In a Johannesburg mall, a listless and lonely IT worker chats with his dad about the bitter fruits of upward mobility in South Africa. ‘Do you remember when you scored 139 for that IQ test?’ Pa asks, in Masande Ntshanga’s story ‘Space II’. ‘I thought it meant my life would be different, I tell him, but I don’t really like computers.’ As the dream of a ‘rainbow nation’ fades, all the Ubers, espressos and craft beers in the city can’t dispel the mood of yuppie melancholia.
Modern Africa, as several pieces in the latest edition of this annual anthology attest, may cast away old burdens only to take on the anxious freight of globalised life. Dump those stereotypes of want and strife, cease to peddle tales of epidemic, civil war or slumland misery, and any writer worth the name will still flick flies into the ointment of progress. With their flash motors, designer drinks and first-class air tickets, the back-slapping Nairobi bourgeoisie of Billy Kahora’s ‘Shiko’ nervously practise the fear-driven oneupmanship learned in dormitories and on rugby pitches, ‘a philosophy of survival in boarding-school life’. When a Dubai deal and a foxy babe both threaten to slip away, the narrator gazes fondly at ‘the Audi out in the parking lot… It is the only constant.’
Much fiction from or about the continent still dwells on what the novelist Helen Oyeyemi dubbed ‘colourful emergencies’. Via the award itself and yearly workshops for established and emerging authors, the Caine Prize for African Writing — which rewards English-language short stories — has since 2000 encouraged writers to aim higher. In genre, this volume’s entries stretch from high-concept science fiction, in which elite mathematicians run an Africa that has survived the floods that drown Europe and America (Lesley Nneka Arimah), to a bejewelled fantasia of Cleopatra’s girlhood that Oscar Wilde might envy (F.T.