31 May 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: An Introduction

Aaron Bady has come up with a great idea: since the Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded in five weeks, and there are five short stories nominated, why not write about one story a week until the award?

I'm going to throw myself into this, because I think the Caine Prize is important, and the exercise could be fun. I hope lots of other folks will join in.

Here are the nominated stories, all available online as PDFs:

[Update: My contributions: On "Hitting Budapest", On "Butterfly Dreams", On "What Molly Knew", On "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata", On "The Mistress's Dog". Then a final post after the award was announced.]

To begin, though, and as an introduction, here's a review I wrote of Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, for the winter 2010/11 print issue of Rain Taxi.


edited by Chris Brazier
New Internationalist ($18.95)

by Matthew Cheney

The Caine Prize for African Writing was first awarded at the 2000 Zimbabwe International Book Fair.  Named for Sir Michael Caine, who for many years chaired the management committee of the Booker Prize, the prize is awarded annually to a work of English-language short fiction by an African writer (the winners have all so far been from sub-Saharan countries).  Before his death, Caine had been working on ways to bring African writing in English to a wider audience, and his family, friends, and colleagues created the prize after his death to honor him and his efforts.
Because of Michael Caine's connection to the Booker Prize, the Caine Prize has sometimes been called "the African Booker", and Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing encourages this idea by leading with works by Booker winners Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.  Coetzee's story, "Nietverloren", is the only one original to the anthology, and his prominence as not only a Booker winner, but, like Gordimer, a Nobel Prize laureate, in some ways overshadows the Caine Prize winners, especially since Coetzee has rarely published short fiction.  Okri contributes a sententious introduction and a story, "Incidents at the Shrine", that tells an allegorical tale of an urbanized man being purified through contact with spirits in his rural village.
Beginning the book with stories by the Booker winners who have African connections is understandable from a marketing point of view, but it unfortunately makes the Caine Prize seem not so much like "the African Booker" as "the lesser Booker" -- after all, the Booker is given not to short fiction, but to novels, and it has the power to make its winners into overnight international bestsellers.  On one hand, placing the Caine Prize winners alongside the work of Okri, Coetzee, and Gordimer encourages us to see them all as equals; on the other hand, it is very obvious that the differences between the prizes and their winners is substantial.
This is not to suggest that the Caine Prize winners are bad stories; none of them are, and many of them are more vivid and gripping than, at least, the two plodding and obvious stories by Gordimer that are included ("The Ultimate Safari" and "An Emissary"; Gordimer has written some brilliant short fiction, but you would not know that if you only read these two pieces).  Coetzee's story is minor in comparison to the accomplishments of his novels, but a minor story by one of the greatest living writers in the English language is still an impressive piece of work, and the tale has a complexity and richness lacking from all but one or two of the other pieces in the book.  In telling a story about one man's perception of the changes in pastoral South Africa during the course of his life, Coetzee offers a delicate and complicated perspective on nostalgia, change, commercialism, and authenticity.  There are ironies in the story, and the portrait of a sad, alienated man is affecting while also incisive: we do not, as readers, need to accept his admittedly bitter interpretation of life in South Africa as objective and accurate, but his view of the world as a place ineradicably commercialized is seductive.  (It makes for a particularly interesting comparison with Okri's "Incidents at the Shrine", which tells a very different story of a man returning to a changed home.)
The sort of complexities "Nietverloren" offers are absent from the other stories in the book, which tend to be more straightforward. Most of the prize winners are slice-of-life dramas featuring many of the problems that get sold to the non-African world as endemic to the continent: abject poverty, diseased slums, wanton political corruption, refugees, children of war.  If there are ironies in these stories, they tend toward the obvious, as in Mary Watson's "Jungfrau", the 2006 winner, wherein a character nicknamed "the Virgin Jessica" is proved to be anything but virginal.  The narrator announces from the first sentence that "It was the Virgin Jessica who taught me about wickedness," and the story goes on to show how.  There's nothing particularly wrong with such a tale, but there's also nothing exciting or innovative about it, either.  It is skilled, and that's about all.
Binyavanga Wainaina's "Discovering Home" is much more than skilled.  Seeming to hover in a genre divide between being a personal essay and a short story, it is an absolute masterpiece, full of both humor and pathos.  It builds on a simple concept: a man returning to his Kenyan home after time in Cape Town.  Wainaina's keen eye for meaningful details enriches this simple structure, and the abundant specificity of the narrator's observations and experiences becomes universally affecting for anyone who has ever returned home with new eyes.  There is an energy and humor to the writing that is absent from the rest of the book.
Henriette Rose-Innes's "Poison" may lack "Discovering Home's" wryness and brio, but it's probably the wrong sort of tale for such things anyway, being an apocalyptic science fiction story of a massive chemical cloud causing havoc in South Africa.  What distinguishes "Poison" from the other Caine Prize winners (aside from being the only story clearly set outside a recognizable present reality) is the clarity and grace of its writing.  The situation and plot are not especially original, but the imagery is polished and affecting, the sentences impressively efficient and balanced.  It's a haunting story, bleak but not nihilistic.

The individual Caine Prize volumes include the shortlisted stories and stories from an annual African writers' workshop, and the effect is quite different from this collection only of winners.  While the quality of writing in the annual volumes is more varied, the subject matter and story types are as well.  The Caine Prize judges seem to have narrow tastes, at least when it comes to picking a winner, and this is a real limitation not only of the prize, but of its loftier goals for  spreading awareness of African fiction.  African writers are no less diverse in the types of literature they write than non-African writers, but without much publishing infrastructure for fiction outside of a few countries on the continent, African writers who seek something more than local publication are at the mercy of non-African ideas of what constitutes "African literature".           
Bringing attention to African fiction is a worthy endeavor, and though the winners have, overall, been narrow in scope and technique in the first decade of the Caine Prize, the second decade may offer more variety of writing as the prize brings encouragement and resources to Africa's writers.

reprinted with permission of Rain Taxi

28 May 2011

Crabgrass and Manure

From the Letters of Note blog, a fascinating letter from Ken Kesey to the New York Times about the theatrical adaptation of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which starred Kirk Douglas):
The answering of one's critics has always struck me as doing about as much good as fighting crabgrass with manure. Critics generally thrive on the knowledge that their barbs are being felt; best to keep silent and starve them of such attention, let them shrivel and dry, spines turned in. So I have tried to keep this silence during the attacks on the Wasserman play of my novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest...figuring that the people who saw the play as being about a mental hospital, because it is set in a mental ward, are the sort that would fault Moby Dick for being an "exaggerated" story about a boat, also figuring that such simplemindedness is relatively harmless. And even keeping silent when the play was condemned because the subject of mental health as a whole was treated disrespectfully, or irresponsibly, or--god forbid!--humorously.

But when the defenders of "Cuckoo's Nest" begin to show signs of suffering some of the same misconceptions as the critics, I feel I must speak out.
Read the whole letter.

24 May 2011

Review of Evaporating Genres

Strange Horizons yesterday posted my review of Gary K. Wolfe's Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature.

That review begins by making a specific distinction between book reviews and a certain type of literary criticism, a distinction that Abigail Nussbaum considers in a blog post about the sorts of things she's looking for as Strange Horizons's reviews editor. I don't particularly disagree with the qualifications and complexities Abigail adds to what I wrote; the distinction I settled on was useful for that review, and seemed worth mentioning because it was absent from Wolfe's own taxonomy of reviews vs. criticism. As with so many things, in reality the distinctions are not hard and fast.

The Grim Miéville

From an interview with China Miéville in The Socialist Worker:
To this day, I often hear people on the left talk about "utopian, hopeful, progressive science fiction"--as if these are the same terms. Sometimes, "hopeful" fiction can be among the most reactionary. Sometimes, the "grimmest" and most depressive fiction might be really, really radical--or it might not, but it might be fantastic fiction.

Obviously, there's a question of taste. If you don't like "grim books," you probably won't like some of my books. That's fine--that's taste.

And you might well construct a political critique where you say, "The bleakness of these books is reactionary for the following reasons." That's fine. That's an analysis, and I might argue back. But to simply put out there that the books are in some way either lacking and/or politically reprehensible because they're downbeat is crazy.

My favorite example about this, within genre, would be Night of the Living Dead because--spoiler alert--Night of the Living Dead is a fantastically bleak film, and a very politically interesting film. The idea that somehow it would have been more radical had it had a happy ending is so crazy. In that particular instance, it's the unrelenting bleakness of it and the way it's done that make it such a powerful political film.
In other news, China Miéville can beat everybody up!

21 May 2011

Use and Abuse

Rohan Maltzen writes a memo to Marjorie Gerber about Gerber's new book The Use and Abuse of Literature:
You are caught, I think, in the tension many of us feel between our theoretical commitment to an inclusive approach to literature (some aspects of which you discuss in your chapter on the literary "canon") and our deep appreciation for the aesthetic and intellectual richness of certain texts. As professionals, we have learned that this appreciation is itself conditioned by ideas about what "literature" is and how to measure its greatness. You celebrate close reading and lament a tendency (of which you give no specific examples, which is a problem) for "the historical fact [to take] precedence over the literary work." However, close reading works best—as you glancingly acknowledge when you tie it to Archibald MacLeish's lines "A poem should not mean / But be"—on texts that are verbally complex, ambiguous, and densely metaphorical, rather than ones that work through affect, exposition, even didacticism, texts that address philosophical arguments or social problems rather than turning inward towards language. You praise "the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action," but once we acknowledge that different standards are also important—once we admit that, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, Felicia Hemans, or Walter Scott (none of whom are particularly ambivalent or slippery) deserve our critical attention as much as Herbert and Donne—we also need to accept other standards, other ways to appreciate and measure a text's significance. Ironically, when you abandon your relativism about what literature is, your anxiety about its reductive "uses" leads you to define it so narrowly that writers who don't think literature is "useless," who use it themselves for clear and potent purposes (what about Pope, or Dickens?) might seem to be ruled out—or against. Pace Keats, not all poets embrace "negative capability," and Henry James is hardly the last word on the relationship between morality and the novel.

Readercon is Just Around the Corner, And...

I was honored to be asked to join the programming committee for Readercon this year. Over the past 6 months or so, the committee, led brilliantly by Rose Fox, has come up with what will be, I think, a really interesting and diverse set of panels, discussions, talks, and readings. I just took a look at the items that will be heading out soon to participants for sign-up, and it's really satisfying to see where all of our discussions, brainstorming, and crazy ideas have led. Since Readercon is the only convention I attend regularly, it's fun to have the opportunity to help shape it a little bit. I just threw some ideas out there and wrote some descriptions of panels; the real work is being done by others, who are astoundingly dedicated and smart.

I'm noting Readercon here first to remind you (yes, you!) that it would be nice to see you there (July 14-17, Burlington, Massachusetts), and also to note that Readercon now supports Con or Bust, a project of the Carl Brandon Society to provide funding for people of color to attend conventions. It's very easy to donate to Con or Bust via Paypal and help increase diversity at SF conventions. If you are a person of color and are interested in requesting financial assistance from Con or Bust, that's pretty easy, too.

19 May 2011

The Unabomber's Books

By court order, the U.S. government has to sell off Theodore "Unabomber" Kaczynski's stuff. Intrepid and well-funded buyers can bid on such things as the sunglasses and sweatshirt made famous in the forensic sketch, various tools and personal items, numerous manuscripts, and a few typewriters, including the one he used to write his manifesto. All good fun for the memento-seeker, and the proceeds go toward restitution to his victims' families.

I was curious to see what books he had. Lot 12 consists of 5 paperbacks the FBI thought were particularly important: Chinese Political Thought in the Twentieth Century by Chester C. Tan, The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul, The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, Violence in America, and The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague De Camp.

Other lots include a well-worn Bible, a manual for wilderness survival, and various battered paperbacks mostly concerned with history and science, though there's also a collection of O. Henry stories, a copy of The Last of the Mohicans, and The Elizabethan World Picture.

Bid now on your favorite terrorist relics!

(discovered via Talking Points Memo)

An Outtake

My latest Strange Horizons column was posted at the beginning of the week; the subject this time is Joanna Russ.

One thing I thought about including, but couldn't figure out how to fit in, was that Russ's marvelous story "The Clichés from Outer Space" predicted one of the elements of Bryan Vaughn's comic Y: The Last Man (a series that I must admit I only read the first 3 collections of, its virtues utterly lost on me). In the comic, the Daughters of the Amazon are a bunch of evil, man-hating lesbians who cut off one of their breasts to be able to shoot arrows better or something, which is what some folks have  said the actual Amazons did back in the day (the myths are contradictory). It's possible that this noxious stereotype is ironized and deconstructed later in the series; I didn't stick with it long enough to find out.

The relevant passage from Russ's story is one I quoted only a sentence of in the column. It's from the section called "The Turnabout Story, or, I Always Knew What They Wanted to Do to Me Because I've Been Doing It to Them for Years, Especially in the Movies":
Four ravaging, man-hating, vicious, hulking, Lesbian, sadistic, fetishistic Women's Libbers motorcycled down the highway to where George was hiding behind a bush. Each was dressed in black leather, spike-heeled boots and carried both a tommygun and a whip, as well as knives between their teeth. Some had cut off their breasts. Their names were Dirty Sandra, Hairy Harriet, Vicious Vivian, and Positively Ruthless Ruth. They dragged George (a little sandy-haired fellow with spectacles but with a keen mind and an iron will) from behind the bush he was hiding in. Then they beat him. Then they reduced him to flinders. Then they squashed the flinders to slime. Then they jumped up and down on the slime.

"Women are better than men!" cried Dirty Sandra.

"Lick my boots!" cried Hairy Harriet.

"Drop your pants; I'm going to rape you!" cried Vicious Vivian in her gravelly bass voice.
Etc. It's great stuff. A first version of the story was published in the April Fool's Day issue of The Witch and the Chameleon in 1975; an expanded version appeared in Women's Studies International Forum in 1984, and then was collected in The Hidden Side of the Moon in 1987. Y: The Last Man began publication in 2002.

18 May 2011

Teaching with The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

I wrote a bit about The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction back when it first came out, and then a few weeks later I was tasked with having to create a syllabus for a "Special Topics" course in our Women's Studies program that I called Gender & Science Fiction. I knew I wanted to start the course with a variety of short stories to give the students some experience in reading SF before we plunged into novels, but I couldn't find an anthology that was eclectic enough for my needs. Then I remembered The Wesleyan Anthology, and took a look at its table of contents to see how well it would fit. Bingo, I had one of my textbooks.

The students will present their final papers on Friday, and I wanted to take a moment here to say that the anthology actually worked even better than I thought it would, and try to explain some of the reasons I think that is so.

14 May 2011

And We're Back

Blogger, the service I use for this here blog, had a 20+ hour outage, and posts from May 12 disappeared for a while, which meant that shortly after I posted it, my interview with Maria Headley went away. (We could, I suppose, blame the outage on Egyptian gods angry with Maria for revealing their secrets...)

It took a while for everything to get back to normal, and I had to republish the post a couple of times to get the labels and date right again (apologies to anybody reading via RSS who felt like the post was stalking them). But all seems well now.

I've been using Blogger since 2003, and this is the biggest glitch I've encountered with it. There are certainly things I would change were I a programming genius who worked for the company, but as free services go, it's pretty great. I've used a few other blogging platforms for other projects, but among the free options, I've never found anything with the same kind of flexibility I'm looking for. And heck, anybody who uses computers ought to be prepared for some glitches. The timing of this one was particularly frustrating for me, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

I used Twitter to let folks know what was going on, and while I'm really not a very good Twitterer (not much of a Twit?), it's convenient at such moments.

And in honor of blogging and the internet, here's a picture of my cats, Oliver and Alex:

12 May 2011

A (Second) Conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley

Today marks the official release date of Maria Dahvana Headley's first novel, Queen of Kings, and to celebrate the occasion, I present to you below a conversation Maria and I had via instant message yesterday. This is a Mumpsimus first: a second interview with someone. Though I've done a bit of interviewing here over the years, I have never, until now, returned to an interview subject. Talking with Maria is always a great joy, and there isn't a person I'd rather do my first second interview with.

The first interview, back in 2005, with Maria is here. But now the first in what perhaps will become a series here: the (Second) Conversation With... series. We shall see...

Queen of Kings is a historical fantasy set in 30 B.C., and it stars Cleopatra. But not exactly Cleopatra as we have understood her in most of the history books -- for though this Cleopatra conforms to the known history, certain elements of that history are explained via supernatural phenomena. It's a bloody fascinating adventure, and I mean that in every sense of the phrase "bloody fascinating". I am not, I must admit, generally much interested in history or literature from before about 1580 C.E., but nonetheless, I found Queen of Kings to be a real page-turner; if it can keep somebody like me interested over its entire length, then I expect folks who really love ancient history and myths will be in ecstasies of joy whilst reading.

Also, don't miss Maria's music playlist for the book at Largehearted Boy.

Matthew Cheney: I know you were working on another novel when you found yourself suddenly amidst Queen of Kings. What was it about ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, and magic that took over your imagination?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I think it was the fact that the other novel was about my family history. Anything might have looked desirable in comparison, particularly after 4 years of working on that book. Kidding. Ish. Queen of Kings hit me suddenly one afternoon when I'd been roaming around moaning about how I couldn't seem to finish the other book.

I didn't even know it was about Cleopatra at first -- this book is the first installment of a trilogy, and I had the idea for the second book before I had the idea for this one. I ended up following a character backward into the classical period, 30 BC, which is when Queen of Kings is set. It's not really a spoiler to say that my main character is immortal. There's no time travel, but if you've got an immortal protagonist, you can do a lot of interesting things in terms of setting.

11 May 2011

In Which I am Melded

I participated in the latest SF Signal Mind Meld, answering (at length! egads!) the question, "Which challenging SF/F stories are worth the effort to read?"

The other participants are Jeff VanderMeer, Farah Mendlesohn, Mike Brotherton, Alan Beatts, and John C. Wright. We'll be touring as The Melded, tickets soon available via Ticketmaster.

01 May 2011

In Which I Interview Carol Emshwiller

Eric Rosenfield has very kindly posted the video from my interview with Carol Emshwiller on April 18. Thanks to Susan Emshwiller for jumping in as camera operator. The interview was preceded by a magic show, which explains my first, awkward question. I'll embed the video below the jump.

The Carol Emshwiller Project, by the way, is still alive. Now that I've got a copy of The Collected Stories, vol. 1, I hope to post at least a little something about it over there, but I'm not going to have time to do so for a week or two, I expect.

Emma Goldman on the Haymarket Massacre

It's May Day, so worth spending a moment to remember the Haymarket Massacre, the fight for an 8-hour work day, the struggle for workers' rights, and other events quaint and distant from our present utopian bliss now that we are ruled by a socialist President.

Here's Emma Goldman, from the first chapter of her autobiography, Living My Life:
That night I could not sleep. Again I lived through the events of 1887. Twenty-one months had passed since the Black Friday of November 11, when the Chicago men had suffered their martyrdom, yet every detail stood out clear before my vision and affected me as if it had happened but yesterday. My sister Helena and I had become interested in the fate of the men during the period of their trial. The reports in the Rochester newspapers irritated, confused, and upset us by their evident prejudice. The violence of the press, the bitter denunciation of the accused, the attacks on all foreigners, turned our sympathies to the Haymarket victims.