Wednesday 24 June 2015

Sex and the African Short Story- Neel Mukherjee Judges the 2015 Shortlist

‘God, there’s a hell of a lot of sex going on in Africa,’ exclaimed one fellow- judge halfway through our reading of this year’s entries for the Caine Prize. In the year of the highest number of submissions for the prize – 153 stories – there is yet another record, dubious this time, which cannot pass unnoticed: the highest number of stories centred on sex. Masturbation features a lot, especially female masturbation. Male genitals, erm, dismembered (and disembodied), appear on a wall (yes, you read that correctly). There’s even sex – well, almost – with a tokoloshe. There’s an explicit little number, by no definition a story, in which a male narrator justifies his infidelity by his wife’s refusal to shave her legs or blow him after their marriage. And there’s your common-or-garden variety sex as well; often called vanilla, I’m reliably informed. Oh, did I forget female orgasms and ubiquitous ejaculations? 

The judge who commented on the pervasiveness of sex in Africa got an eye infection halfway through the reading because ‘all that ejaculation got into my eye’. What on earth is going on? One of the reasons behind this high incidence of writing about sex could be the (baneful) influence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the judges surmised. If this is true, then one can only lament. 

But it set me thinking: could it be that, after decades of being expected to write about poverty, famine, AIDS, corruption, dictators, writers from most of the countries on the continent are writing about whatever the hell they feel like writing about? But the problematics of this ‘liberation’ don’t need spelling out. 

The other problem is the knotty business of writing about sex. It’s notoriously difficult – bordering on impossible, in fact – to write well about it. While it is to be lauded that this has not held back some of the writers whose stories I have in mind – nothing ventured, nothing gained,
remember? – I wish the outcomes, in each of these cases, had lived up to the risk taken.

Two of the shortlisted stories show how to write about sex in extraordinary and powerful ways. One casts the briefest of glances at homosexuality in the subtlest way imaginable; it is barely a whisper. The other works by the suggestion of adultery or unfaithfulness -- the story leaves so much unsaid that one wonders if it is really that -- that casts a long shadow and seems to be one of the undersurface motors driving the motivations of the characters.

Read the shortlist here.

Neel Mukherjee is one of the 2015 Judges of the Caine Prize and the author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010). His second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has reviewed fiction widely for a number of UK, Indian and US publications. He lives in London.

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