Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Urban Zoning"

This is my second post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.) I'm coming a little late to Billy Kahora's story "Urban Zoning" (PDF) because it was finals week at one school where I teach and the last week of classes at another, so I haven't had much spare time, and then when I did finally start writing this it kept growing, and I disagreed with myself frequently, and I couldn't make anything cohere, and finally I gave up and just tried to salvage some of the maelstrom of questions and doubts that plagued me as I wrote. There are some thorough and excellent posts about this story up now, so I highly recommend following some of the links to them, which this week I will put first rather than last, because really if you do want to know about the story, you should read those...

Other writers' posts about "Urban Zoning" by Billy Kahora:
Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In

Thinking his way through (or toward) "Urban Zoning", Aaron Bady digs into a bunch of provocative questions about what it means for something to be an African story and/or a Kenyan story, and Stephen Derwent Partington, City of Lions, and Ndinda at Inkdrops, among others, have all placed "Urban Zoning" within its specifically Kenyan cultural context. It is a story very much of a particular setting: Nairobi (and, according to Kahora himself, a specific time: the '90s). That does, and should, raise the questions Aaron and others have asked about the story's resonance and even intelligibility to an audience that is not deeply familiar with the specific reality from which it is drawn.

In many ways, though, all fiction (all art! all everything!) depends on the knowledge, experience, and assumptions each audience member brings to it. This is also true for aspects of the story that have nothing to do with its setting — I think we saw with last week's story how each reader's assumptions about what a story should be and do affected people's appreciations for the actual story in front of them. My own preferences for fabulism and metafiction led me to notice, emphasize, and value those elements of the story more than other readers generally did, and my relative indifference to gritty realism in some respects got in my way with "Urban Zoning", a story I admired (there's some excellent writing in it) but was, after two readings, pretty much indifferent to.

It's entirely possible that my indifference stemmed from my having only superficial knowledge of Kenyan culture and Nairobi in particular. I've been there, but as a tourist, and not for an extended period of time. I've read more Kenyan fiction than the average American, but that's not saying much. Nonetheless, the setting felt less alienating for me than a story set in, say, Eastern Europe, a region about which I know almost nothing, have never traveled to, and have only occasionally read about. The characters, situations, and allusions were far easier for me to understand, or at least recognize, I think, than just about anything in The Illiad. At least with "Urban Zoning", I could think, "This feels like a sort of update of Going Down River Road..."

Instead, what probably kept me at a bit of distance from the story was a short attention span for booze-soaked tales of urban life. I want to think of myself as a person who is willing to read a story about anything so long as it is interestingly told, but this isn't really true — certain subject matter has got to be told in a way I find especially different from the norm for me to embrace it, while other subjects I'll happily read about even if they're written in the most ordinary, even clichéd, manner.

Stories of drunks wandering around had better be at least as idiosyncratic as Under the Volcano for me to surrender heart and soul to them. Or, for that matter, to have the depth and richness of detail that defines my memory of Going Down River Road. It is unfair, though, that I'm comparing "Urban Zoning" to two novels; it doesn't have the space to expand itself, and one of its strengths, I think, is the economy of its narrative: the structure of the sentences replicating the mood and patterns of thought of the protagonist, the choice of details, the contrast of characters and moments, the implications of its allusions and asides.

I highlight my own response here because it is easy to look at a story that relies on a setting or characters not from the most familiar templates of the world's dominant cultural powers and to say that the story's greatest obstacles are its cultural references — but this may not be the case. Readers are complicated, and stories are more than their settings and characters (and our response to those settings and characters may not be limited to our response to their cultural/geographical details). Consider, for instance, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger — two Zimbabwean writers of the same generation, both of whom spent some time in England, but their approaches to writing are quite obviously different, and readers, I suspect, are likely to find themselves more strongly drawn toward one or the other. (Tangentially: Some of this, too, relates to the forms and styles most popular with literature teachers. That Nervous Conditions is still in print in the U.S. and House of Hunger is not seems to me to be at least partly because Nervous Conditions fits so well into school culture. For a provocative exploration of that idea, see A.O. Amoko's essay "The Problem with English Literature: Canonicity, Citizenship, and the Idea of Africa".)

I suppose I'm thinking about this not just because of the questions Aaron raised, but even more so because I've just finished teaching a course called Currents in Global Literature for the second time, and in doing so I often highlight questions of how we read and, especially, how we value texts with unfamiliar references and allusions. My students in the class both times I taught it were almost all white, almost all from northern New England, mostly from New Hampshire. I've been consistently impressed by their intelligence and thoughtfulness, but for various reasons they are almost all quite ignorant of the world and history (as was I at their age, although I think I had a somewhat better grasp of history simply because it was of interest to me, and I've long been an obsessive researcher). The most challenging books in the course have proved themselves to be A Sentimental Education and Burger's Daughter, with The Kingdom of This World close behind but a bit less daunting because of its short length. The River Between (new this term, replacing Petals of Blood, whose challenges simply required more time than we had) and In the Country of Men were generally the most popular books in the course, and also the ones the students struggled with the least. Both are written in a plain, straightforward style that, yes, hides complexities, but the complexities are not on the same scale as those presented by Flaubert and Gordimer (or Petals of Blood).

During our last day of class, I talked with the students about what, if anything, had changed in their perspectives about reading books from places less generally familiar to them than the sorts of stuff they get in survey courses on American or British literature (although, really, is anything we read nearly as exotic as everything in the first semester of Currents in British Literature?). In the midst of that conversation, one of the strongest students in the class asked why it was that so many of the books we read are focused on struggles for a sense of national identity. Why, for instance, is Libya as a country such a topic in In the Country of Men and yet she couldn't think of any U.S. novels that are primarily concerned with U.S.-ness in the same way. I wished the question had come up earlier in the course — wished, in fact, that I had been aware enough to raise it myself — because it's so full of assumptions that there wasn't possibly time to really unpack it during class. Nonetheless, I said something about the privileges of power, the invisibility that it allows, and also the differences of circumstances of countries with less stable governments than ours (it would be absurd and, I think, immoral to write, for instance, a nice little domestic drama about apartheid South Africa that never acknowledged apartheid — it might even be impossible, because in such a setting, the unmentioned would scream out of the subtext). There is also the power bestowed by the dominant national publishing infrastructures and their expectations, a power Bernardine Evaristo was getting at in her comments as chair of the Caine Prize judges this year when she said, "I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader." I don't read that as being Eurocentric and looking to Europe for models, but rather as a point about the effect of power and dominance. Making generalizations about "American fiction" or "European fiction" is impossible and meaningless in ways that are obvious, but people who would never think of making such generalizations will go on to then make confident generalizations about the literatures of other places with less global publishing power, and those generalizations and assumptions will narrow the possibilities for what is seen as publishable for writers from those regions. What Evaristo is calling for, it seems to me, is not for African writers to mimic European writers, but to be given the freedom to be writers of whatever they feel most compelled to write, and for literatures of all sorts to rise beyond a regional reductionism, free of the obligation to be exemplary of their place.

Literature is, of course, partly bound to time and place — even the most unspecific story was still written by someone(s) and somewhere(s) with a particular language and cultural norms. Few stories are unspecific about this, and many, in fact, revel in the details of place and culture, and are all the stronger for doing so. (What would Under the Volcano be without Cuernavaca — and particularly the Cuernavaca of its time? Ten years ago, I spent two months in Cuernavaca, and it is not at all the same place as it was when Lowry wrote about it. My brain now contains, for a while at least, until senility gets me, both the Cuernavaca of my experience and the Cuernavaca I experienced in Lowry's novel.)

I've gotten far away from Kahora's story, its own specificities, and questions of African/Kenyan fiction generally. Let's return to something Aaron wrote:
The fact that the landscape of The Lion King is recognizably the East African Rift Valley and that the animals have Swahili names causes them to signify not as Kenyan but African, and this is the point: the typical American knows lots of (wrong/stupid/racist) myths about “Africa” (and may even know that they are wrong/stupid/racist), that person will still tend to know nothing at all, for good or for ill, about “Kenya.”

I beat this point to death, perhaps, to raise the question of whether the dilemma of the “African” writer and the “Kenyan” writer are different things. After all, Bernardina Evaristo, the chair of the Caine Prize’s judging committee, called for stories that “enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media,” and demanded to know “What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?” But does Billy Kahora’s story speak to or have anything at all to say about “Africa” as a continent? Or does it simply address Kenya? In expressing the aspirations of the Caine Prize in this way, Evaristo is enunciating the ambitions of a great deal of what has gone by the name of “African writing” in the past, the struggle to overcome the reader’s sense that the continent is a single thing — the coherent set of pejorative images and stereotypes which we all know — and to expand the reader’s sense of “Africa” beyond its presumed status as “a country.”
Who is the we in Evaristo's "enlarge our concept of the continent..."? The judges? Readers who seek out the Caine Prize stories? The world, the children, the ones who make a brighter day?

And what of Aaron's question, then: "does Billy Kahora’s story speak to or have anything at all to say about 'Africa' as a continent? Or does it simply address Kenya?"

Certainly, the rhetoric of the prize and the power that it bestows tempts us to look at the stories as embodiments of some geographic essential — a Caine Prize for African Writing presumes a meaning within the idea of "African writing" and creates an exclusion in the way any prize's rules do: no matter how broad and inclusive the definitions, there must be something that is outside the realm of the prize. In this case, non-African writing. (Really, it's the Caine Prize for African Short Stories in English, but that's another can of Pandora's worms...) While some might say that the differentiation is purely geographic, the ways we talk about the prize add ideologies to the geography: somehow, we want (expect?) the stories, especially the winning stories, not just to be written by people from a particular place, but to speak to and have something to say about the idea of Africa.

The obligation to address the idea of Africa is one those of us who are not African impose through assumptions and unconscious/unspoken expectations for writers who are from the continent. No one text can address a whole country, never mind a continent. Chris Abani has said, "If you want to know about Africa, read our literature — and not just Things Fall Apart, because that would be like saying, 'I’ve read Gone with the Wind and so I know everything about America.'" I wouldn't say Things Fall Apart is quite Gone with the Wind — maybe The Great Gatsby would be a better comparison — but the point is important. Obviously, one story, one book, one writer cannot be the embodiment of a continent's literature, never mind its many cultures or identities — and the same is true for countries and regions.

The texts that probably have the most to say about that idea, texts that directly speak to it, are ones that really take on the notions and absurdities that fuel it — I'm thinking especially of In the United States of Africa or some of Evaristo's own works.

Coming back to Kahora's story, who has the authority to say what it "speaks to" beyond our own experience of it? I don't, obviously. For me to say that the story embodies or just represents anything essentially African or Kenyan or Nairobian would be silly, even if I weren't suspicious of the idea that there is or can be something "essentially" African or Kenyan or Nairobian (maybe, instead of "essentially", a different term: "commonly" or "frequently" or "generally"). I don't have the experience or background to say. But I wonder if I have the experience or background to declare that anything speaks to or embodies ... anything... (I could not possibly declare, for instance, that any text speaks to the condition of being from New Hampshire, even though that is the place on Earth with which I am most familiar. I have no idea what it means to be from New Hampshire in any real sense. Or do I? It means not having a state income tax or sales tax, I know that. It means usually being surrounded by white people, except in certain parts of a couple cities. It means relying on automobiles because the public transportation is far from comprehensive. Is there is an identity within all that that I, as a writer, could speak to? I don't know. The idea doesn't interest me: it feels too small, too minor, too limited. I don't want either the burden or the limitation of having to speak to any identity with my writing. Perhaps that's a result of privilege. Perhaps it's a result of being from New Hampshire, where individualism is the strongest ideology.  Perhaps I've read too much Coetzee, perhaps I have been consumed by countervoices. [I once published a story with a magazine that publishes a very specific type: "stories of speculative fiction that feature gay male protagonists", and while I like the people involved and was happy to have the story reach an audience that seemed to appreciate it, I find such specificity unsettling, because it imposes definitions and expectations. I'm much happier with something like "Walk in the Light While There is Light" appearing at Failbetter, because the reader's expectations going in are much less narrow. But that may just be my own neuroses. I loathe expectations. Are we ever actually free of them, though?])

And yet there are commonalities of experience, whether commonalities based on place, language, events, personalities, or emotion. Without such commonalities, communication would be impossible and literature unimaginable. We would all be stuck in our solipsistic selves, incapable of breaching the gap between one person and another. Even after thousands of years, The Illiad still communicates something.

I keep trying to pull some sort of conclusion from this scattershot post. I've been writing paragraphs and deleting them, cutting sentences from them and moving them around, rereading what I've written and wondering why I wrote it, forgetting what the original point was...

I've lost Billy Kahora's story here. Its details still remain with me even now, though, and more than I expected when, ages ago, I began writing this post. There's a lot going on in and between its lines.

It's African, yes, and Kenyan, yes, and Nairobian, yes, because it's set in Nairobi, in Kenya, in Africa, on Earth.

It communicates images of people and places, of events.

It's still rattling around in my imagination.

More than that, I can't declare with any certainty.

Popular posts from this blog

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne

Upcoming Publications

Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd


Patriot (Seasons 1 and 2)