Sometimes a Suitcase is Just a Suitcase: On Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid”
Photo by John Perivolaris.What I like about short stories is that almost anything can make a story good. Or at least good enough. A novel needs to justify itself to you, needs to make the number of hours you’ll spend with that book worth it. Even if time isn’t money—and sometimes it is—it’s hard to get away from the fact that the time you spend reading a bad book is time not spent doing whatever it is that you never have time to do these days. But a short story can live or die by a single effect. A short can have flat characters, weak description, and be a bad version of some other story you’ve heard before, but if it does just one thing right, really right, it’s worth it. It’s a good story, or a good enough story.
Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid” is a bit on the long side, close to 10,000 words, the upper limit on the Caine Prize. When Kola complained, mildly, that “nothing explains the length of this work,” that’s what he was talking about, I think; it’s not that it’s long, in absolute terms. It’s that it’s long enough to need some justification. Where was this story going? What was going to happen? What will be the payoff for all the time spent with some characters that are not, to put it bluntly, very compelling?Ben suggested that “it reads to me sort of like the author looked at a diagram and turned it into a story? which, like, its very successful at, but” and, as normally happens when I read his tweets, I agree completely but couldn’t really say why.
At the most basic level, it’s a story about the protagonist’s return to Sierra Leone, his birthplace, which he left as a young man named “Balogun,” and to which he returns as an American named “Logan.” It takes the story less than a page to get through this prologue; having arrived in America “a wiry-thin young man in his mid twenties” in the first sentence, the third paragraph begins “Two marriages, one to a White woman, and three child-support payments later, Logan, in his early forties, emerged…” And we’re off.
The plot is fairly simple. Having spent twenty years in the United States—and having become a reasonably successful construction worker, although not the economist he had set out to be—Logan returns to Sierra Leone, finally ready to play the part he left home to play. He will be the “been-to,” the native son who makes good in America and returns to Africa to spread his largess among his friends and family. And in its broad outlines, this is an old and familiar story, one which had its heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the first(ish) generation of Africans educated abroad returned to be big shots in their home countries. Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments, and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy are classic examples of the genre, and “Foreign Aid” hits some of the same notes: Logan showers all and sundry with the dollars he’s saved up for the purpose, and they run out much more quickly than he expects; he attempts to play the big shot in a cash-for-prestige economy which takes his money gladly but gives him less of a return on investment than he expects; and he attempts to modernize and reform his family—and uplift his country—endowed with an overweening confidence and belief in his personal importance, as a consequence of the foreign glamor he now carries.
That said, Logan is not a “been-to.” He not only has been to America, but he will return to it, leaving only his money behind; he isn’t Balogun anymore, and doesn’t intend to change back. As Keguro put it, he’s more like the stereotype of the “ugly American,” expecting everything to be as he expects it to be and reacting angrily when it is not. His sense of injustice and entitlement isn’t totally unreasonable, but it is somewhat naive, and definitely unattractive.He also uses phrases like “Bull Spit” in a way that isn’t even offensive or obscene, just… ugly. But the important thing is that his return to Sierra Leone is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.
As the title suggests, this story is saying something about (or simply analogous to) the ways that Africa gets flooded with “foreign aid,” money from the West which ostensibly seeks to uplift and do good, but which—perhaps—does not. Logan doesn’t only want to help his family financially, nor can he; while wealthy by local standards, his purse is not bottomless, and he quickly reaches the limit of his resources (by the time he goes back home, he is broke). Instead, he vows to focus on something more like what one might call “smart aid,” attempting “to adjust and restructure his family” using the expertise and knowledge he thinks he’s acquired in the United States to bring about reformatory changes (so as “to help his parents and provide a sustainable future for his sister”). This language, like the title, makes the parallel clear enough that it almost isn’t right to call it figural; he literally relates to his family the way a donor country relates to its beneficiaries.
Smart aid doesn’t work very well when you are not smart, however, and Logan is not particularly smart. He is quickly stymied in most of what he tries to do, and he literally throws money away faster than he means to. But his main problem is his sister, who he had planned on bringing back with him to the United States. When she turns out to be pregnant by a certain “Ali Sayyar,” the foreign name of the father rings all sorts of bells for Logan:
“Even before he’d left for America, Logan had heard stories of Lebanese and Syrian merchants mistreating, abusing, and raping their Sierra Leonean maids. It was not enough that this man’s name was involved with the corruption at the highest levels of government, but he was also sowing his corrupt seed in the country’s women and had, in fact, sowed his dirty, foreign seed in his sister.”
Logan thinks he’s a realist; he dislikes the fact that his sister is pregnant by this foreigner, but he has no illusions about his ability to change the blunt fact of it. He just wants to make sure the guy supports her. But when he tries to force Ali to commit to supporting his family—wants him to put it in writing—he discovers that he, himself, has been the absentee party:
“Take advantage!” Ali Sayyar chuckled once. “Mister, let sleeping dogs lie. I will take care of it.”
“It? Jack, tell me how much you’re gonna be giving Ayo per month and let’s get it down in writing ’cos I don’t want to end up supporting your family.”
“Like I have been supporting yours?” Ali Sayyar leaned forward, a cobralike alertness replacing his deferential demeanor.
“Giving my sister chump change is not supporting my family, Jack.”
“Well, you’d better go and ask your mother who begged me for monthly provisions. While you’re at it, ask your father how he got his car, who just bought parts for it, and how much provisions I send to his woman at Fort Street.”
It turns out, in fact, that Ali Sayyar owns the very house that Logan’s parents live in; he is their “benefactor” in ways Logan not only did not comprehend, but with which he can’t really compete. More than that, while Ali might be of foreign extraction, it turns out that he was born in Sierra Leone, and unlike Logan, intends to continue living there. In this sense, Logan’s knee-jerk nativism is not only unfounded, but ricochets back at him: of the two of them, Logan is the foreigner. There is even the suggestion—not spelled out, but strongly implied, I think—that the tryst between Ali and Logan’s sister is already a well-established arrangement, in which sex and money form part of a larger gift economy of secret obligation. It is unclear whether Logan’s sister’s pregnancy was the beginning of this arrangement, or the result of it, but either way, what we learn is what Logan didn’t understand: one can be a big shot from overseas, but you can’t necessary waltz back in and own the place. For that, you’ve got to live there.
Why is this story so long? We pretty much end there, with that big reveal, and then Logan spends the rest of his vacation sulking in his room. He tries to get some kind of return on his investment, as he puts it, by getting a pretty girl to meet him at a hotel, but she doesn’t. And, you know, that’s that. He goes home, and looks ugly doing it. It feels like there should be a final sting, but there’s only one last shot of Logan being Logan, which is to say, vaguely ugly. The last line is “Logan hissed.”
Why does this story exist? Why does this guy get so much, you know, screen-time, when he neither seems to warrant it nor looks good using it? Why do we care about him? He doesn’t even get a comeuppance. Another way to put it would be: why did this story have to be written? What makes it worth being shortlist for the Caine Prize? What makes it great? I don’t think this is a great story, but that sounds negative in a way I don’t really intend, because demanding that of it is to ask too much. Demanding that a story be great is to make a short story transcend its genre, and sometimes a short story is just a short story: uninteresting in a bunch of ways, but just right in the one way that makes it worth your time.
Here is what that one thing was, for me: this is a story about a been-to on whose fate the fate of the postcolony does not rest. Logan’s is not the Story of Africa, or the New Immigrant Narrative. It’s not the tragic destruction of the American Dream, and Taiye Selasi will not look to this ugly charmer to populate her next “On the Afropolitan” essay. But not many people really are those people. Most people are just regular old ugly and interesting. And it’s nice to read a short story about someone who’s just resolutely normal, just a regular guy who doesn’t really deserve to have a novel written about him. Just a short story.