Cherrie Kandie talks about the aftermath of being shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘Sew My Mouth’, a story about a lesbian couple in Kenya.
In May, I was informed that my first published short story, ‘Sew My Mouth’, had been shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing. I experienced a happiness that was strange because it was mixed with dread. The story is about two women, living in Nairobi, who love each other; that it was written in the first person provided occasion for violent readings of the story to be displaced onto me.
I wrote the bulk of that story towards the end of my second year of college, in 2016. At the time, it was called ‘Sew Your Mouth’ because I had chosen to write it in the second person. My anger and frustration at a web of quotidian and structural homophobias might have been a reason for this choice. That is, by placing the reader in the position of the narrator, I hoped to make it very difficult for them not to empathise with the women. However, a more astute realisation would have been that I deployed ‘you’ to create distance between myself and the explicit queerness detailed on the page. ‘You’ is what allowed me to write about something that I was both terrified to think about and ashamed to be associated with. I rewrote sections of it in 2017 and sent it to Short Story Day Africa (SSDA), responding to a call for ‘innovative short fiction that explores identity, especially (but not limited to) the themes of gender identity and sexuality.’ The kind editors at SSDA suggested that the repeated ‘you’ did not quite work for the story. I went along with that. The editing process was the first professional lesson I received about how fear and shame can warp your craft.
It felt good to have ‘Sew My Mouth’ ensconced among beautiful stories, right at the halfway-point of the beautiful SSDA anthology. I could now declare my status as a published writer, and declare I did. But when a friend or schoolmate asked to read the story I would shrink back and change the subject.
There are things you cannot change the subject about – things like the Caine Prize for African Writing. Being shortlisted meant that the sapphic melodrama I had started writing when I was 19 was available, spread-eagled, on the Caine Prize website, next to a picture of me and my government name.
The Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation printed an article on page 3 with the headline, ‘Will Kenya’s Cherrie Kandie Beat the Nigerians?’ – a question that Lesley, Tochukwu and I would later laugh at after Lesley had won the Prize. The oddest part of this already-odd newspaper article was the complete absence of the story itself – its content, its narrative. It consisted only of a stiffly rendered side-by-side comparison of the respective national literary histories of Kenya and Nigeria. Where I read this absence as symptomatic of a larger, socio-culturally conditioned and hushed recoil in response to all matters concerning ‘lesbianism’, a friend understood this absence as mercy. Mercy, because none of the people whose earnest congratulations filled my mother’s inbox, courtesy of that headline, knew what the story was about. Mercy, because that collective obliviousness became personal relief when my mother relayed that she had woken up to a barrage of WhatsApp messages from an assortment of family, friends, friends of family, her women’s chama (Ujirani), her Church jumuiya, a parents’ group, her work group, and a self-help group called ‘Expanding the Boundaries.’ She shuffled among these groups, beaming and accepting congratulations. There was at least one message that called upon Jesus to ‘rain victory down on me’ so that I could ‘beat the Nigerians.’
‘But do you know that it is about lesbians?’ I wanted to say. I think a few of the well-wishers may have read the story, and I am sure that most of these few pretended not to have. Those who did not pretend asked me a few questions, but no one was hostile. One cousin sent a series of sweet, supportive messages saying that he would love and care for me no matter my sexual orientation. One person told my mother that it was ‘very creative,’ before asking, in a whisper, ‘Is that really your daughter in the story?’
A memory that is distinct but blurred around the edges: a Kenyan writer-friend at a restaurant in downtown Nairobi complaining that stories about African gays are the only ones that the Publishing Powers that Be (read: white people) care about. This exchange happened in mid-2017. Romeo Oriogun had won the Brunel International African Poetry Prize for his poetry on ‘masculinity and desire in the face of LGBT criminalisation and persecution’; Arinze Ifeakandu had been shortlisted for the Caine for ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’, a story about ‘boys in love’; and Short Story Day Africa had just issued a call to which I would eventually submit ‘Sew My Mouth’, as had the Gerald Kraak Award, which aimed to ‘honour works that focus on experienced of gender, social justice and sexuality’.
A breath, a pause, to consider that it is true that weighty adjectives like ‘necessary’ and ‘important’ fronted many introductions to ‘Sew My Mouth’. The majority of the questions I was asked during the Caine Prize week concerned the following list of roughly contemporaneous circumstances: (i) Binyavanga Wainaina’s death, (ii) the Rafiki movie ban, and (iii) the Kenya High Court’s refusal to repeal the section of the penal code that criminalised gay sex. If I could make a case to defend the integrity of my art in the face of unfeeling instrumentalism, I would. Indeed, a simple and effective response to the full-throated claim that ‘African gays are trendy’ would be, ‘You have/had forever and always – we only get one year –’
I am unable to make the right and righteous case. Art, whatever that means, is not my religion, at least not yet. I am twenty-three, meaning I was born yesterday. ‘Sew My Mouth’ was my first published story, and I have no significant body of work to defend, not when I am still learning how to put together said craft to suit best a set of principles I am only just defining. ‘Sew My Mouth’ was not rooted in lofty artistic ideals honed through lengthy periods of professional practice; rather, its path was paved by streaks of pain, anger, sadness, depression, and exasperation so deep that they prevented me from attending to my other duties and responsibilities in a timely, competent manner. These feelings were in turn both soothed and supported by a host of indignant and inflexible Twitter and Tumblr social justice axioms I’d imbibed about my position in the world as a long-suffering [insert my numerous beleaguered identities] person. I don’t know whether the end-product of this process is Art with a capital A. But I do know that it is sometimes enough. The short story form aptly sustains the essence of ‘Sew My Mouth’ because the story was like a sigh, or a short sharp spit of saliva, launched from the gap in between my two front teeth, everything over before it began.
Because the very act of writing ‘Sew My Mouth’ rendered me different than the person who set out to write it, the story can only have itself as an advocate. Whatever others choose to do with my story is beyond my responsibility and, anyway, out of my control. Either that, or I’ve changed a lot since 2016. I don’t know who the person that wrote ‘Sew My Mouth’ is. I respect her as one respects their ancestral lineage, but from where I am standing I cannot completely know who she is and I am therefore unable to inhabit either her or the story’s spirit. Either all that, or a comfortable well of fear and shame is leading me to dissociate myself from her again.
Cherrie Kandie is a Kenyan writer whose first published short story ‘Sew My Mouth’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing. She is thinking very hard about writing a novel about little girls and big houses. Reach her on @cherriekandie.