I am arrested by this:
That evening, I was hunched over, sweeping my apartment with a broom, the native kind, made from the raw, dry stems of palm leaves, tide together at the thick end of with a bamboo string.
How is “native” supposed to be read? What is the function of “native” in this story? What does it legitimize about the author? How does it imagine the reader? What’s the reader’s relationship to this “native kind”?
The danger of the Caine Prize for African writing might be the emphasis put on “African,” an emphasis that rather than allowing for African-ness to proliferate and fracture and kaleidoscope weds it to repeated images: the “bush,” the “native,” the “family,” the “community,” the italicized words for food, the legibly African.
It is into this scene of sweeping that a cake-icing seduction takes place:
[Gloria] dipped her finger into the cake’s icing and took a taste of it. Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held out the clump to me.
‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile.
. . .
I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger. . . . I was kissing it off her lips.
This seduction scene—unremarkable, and even Mills&Boon ordinary—is interrupted:
Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspaper and have heard of them in the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing,’ as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as it it’s so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love.’
I have wondered what it means to say that one is fighting for ‘love.’ As though good sex were not enough. Or even bad or indifferent sex. I wonder whether love is asked to bear too much, excuse too much, justify too much, and I think about its unevenness, its incoherence, its difficulties. To fight for “love” is not to fight for something necessarily benign, good, or pleasurable, It is to fight for something most often described as “terrible.”
And what would it have meant not to interrupt the seduction? To allow it to play out without inserting the heteronormative family and the homo-hating state? Would it have made a difference to suggest that desire happens, pleasure happens, as a form of forgetting, as a being-in-the-moment? That queer desire is never simply an “against,” but also a “for-itself”?
“America” might be a story about the African queer imagination of the U.S., a place the narrator imagines through snow, “Pretty, like white lace.” This image contrasts with the crude oil that slathers other characters in the story. The U.S. is antiseptic, a place that “whitens” those who go there (when the “pale” Gloria returns after a year abroad, she is “paler.” Fanon might term this “lactification.”) In “better” “America,” people’s faces are “relaxed,” the landscapes “beautiful,” “clean places, not littered at all with cans and wrappers.” A place “where even the skin of fruit glistened.” A place where mosquitoes might not even exist.
I’m imagining stagnant waters painted black and brown with crude when finally someone calls my name. The voice is harsh and makes me think of gravel, of rock-strewn roads, the kinds filled with potholes the size of washbasins, the kind of potholes we see all over in Nigeria, the kind I imagine America does not have.
I keep being arrested by this story. Struck by these moments when the fairly sophisticated narrator enters the fantasy-land of the U.S., as though the U.S. is still as inaccessible to be imagined now as it was in the 1960s.
“America” might be a story about what one needs to imagine in order to leave a less bearable here. Yet, it lacks a certain density, a certain weight, a certain flavor. There’s a flatness to the descriptions of places and events, a kind of textbook quality to the earnest descriptions of environmental destruction, a kind of expected flatness to most of the characters.
I’m not really interested in stories that imagine lesbians in simple, uncomplicated ways: a kiss, a relationship without conflict, a promise of forever somewhere.
One imagines a checklist: homosexuality; environmental destruction; corruption; immigration. All the boxes have been checked. And I’m bored. Really bored.
I have wanted my imagination to be stretched, for writing to reveal new possibilities. Instead, I experience this story as nice, competent, and dutiful. Unlike others, I will not comment on which story should win the prize—my opinion would not matter anyway. It does seem clear that as currently constituted, the Caine Prize is not the place to look for innovative, unusual, or experimental African writing.