“We are not terrible people”

I return to blogging about the Caine Prize late, later than I’d have liked. Just as I return to reading late, later than I’d have liked. I’m still reading Mark Rifkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight? and have added Katherine Luongo’s Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900-1955 and Iris Marion Young’s On Female Body Experience to the pile. My critical/creative balance is still out of whack, though I’m not really sure it has ever made sense. Or that it should.

What has felt to me like the waning of interest in blogging on the Caine Prize (I’m not the only one late or stalled or disengaged) might have nothing to do with the stories themselves, though a few bloggers have suggested that they are not sure what to write or how to write about the stories. I feel a general sense of #notasbadas coupled with #evendecent. But, with @saratu on twitter, I’m not sure that’s enough. I want a story that will make me linger, that will play with legibility and illegibility, that will stretch my desires to read. (Perhaps I’m spoiled, as I’ve been reading wildly imaginative work by young Kenyan writers that shimmers and glows and sways and stretches, infusing the most quotidian and the most fantastic scenes with verve and power. Writing that stretches me and itself, writing that dares to risk itself.) Thus far, my reaction to most of the Caine-nominated stories resembles Linda Lovelace’s experience of sex in Deep Throat before she discovers her clitoris is in her throat: I feel tingles and it feels nice, but then nothing else happens.
Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” dares to tell a too-familiar story: the fatherless boy, abandoned by his mother, who joins similarly abandoned boys to form a street gang; the violence between boys as a way to establish hierarchy; tenderness between boys brought together by dire circumstances; survival and loss; and, of course, how such disposable boys engage with/in the political. It’s a story about a boys’ world, with few women, and, I think, no girls, or none worth dwelling on. It’s a story of making-do and getting-by, of truncated and frustrated masculinities, and of slow violence, accelerated, at the end, by machetes and bullets.

The story feels “familiar,” even as it refuses to be a morality tale. The pace and tone make it difficult for readers to forge a sentimental relationship with the narrator. Indeed, readers learn the narrator’s name halfway into the story. He remains faceless, unidentified, a persistent “I” who lacks “identity,” so to speak. In withholding the protagonist’s name, John reminds us of the casual disposability of those termed “boys” in towns. And it’s worth remarking that even when the name is offered, it is rejected:

“Which one of you is Banda?” a man asks from behind the truck. I can’t see his face.
“I am,” Banda replies.
“And this one, who is he?”
“He’s my friend, we sleep in the same place.”
“My name is Dantala,” I add.
“Well, we want just Banda.”
I am angry but I don’t say a word.

The unwanted protagonist is named only once.

When, in the final pages of the story, the protagonist sets fire to property and kills a man, there is a sense, I think, in which the story’s anti-sentimentalism is supposed to “explain” these actions. “Well,” one might say, “that is how those people are.” Even as the story struggles to explain, “we are not terrible people.” Necessity. Pragmatism. Perhaps a little ethical struggle takes place. Tingles. (One can imagine teaching this story for the little ethical struggle.)
Yet, I find myself resisting the story. Resisting the tingles, because I am unconvinced by how it deals with the protagonist. I get the “we are not terrible people,” but I wonder about the protagonist’s life. I wonder about the factual telling, the NGO-scriptedness of it, the absence of imagination. One could reasonably argue that the disposable are too consumed with need and care to dream or fantasize, and that all they can do is narrate event after event after event of loss and trauma and violence. What would it mean to imagine that the disposable have dreams and fantasies beyond the next encounter with drugs or violence? What would it mean to grant the potentiating of dreams and fantasies and even pleasures beyond numbing?

Although the narrator’s Quranic training is raised numerous times, it never takes on any life. What does it mean beyond knowing obligatory rituals? How does it infuse the story’s sound and sense and feel? We get a brief moment when the narrator realizes his shared humanity with those who didn’t attend Quranic school, but it’s too brief to matter. I am, perhaps, being unfair, as I’m thinking about how Bound to Violence and Ambiguous Adventure use Quranic training as plot and aesthetic elements. Yet it strikes me that the rich tradition of literature within which this story is embedded demands more, much more.

The risk of taking on a much-used character like the child-criminal/child-soldier is that, as with figures like the wise elder or the prostitute, the figure needs to be distinct enough to stand out in the crowd. I kept waiting for that moment when something would jump out and grab me and transform a nice reading experience into something more.
At the end of the story, the painfully humanist lesson of “we are not terrible people” seems to assess the story itself. It is “not a terrible” story. And is, in fact, pleasant reading. I still wish it had taken more risks, dared more, imagined wildly, stretched the possibilities of African writing, made the African imagination more expansive.

This is a lot to ask of any story. And, perhaps, a good, well-written story should suffice. And, perhaps, it is the very legibility of this story that concerns me: an African story that deals with “issues.” And humanizes (“we are not terrible people”).

I’m still waiting for what lies beyond, what has yet to be imagined, what will imagine differently, even at the risk of incoherence and illegibility.

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