New voices are gathered in a collection that might be thought of as the African rejoinder to the annual Pushcart series.
Taxes may be a wobbly proposition in emergent regimes, but death is certain everywhere. In one of the hallmark pieces in this collection, South African writer Bongani Kona addresses a family member now on the dais at a funeral requiem: “Where does it begin,” he writes, “the story of how you came to lie here in your dark blue suit?” In a few pages, Kona distills the love and damage shared by cousins, the desperation of some trying to will the suicidal dead back to life or, at the very least, to conjure a few untroubled memories. Just so, Zambian writer Namwali Serpell creates a world inhabited by two people thrown into accidental contact in what appears to be at one moment a workaday errand, at another an unfolding scam; as the story widens and the characters deepen, it acquires a lovely gravity (“a window boomed with an airy sound—a questioning sound, like the sceptical hmmm?s of gossiping women”). This gathering of stories represents the five-entry shortlist of the Caine Prize, an annual award to the African writer of the best short story in English, as well as a dozen stories from the prize workshop. The title story is set in Kenya, and it is a work of compressed wonder in the hands of its author, Okwiri Oduor, who imagines a young boy so enthralled by a radio trivia program that he swallows its nonsense whole: “One day, Dudu cut off his eyelashes with paper scissors. He had heard…that a person could not walk in a straight line if all their lashes were gone.” Driven to distraction, his mother disappears, taking his transistor radio with her, a crisis around which a telling psychological moment builds.
The least successful stories in the collection take slices of life that are too thin, but all show promise, and all are very much worth reading.