The Caine Prize has of late been roundly criticized for favouring child narrators, the charge being that their perspectives contribute to the infantilization of Africa. This year’s judging panel has failed to heed the warning; perversely, we have allowed three child narrators on the shortlist. Moreover, all three tell stories of impoverishment, the nasty addictive ingredient, we are told, that converts so readily into ‘poverty porn’. Have we then deliberately chosen to perpetuate the parlous condition in which the representation of African writing is said to find itself? If child narrators are accused of trading in pornographic sentimentality, our three chosen ones deftly sidestep such charges.
Yes, the stories (‘Flying’, ‘The Folded Leaf’, ‘Space’) deal with poverty and disadvantage, but literary value is, of course, not based on content. Stylistically, these stories prove irresistible; their simplicity is strategic; and far from infantilizing the societies in which they are set, they make extraordinary and sophisticated demands on readers’ inferential skills. Poverty is not presented as a single meaning, begging bowl in hand; instead, meaning proliferates as we are prompted to infer the unspoken: that which lies just beyond what can be seen, or what can be heard, said, or done under social restrictions and conventional morality (––or, in western words, beyond what-Maisie-knew). Beyond poverty and underdevelopment are the clear-sightedness, the aspirational, the will to truth, the empathy and the ethical that lie within reach of the child as artiface. Through the child narrators ambiguity and irony are introduced.
These stories seem to go a long way towards answering a pressing question that we fail to ask whilst we focus on what African writing looks like from the outside: Why do so many literary writers choose the narrative perspective of children?
Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer who lives in Scotland where she is Emeritus Professor in English Studies at Strathclyde University. Her critical work is on Postcolonial theory and South African writing and culture. Her works of fiction are You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One That Got Away and October. Wicomb is a recipient of Yale’s 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.