Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days won the 11th Caine Prize for African Writing Award in 2010. It was later included in the anthology A Life in Full anthology published in 2010. This story first appeared in Chimurenga vol. 12/13.
The focus of the Caine Prize is ' on the short story, as reflecting the contemporary development of African story-telling tradition.' Here, one wonders if the 'African story-telling tradition' part deals with what publishers refer to as 'The African Story'. If so, the Caine Prize has succeeded. If the 'development' is also necessary, then it has failed totally; for now, the prize is almost seen as the ultimate search for the story that that can make readers puke and wonder if the characters are savages or humans. Consequently, writers summon all their creative power to write the most scatological stories that would define what an African story is. Whereas some writers search for the most rotten neighbourhoods in any country they can imagine, 'selling their nations horrors', others, unable to find appropriate vicinities, themes, or enough filth, create theirs. And if the Caine Prize's aim is to continuously reward these stories, describing them as 'creative, ambitious, bold, imaginative', then Stickfighting Days would be to the Caine Prize, what Rushdie's Midnight's Children is to the Booker. Stickfighting Days by Olufemi Terry is the ultimate horror story a writer can create.
The story is filled with blood, shit, murder, glue-sniffing, scavenging and more. At almost every other line, there is the macabre. There is enough macabre in this story to make any of Stephen King's novels become a bedtime story. The more so if one realises that King's stories are somewhat paranormal and Olufemi's story is more of a representation of his reality, at least that is what he wants to portray. As to which reality, created reality based on his perception or his personal experience, it is up to him to tell us.
Stickfighting Days - worse than E.C. Osondu's Waiting, another Caine Prize-winning story (2009) that made me puke - is a story about a young boy of thirteen (13) years named Raul and the life he leads. Like Waiting, we do not know the place, whether it's a town or a city. The story is based on the character Raul and how he relates to his environment and the people around him.
Raul is a stickfighter - simply put, he fights with sticks. And this is no child-fight. He fights to kill. He pops out eyes. In fact in a single day he killed two people - a boy named Tauzin, from whom he steals bread, and Salad, a guy who always act as judge during stickfighting. Prior to this he had nearly killed another fighter. This makes the reader wonder how many people would be left on the street if he goes at such rate. Besides, he exhibits no emotions; he has become habituated to emotions, which makes him eerily enjoy what he does.
There's something in his eyes - he's not afraid - but I see recognition beyond fear - and acceptance of what I'm about to do, of what I am. Killer.
Written in the first person narrative, this is how Raul describes killing Tauzin
The strike is precise enough to kill; I feel the rubbery give of his temple beneath the tip of my sticks. But once more shame comes on me, so suddenly I taste it mingling with the acid vomit. I walk away without checking he's dead.
And this is a thirteen-year old boy who names his sticks Mormegil and Orcrist because the judge - Salad - had told him stories from Lord of the Rings. In fact he aims to be like the Spartans. And here the Olufemi showed his motive: to create a morbid and macabre story in a way that has never been before. For how does an illiterate boy, who does nothing but to fight, kill, scavenge and sniff got to know how the Spartans were and wanted to be like them? It's almost like a collection of morbidity heaped on this Raul character.
Markham thrusts into his other eye and Salad's face splashes blood. He still makes no sound. I'd dreamed of a killing blow, the single cut that cleanly ends life, but I've done that already, with Tauzin earlier. It was sweet. But now's not the time for precision. I swing and thrust, mindlessly raining blows, and Markham is with me, shares my aim for we club at the judge's head with no thought of accuracy. Even when he no longer moves, Markham and I swing for some minutes. And I stop.
And what did judge or Salad do? He prevented Raul from killing Markham and declared Raul the winner of the fight. Because he prevents fights from deteriorating into death matches.
If the boys are not stickfighting, they are scavenging on dumps, covering their legs with specks of shit - remember Osondu's Waiting? - sniffing glue. Almost every character in this short-story has a delinquent behaviour and this is rightly so as Olufemi was writing about street children. But street children even show love, they show care. I wonder where these street children came from and in which environment they live. Even in street kick-boxing, deaths are not rampant. For instance, Raul had killed Tauzin because Tauzin told him that he had put rat-poison in the bread he just stole and ate.
"That bread was poisoned. I left it as bait for whoever's been stealing my stuff. Rat poison," he adds unnecessarily. "Bet you didn't know I was a master poisoner. Had no idea it was you, but I don't care really. You might not even die."
Some people have claimed that the author is not an ambassador for his country and what matters most in writing is the creative process. This story does not read like anything by Flaubert or Proust, so what is the motive? According to the Chair judge, Fiammetta Rocco, this story is
ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative, Olufemi Terry's 'Stickfighting Days' presents a heroid culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception. The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future
I wonder what Fimmetta was referring to as brave and ambitious. Was the author writing about a people he was not supposed to write, which requires bravery? Or was he ambitious of winning the Caine, which might probably explained why he wrote this? Mediocrity is not talent. If Olufemi keeps writing in this form, even Western readers, to whom most of this morbidity and macabreness is directed, would be fed up with his offering.
This story did nothing for me. It is the weakest story in the shortlist. But it won, according to the judges. For those who want to find out, this story is available at the Caine Prize website for downloading.
Brief Bio: Read about the author here.
ImageNations Rating: 2.5/6.0