Here is the last of the Caine Prize story reviews. It’s been pretty amazing featuring reviews—of the shortlisted story—written by bloggers and writers of note in the African literary community:
Orem Ochiel’s review of Oduor’s “My Father’s Head” , Richard Ali’s review of Diane Awerbuck’s “Phosphorescence” , Aaron Bady’s review of Billy Kahora’s story , Kola Tubosun’s review of Tendai Huchu’s “Intervention”
I am happy to join in the review efforts by sharing my thoughts on Chela’s delightful story.
Efemia Chela’s story, “Chicken,” originally appeared in the Feast, Famine and Potluck collection.
You can read the story HERE.
In “Chicken,” Efemia Chela conjures a powerful image of the strange twenties—that awkward, intermediate phase in life when one is neither girl nor woman.
The narrator, who is also the principal character in the story, has recently graduated from university. Her large extended family has celebrated the end of that phase of her life. She is sent off into the world to find a profession, to acquire the means to support herself, in short, to become a woman.
But instead of embracing this well-trodden path to self-becoming, the narrator chooses the uncertain path of experimentation, first with self-imposed poverty and eventually with sexual experiences.
Her parents are wealthy. She could have taken their advice and gone on to pursue a law degree and, by doing this, counted on their financial support. She doesn’t.
She’d rather go “where her heart led”—to slumming it in “the bum end of town,” to “laughing, talking, smoking and dancing,” to “polyamorous” boys and girls, to “old men…dribbl[ing] nonsense in [her] ear over synth beats,” to the symmetrical bliss of same-sex encounters—“breast to breast”—but without the dogmatic allegiance to lesbianism.
The way I see it, the story is asking questions about the invention of the self. We all feel the pressure to come of age, to follow the road most taken to becoming a man or a woman—getting a university degree, achieving financial independence, and then making a family. Chela, it seems to me, is asking whether there is room for experimentation in this work of self-invention.
The character is faced with a very familiar choice: pursue a cookie-cutter life as a lawyer or continue down the road of maddening uncertainty.
Many of you will find what she ends up choosing puzzling, and even criticize her for it. But one thing remains clear: Chela’s narrator refuses to come of age on any body’s terms but her own.
Chela’s story is interesting not just at the level of ideas but also with respect to writing. Her description dazzles. I was particularly struck by the food scenes.
It’s universally known that African novels are not the places to find the best sex scenes. What of food? Have you come across memorable depictions of food in your readings of African novels? My guess is that there aren’t that many, which is why I find a moment like this one worth holding on to:
From my father’s side came slow-cooked beef shin in a giant dented tin pot. Simply done, relying only on the innate flavor of the marbled red cubes of flesh and thinly sliced onion getting to know each other for hours. It was smoked by open charcoal fire and lightly seasoned with nothing but the flecks of salty sweat from nervy Auntie Nchimunya constantly leaning over the steaming pot. Mushrooms were cooked as simply as Sister Chanda’s existence. Fungi was hoped for in the night and foraged for at dawn. My favorites were curly-edged, red on top with a yellow underskirt and fried in butter.
The last time I saw a description of food this vivid was Ben Okri describing pepper soup in The Famished Road.
Under the strain of Chela’s writing, description is a form of conjuration.
About Efemia Chela
Efemia Chela is a 21-year-old writer with her body in Cape Town and her heart in Japan. She had a bumpy childhood in Zambia, England, Ghana, Botswana and South Africa. She is married to a film camera. They go everywhere together and have many square children. She gets her thrills from remotely attending international fashion weeks, artistic intertextuality, old movies and tasting new cuisines. The short story “Chicken” is her first published work.