A Quick Response to ‘Love on Trial’ by Stanley Kenani – the third of the shortlisted Caine Prize stories.

Guest Posted By Stephen Derwent Partington. Read the story here in pdf form.

From the outset, I should apologise and invite flame-mail . Firstly, ‘quick responses’ are always inadequate. Secondly, no, I can’t write short stories as well as Stanley Kenani can, and so, yes, should be kinder. Yet, I can redeem myself a little by revealing that I have read a number of Stanley Kenani’s writings before, and have enjoyed them, admiring especially their conscience. But perhaps this confession will do nothing but slightly soften the blows, to which I also attach this caveat: the blows are not aimed at Kenani, of which more later. Finally, great congratulations to Kenani on being shortlisted. And so on, and so forth – there are lots of genuinely generous things that can be said about Kenani’s writing, and I should like to admit that I am willing to say them, because they are true and he is a talent. However, it is ‘Love on Trial’ that is, as it were, on trial here, and that within the context of the Caine Prize…

After praising the first two of the shortlisted stories – with qualifications, the solid ‘Bombay’s Republic’, and with fewer qualifications, the excellent ‘Urban Zoning’ – I now find myself more concerned. Aesthetically and, as we shall see, socially concerned. The ‘short story’ has always been a somewhat fluid critical term and literary form, and yet I’d propose that we call ‘Love on Trial’ something different, perhaps an argumentum or a prolix exemplum, or a parable, or perhaps, even, a traditional (legal-philosophical) dialogue, as much of the ‘narrative’ is in fact rather straight debate between two characters, notably Charles Chikwanje and a gay-bashing television journalist, Khama Mitengo (which I read as homophonic Kiswahili for ‘like one who divides’). Indeed, ‘Love on Trial’ reads like a plain disquisition, a presentation and discussion of the issue of alternative sexualities in the African specifically Malawian, context.

Of course, alternative sexualities – or what tend still here to be called ‘homosexual’ or ‘unnatural acts’ – are being hotly debated in Africa today, most loudly in the South and East, from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi up through Kenya and, most notoriously, Uganda. Although, perhaps ‘debated’ is too naïve a word; ‘condemned’ might be a better choice, and perhaps therefore Kenani’s textdoes perform a useful ‘compensatory service’, opening up debate between interlocutors (one of whom, Charles, is gay, educated and eloquent) in fiction in an attempt to rectify the lack of generous debate in wider Malawian society. Still, to commend it in such a way is to clutch at straws.

A quick summary of ‘Love on Trial’ reveals: some chap, Mr Lapani Kachingwe, catches Charles – a final year law student – and an unnamed other young man cottaging, having unspecified gay sex in the toilets at a local school. Exaggerated moral outrage ensues from the ‘Christian’ general public. The media interviews Charles in his village, whereupon Charles debates homosexuality with the presenter, Khama, at great and prosaic length. Charles is subsequently imprisoned for his act. Foreign countries impose sanctions on Malawi and the country suffers in various ways. Along the way: all of the critics of homosexuality are themselves criticized in the story, as drunks and otherwise ‘immoral’ in ways that, it is implied, are worse than being gay (one chap gooses a goat); as mere voyeurs suffering from a scoptolagnia that sees them more interested in hearing Kachingwe’s story for reasons of titillation that reasons of edification (I have wanted to use the word ‘scoptolagnia’ for a long time, and so thank you, Mr Kenani). But this technique of ‘you’re worse than us’ and ‘you’re all hypocrites’ seems a little hackneyed, frankly; in addition to this, it rarely wins converts to your side of a debate. Other standard devices in the story include Charles countering Khama’s accusation that homosexuality is ‘unGodly and unChristian’ by referring to the biblical love between David and Jonathan, and so on – and yet here, as elsewhere, Kenani seems to do this a little heavy-handedly, and the reader is left feeling that s/he’s eavesdropping on a somewhat bloodless and politely turn-taking secondary school debate rather than a convincingly passionate exchange of views. I didn’t find the dialogue persuasive. Equally labored, I felt, was the attempt at the story-within-the story at the end of ‘Love on trial’, in which Kachingwe, now dying of AIDS, is told a fable that, we must assume, enables the reader to decipher the moral of Kenani’s text just as Kachingwe at the same time has his own final epiphany regarding his and wider Malawi’s hypocrisy. By this time, however, I think I’d not only worked out the ‘moral’ (I’m not a great fan of stories with firm morals, even where I agree with them), but had also sort of, well, given up. So, if you want to learn the moral, read the story yourself – an instruction that I give, in part, to be fair: you really must read ‘Love on Trial’ yourself, because I’m certain that my reading is inadequate and that Kenani deserves better. That written, I feel that the ‘gay debate in Africa’ itself needs better, frankly.

I could here go beyond the text and very thoroughly into the debate over ‘homosexuality’ in Africa, pointing out how its criminalization has nothing to do with ‘Africanness’, but is invariably a neocolonial inheritance of imposed ‘Colonialist Constitutions’ (in the way that Appiah suggests nationalist ‘nativism’ isn’t native, but Herder-bred, perhaps); or we might draw attention to the American evangelical right’s imposition of its domestic debates upon Ugandan and other politics (a genuinely traceable imposition that undermines the ludicrous assertion that ‘being gay’ is the thing somehow imported and imposed from ‘The West’). But I won’t. And I won’t, not because such debates aren’t desperately important, and not because I don’t hold very strong opinions on this matter that no doubt overlap with Kenani’s own point of view. Rather, I won’t because ‘Love on Trial’ simply doesn’t inspire me to consider – let alone actively debate – these issues with anything like urgency. In fact, it performed, for me, something of a disservice to the cause: by creating a Charles who is so dull and pretentious in his stilted legalese, and presenting dialogue that is so forced, it made me think, ‘So what!?’ And of course, given that so many gay people in (South and East) Africa are genuinely under various types of threat – of violent lynching, of exploitation, of workplace discriminations and even, so it once seemed hideously possible in Uganda, state execution – to be led to believe that life-and-death issues are unimportant, is something of a fail, at the very least.

Kenani’s story does, however, perform some of the services and possess some of the strengths that I hinted at earlier, and yet I don’t feel that it has any place winning the Caine Prize, which supposedly celebrates the best of new young African writing. And here I feel that this is not Kenani’s fault, but rather I’d point a gently pokey-nosey finger at the Caine short-listers. 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 pisgeon-holed by such an implication. Also, since I could point to many more interesting issue-led short stories published in Africa during the period relevant to this 2012 Caine Prize, I am wondering whether this one wasn’t selected simply because its particular issue is topical, the darling issue of the western middle class – and again, I feel a little saddened that this might be the case. A cynical part of me, then, worries that Kenani’s story might have been chosen to ventriloquise (and as a consequence, ventrivialise; ugh) the liberal west’s concerns. But now I’m sounding more like Mugabe or a Ugandan bishop than I would like – when indeed my views are the opposite – and again I feel that this is the fault of the opportunism of this short-listing. Or maybe I’m passing the buck and being unfair to the Caine Prize panel. Or…

Certainly, I feel that a story that has its strengths and its clear place, has cynically been yanked uncomfortably out of place and into a prize-system where it and its issue becomes devalued. Worryingly, I hear the ghost of those whispers in the Caine-selection corridors breathing out the mantra, ‘This will get us publicity, this will get us read and onto the BBC’s arts programme’.

In brief, I admire Kenani’s conscience and look forward to more of his writing, and yet while I hope that the gay community wins its struggle by winning the hearts and minds of folk, I do not hope that this story wins the Caine Prize, through no fault of Kenani’s own.