The story of our lives as told by Winners of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize

By bobby on December 22, 2016 in

The most compelling literatures are tragic – a life at its end, an opportunity taken away, a precious thing stolen. And it is this that links the winning entries, over the last four years, in the Life Writing category of Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize.

Tolstoy tells us in Anna Karenina that unhappiness is individual, while Aristotle once had us believe that true tragedy can only depict those with high power and status. But can these hold true when everyone, rich or poor, experiences the ultimate realities of death and loss –the two main themes explored in the collection.

My favourite entry is 2012 winner, David Houston’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. It tells the story of a homosexual couple after one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It is beautiful in its starkness, economical but replete with emotion. Short sentences communicate urgency while breaking up the story into short sections generates even more impact and emphasises each thought or feeling.

The opening paragraph transports the reader into David’s terrifying world, and feels his desperation and fear while his partner battles with the disease.

I was in the office when Flavio called me. In eleven years of being together he had called the office just twice before. The first to say he would learn to drive, the second to say he had missed a flight and now this third time to say the doctor had told him he had cancer…

It is important to leave this world knowing you are loved, he says, and truly, what more could anyone ask? I defy anyone to read this memoir with a dry eye or a continued opinion that same sex relationships are any less valid than that between heterosexuals.

Abeer Hoque’s ‘On Growing’, the 2011 prize winner, recounts a childhood spent in a university town in Eastern Nigeria. It is an adventurous and carefree time as she and her sister explore the tropical landscape of Nsukka. The local tribes-people are their bogeymen:

The man stops eating and looks up at us. He will know instantly that we are foreign, our brown skin pale against his, our hair weak in the wind… The stories I have heard about juju men, the witch doctors, and their spells crystallise in my head. I turn and run.

The protagonist’s excitement at exploring her new environment – she attends the local school, enjoys planting corn for a school project and speaks in the local dialect – is juxtaposed with her mother’s struggle to adapt, taking solace instead in her garden. When her mother’s beloved imported orange rose finally blooms, she appears to open up but this is cut short by a guest’s careless act. Hoque writes ‘My corn plants are higher than my head now … I remember to be glad for the abundance, sorry for the frailty and only-ness of my mother’s orange rose.’ And one senses that this references something beyond gardening.

Hoque’s writes using local dialect which can detract from the flow of the story.

Barbara Jenkin’s 2010 entry ‘It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, is a thoughtful exploration of the question: What if being with family is not the best thing for us? In a world where family ties are assumed to be the strongest links we have, and where by virtue of birth our beliefs, economic circumstance and opportunities have been more or less pre-determined, being sent to live with strangers might seem to be the worst thing that can happen to a child. The protagonist of Jenkin’s story feels a sense of abandonment when she is sent to live with another family because her mother cannot afford to support her children. However, she soon adapts. She makes a friend, lives a life of relative ease and continues her education in this new more nurturing environment. Sadly, this improvement in her life is shattered when her father – in another of his ‘erratic pouncings’ – decides to reunite the family. ‘The separated children were re-gathered. As silent as strangers, we moved into our new life in the open tray of a Ford truck,’ and rather than happiness at being reunited with her family, she develops feelings of resignation, lost opportunity and the unfairness of how little say children have in the thrust of their own lives.

Bart Moore Gilbert’s prologue to ‘My father was a Terrorist’ is a touching story of a boy in boarding school in England. He counters his homesickness by telling his classmates stories of his home in Tanganyika. Often bullied racially, he counts the days until his father’s visit in the summer. One night, his house master summons him to give him awful news. Gilbert’s expertise lies in detail and description, which is expertly depicts the awkward attempts to console him:

‘Are you sure you don’t want the éclair,’ she pleads,’ it’s from the Amps.’ He’s spent many a morning break gazing covetously at the pastries in the grocer’s, wondering whether it was worth the risk of expulsion to steal one. He shakes his head.

The stories that have emerged in the Wasafiri Life Writing Category over the last four years have varied in ideas, setting and style but besides the tragic, something common to them all is authenticity. Each story is an examination of something many readers have experienced in the course of their lives. And there, in knowing others have lived and survived your awful experiences; and in being let in to empathise, lies the appeal of Life Writing.

By Sola Njoku

Editors Note

These stories can be read in issues of Wasafiri Magazine:

David Houston’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ is published in Issue 73

Abeer Hoque’s ‘On Growing’ is published in Issue 69

‘It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ by Barbara Jenkins is published in Issue 65

Bart Moore Gilbert’s ‘My Father Was a Terrorist’ is published in Issue 61

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