A Reflection on the African Short Story
An essay from Zimbabwean Marko Phiri
AS a fan of the short story genre, I have over years past wondered what makes the short story such a powerful and appealing genre. From the under 5,000-word masterpieces to the kind of terse flash fiction that throws you off your chair, there is something about condensing an idea into a moving narrative that is at the opposite end of a 100,000+ word or thousand-page opus. It says a lot about the writers and the creative process. American creatives being who they are, have for generations lapped up on the short story for adaptation for the silver screen: think obvious names such as Philip K. Dick or Stephen King or further back to Edgar Allen Poe. In pursuit of the Holy Grail of African short fiction, African writers and professional critics and judges (invariably white with your token black) of short story contests have been at each other’s throats on what exactly makes a short story a great short story.
I have read anything from Richard Wright to Langston Hughes to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Raymond Carver to Charles Bukowski, a diverse kind of short story telling that has always left me on awe. I am always surprised that when the subject of “what you read” always has to include African writing, and being a Zimbabwean, your list MUST including Dambudzo Marechera as if he is the ultimate standard. I have read Caines prize winners, some great, some not so great, and the diversity is just as telling, and predictably perhaps, so-called great short stories have more often than not been sources of rabid contestations. Yet I have also noted that the stories that I have appreciated have no gimmicks, just straight up story telling. What has always taken me aback is reading a review of African writing no doubt from a Eurocentric perspective that the writing is “Dickensian” or “Dostoyevskian” or “Chekovian” or “Kafkasque” etcetera and wonder how many African readers would identify with such references, or worse still the writers themselves. Yet this has become the standard as set elsewhere removed from what would be African writing’s own benchmarks — if they ever existed.
A few years ago, an African fellow posted his short stories online and got a lot of praise from readers who kept asking for more, but one white man, a buzz kill of sorts who nailed his credentials on the mast as a world-travelled literary agent, jumped in to dismiss the writer, telling him no international publisher would pay attention to him. Like WTF? Who the fuck does the guy think he is, I imagined the writer yelling. It was telling that a total stranger would interject and define what or in fact how this African chap should write and for whom.
But then it’s a well-worn pain-in-ass polemic that has seen writers from the mother continent taking offence at being pigeon-holed into “African literature,” something that has concerned everyone from Ben Okri to Pettina Gappah. You read any sit-down with an African writer, what remains current in those cerebral dialogues is the question where they place themselves in the scheme of global literature. Or in fact where arbiters of global literature place them. It has resonance with what has been categorised as “world music” where music from other “worlds” remains outside the nomenclature of arbiters of good music.
That the world is full of contradictions is passé, yet I find it curious that while the Afro-optimist’s soap box is full of bluster about the African narrative, about Africa rising, within the sphere of fiction, there is resistance to be pinned down to “African” as seen by that movement from “here” where lifetime financial rewards are zilch to “there” where Mount Olympus awaits. It certainly is a profound issue of “voice” within the broad ambitions of identity politics as emerging from or extending to continental representation in the black Diaspora, but it has still offended many who nevertheless in different fora would appeal to the same to peddle the Africa rising make-believe narrative. Africa is rising yes, but I choose to write for a paying Eurocentric audience.
I have always wondered why stories that apparently pursue disparate structural trajectories and literary styles still seem to grab the attention of “judges”, the final arbiters of “great African writing.” For example, many times I have revisited Brian Chikwava’s “Seventh Street Alchemy”, a short story that I have enjoyed immensely for what I view as its lack of pretence to genre snobbery with its brutally honest brushstrokes. It reminds me of the brilliant writing that emerged in the 1960s and earlier of black South African writer/journalists famously called “the Drum Boys”, painting cathartic tales of ordinary folks under apartheid. Here you read easy-going prose not the stylistic rigidity we see today ostensibly informed by creative writing MFAs. It is this formulaic “new writing” that has some black South African writers frothing that why what they consider bland fiction by white writers seems to grab the interest of publishers. And invariably “prize-winning.” But back to Chikwava.
Seventh Street Alchemy is a past winner of the Caine Prize, and well-deserved, if I may add. I do not see any reason why I should hide my bias. Then I read NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” another Caine Prize winner. These are clearly two styles from different planets and could point to changing considerations — if at all — about what makes great writing, Chikwava having won in 2004 and Bulawayo in 2011. I do not read short fiction to waste my time on some faux analysis as if I’m preparing a doctoral thesis. I read for my own edification. It is here then that I start asking what lenses the judges of these things put on when they decide and declare “a winner.” Well, anyone can be a judge. Anyone who has a mouth has an opinion. But you obviously need an academic cap of some sort to be taken seriously.
In Seventh Street Alchemy, Chikwava’s muses are certainly street, a kind of writing that tells a story that must be told without appealing to any literary device or stylistic contraption, something manifest in many recent prize-winning short stories that have made difficult reading for ordinary folks. When one prize was announced, a journalist colleague remarked rather incredulously, “this is a boring story, how did it win this prize?” It was a sentiment I have heard many times. Obviously the convenient retort would be: “different strokes for different folks.” Yet such sentiments do carry relevance if the continent’s literature is to be consumed by the continentals.
Loud complaints galore that African writers are writing for Eurocentric audiences, which is ridiculous (not the claim but the writing itself) if knowledge production also becomes a victim of continental flight, knowledge production fleeing and joining the unmerry band of 21st century’s boat people. Yet it has become trendy that an MFA is a must-have for a successful writing career which I find ridiculous as the much envied American writers who become overnight millionaires writing pulp fiction or roman a clefs seemingly have never bothered themselves about enrolling for an advanced creative writing course. Obviously there are professional editors who guide them along the way, yet it remains their own story, their own voice that puts plenty food on the table.
But these demands do exist for writers from the mother continent and it can be seen in winners of big name awards who are either English literature professors or creative writing alumni and it will be agreed this still has not turned anyone into a Chinua Achebe (yet).
It definitely has resonance with other counter-expressions about other international prizes such as the Booker Prize for example when an old criticism was that crime fiction was considered not good enough to grab the attention of judges. One book reviewer actually wrote that Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings was “not your typical Booker winner,” simply because it was a “crime novel.” A quote would suffice: “It is very interesting to see the Man Booker Prize embrace such and exciting and violent tale that veers deeply into ‘crime novel’ territory. While Eleanor Catton won two years ago for a book she herself called an ‘historical, astrological murder mystery’, in general the Booker Prize has generally eschewed anything that leaned towards ‘genre fiction’, and A Brief History Of Seven Killings is definitely a crime novel. Full of violence and murder and gangs and exploring the issues of crime and its effect on those involved, A Brief History Of Seven Killings may be literary in style, but it is without doubt crime in nature.”
But who cares, perhaps the world of books and literary awards is changing, perhaps it is not, what remains as clear as day in an African savannah is that for many an African reader and writer, winners would claim the prize by popular reader acclamation. Or buffs would call it trivializing “serious literature?” That would be the day.
Africa's encounter with the West and its implications and consequences remain far-reaching and enduring in the craft and thrust of its creative writers. The contributors to ALT 33 analyse the connections between traditional stories and myths that have been told to children, as well as the work of contemporary creative writers who are writing for children in order that they understand this complex history. Some of these writers are developing traditional myths, folk tales, and legends and are writing them in new forms, while others focus on the encounter with the West that has dominated much modern African literature for adults. The previous neglect of the cultural significance, study, criticism and teaching of children's literature is addressed in this volume: How can the successes and/or failures of stories and story-telling for children in Africa be measured? Are there models to be followed and what makes them models? What is the relationship between the text and the illustration of children's books? What should guide the reader or critic of children's literature coming out of Africa - globalism, transculturality or internal regionalism? What problems confront teachers, students, publishers and promoters of children's books in Africa? Ernest Emenyonu is Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint, USA; the editorial board is composed of scholars from US, UK and African universities. Obi Nwakanma is now Reviews Editor for the series HEBN: Nigeria
Subjects: Language & Literature