With these prizes, the future of writing in Africa is in safe hands

Friday November 11 2016

Pushcart Prize announced their shortlist for this year, among them two friends of mine who the continent should be on the lookout for. PHOTO | COURTESY

Pushcart Prize announced their shortlist for this year, among them two friends of mine whom the continent should be on the lookout for. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Regular readers of this column know that I am not a big fan of literary awards.

I find them subjective in so many ways. For some reason, however, I have always felt differently about the Pushcart Prize. I suspect it has much to do with the way the nominees are selected. They are submitted by magazines and small presses who may not otherwise be very well known. It has, among its founding editors, some very solid names in literary circles like Anais Nin, Ralph Ellison and Joyce Carol Oates.

In other words, it’s a literary award that celebrates the work of little-known writers by writers and, as a reader, I have yet to find an anthology of theirs that I dislike. That’s why on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, my day, which had begun with disappointment at the American electoral results, ended up on a much happier note when the Pushcart Prize announced their shortlist for this year, among them two friends of mine whom the continent should be on the lookout for.

A founding member of Kenya’s new and exciting literary journal Enkare, Troy Onyango, is one of the six shortlistees for his story The Transfiguration, published in Transition volume 121. I read this story while resting from packing up as I end my residency. Outside, it was snowing. In the residency, I was wearing warm clothes with a blanket covering my legs as I sat on my desk. I was alone. But suddenly I was not.

I was at Machakos Bus Station with the smell and sounds and the humanity on a Sunday afternoon. I even got warmer and forgot how cold it was outside, having mentally placed myself at the bus station on a Sunday afternoon. Onyango, you see, had taken me there with his short story. 

“A young man, of about seventeen or nineteen, stands at the door and shouts, “Dandora hamsini! Dandora fifty bob!” He sees me alight and grabs my wrist. I quickly pull away from his grip. He retreats, presses his palms together as if in a prayer and beseeches, “Madam, tafadhali rudi ndani.” I stare at him for a while — hair shaved on both sides into a mohawk, Arsenal FC shirt stained with rings of sweat under the armpits, teeth discoloured to a dark shade of green from constant mastication of miraa, palms dusty from all the pounding of the bus panel — and get back into the empty bus.


In The Transfiguration, Onyango’s prose breathes and makes you delight in the beauty of his construction. As one travels with a young woman undergoing a metarmophosis, one cannot help but think of all the Audrey Mbuguas and the confusion and battle they deal with in a heteronormative world that is uncomfortable at difference.

The beauty of his writing is the way he uses such deceptively simple language without the pretension that one sometimes experiences in a lot of new work, and yet still manages to make it refreshingly different. And while as a reader I am immensely excited at the work that Enkare is doing, I hope that Onyango does not get too busy with the journal as I look forward to reading a longer piece of work from him.

From Southern Africa, Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi was the other Pushcart shortlistee for her short story Small Deaths, also published in the same issue of Transition. It was a good week for Chigumadzi, who lives in South Africa. In addition to this nomination, she had just won the South African Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Award for her debut novel Sweet Medicine.

Chigumadzi, in this particular piece, writes in a musical fashion that demands one feels the urgency of a life of a young South African woman who seems to be drowning in the nation’s racial politics even as she tries to just be while looking at women characters as depicted in music, film and words in history and of course, women like her grandmother and mother.

I’m Tired, I suddenly realise. It’s like another wave over my body. It’s an overwhelming feeling. Physically, emotionally, I’m just Over It. When I realise this, I grow tired of paddling. “I wanna be free from the chains that are binding me/ I wanna be free from the chains that I have in me”, Lebo sang. So why not Just Do It? I kind of make up my mind. It won’t be anything like Jonker walking into the sea or Plath’s head in the oven or Woolf walking on the bottom of the lake with stones in her pocket,” Chigumadzi writes.

One cannot help but feel that the future of literature on the continent is in good hands with writing such as this. Even if none of these two get the big prize, their work has already won for being nominated for the Pushcart Prize.