Emmanuel Iduma: Ikhide’s Complaint [“The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences”]

Guest blog post by Emmanuel Iduma, co-founder and co-editor of Saraba Magazine.

Emmanuel responds to Nigerian writer and critic, Ikhide Ikheloa’s essay “Email from America: The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences”. The essay which one website described as ” Wainainaesque” after Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical “How to Write About Africa” and together with Chimamanda Adichie’s   “The danger of a single story”, is fast becoming the third part of a trilogy of African intellectual criticism of Western literary imposition.

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the shortlist, I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail every open sore of Africa. Apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.
The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clichés even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty. The monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader. Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor who chaired last year’s judges, crows that the stories are “uniquely powerful.” The stories are uniquely wretched. The chair of this year’s judges Hisham Matar declares presumptuously that the stories “represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.” Really? Is this the sum total of our experience, this humourless, tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

Ikhide Ikheloa made it a point to diss the shortlisted stories for the 2011 Caine Prize, which, by the way, is not the first time we have been served with his opinionated criticism. In response, I intend to make the case that there are deeper concerns than the sweeping conclusions he makes in his short essays, “How not to Write about Africa” and The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences.” He complains that, “The creation of a Prize for ‘African Writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers writing to stereotype Africa for glory.” And he goes further to assert that the stories “celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity,” that “they are a riot of exhausted clichés even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: huts, moons, rapes, wars and poverty.” Then he praises Medalie’s “The Mistress’s Dog” because it narrates an “Africa without kwashiorkor.” The imagery he presents is stimulating, pitching Medalie’s ‘Africa without kwashiorkor’ against NoViolet Bulawayo’s “sniffing around Africa’s sewers.” This “sniffing” is by “good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue” stuck in the “fog of stereotypes.” I implore the reader to take a look at those essays. I am more concerned about the implications of Mr. Ikheloa’s complaint(s) than about his affronts to the “good writers” and the Caine Prize which “has come to stay.” I will, however, return a few more times to his considerations.

The dilemma we face is the challenge of distinguishing between writing a “story” and writing “stereotypes.” It is clear that the divide, and the constructs, exist. It is also clear that both merge and are almost inseparable. For instance, I might decide to write a story about incest and child witch-hunt in Esit Eket, thereby writing an African “stereotype” or I might decide to tell a story of a deaf man who hears a single song, thereby writing a “story.” This is a fashionable divide, sometimes bedevilling, other times accommodating. But I consider this divide more intricate than superficial.

Let me make assumptions for what it takes to write stereotypes, and write a story. To write a stereotype, one mixes fact with fiction — narrating, on the one hand, a considerable navigation of the known world and on the other creatively repeating that known world. This is perhaps an art in itself, and essentially accommodating, I think. Or perhaps stereotypes get their essentials from “political correctness” — which suggests that “stereotypes” can fall within the category that encompasses the media, Westernization, Neo-colonialism, and whatnot. The other realm, of stories, demands extended imagination — we find ourselves making our special known worlds, giving no quarter to political correctness, living in a (re)imagined state. This second realm, unlike the first, becomes celebrated only because those who read us find in it an escape from “reality.”

But would I be wrong to ask which of these realms demands greater guts? How fearless must we be to write a stereotype into a story? Is the necessity for fearlessness greater in the first realm and lesser in the second? Put more succinctly, how much guts did it take Rushdie to write “The Satanic Verses”, and how did that differ from, say the stories of Graham Greene or Raymond Chandler? Unfortunately, I find it increasingly difficult to defer to this divide because I do not know if there are stories which purely narrate “issues” and those that purely function in the field of the imaginative. Perhaps, this is one difficulty with Ben Okri; how there is the impossibility of establishing a definite realm for his stories.

I think it is a very complex problem, because I live on Earth and not on Mars and I cannot imagine something out of the known world. I create faces from faces that appear in my head after I have seen a face, and a leg and a table too. And perhaps it is not as easy as I have been made to believe, that it is possible to write a story that is a story and has no trace of the issues that bedevil humanity. But maybe our conception of “stereotypes” is stuck in a slot in a negative contraption. We have learnt Chimamanda Adichie that there are “dangers of a single story.” We know how important it is that Africa is not thought of as a country, but as a continent. And we know how important it is to tell stories that do not convey the “dark” side of Africa, stories that do well with a “Western audience”; or to avoid stories that portray Africa as an “issue-laden continent.” Then, these issues that we talk about are issues of negativity and not, well, rich ethnicity and functioning social life. These stories, that are only stories, are those that tell of “normal” lives, that are not clichés. It is safe to assume that stories that are issue-laden are those that explore the details of a much-talked about negative life, a portrayal that is both politically and socio-culturally incorrect, though demeaning.

But whose story are we supposed to write? The stories in our head? The stories that we imagine are in the heads of our countrymen? The story of the town our parents were born in, or our country, or where we have lived? Three words, then, appear relevant — memory, fraternity and essence. Memory because I think I am a collage of what I was yesterday; of places, people and things I engaged with in the past (incidentally there is an essay by celebrated atheist Sam Harris, “Morality without Freewill” that navigates the proposition that our actions, intentions, beliefs and desires arise not from freewill but from prior-causes). Fraternity because I do not live alone, and I do not exist in a space void of community, language, ethnicity and social structure. And essence because I think I belong to a larger scheme of things, because I am fool to think I exist only within a sphere that is self-attributive. This, then, can mark the intersection between the private and the public, that arena where I think I am writing for myself and others tell me my work appeals to them. I tell myself that I must not set out with the objective to tell another’s story, but I find that when I tell the story that seems individual, others say I tell their stories too. I like to call this subconscious fraternity, and it is not impossible that there is a single thread of (un)conscious memory and essence that runs through all of us.

I must digress. When we speak of telling stories that are not stereotypes, or when we address Ikhide’s complaint, we are faced with the question of whether NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” is a story that is as much hers as it is Africa’s. We know that the Caine Prize is the “African Booker,” and so it must represent, essentially, what is “African” about Africa. Good, then. Did Bulawayo write a story that was in her head which found an intersection with what was ‘real’ about Africa? Or did she tell another story, one that is real to the West, one that the West believes as their “African” story? Mr. Ikheloa further complains that “the West is now busily forcing our stories into a particularly obnoxious trajectory.”

I am simply asking: How real can we be about Africa? And how real can we be to Africa? Now, I am careful to use ‘Africa’ because we are a set of 54 countries with different histories and fractured perspectives. I am also careful because I suppose I am as strange to a Tunisian as that Tunisian is to a Canadian. So if we are speaking of Africa’s tale, we are in the danger of writing the tale of say Darfur or Uganda or Rwanda and not that of Bauchi, Afikpo or Ile-Ife. Africa seems to be a generalized word, a permissible one, and I am wary of the associations that have come off it. Thus, I fall back to the assumption that issues are only issues in a generalized sense used for defining Africa as ‘the sick baby of the world.’ But it is dangerous to conclusively assume that these cliché stories (issue-laden stories) are written because “needy African writers” are hungry. Perhaps they are written in the voice of a writer for whom the generalized Africa is a particularized one. Ikhide complains that there is a lot of lamentation in supposedly contemporary African narratives. Thus, I am wont to question the relevance and expedience of these cliché stories — is there a purpose to stereotype-stories, even in the long term? I hate, however, to be a judge of these things.

We know from Granta that “How to Write about Africa” ranks amongst the most popular of all their online essays. It is understandable that Binyavanga Wainaina feeds into the essay sarcastic details of an Africa that resonates in Western-controlled media (and we know that he who controls the media controls perception). I am fine with the contents of the essay, and I have been a fan of it since 2007. Yet I think it must count for something that the essay is very popular on the Granta site. I want to think that a new stereotype is emerging — a stereotype that wants to address “Africa” in the way it should be addressed; because we are angry, perhaps ashamed, of the manner in which Africa has been written about. I assume this because this generation of writers did not invent this stereotype. We are affected by the Achebe-Conrad war. Agreed, our claims are justifiable, as we do not want to be defined, or as Mr. Ikheloa wrote once, we do not want to be italicized. We do not want our language explained at the back of a book that purportedly celebrates us. Yet, is this not going to become what we are avoiding? Is our definition of ourselves by ourselves not going to become a stereotype? Is the story we are going to tell that is pleasing, and acceptable, and real, not going to become a cliché story too? I believe this must be considered urgently, because “screwing” boundaries and prizes and “just writing” suggests that there is another story we are not telling. One pointer we get to this other story — this emerging stereotype — is the fact that (as Ikhide writes), “outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.” Then if we move from this destructive telling, we are yet to find a template to build our efforts at telling stories upon, a template that screws boundaries and prizes. Even Mr. Ikheloa does not provide such template. Except, of course, he suggests that good writing about Africa is writing that addresses the forces of the internet and cell phone technology — and this would be suicidal because Ivor Hartman (in One Ghana One Voice’s Roundtable Discussion #6) states that “up to 89.1% of Africa do not have online access.”

The problem is that, as my friend Adebiyi Olusolape muses, our collective view is influenced more by sensational media coverage than by anything else. Of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”, in relation to her treatment of an Islamic subject, Olusolape notes that “It’s always the Muslims. But was this the case at the time the book was being written, pre-9/11, before it became “official” that Muslims be made the handy bogeymen?” In essence, assuming there was no 9/11, terrorism might be defined differently and “terrorists” accorded less bogeyness. So, put in perspective, assuming we had the pre-colonial opportunity to define ourselves, there might be little clamour, as there now is, for self-definition and narratives that sing the collective song of the people. This, however, was not the case. We were defined against our wish. My fear is that in an attempt to re-define and assert ourselves, despite our pitfalls and failures, we would lose fluidity and individualization.

Chris Abani says the story is fluid and belongs to no one person. This is important in his contemplation of what I think of as the “human narrative” — an attempt to universalize the human condition into any narrative, but essentially within an ethnic context. So I write a story from an Igbo viewpoint, questioning my Igboness, because I know someone would question his Giyukuness. Abani writes, “This sometimes happens to us, that we write the song that sings our mother across to the other side. That the narrative is beyond even the ethical work we wanted it to be. That it is sometimes a good yarn, that it sometimes brings comfort to others, that it sometimes makes our people proud of us.” I will return to a consideration of this.

Does the story of the real Africa belong to only one person? If we choose to write a story about Darfur, does it mean we have told a story that should not be told because it affirms a skewed Western thought or affords a validation of Western-stereotypic consciousness? I remember someone saying that “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” was a better story than “Waiting.” And that Osondu wrote the latter to “win” the Caine. Good, agreed. He won the Caine. He wrote a story. Perhaps one is more important than the other (or perhaps the decision of the Judges is most important). I am thinking this could be equated with what Emeka Okereke, Nigerian photographer, blogs about in relation to a project organized by an organization named AECID affiliated with the Spanish Ministry of Culture: “You have what I want, you want what I have.” Thus, I give the Caine people what they “want” in exchange for the prestige and literary stardom that comes with the prize. Yet, it appears that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line between the stories that should be told and the stories that should not, because we are a set of generalized people that are finding their voice; of course I disagree with Mr. Ikheloa because he seems to think this line is easily discernable. Is this not a case for saying that we must explore all options, all alternatives to narration?

I believe what is more important is the objective of the story. I assume it is unhelpful to draw a line on what a writer’s process/objective is by his story. Granted, critics do this continuously — yet in the final analysis if we can define a “grand” objective of “the story” we can go past these questions of stories that dance to a Western tune. And what is the West, anyway? And what is even human? So our grand objective must transcend western lines, become human, and take a more particularized stance. Can this grand objective be grasped? I propose that memory, fraternity and essence are merged, so that every writer, of whatever African descent, plugs his narrative into this fusion. Hopefully.

Directly connected to this is whether the generation of writers I belong to could either conform to standards set by post-colonial writers or choose to be dissident. This is interesting for me because I grew up in post-postcolonial Nigeria, at the dusk of the military regime. So what I know is not a Nigeria just off colonialism, and therefore I cannot tell the politics that was evident in that time or become a social-critic as was the praiseworthy fashion of that time. I have grappled with the question of how socially active my writing must be, how protestant and dissident. Essentially, I find that if I confine myself to telling “activism” in my writing, I could be telling the story of another, confronting another’s reality, as I have never been imprisoned, brutalized or assaulted (perhaps an experience of any of this would change me?) What bothers me is not necessarily how failed the system is, but how this system has stripped us of some of our humanity or how we are human despite the system.

Since I have raised the question of political relevance, it is appropriate to consider the extent to which such relevance is useful. Is this relevance a clamour for anti-Government (protest) writing? As we know, in Nigeria for instance, a civilian government has not shown a greater zeal for the Nigerian people than their military counterpart. And so, we have enough reason to display dissidence, ‘incorruptible dissidence’ like Soyinka. We have the option to write “politically,” fight the government of our time. Yet, there appears to be an over-documentation of protest. As such, there could (or should) be a different slant in my head aside “the prejudice of colonialism, racism, anxieties about postcolonial life and the painful alienation of exile.” However, I am making the case that what I feel in my head could be anything from the preoccupations of the older writers to the reality of an internet age, and my choice of either should not invalidate my writing.

I return to Emeka Okereke because he makes a case for “the concept of freedom of manoeuvre within the volatile abundance of the creative magnetic field.” What does this imply? Does it suggest that our freedom as writers, or artists, extends to the need to deal with matters we find ‘fulfilling’ (in terms of Caine prestige and monetarily)? Or does it start and end at questioning personal and collective unrest in a manner that is not ‘politically’ correct? Indeed, where does that “manoeuvre” begin, and end? What are the parameters of our artistic freedom? How right can my story be? And how wrong? Which is wrong — my story or me? As we see, this is an open-ended conundrum.

A simpler knot might be a question of style, and if I may be preposterous, “individual artistic libertarianism.” Raymond Carver’s “Principles of a Story” is a fine masterpiece on the art of short story writing. He notes: “It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.” Here we find that he makes a distinction between ‘style’ and ‘signature.’ He goes further to consider that a writer, with a unique lasting signature, has a way of looking at his world. Just as it is that a myopic sprinter cannot see the finish line the way non-myopic sprinters can. And it is amazing that, using this analogy, we might have difficulties judging the view of that myopic sprinter by that of his fellows. Put more contextually, how do we judge a writer if we cannot place a thumb on his ‘signature’ and how he looks at the world? A friend told me that being a Christian would blur the range of my fiction. I laughed because I could not imagine how being a believer in a “non-Christian God,” as he claimed he was, would broaden the range of my fiction.

My contemplation of individual artistic vision could be dangerous. I would have wished that we look at the world the way we wish to, and not be judged on the question of whether our view represents “a true and collective African voice” (who even defines this?) But we understand that if this is the case we would have no complaint from Ikhide, and we do need him to complain (?) Yet we also need to, as writers, find a way to speak. I care less if I am accused of making a case for “writing to please the West.” For me, it is more dangerous to make a case for “African writing” when being an artist begins from an individual standpoint than from the collective. As such, it is arguable that Adichie corroborates this in “The Thing around Your Neck” and “Half of a Yellow Sun” and Habila in his short story “The Immigrant” and Evans in “26a.” Important, then, is the subject of identity. Identity is often an imagined state, so it gives room for very innovative ways to look at Self. We agree that we are who we are different from others because, for instance, we have the same language, live within each other, have knowledge that our parents and their parents before them lived in the place we now live or the place we call “home.” This is changing very much. For instance, I speak the Igbo language badly, although I hail from Afikpo. I have lived in up to seven cities, and my parents visit our hometown irregularly. Does this make me fractured? Yes, I think, very much. I agree that there is every need to locate myself within an ethnic space and maybe speak from that space, but I disagree that I must be more conscious of a collective identity than my fractured self.

How then does this resolve? First, this does not resolve, and it should not. An artistic life as individual as mine cannot be explained collectively, neither can a creative process be ascertained with mathematical precision. So I am thinking that Arundhati Roy is right when she speaks of “deploying a private language.” In her Guernica interview she suggests that it is interesting to try walking the path between honing language to make it as private as possible, and looking around, seeing what is happening to millions, and deploying that private language to speak from the heart of a crowd. And I add that this private language could then become public, spoken by the crowd to the crowd and for the crowd. There can be (and should be) attempts to judge the deployment of my private language. But whoever is interested in judging must give room for his (blissful) ignorance, for even the Devil, as I was told in my undergraduate law class, does not know the mind of a man.

Second, I agree that there can be the “ethics of narrative.” Abani makes this case in his essay in Witness Magazine — “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other” — which suggests that we must find the intersection between our capacity as artists and our capacity as humans (that is, I should write the story that leads your mother to the other side). If this can be incorporated in our grand objective of story-telling or Caine Prize-writing, whether or not there are Ikhide Complaints, I trust we would be fine. More so, it is very human and ethical for the narrative to be true to itself — If we go to the places described in the story, in Beatrice Lamwaka’s Uganda for instance, would we find characters as those she created in “Butterfly Dreams”? And third, this funnels into the idea that I am first human before anything else, towering above every other purpose. Therefore I am content with finding it difficult to define this humanness, because I am always groping for who I am and how best to narrate who I am within a fraternal space.

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Emmanuel Iduma holds a degree in Law, and has been published online and in print. He co-publishes Saraba Magazine.