Blogging the Caine Year Three
My post on Caine Prize Stories in 2010 and 2011
The Caine Prize is considered Africa's leading literary award. Entry is open to anyone from an African country and the form of work is the short short. The patrons of the prize include three African winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Wole Soyinka. Chinua Achebe, winner of the International Man Booker prize, is also a patron. The award comes with 10,000 British Pounds and is given out annually at a celebratory event in Oxford. The short story is seen as a continuation of the tradition of African story telling which is one of the reasons the award focuses on that genre. The award began in 2000.
I began blogging on the Caine Prize short listed stories in 2010. As far as I know I was the only person to do this. In 2011 a number of bloggers posted on the stories which resulted in some very good posts and conversations. In 2011 much of the comments were about whether or not the stories were a form of what was called "African Poverty Porn". In 2010 there were several good stories and the winner, "Stick Fighting Days" by Olufemi Terry was just wonderful. In 2011 I thought the stories declined in quality a lot and I was disappointed in the winner.
I will be posting, as will a number of others, on a story a week for the next five weeks.
If "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babatunde is any indication, we are in for some totally great stories this year. I really loved this story. There is also, for most of use for sure including me, a lot to be learned about colonial Nigeria in the WWII era. As the story opens, young Nigerian men are being told that Hitler's army is right on the border of their country and if they invade they have terrible plans for the people of Nigeria. Many enroll in the British army as all of their lives they have been indoctrinated to believe that the white man was superior and they were honored to be in their army. Those who would not join were forced in to the army. They all thought the war would only last for a couple of weeks.
Babatunde does a great job of taking us through basic training and. the 40 day plus trip from Nigeria to the jungles of Burma where the Nigerian units were sent into the most dangerous of missions. At first our central character admires the English officers but he soon sees their feet of clay. The Nigerian units conduct themselves with great distinction. The Japanese seem to have a special fear of them. In fact when ever the unit comes upon dead bodies of Nigerian soldiers, they find the Japanese have cut them up into many pieces as they think the Nigerians come back to life if they do not. Babutunde did a wonderful job of letting us see what it was like to fight in the Burmese jungle. Just the bugs were enough to kill a lot of people on both sides. He saw terrible things and he did them also. One day he learns the war ended a week ago when the Americans dropped a very big bomb on the Japanese.
Not that many of the Nigerian soldiers made it home and everybody had a lot of questions for our central character. The war changed him in lots of subtle and large ways. He no longer looked up to the whites or feared them, he had contempt for African policemen and such who enforced the rules of the colony.
The story develops wonderfully when he gets back home to Lagos. I really do not want to give away more of this plot because it is so much fun, so smart and really flat our hilarious. In the closing pages of "Bombay's Republic" Babatunde takes into a different mode of narrative that totally fits with the plot of the story, a marvelous combination of form and content.
"Bombay"s Republic" is a great story, if there are better stories to come than this the we are in for a wonderful Caine Year. The story has a lot to teach us about colonialism and government authority in general. It seemed as it closed almost like an Orwellian precautionary fable. His prose style is perfect. I learned a lot about WWII as it impacted African colonies of England from this story.
You can find all of the short listed stories at the Caine Prize web page, as well as more background information on the award.