by Kola Tubosun
As part of my five-week blogathon on the five shortlisted stories in the 2013 Caine Prize, I present some thoughts on the first story: Elnathan John’s Bayan Layi, first published at http://www.percontra.net/issues/25/fiction/bayan-layi/.
Bayin Layi is a story of street children, located this time, unlike those in Olufemi Terry’s Caine Prize-winning Stickfighting Days, in a real and defined city. The violence they experience is situated in recognizable political landmarks and scenarios, but like in Terry’s work, the scourge they in turn infest on themselves and the society is portrayed in isolation from the children’s personal stories. Who are they? Why are they here? Who are their parents? We are to assume that we know, because they are almajiris, merely hapless homeless urchins forced to survive. And survive they did, these children, aggregated from different defective backgrounds from around town, finding themselves without anyone else but each other, decide to live by rules they made up, egged on by a selfish and enabling society. Their presence in these larger crises in turn destroys society, and the cycle continues.
I approach the story from the familiar. A similarly sounding small town in Plateau State, called Barkin Ladi, was close to the little town of Riyom where I spent a year in 2005 as a “Youth Corper”. And through the rough year, living hundreds of kilometres away from home, one constant worry was a threat of sudden violence by aggrieved youths pursuing a social, political, or religious cause. By the time the NYSC was over, there were at least five nationally-reported cases of violence around Plateau, sometimes very close to where we were, where many people lost their lives. Compared to what is going on in the Plateau today, and Northern Nigeria in general, those were the more peaceful times in the state.
The similarity with Terry’s work are many: the kids fought a lot, they used hard drugs, they killed when necessary to survive in the harsh and brutal life they lived, kids fighting to survive on their own without any redeeming lifeline from the world of adults. Thematically, the author should prepare for these comparisons although the placing of the kids in an abstract reality in Terry’s work insulates it almost successfully from the problem of verisimilitude. At least it affords us more opportunity, than Elnathan’s work does, to suspend disbelief. He should also expect unflattering comparisons to style.
Here’s an excerpt from Stickfighting Days:
I’d dreamed of a killing blow, the single cut that cleanly ends life, but I’ve done that already, with Tauzin earlier. It was sweet. But now’s not the time for precision. I swing and thrust, mindlessly raining blows, and Markham is with me, shares my aim for we club at the judge’s head with no thought for accuracy. Even when he no longer moves, Markham and I swing for some minutes. Then I stop.
while the following is from Bayan Layi:
I hate that he was hiding like a rat, fat as he is. I strike behind his neck as he stumbles by me. He crashes to the ground. He groans. I strike again. The machete is sharp. Sharper than I expected, light. I wonder where they got them from…
The man isn’t shaking much. Banda picks up the gallon and pours some fuel on the body. He looks at me to strike the match. I stare at the body. Banda seizes the matchbox from me and lights it. The man squirms only a little as the fire begins to eat his clothes and flesh. He is dead already.
The sentences in both work are short and reasonable, with apt and vivid depictions of violence. In Elnathan John’s story at least, we come to expect that anything could happen.
In one short and frightening scene, the boys could not repress an ethnic blood lust that led eventually to a lynching when a boy suspected to be Igbo gave his name as Idowu, a Yoruba name. Sophisticated enough to know which name sounded Igbo, or which sounded Yoruba, they still gave the poor victim a beating which led to his death later in the day, away from the triumphant mob. “He had the nose of an Igbo boy,” we heard the mob say, and one’s blood boiled. As is the case with an actor getting into character to play an extremely dark role in a movie enough to elicit hate from an audience so believing of the portrayal, the writer succeeds in getting us into the children’s heads, and want to get out as soon as we can.
In another scene, a man escaping from a fire is referred to as dan daudu or “effeminate/homosexual” just before he was struck down and set on fire. We know from reading this that it is no exaggeration, that bigotry lives healthy and strong in many parts of the country, even on Facebook, that we fought a 30 month civil war over a series of crises that involved acts of genocide stemming from ethnic affiliation, and that in the hands of those to whom a sacred duty to purge the world has reputedly been granted from on high, this is a moment of cathartic orgasm. But the story is not one of that kind of balance, or political retribution, or justice. It is one of participant observation and reportage in a horrible scene. Anyone seeking redemption, or an artistic righting of that emotional assault somewhere in the story, would not likely find it.
According to Leila Aboulela, one of this year’s judges of the Caine Prize, in a piece discussing her process of choosing the stories, “nearly every submitted story reflected the economic, political and social difficulties of life in Africa.” In the case of this particular story, we glean the factors that enable child soldiers, child election riggers, child urchins, child thieves, and even children terrorists and suicide bombers: neglect, hunger, and immaturity. Does this reflect the “economic, political and social difficulties of life in Africa”? Yes, in many cases. Is that the whole story? No. But Leila continues: “The writers did not shy away from sensitive issues or gruelling realities.”
But serious subject matters do not guarantee a good story. There are other qualities that are more important – creative imagination, skills, the ability to invoke delight, plough depth, stir drama and chart connections, a sense of place, history and culture, characters who intrigue, an individual vision.
I will leave to the judges the decision on how this story meets the other criteria, or at least reserve my overall comparative judgment until I’ve read the other four shortlisted stories. As a creative treatise on the cause and effect of election violence, stolen childhood, and life on the streets however, it is an affecting story, but not a fresh intervention. The universality of the story and its premise make it at once easy to relate to and understand, and to abuse.
Those interested in resurrecting old debates about the audience of our stories will have a field day with Bayin Layi. Addressed to a Nigerian audience, the line between good and justifiable evil not being clearly delineated might turn the text in the hands of a less-discerning audience into a justification for evil. The hero of Bayan Layi is no hero at all, but a victim. We feel sorry for him in the end because the authors made us do it, but we are not sure that he – the character – is thus totally purged or cleansed from the conditions that created him (or his kind) in the first place. At the end of the story, he is fleeing, but there is no indication that it is a permanent one. How long until he returns in company of others to wreak violence? We don’t know. There is no redeeming factor. In the hands of a foreigner, the story plays into the caricature of the African experience as a cycle of meaningless violence, and the escape is romantic, redemptive, and cathartic. Not to me. Yet I suspect that it is the foreign audience for which the story is written. After all, many of the Hausa phrases in there are translated immediately afterwards.
Don’t get me wrong, the story is well-written. It is an important piece in the understanding the mosaic of violence now in the age of Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. It barely tells us anything new though (and by us, I don’t mean aliens just arriving in the world and meeting Nigeria – or Northern Nigeria – for the very first time). It does however create an affective interest in a flawed character, and makes us care for him as if he were one of us – which he is. This, for me, might be the story’s greatest strength. Across from the government secondary school where I taught English language as a Youth Corper was the country home of a popular Berom politician who once hosted us young graduates in his home to talk about politics, policy, and developmental issues. Sometime in 2012, after he had been a member of the Nigerian Senate, he was dead, killed in a sporadic (or, who knows, planned) attack on his convoy somewhere in the city of Jos, by warring tribes of suspected Fulani fighters. This depiction of the reality and root of violence (as inevitable results of neglect), though familiar, designates Elnathan’s work as a cautiously important one.
A glossary of the Hausa words in the story: Lambu means “garden”. Kuka means “cry” or a “Baobab tree”. Bayin Layi means “toilet” or “the next street” depending on context, while Gobedanisa is a proverb which means, literally, “tomorrow is far” or “tomorrow maybe late”. Acishuru (mistakenly written phonetically at least once in the story as Ashishiru) is a type of dwarf bean seeds, Ladadi is the name of a female born on Sunday, while Tanimu is a name given to a male born on Monday. Sabon Layi is a “new street”. Dan daudu means “effeminate” or as usually used as a form of extreme insult, “homosexual.”