All the Great Stories Around Us
Bongani Sibanda, Hibaq Osman and Filemon Iiyambo
How do you know you have a great story? What defines a great story? Is it the great sentences or some heavy, unexplored themes, or a combination of both? There is no simple answer to that. But everyone can admit that excellent prose, and a depth of insight into one’s subject, always raises above the ordinary what would otherwise be considered mundane or cliché.
In 2011, Nigerian literary critic, Ikhide R. Ikheola criticised the Caine Prize shortlisted stories as “a riot of clichés celebrating orthodoxy and mediocrity”. He was following on Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 essay, ‘How to Write About Africa’ a scorching satire mocking the stereotyping of Africa in African literature. While Binyavanga’s essay ridiculed the lack of depth, I found Ikhide R. Ikheola’s criticism inexpedient, as it seemed to challenge African writers to skew their perspectives, and season up their narratives with positive aspects on Africa. If I had known grief all my life, lived in a village that was constantly attacked by Boko Haram, and had child molesting peacekeepers roaming the streets, should I write a story set in Miles City, Montana? Or Johannesburg, South Africa? About an altruistic billionaire worried about tax cuts? I found myself wondering. For me, stories are windows into the soul: they represent a lived experience, mirrored through the writer’s eyes. We identify with certain stories because we see ourselves in them, and we wonder at the writer’s ability to capture our lives so beautifully.
That, I can happily say, is what the writers in this issue managed to do well. Their stories are unflinching in capturing issues that bedevil not just Africans but humanity, and they hold no subject taboo. The stories leap out of the page and refuse to be defined. They have solid, beating hearts, and they are as elegantly styled as they are thematically relevant.
With a Monroic plot, in ‘The Unlikeliest of Foes’, Michael Ogah displays fully his versatility as both a short story writer and certified screenwriter. The story has the complexity of a novel while retaining the intimacy and tenderness of detail that elevates an ordinary story into something special.
Great stories thrive in setting – both time and place. John Steibeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a classic because it did not shy away from the poverty of the Great Depression. It did not seek to show the brighter side of things when much of what there was was dust and starvation. As I read through the submissions, I felt as though I was witnessing the Golden Age of the African short story, and I had been privileged to peel the evidence before the eyes of the world. With clear and succinct prose, and a bone scraping emotional honesty, ‘Sande’ by Mercy Munyanya enchanted me with a tenderness I have never seen before, a trenchancy of thought that would leave an invested reader dabbing their eyes in awe. “I have come to know that when I feel that urge, uncontrollable, to leave, to be there and hold someone tight in my arms, that is when they begin to leave.” She writes. “Chaos takes over the dresser, the clothes growing mildew in the washer, and disorder camps in the bathroom and kitchen, the wet towels, the dishes in the sink, the grime on wall to wall carpeting.”
Though submissions for this issue were expansive in thought, tone and style I found myself returning to the pieces chosen for themes of abandon, faith and exploration. What the poets and poems in this issue do brilliantly is present a hidden moment and demand readers peer inside. From Tylyn K. Johnson’s ‘clandestine things said aloud’ where belonging is as much a disappearance as a return to home as an excavation in ‘Márọkọ́’ by Muiz Ọpẹ́yẹmí Àjàyí. We are taught in these poems that secrecy and forgetting are as much actions as they are passive inheritances.
It was no easy task to edit already heavy and bountiful poems like those in this issue but what struck me was the various ways the poems forced me to face our elements. Georgio Russell presents poems filled with poise and form that unravel a clear and realistic world in and of themselves. ‘Awake in Waterhouse’ traverses oceans and brings us back to dirt, a sentiment mirrored both in Saddiq Dzukogi’s ‘Waka: Three Sonnets’ and Jade Mutyora’s ‘Byuo Redu’. We are reminded of harsh water, of hope coming to us in ceiling droplets and the gasp of finally surviving if only to feed others.
No piece of literature is created already complete, but even in its raw form, good literature can be seen by the external eye for what it will be, not what it currently is.
There is an abundance of diversity in this issue’s nonfiction cohort. All the personal essays teemed with possibility when selected for publication from an exhaustive list of submissions. hn. Iyonga’s ‘at the foot of the tree’ gives a unique glimpse of the practice and way of life of the Bakweri people of Cameroon, a culture in which a tree is both a symbol of life, and death. There is an interesting clash of worlds in Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘The Doll Thief’, expertly interrogated through the eyes of a six year old. Wale Ayinla takes us on a journey of introspection in ‘Places’, where we are taken on an exploration of the complicated nature of love and the power of the desires of the heart, as he puts it, “The heartbreak, grief, and the constant betrayal of hearts.” Halima Adisa reminds us in ‘Teach Me So I Don’t Wither’ to always choose ourselves. Our hearts may be foolish because they choose without judgement, but the corrosiveness of some of the people we choose forces us to fight back, to choose ourselves and walk away.
Photography as a way of seeing allows us to obtain, through the depiction of still life, the story beyond what words allow us. Fabrice Mbonankira’s photographs document a reserve in danger and show us the impact of human activity on the environment. Ololade Lawal’s intimate portrayal of a mother and daughter gives us a glimpse into a life filled with love.
We can only hope that the joy we experienced when reading and editing these works of art alongside their talented creators, will enthral Lolwe’s loyal readership as they indulge themselves in some truly captivating stories.
Bongani Sibanda is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. A Caine Prize alumnus, he has published stories in venues including Munyori Literary Journal, Kalahari Review, Tuck Magazine, and two of Weaver Press’ annual literary collections. His debut collection, Grace and Other Stories was published in 2016. In 2015 he was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. His story “Ngozi” was included in the Caine Prize anthology, Redemption Song and Other Stories. He has published two children’s novels, Jimmy and the Giant Insects and Jonas’s Adventures.
Filemon Iiyambo is a writer and former newspaper columnist for the Namibian Sun and a social commentator for the New Era Newspaper. Filemon holds BA and BA Honours degrees in English Literature from the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He currently works as an educator. His work was included in Brittle Paper’s Erotic Africa and Isele Magazine. His short story “December” was shortlisted for the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. He is currently working on a novel and is a member of the 2022-2023 Doek Collective.
Hibaq Osman is a UK based Somali artist whose main work has been in poetry. Hibaq was first published in 2015 by Out-Spoken Press with her debut pamphlet ‘A Silence You Can Carry.’ In 2017 and 2019 she released two online pamphlets, ‘the heart is a smashed bulb’ and ‘CARVINGS’. Her first full poetry collection ‘where the memory was’ was published by Jacaranda Books as a part of their #Twentyin2020 initiative. She is a proud member of OCTAVIA POETRY COLLECTIVE.