Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Month: December, 2017

Horror at the Caine Prize 2017

Over at the Johannesburg Review of Books, Elinor Sisulu, a judge of the Etisalat Prize, gives an account of the 2017 edition. Her account mostly belongs in the travel writing genre, with names, places, and aw-shucks dropped, but at one point she makes a comment about her host’s relationship to literature.

“It was clear that this literary competition, for the Etisalat team, is about more than brand promotion and return on investment,” says Sisulu. “Their passion and commitment to literature shone through their administration of the prize…”

Was it necessary to put in this defence? Almost certainly not, yet Sisulu’s sentiment does speak to the insecurity at the heart of most award schemes for the art. On one side, the corporate bodies want to appear cultured; on the other, writers want to be unsullied by such philistine concerns as corporate branding,  At the least, the tribe doesn’t want to hear it, but thanks ma’am, the money will be taken. Better still if that money comes with the media might of the Caine Prize. There are richer prizes but none as well-known and certainly none as prestigious for African writers.

Once again, Nigeria dominated the list of nominees. Three citizens of the country made it. Two of the three stories have horror elements. Only one of these stories has true literary quality. It’s almost surprising that the other is up for the same award.

Chikodili Enelemadu’s Bush Baby appears inspired by tales from Nigerian boarding schools. Once the rage from generations of hostel dwellers to a younger one, those tales have lost their once formidable powers. Perhaps this is why the story follows people out of school: they after all belong to the generation aware of the powers of the bush baby and tales surrounding the creature. Anyone born with a smartphone in hand can brandish Google as crucifix against those demon stories.

Shortlist, Caine 2017: Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, Chikodili Emelumadu, Bushra al-Fadil, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Arinze Ifeakandu.

We meet the story’s narrator, Ihuoma, as she welcomes her brother. He is sickly. He is in trouble. The morning following an inexplicably torrid night, he explains to his sister what has happened: After gambling and losing, he has had to steal a mat with magical powers from a bush baby. In return, his creditors will let him have back his losses. Ihuoma, a distrusting sibling at the start, believes him after the events of the preceding night, which were sound-tracked by the wailing of an unseen baby:

The crying seems to be bouncing off the walls, building as it travels through the hallway, waves upon waves, making the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand on end. Okwuchukwu claws at his ears, making guttural noises as if he has lost the ability to speak. The crying grows until it seems to be coming from all around us, seeping out of the floor, pressing down on us from the ceiling. The pressure in the room is the type you get in an aircraft cabin; my head becomes as tight as balloon and my ears pop. Something wet and sticky spreads all over the carpet. It’s cold, numbing. When I try to move, I find I can’t. I am rooted to the ground. My heart beats in my head, pushing hot blood and adrenaline through my limbs. Everything feels tainted, infected by fear. Okwuchukwu crashes through the coffee table.

As far as the reader knows, there is no solution to the problem. The malevolent creature whose mat has been stolen would eat away at Okechukwu’s essence until he is dead and then the creditors will come for the mat. The only hindrance is Ihuoma. Or as the writer will have us think, love, love of a sibling, is the only obstacle to certain death.

The story is caught between portraying that love and depicting fear. The first is passed along in such bathetic gestures as the sister remarking that her brother’s beautiful beard is out of place on his face as she touches it. The other is shown through obvious means, most of which the cursory reader or watcher of horror narratives will be used to: Coffee table breaking, use of words and phrases like “cold”, “numbing”, “adrenaline through my limbs”, “heart beats in my head”.

These are clichés of phrasing as much as clichés of the imagination. Neither sibling love nor fear comes through in fresh terms. And when the story ends on the cusp of a showdown, the reader might think regreattably: just what exactly was all of these for. As said, it is surprising this is on the Caine shortlist, but it might be tricky to get it on the shortlist of a genre prize as well. The story fails to give the climax that genre readers crave; its language, the prose, the fabric of the telling, is inadequate, way short of the standards of literary fiction.

In both areas, Lesley Nneka Arimah shines. Her story about one woman’s quest for a child in a universe where men don’t exist and kids are fashioned from materials, give both a literary pleasure, and rather than avoid a climactic confrontation between human and not-quite-human, she goes the whole way. Her story, Who Will Welcome You At Home, also wears its influences: the films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Omen” and “Godsend” have representation, but Arimah reclaims it all from them. And on the way, she gives a snapshot of grace in relaying what grief and loss might be to someone who has gotten what she wants but at an expense so much, it is pyrrhic victory.

Yet the writing is as elegant as one has a right to expect from the New Yorker, the publication in which it appeared. Arimah tells a genre story in prose that is by itself remarkable. The last few sentences are some of the best in recent Caine Prize history. After a series of failures, the protagonist is ready to start again on the journey of creating a new life:

Let this child be born in sorrow, she told herself. Let this child live in sorrow. Let this child not grow into a foolish, hopeful girl with joy to barter. Ogechi formed the head, the arms, the legs. She gave it her mother’s face. In the morning, she would fetch leaves to protect it from the rain.

This is how a remarkable tale of horror and of great expectations ends, leaving the reader with a character hanging precariously on a string of hope.


A Nigerian critic’s manifesto

Literary starter pack

Over on Facebook, an artist friend queried the paucity of reviews and reports on the art scene in Lagos. It led to the response below. As with most things social media, it isn’t the most edited piece existing in the world…I reproduce it here because someone on the thread asked that it be published somewhere. Here goes:

Part of the motivation for me to write reviews was the realisation that there was nothing of the sort when I was at the university. Yet each time I picked up Time, Richard Corliss was writing these forceful reviews of cinema, someone else was reviewing an album. Then Ikhide showed up propelled by Next. Good times.

And yet when this gets written I feel something akin to what you’ve written up there: that no one is paying attention. Actually, O, your post proves my point. In writing what you have I fear that you have dismissed some of the work a few of us have done. We write film and pop music reviews. Not your preferred form I know and maybe you have removed us from the people you address up there. But you know what they say about old women and brittle bones.

Suffice to say that it isn’t just the regular artists who are upping their game. While we labour in some kind of obscurity as your post perhaps hints at tangentially, critics, some at least, do want their work to receive the attention you mention. Not now but later. We, too, despair that it’ll never happen because we are where we are.

The true critic wants to write something that might even outlive the work itself. The best of us are trying to create art. It is why I don’t think highly of the newspaper column: too tied to the news and thus too disposable.

Now the problems: You have a legit complaint but I wonder if you’ll be as sanguine if you were on the receiving end of a harsh review. That aside, do you realise how hard it’ll be for a single person to do what you ask? I attended one or two programs at the festival and those were the free ones. You think any blasted critic has money to pay, to spare for these programs.

Fact is, to have any sort of authority to make pronouncements one has to put in the hours. Putting in the hours is expensive. The culture was just lucky that some of us put in the hours young and when we could afford to be idealists. We loved whatever art forms we loved, learned about it informally and came across elegant pieces writing on those forms and thought we could adapt the style and thought and rigour for our local scene. We are older now and see that to put in the hours is to take away those hours from paying endeavours. It is a privilege to have been foolish at that time but while we indulge the privilege still, the foolishness has had to go, forced out by the necessities of bills and adult living. The hours anyone spends to be an authority have to be rewarded. There is no hope otherwise–for the critic or the culture.

The hope is that younger persons today are still falling into that trap of foolishness and privilege. The heartbreak will come but just as we did, they, too, will have to find a way about it. The alternative is a culture scene in the future deprived of even the paltry reviewing system we have right now.

You also need institutional backing. No matter how bad publishing gets, the New York Times will always have a film critic, a theatre critic, a music critic, a book critic etc. Over here not one paper has a resident critic for any art form. They have reporters, badly paid ones. For those reporters to survive on a paltry wage they need to make friends and connect; they need those envelopes. Make no mistake, those envelopes are for coverage, PR that is. Most times the events already have what they need published and only have to send it. The work-swamped reporter can hardly breathe under all of his work–remember that she edits herself, attends all those events at her expense and has to file in a few hundred words under no-light and noise and a daily/weekly deadline. Where is the time for reflection for a reporter, before we get to discussing a critic?

As for this particular event, M has tried in getting a few of the programs mentioned. Ideally the papers and other online publications should have a team of reporters and critics to go out and cover these things. It is how festivals and publications work elsewhere. Anyone who writes the same piece M did would be paid pittance or nothing by any publication. M is different and lucky; he’s the editor of the platform he has written for.

But really the best way to review the Lagos Theatre Festival is to discuss the politics of the event itself. How helpful is the manner in which some of these organisations do the things they do? As D points out above there are things wrong with the BC’s approach. How many persons of the press did they contact? Are they online? Do they know if anyone writes reviews of any art form in Nigeria? If they do know will they get them to write about their program? Because they ought to know how freelancers work and slave here, will they want to pay? I say this because every one of the handful of people writing reviews really well are freelancers. I have my list and you probably have yours. Is BC aware of any of these people? Aren’t they still looking at This Day and Guardian and the rest, where it is reporters in charge, where one has to push and push to be ignored by editors too scared to run anything unpaid and of true value to the culture.

There’s a certain above-the-fray manner some organisations work and you wonder if they know anything at all about the culture space they purport to work in. And this is perhaps about the space itself–if our culture ministry is clueless as to these things, is it a foreign organisation that should know better?

I’ve gone beyond the brief I know. But I’m a working critic or I strive to be one. I work in the literal and metaphorical dark. And these things keep me up at night.

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