Thursday, December 15, 2011

“Hitting Budapest” wins Caine Prize for African Writing

Review by Ariana Austin

NoViolet Bulawayo won the Caine Prize, Africa's highest literary honor, this past July for her short story, "Hitting Budapest". It was announced at a dinner in Oxford, England, where she received a monetary award in addition to a future residency at Georgetown University. Authors often gamer considerable attention after winning what's known as the African "Booker" Prize. Hisham Matar, a Libyan author and chair of this year's committee, praised the rich language of Hitting Budapest and Bulawayo's ability "to refrain from moral commentary."

Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe and came to the United States shortly after high school. She describes herself as being of the "born free generation," those children born just after Zimbabwe's independence from the United Kingdom when unprecedented opportunities were supposed to exist. Instead Zimbabwe's economy collapsed under the weight of rogue leadership. Today there are more than 3 million Zimbabweans living abroad and seeking "promise" elsewhere. After relocating to the U.S. Bulawayo began to realize she was a writer, formally studied creative writing and recently completed an MFA at Cornell University. In addition to writing, she is exploring making films and plans to teach as well. She believes artists have to be engaged with their worlds, especially where social justice and human rights issues are concerned.

"Hitting Budapest" was first published in The Boston Review and follows a group of children who live in a shantytown called Paradise and travel to a wealthy neighborhood, Budapest, to “steal" guavas. Darling, the narrator tells us, "right now I'd die for guavas, or anything for that matter. My stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out." As the story approaches its climax, the children make a violating and desperate choice. The setting of their ordeal is intentionally ambiguous. "The story," Bulawayo told The Crisis, is "uniquely Zimbabwean but a universal story. it could be in Europe or the U.S. It's about marginalized communities and how they articulate their desperation."

In many ways, Bulawayo's story combines two classic archetypes - the coming-of-age and journey stories - forming a meditation on poverty, boundaries and the state of the have-nots in a postcolonial world. Understanding one's place, it seems, figures prominently in the main characters' contextualization of their own poverty. The questions Bulawayo poses relate directly to the present condition of many developing countries. Her admirable restraint allows readers to make the connections themselves and draw their own conclusions. When a group of children are hungry enough to make hardened choices like those presented in Hitting Budapest, who or what is to blame? Is it the woman whose "Save Darfur" t-shirt in no way informs her own humanity when it comes to a group of small children; is it the president of this unnamed nation, an international body, or is it irresponsible individual choices?

NoViolet Bulawayo provides no easy answers, but she does make a point about names. As she explains, "they are ‘parents' prayers' for their children" - so readers get main characters with names like Darling and Godknows. She has recently completed a novel manuscript tentatively titled We Need New Names. Perhaps, new names and new prayers can shed light on the essential questions posed in her work.

Ariana Austin is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. and currently a graduate student in the fiction program at Johns Hopkins University. She is the founding director of Art All Night DC; the first overnight arts-and-culture festival held last September in the nation's capital.

Reprinted from The Crisis, Fall 2011, p43

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