Again I am late with my review of the Caine Prize 2012 shortlisted stories (sorry!). Once a week, a group of bloggers will be Blogging the Caine Prize. This week's story is Stanley Kenani's "Love on Trial". As always my criteria for reading these shortlisted stories are: if they beat the "stereotypical narrative" and if I enjoyed it.
I'm just going to come out and say it - "Love on Trial" could have been so much better. And I really wanted it to be. I was so excited when I found out one of the shortlisted stories was on homosexuality. Africa is an intensely homophobic continent and recently many African countries (notably Uganda, but even Nigeria) have gained media attention for their laws that make homosexuality illegal, and in some cases even punishable by death. So a quick summary.
Mr. Kachingwe stumbled upon two young men in a toilet in Malawi and this leads to his popularity soaring. A man who loves his alcohol (I am noticing a theme here - African men love their booze), buying him "tot" would enable people to hear "the juiciest parts" of the story. One of the boys Mr. Kachingwe catches is Charles Chikwanje (a law student and one of the villages own) and the story spreads to distant villages and neighbouring districts. One character in the story, Maxwell Kabaifa (an old drinking buddy of Mr. Kachingwe), tries to convince Mr. Kachingwe to stop telling the story as it would ruin Charles life, but Mr. Kachingwe was telling the truth and didn't care about the consequences of it. The story eventually gets to the police and Charles gets arrested for "unnatural offences" and "indecent practices between males". Being the source of the whole story, Mr. Kachingwe gets a lot of attention but the story also gains national and international coverage. Nationally there are a lot of discussions about Charles homosexuality and him needing deliverance and not allowing his satanic ways to taint their "God-fearing nation". Charles (as well as Mr. Kachingwe) are interviewed by the famous presenter, Khama Mitengo, with Charles defending himself eloquently. In the end, he is put on trial and sent to prison (I kinda saw that coming). The international community is outraged and aid is cut. Loss of aid affects the country - no medicine, no petrol, no salaries, inflation. The story ends as it begins, with Mr. Kachingwe. We find out that shortly before the trial he was tested for HIV - he tested positive, but due to the aid cuts he eventually runs out of his ARV drugs (the country that was supplying them cut them off). In Mr. Kachingwe's last days his friend, Maxwell Kabaifa, visits him and tells him a story about about a farmer, his wife and a mousetrap. The story was sort of an "I told you so".
So to go back to my criteria. It definitely wasn't stereotypical and while I applaud the fact that a story on homosexuality was shortlisted, the story was okay. I really wanted it to be great and there were bits I liked. Obviously I loved the fact it was a story focusing on homosexuality and the issues homosexuals in Africa face (as I really feel we need more stories on homosexuality in Africa). I also liked Charles family, but I do wish there was a bit more on them. His father loved and stood by him and even encouraged him to speak to the media with the hope that people might begin to accept him. I did actually like the bit on aid as it showed just how dependent some African nations are on aid and the simple but effective way in which Stanley Kenani wrote about the impact loss of aid had on not only the country but also individuals, like Mr. Kachnigwe and Charles (but that has more to do with the fact that I study development so I am just fascinated by it). In general, I felt like I was being told about Malawians view on homosexuality. The dialogue, especially when Charles was being interviewed by the famous presenter, Khama Mitengo, seemed more like an education on homosexuality and the views of homosexuals in Malawi. What it read like to me was homosexuality isn't a western concept, you are either born gay or straight, and it isn't unnatural. As with the debate on homosexuality, religion and the Bible were also present.
I strongly believe that there needs to be more African fiction focusing on homosexuality (in a positive light). I have showcased some LGBT African literature on this blog and stories like "Love on Trial" are essential. I see the shortlisting of this story in a very positive light. Unfortunately, if I have to compare it to the other shortlisted stories I've read, I didn't enjoy it as much as I did the other two. 'Bombay's Republic' is still number one for me, with 'Urban Zoning' at number two. I still have 2 stories to go so we'll see.
For other reviews on Love on Trial: Method to the Madness, Stephen Derwent Partington, Backlash Scott, Cashed In, aaahfooey, City of Lions, Loomney, The Reading Life.