Damning With Faint Prize: Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”

This is my third (and regrettably tardy) post on the shortlist for the “Caine Prize for African Writing,” on Stanley Kenani’s  story “Love on Trial,” which you can read here (in .pdf form). For an updating list of the other bloggers writing on it, see the bottom of the post.  
Like many of my blogging comrades, my problem with Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” is that it was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. I don’t mind that it exists – it does not “offend” me, in other words

It is, in fact, precisely the opposite of “offensive”; so blandly unobjectionable that I have had some difficulty putting my finger on exactly why I dislike it.
– but it does bother me that this story has been taken to be prize-worthy, judged to be some kind of exemplar of “African Writing.” I really hope it doesn’t win. As Stephen puts it in his review:

By choosing a story that is so blatantly issue-led, a disservice has perhaps been done to the continent’s fresher literature – for, just as what has come to be called ‘poverty porn’ (this story has none of that) patronises a continent, so too there is something patronizing about what smells like a deliberate selection of a heavily moralistic, issue-led story such as this, which action seems to reinforce the antiquated truism that ‘the African aesthetic’ (what’s that, then, in a continent so diverse?) is somehow exclusively message-driven, as ‘Love on Trial’ seems, yes, to be. African cultural production is pigeon-holed by such an implication.

Are poets – to wax Shelley-an – the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Would it be better if they were? Perhaps, but if they were, they’d be shitty poets. And perhaps this is part the problem I have with this story: it isn’t a story (or what I expect a story to be), but is, instead, a morality fable aimed at winning votes, influencing opinions, changing minds, and so forth. I feel preached to. I feel messaged at. And somehow, in some important way, this seems like a different thing than what I take a “story” to be. In short, I agree with Ikhide that it’s “a cringe-worthy tale; preachy social commentary roaring into town wearing the unctuous toga of a short story” and I agree with Saratu that in struggling to “balance a deep political consciousness with the discipline to prioritize the writing of a good story,” Kenani “focused too much on former than on the latter.” The long middle section in particular – the dialogue between Charles and the TV presentor – not only reads like a pornography of righteousness: we know the ending, but we take pleasure from watching the good guy win the argument, as we know he will.

Matthew works hard to try and save this scene, to salvage its didacticism, but doesn’t convince even himself; that, to me, says a lot.

All of that said, maybe we've moved too quickly here, too quickly accepted a distinction between "politics" and "art." It’s worth thinking about that distinction, and how easy it is to say that in being the one thing – in being politically conscious social commentary – a piece of writing cannot, therefore, also be that other thing: a story. But why would that be so? And more importantly, why would it be so intuitively so?

Which is to say, by polemically asserting their conjunction, their original distinction (conceptually) is presumed by the very need to argue it?
For a start, there is a polemic tradition within African writing that claims “political” and “aesthetic” are not only not distinct, but that African writers are uniquely tasked to conjoin them. At the first International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists (at the Sorbonne in 1956), for example, Leopold Sedar Senghor declared that “African literature is politically committed” and you hear this sort of thing over and over again from that generation, and the one following it; I could cite all sorts of examples, but I’ll confine myself to Chinua Achebe’s statement – in his 1965 “The Writer as Teacher” – that what he did could be called “applied art” and that, given the cultural and social devastation of colonialism in Africa, all African art had to be:

“The [African] writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he should march in front…Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind. And I don't see why the two have to be mutually exclusive.”

I cite these two figures not as the authorities they are so often taken to be, however – respectively, the “fathers” of African writing in French and English – but to help frame the particular stakes in this very old, very vexed, and very unsettled debate within the context in which this story finds itself, the question of what is and isn't African Literature. Must a story be political to be good? Must it not? If Things Fall Apart is applied art, then what is wrong with Kenani’s story, also, being “applied”?

The more we ask this question, though, the more it starts to become unanswerable at the level of principle and polemic we're forced by the frame to adopt; when people start talking about what “African” writers are or should be, we are on shaky ground. It may be that these sorts of statements needed to be made in the 50’s and 60’s because of the particular dilemma that faced African writers at that time, united as they were by the cultural experience of colonial rule and national independence. And certainly a great many of those writers seemed to think so and found a certain value in saying so. It may even be that a novel like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart did have a certain peculiar kind of artistic burden placed on it; perhaps the fact that there was no clear model for what “African Literature” was or was supposed to be when Achebe began writing imposed the necessity to invent it, which made it necessary to think long and hard and explicitly about what the role and function of a writer might be in the series of “new” nations which were “emerging” at that time. In that particular context, in any case, it makes a particular kind of sense that an African writer would be seen to have a particular kind of political burden.

But it’s the absence of that context, by contrast, that makes the overtness of Kenani’s politics begin to stand out so starkly, start to have a politics of its own. After all, the need for someone like Achebe to define African writing (as “political” or otherwise) flowed out of a basically liberationist impulse: to step outside of the inherited colonial narratives, imposed from without, and self-determine African-ness in some new form. Whether or not they did this well, or how well, is not the point; for that generation, just to claim a particularity for the tradition was as political as the content they applied to it. To claim that “Africanness” even had a content – other than as existential absence of civilization – was the foundation of their literary project, the starting point.

Where the ellipsis goes in that previous quote from Achebe, I excisesd these words: “In the middle of haI would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”

By contrast, there is a complete and total continuity between Kenani’s politics and a very particular narrative quite literally “imposed from without”: repression of homosexuality is bad. Which, of course, it is!

If there’s a defense of the story, I think it would be by making something more interesting than I am able of this fact of “being bothered.”
But I can’t help but be a little bit bothered by the way the story quite literally dramatizes and seems to revel in the imposition of an external Western moralism onto a repressive African traditionalism, the way devastating trade sanctions (which have the concrete result of impoverishing a variety of the story’s characters) are made to represent the force of morality bringing misguided Africans to realize their error. This is a story whose moral is given in a form that scans as “traditional,” the parable that is delivered at the very close of the story. But that parable only interprets or translates the event that a haplessly hateful African man is too stupid to realize he has brought on himself. After Charles is thrown in jail, the International Community steps in, deus ex machina in every sense:

Britain is angry. America is annoyed. Norway is furious. France is outraged. Germany is livid. Through envoys, they have made their disappointment known to the Malawi government.

The official government spokesperson, the Honourable Mrs Josephine Liyati, who is also the Minister of Information, was on News at Eight, saying, ‘Donors are threatening to cut aid but we don’t care. We are a God-fearing nation. The wishes of Malawians should be respected. We will not be held to ransom by aid. We view this donor reaction as an affront to the dignity of our nation. Malawi is a sovereign state. Let them keep their aid, and we will keep our religious and cultural values.’

The donors, of course, cut aid…The results of aid being cut are beginning to show. There is no medicine in hospitals. Fuel has become so scarce that the government has begun ‘fuel broadcasts’, in which it is announced, without any hint of shame: ‘The nation has fuel that will last us for one and a half days.’ Teachers are protesting because their salaries have been delayed for four months. Inflation is rising.

What bothers me about this story, in other words, is that if it delivers a political polemic – if it argues that loving sexual behavior should not be criminalized (and who among its readers will argue with that?) – then it also dramatizes that political message being delivered and imposed by the force of international sanctions, with the concrete cost of human lives. For their lack of shame, Malawians are to be punished by a lack of medicine, fuel, necessities; for deploying the language of dignity and and sovereignty, they are to be punished.

To put it a little stronger, the fact that there is nothing to object to in this story’s “message” is exactly the problem; the fact that we believe it to be wrong to throw homosexuals in jail puts us, as readers, on the side of the international community’s morality police, and – more to the point – its methods.

At the opening of the story, Kachingwe is a popular drunk who spins the story of having walked in on Charles and his lover fucking in the toilet into free drinks and popularity. At the end of the story, we get this account of his satisfyingly sad fall: “There is no longer anybody ready to buy Mr Kachingwe a tot to hear more about Charles’s story. It seems Mr Kachingwe has nothing more to say, besides repeating himself over and over, and sometimes creating new details nobody really believes can be true. Mr Kachingwe’s number of friends has diminished drastically.”
In a story whose pleasure seems to be watching Mr. Kachingwe receive his comeuppance, we have no choice but take the side of those who deliver it. This pleasure becomes all the more disturbing when the form in which that comeuppance is received – which would in reality be lived misery – is represented to us as a bigoted old drunk who can’t get his booze. It is hard to be upset about the latter, and that difficulty covers over the necessity to be upset at the former.

There is more to say about this story, actually, or rather, there is more to say about what this story does not say. A story that expresses the humanity of people who are denied the right to be human is a different thing than a story that gleefully punishes their oppressers, and this is the latter. If we want to think about why gay people are not grievable life in so many parts of the world, in so many cultural contexts – and if we want to understand how we are complicit in diminshment of humanity – then we should read writing that is actually interested in what goes on when a man fucks a man, that does something other than hide it in the closet, or toilet. A story that is interested in what Charles and his lover say when they’re not addressing TV cameras and a hostile public – that privileges their point of view and their humanity, instead of measuring its worth by how well it convinces bigots to be more “tolerant” – would be a story I’d be interested in reading. And a story that’s actually interested in thinking about why certain parts of Africa have become so deeply hostile to gay people – how Victorian moralism managed to put down such deep roots, crowding out the sexual heterogeneity that was thinkable and experienceable before Victorian imperialialists conquered most of Africa – would be deeply worth writing. Not to mention that a story like this one set in Uganda, for example, would end much more interestingly different, with the US doing nothing, as a result of the power held by evangelical lobbyists with close ties to the very same Ugandan government officials sponsoring anti-gay bills.

”Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
But the real problem with this story isn’t even what it says or what it doesn’t say. The problem with this story is how it frames the problem of Africa as a thing to say, how it demands that Africa be a problem, and how in the only frame of reference it makes available to us, it weds the moral certainty of bigotry to the assertion of words like sovereignty and dignity -- making them accessories to a crime we are given no choice but to condemn – while the imposition of Western values by means of starving children dying of disease becomes the only means of satisfying narrative resolution. But while the story doesn’t please me, in this sense, for what it says and doesn’t, it only becomes concretely odious when it takes on a representational status that it shouldn’t be given, when this is what it means to be praiseworthy African writing, when this becomes the frame of reference by which "Africa" becomes speakable.

photo of front page of Daily Times on Sunday, May 20, 2012, taken by Frank Kumwenda, via.
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