Wednesday, September 28, 2011

108. Stickfighting Days by Olufemi Terry

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.
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ImageNations Rating: 2.5/6.0

20 comments:

  1. I haven't read the book but your review and that of others remind me of Lord of the Flies. Lord of the Flies did not do much for me so I doubt that this book will. Perhaps it is simply a matter of taste(?).

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  2. Oh my, this does sound like a raw and powerful book and also one that deals very heavily with violence and mayhem. I am definitely interested in it, but I am not sure just what frame of mind I would have to be in to really get the most out of it. Your review was certainly very thought-provoking and intense! I am adding this to my list. Very interesting post today, Nana!

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  3. @Adura Ojo... this is a short story/single story. Yes, it has hints of Lord of the Flies, a book I've read and enjoyed. Yet, in Lord of the Flies William Golding worked on human behaviour in the form of an experiment. If this is what Olufemi was working at then he failed to make readers think along that line.

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  4. @Zibilee, it's only a short story. And it is available for download, somewhere on the net. Either at the Caine Prize website (see above) or somewhere else.

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  5. http://blipmagazine.net/features/olufemi-terry/

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  6. interesting comments, but how do you know the story represents, as you put it, olufemi terry's reality? did you read that somewhere or are you inferring? and what does it mean that it does not read like flaubert and proust? are all writers to strive to emulate Flaubert and Proust?

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  7. @guru, if you read it carefully I asked which of his reality does it represent. From which reality was he painting the words?

    No writer should emulate another, though they could be influenced by the other. Here again, if you read it carefully you will realise that I used Flaubert and Proust as synecdoche for flawless writing, as some commentators who claim that content does not matter preach. To them content is not the key, aesthetics or beauty of language is.

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  8. You are clearly opening up the trends of winning stories of the caine prize. Interesting thoughts you have here.

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  9. @Geosi, the current trend is not good for our literature.

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  10. Nana,

    actually you write " and Olufemi's story is more of a representation of his reality, at least that is what he wants to portray." This is an inference and a very dangerous one for a reader to make. fiction writing is an imaginative exercise and perhaps if you seek a writer's reality you should look to his journalism. writers bring to a story or novel experiences and influences even they themselves are unaware of.

    And when you allude to flaubert and proust you simply disclose your own subjective preferences. Cormac mccarthy (whose work is suffused with violence) says he has no time for Proust; that is his preference. Do not mistake your opinion for more than it is. the most useful comment you make in your post is that the story did nothing for you. all else is the sort of criticism that fails to recognize the overarching right of the writer to write what he or she likes.

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  11. Sounds quite dark and gloomy yes, too bad. Also, I almost bought A Life in Full today but ended up not. Perhaps for the best!

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  12. @Amy I'm not the only one who didn't enjoy this collection. However, I suggest you skim through. If you can. I've only read five of the seventeen and cannot speak, personally, for the rest.

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  13. @Konkonsa. No one is against violence. What I'm against is unwarranted violence. Was there anywhere in the story where Terry showed or hinted why Raul behaved like that? In Lord of the Flies we knew. Violence for violence sake does not appeal to me in any way.

    I've not read any Corma but if the violence that suffuse his work is unwarranted and without any background I'd wouldn't care for him in as much as he cares not for the others. No human just wakes up and begin to kill people. More so a thirteen year old boy and if you think this is creativity you're entitled to your own view as much as I'm entitled to mine. But I'd have wished your response will be based on you having read the story. Not this vague generalisation.

    Calling my review useless won't change anything. I won't be a hypocrite and praise something I didn't like. My mention of Proust and Flaubert has already been explained and if you failed to read it then it's your fault. Not mine. As much as writers have the right to write what they, readers also have the right to react differently. Lest there'll be no need for critics because then we've to accept anything that people write because it's creative. Do you like every single book you've ever read? I don't like this trend where ONLY one theme of African stories become award winners. Doing so takes away creativity and I needn't have to read all his oeuvre to review this story.

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  14. nana,

    of course i've read the story. i see in it different things than you do. for one thing i see no "unwarranted violence" i see a narrative arc that hints at why raul and the others fight sticks without giving too much away. for reasons that humans have engaged in ritualized and real violence throughout history. and you don't concede that your admiration for the writing of proust and flaubert is subjective and thus meaningless.

    and what theme is the theme that wins? i see a pattern in the number of stories told from a child's perspective that win but no other theme. waiting is as different from stickfighting days as is poison. perhaps you should read more carefully. and perhaps rather than whining you should write a story that forces the Caine judges to reconsider this theme that they like.

    Also, perhaps this review might give you a better idea of how to engage in literary criticism:

    http://www.sentinelnigeria.org/issue3/essays/benson-eluma.htm

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  15. @kokonsa This is MY blog and these are MY views on this story and on the trend the Caine Prize is taking. You can have your own views and I respect that. But i won't have you trying to insult me. I've only had such issues when I didn't like a story. Must we enjoy every story. In fact great authors have been criticised and their greatest work rubbished. If you've problem with my views the least you could do is respect it and in a civilised manner you argue your point. You are yet to do that. But that's not the issue. For you to say that unless I write a story on a different theme for to make the Caine Prize to award me i can't express myself (or whine, borrowing your word) is similar to saying that as long as we're not in a position to change events we mustn't complain. That's illogical to say the least. Here you're suggesting that only writers should be readers because they can write to correct a writing trend they don't like.

    Like you writers (and I believe you're one) readers also read what they like. And if it works for them they'd like it if not they'll say it didn't work for them. What's difficult for you to understand? I suggest that you who have learnt the tenets of literary criticisms should start a blog or a website that would promote these works to the world and not insult those who are doing so.

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  16. To all who want to read other people's opinions about the Caine Prize and the winning stories follow the link below.

    1. Saratu Abiola: "Writers write. Readers have opinions. It's really that simple. One has a right to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and churn out just whatever (s)he pleases." (http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/books/74903)

    2. Ikhide Ikeola: EMAIL FROM AMERICA:The Caine Prize and unintended consequences (http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/5704084-183/email_from_americathe_caine_prize_and.csp)

    EMAIL FROM AMERICA: The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa (http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/Art/5701351-147/email_from_americathe_2011_caine_prize.csp)

    3. Sarah Norman: (here concentrate on the comments) http://booksof2010.blogspot.com/2011/08/how-to-win-caine-prize.html

    From these you'll agree with me that I'm not the only one who have realised this trend.

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  17. Thanks for these links Nana - its interesting how people are all thinking along similar lines . . .

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  18. At least I'm not alone in my thinking.

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  19. For me, STICKFIGHTING DAYS is one of the best short stories I've ever read. It goes into the mind of a top flight sportsman (in this cas ethe sport is stickfighting) and explains the pschology within. Anyone playing competitive sports will get this story. It's brilliant. I even think it's the best story to win a Caine Prize.

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