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SSDA’s 2017 anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa.

We announced that we would begin publishing reviews of the top three stories from the Short Story Day Africa Prize. The stories, alongside 18 others, appear in ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Nebila AbdulmelikOtiene Owino, and Helen Moffett, and published by New Internationalist (UK & USA). ID is out in bookstores and on Amazon KindleMichael Yee was joint runner-up for the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize for “God’s Skin.” Here it is reviewed by Lesotho’s Moso Sematlane. Read reviews of the winner Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor‘s “All Our Lives” and joint runner-up Agazit Abate‘s “The Piano Player.”

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It is Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 oil on canvas painting Night-Hawks that first comes to mind in my initial reading of Michael Yee’s “God Skin.” In the painting, four characters sit in the emptiness of 27/7 diner, sharing the same space but isolated from each other. “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city,” Hopper said of it. “God Skin” is set in a restaurant, and on the surface level this is the only similarity one might find between the two artworks. However, like Hopper’s, Michael Yee‘s paint-brush is concerned with the same tones and textures of loneliness and  of longing. The opening paragraphs of the short story find us with a protagonist who can “hear the ghost of the sea” and a “sky distilled to photographic negative.” “The last of the customers leave the restaurant,” Yee writes, immersing us in the sacred language of isolated reflections against glass and lonely, empty spaces that give the story a self-contained feel to it, like a phantom world that appears when one of the character turns the restaurant sign “from Open to Closed.” These are worlds that appear, like in Night-Hawks, when the rest of the world goes to sleep.

The world that “God Skin” situates us in is the Golden Phoenix, a family restaurant run primarily by our protagonist’s husband and his sister whose food always tastes bland. Though the husband’s other relatives populate the background of the story, we are made to feel the claustrophobia and isolation that arises when our protagonist is around them. Through their loud talking around the Lazy Susan, their blindness towards the protagonist’s secret longings, loneliness and isolation become the tones Yee makes the reader swim in. The longings in this regard are caused by one Vannette Okanta, a waitress at the Golden Phoenix, and the only splash of colour in our protagonist’s grey world. Holed up in the claustrophobia of an arranged-marriage, an arranged life, the protagonist’s feelings for Vanette gain the type of acuity that makes stories of unreciprocated love so enduring, where the promise of reciprocation not only makes us hope for the “girl gets girl” moment, but signifies the protagonist’s personal freedom from the trappings of organized society.

If the policing around sexuality and womanhood isn’t prison enough, Yee further renders a communication barrier between the protagonist and Vannette, as one can speak Mandarin while the other cannot. This is perhaps the most masterful stroke in this story. Here, the language of desire becomes a tactile act expressed through the body, “Vannette’s shoulder brushes mine as she rises, she smiles out of the corner of her eye. I’m out of control, I should stop looking at her.”

The canvas of the body is returned to again and again in this story, a taut thread that accompanies the unbridled emotion of love with urgency, and even a bit of shame. The key word here is “skin,” though one could misread it as “sin” and still be correct. Early on, the protagonist incurs sunburn that remains a nuisance for much of the narrative; one that darkens her skin to the point where her family demeans her by comparing her to a monkey. Associations with the “sin” of Ham and subsequent prejudices against black people aside—which can become problematic once the reader re-contextualizes the protagonist’s cultural background in relation to her shame around “black skin”—Yee juxtaposes the protagonist’s desire for Vannette Okanta against the darkening of skin, a poison of shame that spreads up to her labia. “Even the pasty skin on my thighs has tanned brown. But now, as I squat down I see that my labia, always the darkest part of me, has turned black.  These are not my genitals. This is not my skin.”

Yee’s paint-brush expertly captures the searing backlash that can sometimes accompany same-sex desire, not so much from the outside society but from inside the lover, a blooming flower of shame that adds a layer of complexity that is unique to queerness and queer love. “I’ve been hating myself since I opened my eyes,” the protagonist says. In a moving scene adorned with magical realism and glittery prose that will take your breath away, and one which acts as a center-piece to the story, the protagonist washes away her mask, both figuratively and literally, shedding off old skin in order to inhabit new skin.

“Roots grow from the soles of my feet, through carpet, through floorboards, through concrete, through earth, through bedrock, through water, through fire. . . Run to the tap. Bring my mouth down to the stream: the water on my lips is lukewarm, tasteless. I wash my mask off. And watch it spiral down the drain. We abandon so many faces to discover who we are, what is one more?”

Though questions about the “skins” that we wear daily are raised to sharp poignancy, Yee’s handling of the association of skin and masks becomes a little clumsy. Though sentences like “We abandon so many faces to discover who are, what is one more?” and later “Love is an act of war. Love is older than reason. Love is choosing sides” are beautiful in their own right, they serve as attempts to impose thematic statements upon the reader, rather than letting the reader draw those inferences themselves from the protagonist’s actions. Even though metaphoric lyricism like this works to add beauty to the story, it can feel out of place in a story which seemed to start in a curt, conversational linguistic mode. The effect is such that the story has a feeling of being divided into two parts that don’t marry together as well as they should.

The rhythm of Yee’s sentences flows like the best piece of music, and has a unique staccato progression that captures the voice of a protagonist who not only grapples with the complexities of spoken language but also with the more abstract language of the heart and its longings. At its core, “God Skin” is a love story, and the tension point that draws us in is formed around whether the two lovers will end up together. When that answer comes, the protagonist has inhabited a “new skin” that has her contemplating, ”What will it take to burn all this to ground?,” in a chilling, unforgettable dénouement that shatters the dreamy world of the restaurant that Yee had set up in the beginning. The outside world encroaches, barred only by a gate “peppered with bullet holes from the war.” The protagonist’s life behind this gate is a dirge for all those unfulfilled longings, those stolen glances in a crowded bus where language is insufficient to capture our heart-songs. In Edward-Hopper’s Night-Hawks, one looks at the characters in the diner, lonely and communal in their loneliness. You almost dread the coming of morning, because it means it will tear them away from each other, each fading back to the humdrum of their lives. For those willing to hold on to notions of romance, at times moments like this can be interchangeable with moments of intimacy. The lingering stares, the desire to touch coupled with the inverse fear of reaching out for the touch itself; for some, these moments may be as fleeting as Time, but at least for a while, they existed and they mattered.

Read Michael Yee’s “God’s Skin” HERE.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:

Moso Victor Sematlane is a fiction writer from the vibrant kingdom of Lesotho. When not observing the world around him, he can be found in the pages of a novel or with his eyes glued to the flickering screen of cinema. He believes fiction has the power to change the world and has been published in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Enkare Review, and Likheleke tsa puo: New writing from Lesotho. You can follow him on Twitter here: @Moso_Sematlane

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Otosirieze is deputy editor of Brittle Paper. He is a judge for the 2018/19 Gerald Kraak Prize. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective, which has published volumes including We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018). He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness, including Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016), which explores cities, and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017), which explores professions. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, is working on a novel, and is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He combined English and History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is completing a postgraduate degree in African Studies, and taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him at otosirieze.com, where he accepts writing and editing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze. When bored, he Googles Rihanna.

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