes the sensation of Ted's touch as experienced for the first time:
His mum wasn’t gone five minutes before Ted reached over and placed his
hand on my shoulder and pretty much (as I came to learn later) settled. I am not sure how long his hand was there because I got carried into a greenish world I had only seen
in dreams until then. Everything seemed as though I was on some yet-to-be-formulated drug. It was a thing of the heavens. Let me put it this way: I heard the song of birds and
sneezes of horses, smelled the fur of dogs, felt a twitch in one of my nipples which, in turn, transformed into a brown lactating nipple… In short, I understood the meaning of love
– almost. And this was just the shoulder! Suppose he got to my mole! Can you imagine that?
Ted's gift for bringing this transcendant joy to those he touches makes him seem like a bodhisattva. Tellingly, the narrator present us with the information about Ted and his mother (loving, but distant), his father (loving, but smothering), and how they combined to produce a fat, strange, useless son whose gifts make them both nervous.

Adan makes the journey the narrator takes while learning about and from Ted both poignant and humorous. As a finalist for the extremely prestigious, career-launching Caine Prize, he's well placed to bring a big load of talent to the publishers who will fight to sign him up if he wins. IMHO, it's a shame they aren't all clamoring for his work now.

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah, Nigeria

A shortlisted story for this very prestigious prize in African literature, which is limited to short fiction but has launched numerous of its sixteen previous recipients into the international literary stratoshphere, Arimah's story is post-apocalyptic climate change fiction set in a world where the entirety of North America and Europe are submerged, the remaining planet absorbing the white refugees according to willingness and ability. Arimah's Nigerian background has led her to posit a "Biafran-British Alliance" wherein Nneoma, a Mathematician licensed by the Furcal Center to use her unique grasp of the Furcal Theorem (the Theory of Everything mankind's been seeking for so long) to ease, indeed remove, the experience of grief from the world's many grief-crippled people. She is one of fifty-seven so licensed left in the world, as two others have collapsed and suicided or vanished.

This late-21st-century dystopia still has its upper class, and Nneoma specializes in treating their very real ills. Her ex-lover Kioni specializes in the extremely high-need refugees and war-displaced folks whose teeming masses essentially all need grief treatment. It is this wide disparity in choice of service that leads Kioni to sever their relationship and continue her own, morally superior in her judgment, work in New Kenya (identified but undescribed) without Nneoma the hand-holder to the rich. Then Nneoma's mother dies, her father needs a Mathematician to help, and Kioni angrily refuses. Nneoma tries to help her father, but his grief merely enlarges her own, and now she can't even be in her father's presence for the horror it evokes in her.

At the end of the day, Nneoma's loneliness is magnified many, many times when a bitter and unexpected event confronts her with the limits humans can't escape despite having Furcal's infinite theory of everything to use to manipulate the world. As the title suggests, hubris is still part of human make-up and the myth of Icarus is as relevant now as it was in the past and will be in the future.

The author already has a book deal with Riverhead Books, a tentacle of Penguin Random House, to publish a story collection in 2017. This is great news for story lovers (me!) and proof that even being shortlisted for this powerful prize that most Murrikinz have never heard of confers a star-dust aura to writers. I say that's the best news ever! To paraphrase NoViolet Bulawayo, a previous Caine Prize winner, we need new voices. Now more than ever, in this precarious end stage of the capitalist extraction economy.

Tope Folarin, Nigeria

A short story nominated for the Caine Prize in African Literature 2016, this is the first time in the history of the prize that a previous winner (2013) has been re-considered for the Prize. There is a good deal of controversy surrounding this in the African literary community, as the previous 16 awards have never included previous winners even in the longlist.

I haven't read Folarin's previous prize-winning story, but based on this story, I'm amazed and disappointed that he hasn't been widely and eagerly sought after by international book publishers. Perhaps he doesn't have an entire book of stories ready? No novel sitting in a desk drawer? But this work of identity fiction is accomplished, powerful, and it speaks directly to me and my experience of being raised by a mentally ill mother who was emotionally abusive of my father to the extent that he feared her too much to try to get me away from the unhealthy environment my mother created.

As the idea of the Caine Prize to date has been to shine a spotlight on literary lions previously unknown and help them assume their rightful place in the world of international letters, the nomination of a previous winner could mark a sea-change from awarding the deserving but unknown talents that teem in their masses around Africa, a continent of myriad countries and very, very few presses, to a reward prize for the Best African Short Stories {insert date here}.

Like any change in the established literary firmament, this causes disorientation and deep, divisive debate. (Does anyone remember what the Orange Prize is called now? Or the Whitbread Prize? Both still exist but changed sponsors, to much hullabaloo and debate. I for one lost track of them after their name changes.) Good thing or bad, policy shift or happenstance, Folarin's story is one that any story-based contest would have a hard time ignoring.

At Your Requiem
Bongani Kona, Zimbabwe

A very, very powerful small story. I was extremely emotionally involved from the first words, and Kona did not let me go. At all. I'm still thinking about this tale. It was hard to read and impossible not to finish. I can't say more because spoilers, but to my friends I can offer this inducement/warning: The narrator and I share a huge life-changing experience.

Memories We Lost
Lidudumalingani, South Africa

Another Caine Prize nominee, this story is about a thing I'd never so much as considered: Mental illness among the isolated rural population of South Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. It isn't all that different than anywhere else: Sufferers are isolated, feared, shunned, and if they're lucky, just drugged into submission instead of murdered.

Cheery little bagatelle, no; honest, searing, brave? Most certainly yes.

Another case where anything else I say is guaranteed to be a spoiler.
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From the Caine Prize for African Writing's press release:

The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 4 July. Each shortlisted writer will also receive £500.

Each of these stories will be published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2016 Anthology in July [as well as by Interlink Publishing in the US-RMD] and through co-publishers across Africa, who receive a print-ready PDF free of charge from New Internationalist.

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