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Staff Review: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2012: African Violet and Other Stories

The Caine Prize for African Writing 2012
Author: Various
New Internationalist

The Caine Prize for African Writing is the continent’s leading literary prize, sometimes referred to as ‘The African Booker’, and it’s easy to see why when reading the collection of stories from this year’s slew of entries. The winning story, ‘Bombay’s Republic’ by Nigerian author Rotimi Babtunde, was inspired by the author’s desire to delve into a neglected part of African history:

Babatunde said he was moved to write his story because ‘that context of world war two in African history, and the story of the Nigerians who went to the Burmese front, has not been properly explored’. Growing up hearing stories of the war, and reading about it, he also wanted to ‘commemorate the sacrifice’ of the soldiers who died there. Alison Flood at The Guardian

The story itself is a real gem: action-packed, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, gruesome, scatological, laugh-out-loud funny, intelligent, and ultimately triumphant—quite an achievement for a 23-page story! I found myself going a bit crazy with my highlighter as I read, but before I start throwing quotes around, I’ll give you a snapshot of just what the story is about. It follows the eponymous protagonist, Bombay, who goes from a village in an unnamed African country under British imperial control to the ‘Forgotten Front’ of Burma in World War II, before finally settling in his own independent nation-state, the People’s Republic of Bombay. This journey is made possible by the expanding horizons of Bombay’s world:

    Before Bombay’s departure, when everything in the world was locked in its individual box, he could not have believed such metamorphosis was possible. … But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.

Indeed, possibility is a key theme throughout the story, and there were many other things that Bombay could not have believed were possible until he experienced them for himself: that the Japanese enemy forces could believe he was a cannibal with the ability to rise from the dead; that the local Burmese villagers could believe his uniform hid a monkey’s tail; that he could, as a black man, be praised for killing a white man; and that one of his imperial overlords could prove weaker than himself.

    Bombay had seen a lot in the war. Diarrhoeic Europeans pestered by irreverent flies while the men shat like domestic livestock in the open. Blue eyes rolling in mortal fear as another enemy shell whistled past. But never before had he imagined one of his imperial masters degenerating into a state so wretched. He found it good to know that was also possible.

Realising such possibilities, even against such a terrifying and gruesome backdrop, is what allows Bombay to become independent and triumphant: not just a decorated war hero, but also President of the People’s Republic of Bombay for 47 terms (each time unanimously elected by his citizenry of, well, himself!), as well as ‘Lord of All Flora and Fauna. Scourge of the British Empire. Celestial Guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars. Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem. Patriarch of the Unites States of Africa. Chief Commander of the Order of the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. And Father of the Internet.’

More than just imperial brutality, the vagaries of war, and the foibles of humanity, however, ‘Bombay’s Republic’ is a compelling  story of individual freedom and inner power:

    Bombay didn’t care much about memory or forgetting. For him, things would never be locked in boxes again and that consciousness, the irreversible awareness handed out not by charity to Bombay but appropriated by him from the jungle without gratitude and by right, was enough recompense from the war. With the campaign over, the only thing that mattered to Bombay was the brand-new universe of possibilities he would be taking home with him from the front.

I would say the collection from this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing is worth buying for this story alone, but of course it also includes the other shortlisted stories by writers from across the continent—including Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa—as well as stories produced by other African authors at the Caine Prize Writers’ Workshop last Spring, all of which are wonderfully diverse and well written. For a glimpse into modern African writing and life, beyond the stereotypes, you couldn’t do better than African Violet.

Find the book here, and buy at your local bookshop.

Lois Shedd photo

Staff Bio

Lois Shedd is Publishing Assistant at Palgrave Macmillan Australia. Her background is in literature and linguistics, and she completed her Master of Publishing and Editing at Monash University in 2011. Her if-you-were-stranded-on-a-deserted-island (aka ‘favourite’) book is The Lord of the Rings.

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