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.
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.