Sunday Reading

Frank Pasquale:

  • Technocracy as bankocracy as hypocrisy.
  • 13 ways of looking at American decline.
  • Rotten elites (PS: the book is brilliant till the last chapter).
  • How does PersonicX classify you?
  • The mustache will take your questions now.
  • Columbia U and finance: Take 1Take 2.
  • “If you can imagine it, you can see it here,” said a Broward Crime Stopper. “This is South Florida. I’m not that surprised.”
  • Ludic pharma: play with data.
  • The Jonah Lehrer take-down you’ve all been waiting for.
  • Big Elsie: “us or the stone age.”
  • Change you can barely believe, trade edition.  And “US government sides with Shell over victims of crimes against humanity.”
  • Outrage: “the servicers will get credit on the same loans they got taxpayer-funded checks for”
  • Plausible deniability for the imperial CEO at JPM; Apple edition; Sarbox angle; “The CEO ‘I’m in charge and I know nothing’ defense is alive and well because it has proven to be so successful.”
  • “Executive prerogative is to not be quantified, to mandate the quantification of others”
  • Lecture by Richard Bronk: Hayek “attempted a restatement of the central problem for economists and economic agents alike.” Hayekians must face up to the possibility that “free market ideology and deregulation itself may destroy the very institutions that market participants use to access dispersed and contextual information, and that it may lead to a dangerous analytical monoculture that corrodes the pluralistic underpinnings of the wisdom of prices.” Excellent on “data” in Hayek as well.

Bint Battuta:

Jane Hu:


Egypt’s “Coup by Proxy”:

Sunday Reading

Enter Jane Hu, stage left:

Boring old me:

ReclaimUC, defiantly debting as usual, but also enjoying an organic, locally produced burrito:

According to a report from the National Consumer Law Center, “The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) relies on an increasing number of private contractors to collect the approximately $67 billion in defaulted federal student loan debt.” Moreover, not only is the government on the hook for an increasing number of student loan defaults, but it is paying outside collection agencies huge sums of money to collect these debts: “The Department paid contractors almost $1 billion in commissions in 2011.” Thus instead of providing free public higher education, the federal government is lending students huge amounts of money that they can never pay back, and the result is that the feds have to hire expensive private contractors to collect the cash.

When Bint Battuta and Frank Pasquale are on vacation, I shamelessly steal from Gerry Canavan:

“The vigor of these baton thrusts is most distressing and should not be repeated”

Yesterday, the committee formed to review how the police handled the November 9th “Occupy Cal” thing last November — which I wrote about here — released their findings, only seven months later and squarely in the middle of summer vacation, when the maximum number of people would be not paying attention.  Read it if you’re a glutton for punishment like me; there are all sorts of lovely sentences like the one I quoted in my title. Perhaps slightly less vigorous baton thrusts, if you don’t mind, and if it’s not to much trouble.

Or don’t. It’s a shit-show, as usual; it’s absolutely filled with examples of individual police doing all sorts of things wrong, and lots of hairsplitting about whether protesters are merely “nonviolent” or also “non-compliant”: if you actively resist, you can be (and presumably should be) beaten with clubs until you comply. So, you know, awesome. As ReclaimUC is right to point out, the most important thing to notice is that the document adopts a “best practices” approach to policing protests: Given that it is necessary to take down the tents at all costs, the document presumes, how can we beat as few nonviolent students with clubs as possible while doing it? The problem is administrative, a technical problem. What tools can ensure total compliance while producing the minimum number of distressing PR images? Perhaps if the baton thrusts were 40% less vigorous, they would get the job done without being distressing.

The first 33 pages of the report are only worth reading if you want to see how moral subservience to administrative power clothes itself in the pretense of critique. But there is a kind of dissenting opinion included — called the “addendum” — at the end, by law student Eve Weissman (which you can read here) and it shreds much of the preceding argument. Three juicy bullet points:

  • “It is distressing that campus leadership continues to assume that “outside elements” pose an imminent threat, despite evidence to the contrary. Campus leadership should not prepare for protests based on the faulty assumption that individuals from outside the UC Berkeley community will be present – not without concrete evidence that this is the case and that such individuals will ferment disruption.”
  • “The Report does not address whether the campus leadership and police had a legal basis to remove the tents. This is a significant omission…Just as campus leadership should not respond to protests based on faulty factual assumptions, they should not respond on the basis of unclear or erroneous legal premises.”
  • “Based on both legal standards and the campus’s own written policies (detailed in the PRB Report), that the responses of campus leadership and law enforcement on November 9 were inconsistent with campus norms existing at that time. Campus leadership and law enforcement should have known that removing tents from Sproul Plaza in the middle of the day at the height of the protest would require use of force and likely the use of batons. Despite the no-encampment policy, it is unclear why they chose to take such action.”

I would put it more succinctly: the campus administration did whatever they wanted, empowered the police to do whatever they wanted, and did so because they knew that no real oversight of their actions would occur, and they were right to think that. They did what they did because they knew they could get away with it, and seven months later, they more or less have gotten away with it. This “tepidly worded” report — as an unusually punchy Nanette Asimov put it for the Chronicle — just provides the appearance of oversight, and it will be as swiftly ignored and forgotten as the Brazil report (around a similar incident in 2009) has been. Indeed, this PRB report is the first time since the Brazil report was released that anyone has even pretended the Brazil report mattered; the administration certainly filed it away and forgotten it, except for occasions like this one, where they’re all “we had a review, totally, we’re totally looking into it.”

Anyway. Other than Weissman’s evisceration, the only point in reading the report is to let the logic of sentences like this one filter through your brain:”

“Some members of the committee do not think that pulling protestors by their hair is consistent with campus norms; others believe it is effective and creates little risk of permanent injury.”

I think this really crystallizes the mindset of the committee, because it shows that A. we have replaced “legality” with “norms,” and B. when the committee to review police behavior can’t decide if pulling protesters by their hair is okay or not, it should be clear that there are no norms. It isn’t even that some people think it’s okay to do so, in other words; it’s that when some people think its fine and some people don’t, the end result is: the police will do whatever they want. If they want to grab a non-resisting protester by her hair and throw her to the ground — this time, next time, every time — they will. The norm is that they can do whatever they want, and the administration will back them up, and the Police Review Board (chaired by law professor Jesse Choper) will  ratify that non-existence of oversight. Rinse and repeat.

Sunday Reading

From Frank Pasquale:

From Me:

From Bint Battuta:

From ReclaimUC:

Links poached from “Remaking the University”:

A few links poached from Jadaliyya’s Syrian Media Roundup:

And if you’ve been watching Girls, you’ve been reading Dear Television, haven’t you?

Obscenity: I Know it When I See It

Maria Gunnoe is a West Virginia coalfield activist, and this video is one version of her story. It always makes me tear up; I’ve seen it a half dozen times, and I just watched it again, and have the sniffles as a result. Watch it if you have a few minutes. My mother is the founder of the organization that Maria works with — she makes an appearance in the video at about minute 3:20 —  and this is the part of the country I grew up in, so I can never tell how much the way it makes me feel comes from my emotional connection to her story. But I think there’s plenty of rage-sadness to go around.

Anyway, I want to tell a slightly different story. Yesterday, Maria went to Washington to testify in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources (the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources). She delivered these remarks (.pdf), describing the kind of devastation that has accompanied the expansion of mountain-top removal surface mining in southern West Virginia. She accompanied her remarks with this slideshow, including this picture of a creek near her home polluted by surface mining:

One way to understand what those photos mean is to think about how much heavy metal poison is safely buried under mountains, so far below the water table that it never has the chance to get into our bodies. There’s a lot of arsenic in the earth’s crust, but until human beings start digging into on a massive scale, your chance of, say, bathing in it, or drinking it, are pretty slim. In the coalfields, on the other hand, this is often what comes out of the faucet:

Another way to understand what that kind of water pollution means is to remember that well water is the only source of water most coalfield residents have, people who live far from any municipal water supply. In most of these communities, city water juts isn’t an option, and buying containers of drinking water is expensive. As a result, for so many people, this is the water they drink, the water they bathe in, the water they use to live. Human beings require a lot of water, and while you can distill and filter it, this is still the water you’re stuck with, the water that comes out of the ground. When that water gets poisoned, that’s the water you put in your body.

But that’s not the story I wanted to tell either. This is it: Maria was going to show another picture to the House subcommittee yesterday, this photo, which is a photo of a five year old child bathing in that kind of brown, poisonous water. The child is naked, as you normally are when you bathe. I’d invite you to click that link, and think about what, if anything, distresses you about it.

The photo was taken by photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, who gave it this caption:

Erica and Rully Urias must bathe their daughter, Makayla, age 5, in contaminated water that is the color of tea. Their water has been tested and contains high levels of arsenic. The family attributes this water problem primarily to the blasting which they believe has disrupted the water table and cracked the casing in their well, allowing seepage of heavy metals into their water, and also to the runoff from the mountaintop removal sites surrounding their home. The coal company that mines the land around their home has never admitted to causing this problem, but they do supply the family with bottled water for drinking and cooking. Contaminated and colored water in has occurred in other coalfield communities as well where mountaintop mining is practiced.

Now, that photo of Makayla Urias is a photograph of a naked child, a child exactly as naked as nine-year-old Kim Phuc was when, forty years ago, an Associated Press photographer snapped a picture of her, while she was running and crying from American napalm. You’ve probably seen that photo. It’s iconic. The photographer got a Pulitzer prize for taking it.

Yesterday, on the other hand, Maria was told that she would not be allowed to show that photo. It was not appropriate. She had the blessing of the child’s parents, but Republicans on the subcommittee alerted the capitol police (according to Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for GOP panel members), and after the hearing, the capitol police took Maria aside for questioning about “child pornography.”

Now, this is just what it was, and no more. Coalfield activists like Maria face threats, intimidation, and vandalism regularly; she’s received verbal threats to her life, her children have been harassed at school, “wanted” posters of Gunnoe have appeared in local convenience stores, and so forth. This is a strong lady, and I suspect I’m not wrong to say that it’s far from the worst of the shit she’s faced for daring to be strong in a part of the country where Coal is King. It was just the kind of insulting humiliation that it was meant to be. Coal-friendly congresspeople were using the resources at their disposal to harass someone who had the nerve to speak out against the industry they shill for, to try to intimidate someone like Maria who speaks for (and is) one of the people that industry poisons.

But it’s pretty clarifying, don’t you think? The real obscenity is that people drink that water, that they have no choice but to bathe in it, and to bathe their children in it. You know that, and I know that. But if a massive surface mining operation in the vicinity of your house poisons your water table, and if your well water runs brown with coal sludge and heavy metal particulate, well, that’s just the cost of doing business in America, a cost that will be paid by the Appalachians who only live there. It’s regrettable, at best. You can’t call the police and the state doesn’t want to know. And if you dare to take a picture of child’s exposure to that poison, if you have the nerve to walk into the halls of Congress and show them the obscenity that is a child that must wash herself with poison every day, they will call you a child pornographer. They will call the police.

On Admiring Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’

A Review by Stephen Derwent Partington. Read Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story, ‘La Salle de Départ’ here, in pdf form.

On reflection, I’m a little ashamed of my last Caine Prize post, on Stanley Kenani’s short story, ‘Love on Trial’. Specifically, I feel that this review lacked generosity; that I childishly stomped my petulant way through a readerly sulk. And so when, after a first reading, I felt so-whattish about Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Senegal-set story, ‘La Salle de Départ’, I decided that it was probably my own stubbornness as a reader. Consequently, I went for a walk, gulped a cup of coffee, and sat down beside some goats for a second reading. Following this, it was confirmed: yes, it was my stubbornness as a reader – the story is, indeed, very good. Consistently so. Which makes me feel even worse about Mr Kenani.

My initial beef with ‘La Salle’ – a complaint that I have raised elsewhere, in an article in The East African that celebrates this year’s Caine shortlist– was misdirected. I was concerned that would be an African story of, shall we say, Emigration and Return (‘E&R’). The émigré; the cosmopolitan; the déraciné traveler. Let’s face it, if badly done such a theme can be yawn-inducingly imitative. The story of the youngster who moves to America to study and who returns ‘alienated’ is so frequent in African literature since independence that it runs the risk of now appearing lazy, faux-profound and mock-meaningful. Indeed, it is almost the essential rite-of-passage story, which all budding members of the Afro-literati must pen in order to be accepted by the conservative old-guard as ‘African’. Writing such a text is, for emerging authors, what being anti-gay is for Ugandan evangelical pastors; a real obligation. Certainly, here in Kenya, such texts, which are often amongst those we used to itemize as ‘popular literature’, tend to be extraordinarily moralistic, chastising those who would study abroad and who return ‘alienated and superior’, unable to relate to their ‘authentic culture’ back home in, usually, the rural areas. It is women who, especially, suffer the authors’ wrath in such stories, as the usually male authors seem to work within the trope of ‘Mother Africa’ (which some feminist writers have since reformulated as a liberating concept), holding that it is women who should uphold ‘African cultural traditions’ (what’s them, then?) and who, on abandoning them, should be condemned; a state of affairs that is at best patronizing and at worst oppressively sexist.

And yet, I’d fully agree with most postcolonialist scholars that the state of being some form of exile – the émigré, the nomadic pastoralist, the cosmopolitan diasporan or, more painfully, the refugee, the ‘internally-displaced person’, the slum evictee or the migrant worker – is a core aspect of ‘the postcolonial condition’, and so to dismiss all texts that feature it is certainly to display an utter arrogance, is a dismissal of people’s very real experiences. The question then has to be: how is E&R dealt with in the myriad cultural and other contexts in which it plays out; or, how do writers sensitively deal with specific instances of postcolonial ‘movement’? While I have great concerns about those probably sexist Kenyan texts hinted at above, there are undeniably many other ways to approach ‘movement’, and perhaps the different, competing ways in which it is portrayed by various writers indeed constitutes one of the productively responsible joys of African literature, or postcolonial literature in general.

On a second reading, I think that Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’ redeems the genre, performing an important service for the continent’s literature. The problem with stating that a story performs an important service is that it perhaps implies that the message compensates for the lack of enjoyment or formal aesthetic pleasures-of-the-text, and yet this is not what I mean: indeed, I greatly enjoyed this story, on all levels.

‘La Salle de Départ’ is deceptively simple in terms of its storyline: a young Senegalese Muslim man, Ibou, is studying in America, and there falls in love with a fellow student from Egypt, Ghada; he returns to Senegal for a short break, where he spends time with his in-place sister, Fatima. Almost all of the ‘action’ takes place during a drive at the end of the visit, when Fatima escorts Ibou back to the airport in a relative’s run-down taxi. During this journey, the uncomfortable conversation begins when Fatima plucks up the courage to ask Ibou to take her young son, Babacar, to America with him. Awkwardly, Ibou dodges the issue, ultimately refusing to do so.

What interested me most is the way in which this story partial inverts those more conservative examples of the E&R genre hinted at above. That is, it argues back. Importantly, as if to simultaneously contradict the influential and important ‘The Empire Writes Back’ [to the metropolis only] thesis pushed by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, Myambo’s story instead appears to write back to already-existing African texts. That is, even though it invokes the West in its argument, the text bypasses the West by refusing to be dependent upon its literary canon. It performs, then, what one of Kenya’s leading young theorists, Evan Mwangi, has convincingly called the act of ‘writing back to ourselves’. This attitude itself constitutes one of this story’s major strengths: its confidence, its lack of that derivativeness that I had initially feared.

You see, while Ibou is, yes, deracinated – a term that I will use because the story is set in Francophone Senegal – as implied by his new attire of baseball cap, sagging jeans and iPod, all of which are mentioned to highlight his difference from his father’s traditional clothing, he is not only simplistically condemned for this. Indeed, it is left to the reader to determine how to read Ibou, who might come across to some as a heartless young man who’s unwilling to assist his extended family, or else as a man who generously refuses to help Babacar, afraid as he seems to be that Babacar will himself become alienated from his culture and his mother – in this second reading, Ibou’s refusal to help is, ironically, rather assistance and kindness, a refusal to break-up a family, to allow Babacar to desert the mother who depends upon him as, we are told, her only happiness.

The major confusion stems from this refusal: how should Fatima read it, Ibou’s apparent unwillingness? Ultimately, she simply cannot understand it, and incomprehension is the result – not necessarily anger or upset, but confusion: Fatima simply no longer knows how to interpret her Americanised brother. That is, translation between their now different cultures has become increasingly difficult. And this is at the heart of ‘La Salle’ – the difficulty of translation, between languages, yes (there are instances of speaking in tongues that others don’t understand), but more profoundly between cultures. Because she has been left ‘in place’ and has no idea of American culture – indeed, all of her ‘understandings’ of other cultures in the story seem to be based on simple stereotypes, such as ‘all Lebanese women are loose’ – Fatima can not understand what Ibou seems to understand: that he is now so distant in time, space and culture that those he once loved as family have become ‘other’, alien. There is no real sense in which Ibou is necessarily arrogant, looking down on his relatives in the way that ‘leavers’ do in the conservative examples of the E&R genre – rather, it simply seems (as I see it) to be offered as an amoral inevitability that movement engenders wrenching change. Ibou hates no-one – he just feels that the sort of help he is being asked to give would in fact hinder and hurt his sister. But Fatima can not understand, and is left at the airport, waiting for his plane to take off, her mouth open in a sort of confusion of abandonment – and this after she has seen him pass slowly through the airport’s metal detector, ‘trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers’.

For me, the story’s more interesting character is not Ibou, but Fatima. In so much other E&R literature it is the psychology of the one who moves that it most frequently analysed and – in ‘committed’ fashion – censured as treacherously ‘comprador’. But ‘La Salle’ refocuses us subtly towards the one who remains behind, Fatima, the in-place figure. This is fascinating to me, as it rights what I tend to perceive as an arrogant wrong of much of the more cosmopolitan writing from, especially, the diaspora, which often celebrates the productively and joyfully hybrid identities of wealthy émigrés who, let’s face it, are merely one very privileged section of the postcolonial world; most of us tend to either move less pleasantly (I hinted at evictees and others, above) or stay very much put, in-place. And ‘La Salle’ reminds us of the unequal power-plays that lead to these different states of placedness and uprootedness. For instance, Ibou is a man, and according to the culture from which he has been privileged to emerge, butterfly-like, he may escape. Fatima, on the other hand, gets no money from her father for her education, as it all goes to Ibou, and instead she must go through the well-trodden route of marriage, motherhood, and so on. It is not that she is a foolhardy victim, for clearly she aware of this injustice, pithily and eloquently stating to herself at one point that ‘A son could fly, a daughter could only nest’. She understands her subjugation. However, her chosen route out is to perpetuate the cycle by getting her own son (she is glad that she doesn’t have a daughter) to ‘fly’ with Ibou, and she is confused when Ibou, a young man, seems unwilling to play the game, either because he wishes to save Fatima from heartbreak or because he’s too selfish to give his time to Babacar when back in the USA. It is left to the reader to agonizingly debate: is this a blessing for Fatima (who in her ability to cry at nothings is, it is hinted, depressed), or is it a further part of her curse, her (double) oppression, oppressed by both men in-place and by the American individualist culture that, through Ibou, won’t assist her?

I have been asking many questions. And that is the second major strength of this story: it forced me to think, to reach no easy conclusions, to sympathise with Fatima, and this without pity.

But there was so much more. Very swiftly: for instance, class came very pertinently into play at some point. The previously poor Ibou is now comparatively wealthy, and as such we now see him being better able to relate to his rich Egyptian lover (Fatima doesn’t understand the idea of ‘lover’ within the moral economy of her Muslim faith), Ghada, whose parents were benefitting ‘collaborators’ during the years of Egypt’s colonization. It is not, then, only that Ibou has shifted in his interpretation of Islam (he understands scripture not as God’s word, any more, but only as ‘God’s word translated by man’, and during Ramadan [which he has come home for] he only performs a token fast while others fully observe the month), but that he has bought into the American Dream of class mobility and commodity obsession – that iPod and all his other gadgets. Also opened to discussion in this story is the issue of illegal immigration – Ibou is fraudulently in the USA, a point that I read as evidence that he has no moral right to say ‘No’ to Fatima’s request that he take Babacar. And intercultural relationships are also touched upon very strongly: Ibou is the head of his university’s ‘African Students’ Organisation’ when he meets and falls in love with Ghada, the head of the same university’s ‘Middle Eastern Students’ Association’. This, then, raises the spectre of African disunity – Egypt and the Maghreb against the ‘black’ Sub-sahara – as to read Egypt as part of the Middle East (as Ghada’s organization does) is to buy into a worrying myth of Northern exceptionalism of the sort that Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine (eds) criticize in their wonderful new Pambazuka book, African Awakenings: the Merging Revolutions, which collection of essay refuses to view ‘the Arab Spring’ as not African. Or is, rather, their love a hint at the possibility of a more positive hybridity, or…? And so on, and so on. And I like stories that make me breathlessly question, especially when the story itself is so unpretentiously tender, so non-preachy, so generous to its protagonists, so willing to trust its readers to perform responsible readings – so, how shall we put it?: GOOD!

For what it’s worth, then, my personal ranking so far is: 1) Kahora’s ‘Urban Zoning’; 2) Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’; 3) Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’; 4) Kenani’s ‘Love on Trial’.

Blogging the Caine: Week Three!

I’ve been embarrassingly late with week three of the Caine Prize blogathon, but have finally posted my entry over at the New Inquiry:

In addition to my post, please check out the other fine bloggers writing about Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”:

Sunday Reading

Frank Pasquale:


An Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media:

At 8pm, I rush out of the house with a saucepan and a ladle, and as I walk to meet my fellow protesters, I hear people emerge from their balconies and the music starts. If you do not live here, I wish I could properly convey to you what it feels like; the above video is a start. It is magic. It starts quietly, a suggestion here and there, and it builds. Everybody on the street begins to smile. I get there, and we all—young and old, children and students and couples and retirees and workers and weird misfits and dogs and, well, neighbours—we all grin the widest grins you have ever seen while dancing around and making as much noise as possible. We are almost ecstatic with the joy of letting loose like this, of voicing our resistance to a government that seeks to silence us, and of being together like this.

Police or Prosperity:

“Chicago is projecting a cost of $65 million for policing NATO (and such official projections are often dwarfed by actual expenditure, only ever revealed long after the fact). As a result of a 2012 budget deficit, however, this year Chicago libraries will be closed Mondays and almost all of the book shelvers who work in the system will be laid-off. Savings? $10 Million. Does it seem possible that $55 million would adequately police the 2 day Nato summit, saving $10 mil for all those libraries? Realists will argue that this is not how budgeting is done, that it’s never that simple; and while literally that’s true, politicians rarely say “give the library money to the police”, at least in public, it’s also besides the point.”

Bint Battuta:

A few links stolen from Jillian York’s “Reading“:

The al-Assad regime’s surveillance of telecommunications–cell phones, text messages, email, and Internet traffic–is remarkably extensive. Using equipment built in the West by companies such as BlueCoat, the Syrian government censors the Internet, blocks websites, and snoops on traffic using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).

Some links stolen from Sahelblog:

And from Scott Ross:

From the moment the invasion of Afghanistan was launched, how to deal with the actual American war dead was always considered a problematic matter. The Bush administration and the military high command, with the Vietnam War still etched in their collective memories, feared those uniformed bodies coming home (as they feared and banished the “body count” of enemy dead in the field). They remembered the return of the “body bags” of the Vietnam era as a kind of nightmare, stoking a fierce antiwar movement, which they were determined not to see repeated

Universities are still Super-White, and they could get whiter:

My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students.

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.

File this under “Why Do They Hate Us”

The Boston Phoenix reviews a Persian restaurant:

From the point of view of fine dining, a key benefit of America’s foreign interventions is the stream of incoming refugees and immigrants with slow-food-cooking skills. This column does not openly advocate military intervention in France and Italy — “food to die for” should remain a rhetorical phrase. But if there were to be, say, street riots in Singapore or Guangdong or Buenos Aires, I would be the first to point out the necessity of a strong stand for human rights and culinary opportunity. Thus, our present standoff with Iran has to be evaluated both in terms of the price of gasoline at the pump and the availability of fesenjoon and kubideh kebab in the US.

Matt Yglesias reminds us that Mediterranean misery is fun and games for tourists:

Economic chaos and mass unemployment are bad news. But to the curious traveler, they are an opportunity for a bargain. So it’s only natural for a cost-conscious American reading headlines about economic catastrophe in Spain and Greece to wonder: Is there a cheap vacation there for me?

Meanwhile, watching war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan return their medals, at the NATO Summit in Chicago — and say why they did it — is a pretty remarkable demonstration of what ethics and conscience looks like:

(Items #1 and #3 via SouthSouth; Item #2 via Matt N.)

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