The JRB presents the three winning stories from this year’s Short Story Day Africa Prize.
Nigerian writer Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor won the prestigious award for his story ‘All Our Lives’. For the first time in the prize’s five-year history, two stories were jointly awarded second place: Agazit Abate’s ‘The Piano Player’ and Michael Yee’s ‘God Skin’.
Editor’s note, September 2019: a year after Okafor was announced as the SSDA Prize winner, similarities between his short story and that of another writer, ‘Wanderlust’ by Laleh Khadivi, published in 2014, came to light. This caused the Caine Prize for African Writing to withdraw Okafor’s story from its 2019 shortlist. You can read more on this story at James Murua’s African literature blog, and find the Caine Prize’s statement here. As of the time of this note, Okafor’s story remains the SSDA Prize winner.
The prize is worth $800 (about R10,000) and open to any African citizen or African person living in the diaspora. All twenty-one longlisted stories are published in this year’s SSDA anthology, ID: New Short Fiction From Africa.
Read on, and enjoy:
Joint runner-up for the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize
The last of the customers leave the restaurant, as I smoke my cigarette I can hear the ghost of the sea, surf and sky distilled to photographic negative, as the earth slows its orbit, as she turns the sign from Open to Closed, as I open the door.
I walk into the Golden Phoenix.
She sits by the front desk in reception, by the cash register, the menus, napkins, and a crystal bowl of peppermints by the tips jar. A family of West African masks hangs on the wine-red wall behind her, but all I can see is her reflection, staring back at me as I lock the glass door.
I turn. Face her. She disappears into the restaurant. Glances over her shoulder as she slips through the curtain of beads and into the restrooms.
I feel beautiful until I catch my reflection in the door. God, look at me still covered in sunscreen. I spit on a napkin and wipe my face. Good news: I don’t look like a ghost anymore. Bad news: I’ve become even darker than that summer I spent hunting river crabs as a girl back in Chengdu.
C’mon, think. I’m always in the restaurant. How am I getting sunburnt? Granted, it’s a different animal out here, but what sun can penetrate brick walls? And why am I the only one getting darker?
I’ll work it out later.
I can’t be late.
I pass through the archway and enter the restaurant. Six round tables with white tablecloths stand empty. I go to one with the chopsticks and the bowls turned upside down on the saucers.
Here she comes, Vannette Okanta.
I haven’t breathed since she walked through the bead curtains. Out of all the empty seats, she sits next to me. I can smell the soap on her skin. Blood’s high in my cheeks, down in my thighs. Under the table, my foot has become a needle pointing to true north. Where do I put my eyes as she studies my face?
‘I like it.’
‘Huh?’ I say in my best English.
‘The tan.’ She tilts her head. ‘It suits you.’
The kitchen doors swing open. I whip my head back.
‘Come and get it.’ Yelling in Mandarin, my sister-in-law charges in with a tray of fish-stomach soup, steamed rice, deep-fried youtiao, tofu pork and bak choi. She flings the dishes onto the Lazy Susan and levels her gaze at me.
On my feet. To the restroom. Lock the stall. I’m standing over the squat toilet, still shaking.
But have I ever felt so alive?
Vannette Okanta. Okanta. Okanta. How she wears her hair free. Her skin, her temperature, how she stops to find the right words, how she slouches when she’s thinking but never when she walks. The dignity she gives to a pashmina. How the other day, solving an inventory problem, it felt like we were running side-by-side, leaving the world behind. How she rearranges my chemistry from across the room, the friction of our genes—I’ve never been in love, is this it?
I pass water. Hike up my skirt. Light up a Chunghwa. Dissolve into nicotine, fingertips tingling as I take a second drag.
Who’s banging on the door?
‘Hey, what the hell you doing?’ It’s my sister-in-law. ‘Everyone’s waiting for you, moron!’
‘I’m coming.’ I unlock the stall. Push open the door.
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘I was taking a shit.’
She barges past me, checks in the bowl for turds. ‘So you say.’
I pull the chain. Go to the basin. Wash my hands. She’s glaring into the back of my head. I sneer at her bitter melon body. Blow smoke in her face and slam the door behind me. Oh god, oh god, oh god.
My husband and brother-in-law are already sitting with Vannette at the table, tracking me as I part the curtain of beads.
‘Ah, the guest of honour.’ My husband slowly applauds. I sit down as fast as I can. Once he’s done glaring at me, he reaches for the Johnnie Walker. Fills everyone’s glass but mine. ‘A toast,’ he says.
I sit with my empty glass.
Vannette’s shoulder brushes mine as she rises, she smiles out of the corner of her eye. I’m out of control, I should stop looking at her.
My husband raises his glass. ‘To the Golden Phoenix.’
I smile at her. Does he catch that? Does he see?
‘Ganbei,’ he roars.
I sit down. Thank god, everyone’s too hungry to give a damn about me anymore.
Clinking of chopsticks, slurping of soup. While they stuff their faces, I roll the tofu pork on my tongue. Bland. Bland like all her food. A fact she covers up with MSG. That’s why customers have stopped coming since that new restaurant opened. But will he listen? Pfft. The sun shines out his sister’s ass.
My brother-in-law sees me leering at her and winks, that shark; they’re all the same.
‘Vannette, business so bad lately? Why? Why?’ My husband throws up his hands while his eyes crawl down her cleavage.
‘Times are hard, Mr Li.’ Vannette straightens her blouse.
He laces his fingers behind his head, red-faced, slurring. I can smell his sweat turning sour.
‘New restaurah, Lucky Dragon … you know?’
Vannette takes a sip from the doll-sized teacup and nods.
‘She go spy on them other day.’ He points to his sister. ‘Tell them.’
She shakes her head and pours him another whisky.
‘She say Lucky Dragon more customah because prettier waitresses there. I say we no in the restaurah business. You know what business we in?’
Vannette shakes her head. ‘No, Mr Li, what business are we in?’
‘Tits and ass.’
My in-laws laugh like it’s the funniest thing they’ve heard, while my husband growls at me in Mandarin. ‘So when you insist on staying out in the sun all day, insist on getting this fucking monkey tan,’ he waves his finger in my face, ‘you jeopardise us all.’
Vannette doesn’t speak Mandarin. She doesn’t have to.
‘Sweetie, you think my wife pretty?’
Vannette bristles. ‘She is so pretty.’
He drains his glass, switches back to Mandarin. ‘Pretty little monkey.’
My in-laws hoot.
Later—after Vannette has left—with the whisky bottles drained, his sister will fry up a plate of greasy plantains. She’ll make monkey sounds as I eat them.
‘Unfortunately, some girls can end up with men who are … shall we say … in need of a woman’s touch? But your daughter is so fair, such lovely skin, don’t worry, we’ll find a good match for her.’ What the marriage broker told my mother echoes as I open my eyes in bed, my saliva thick with plantains.
While I wait for the kettle on the windowsill to boil my drinking water, I place a mirror on the floor and stand over it.
Even the pasty skin on my thighs has tanned brown. But now, as I squat down I see that my labia, always the darkest part of me, has turned black. These are not my genitals. This is not my skin.
My knees are shaking. This cannot be from the sun. What sun can burn here? His sister has cursed me. Colluded with witchdoctors. Circlets of hair. Amulets of fingernails. Hidden in my mattress. Sewn into my clothes. The room spins. My lungs shrink. My mouth is ash. Everyone is a foreigner somewhere, none more so than here, so what am I so afraid of?
Was that girl from Chengdu so perfect before?
My knees have stopped shaking.
Roots grow from the soles of my feet, through carpet, through floorboards, through concrete, through earth, through bedrock, through water, through fire.
Vannette flashes before my eyes all skin and touch and tenderness as I stare at my wet sex below. I piss on my shame. I pull up my pyjama bottoms. Go to the bathroom sink. Run the tap. Bring my mouth down to the stream; the water on my lips is lukewarm, tasteless. I wash my mask off. And watch it spiral down the drain. We abandon so many faces to discover who we are, what is one more? I soak the sponge. Wipe the wells of my clavicles, my umami armpits, between my legs, rinse and wash and rinse.
I’ve been hating myself since I opened my eyes. But enough now, I should get dressed. Vannette is downstairs.
I leave the bedroom. At the end of the long corridor, I open the door to the stairwell. My pencil skirt takes a ride up my legs as I go down two flights of stairs, surprise, everything’s shorter since that new restaurant opened. It’s so quiet in here, nothing but concrete and metal rails. I can hear my heart as I open the door and step into reception.
Vannette is waiting by the entrance, backlit by the morning; I could stand here for eternity.
But why isn’t she behind the front desk? And why is there a box filled with her West African masks, Beyoncé mug, and the little cactus I gave to her last week?
‘She said they don’t need me anymore.’
What the hell?
‘I had to say goodbye.’
Has she been crying?
She keeps searching my face like maybe I know something. I’m shit in these situations. I get paralysed.
Oh god, she’s taking it the wrong way. She’s picking up the box. My face is a goddamned mask. I look like a goddamned robot. I should open my goddamned mouth. Tell her how I feel. But I can’t, even now as she opens the door.
Love is an act of war. Love is older than reason. Love is choosing sides.
My breath stinks of fear, but somehow I take the box from her arms and shut the door. The way she’s looking at me now, my heart stops. My eyes well up. My world is salt water. Reflected in the glass door, I see her body dissolving into my body, her edges melting into my edges, we are liquid now, colourless, as love, as suffering, as right, as wrong.
Who the fuck is breathing down my neck?
Hands on hips, lips pursed. How long has my sister-in-law been standing there?
‘You! We pay you! Go! Go!’ She waves Vannette away like she does the feral cats outside of the kitchen.
Vannette unfurls her shoulders and grows before my eyes.
My sister-in-law blinks. How many times have I lost face to her? What does it matter what she thinks anymore?
Vannette is by my side. The woman I was without her is becoming unstitched, unhemmed as I lean over the front desk, open the cash register, grab the money, pick up the box.
Love makes fools and gods of us all.
Elegant fingers slip between my fat ones as I take her hand, as we walk into the sun, as we leave the restaurant behind, this is what I hold on to, this can keep me alive.
Vannette drinks me in as my high-heels-her-sneakers crunch across the courtyard, as we make our way to the giant metal gates, peppered with bullet holes from the war.
Can she hear me? Has this love that grew during ordinary days made telepaths of ordinary people?
We stand by the gates wide open. There is only the wind kicking up dust and the things I must say, things that have stayed secret so long, even as they nourish, they poison me.
‘I never planned for any of this to happen. I only admitted last week how I felt about you. I couldn’t sleep, my skin itched terribly, so I went outside. I saw the sun rising. It’s been the strangest season. One smile from you and I was rearranged. Oceans of feeling surged and swelled, as if being so stretched and alive were normal.’
‘I’ll get us a ride. You can stay with me if you like,’ she smiles.
Everything I said in Mandarin has been lost on her, already it withers, killed by the noise of this world. Motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks rush in all directions. She hails down a taxi, hooting now for the traffic to give way. It pulls over. She opens the back door, drops the box on the seat, waves for me to get in.
He starts yelling something at Vannette, but a flurry of traffic steals the words before they can reach me.
I put my head inside the taxi. It sounds like they’re arguing about the fare.
‘He wants to rip us off,’ Vannette says.
What am I doing? I barely know her. This is insane.
‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ she tells the driver.
New skin says go; old skin says stay.
‘No, what are you doing?’
They are enemies; this is civil war.
‘I don’t want it.’
I take the money from the cash register out of my pocket and put it into Vannette’s hand.
I walk back to the gates.
I shut them behind me.
Days, once light as air, now oil spill; fortune shines elsewhere. Weeks have passed.
Night has fallen.
He’s expecting me. Hates waiting. I leave the bedroom. Walk the leylines women like me must follow, on tiptoes, on eggshells, husband awaits at the end of the dark corridor, in the master bathroom, knock on the door.
I say his name and pray he had a good day.
I creak open the door to a humid, steamy world. His arm dangles over the bathtub while his finger points to the door. ‘Shut it.’
Air still, bathwater still, only his eyes stir as I unbutton my blouse, as I step out of my skirt, as my underwear falls to my ankles, as I climb into the warm water and slip between his handsome thighs.
‘Where have you been?’ He pinches my nipple. Water sloshes over the sides, onto the floor. I don’t struggle. He will break me.
‘Sorry I was late, my love,’ I say and turn around. I go down on him. Choke on him. It’s OK to struggle now. This struggle he likes.
He is done.
I twist open the tap. I break open. Sorrow spills like the bathwater over the sides, onto the tiles. Worse to come.
His legs coil around me. Fingers trace down my chest. Nipples harden.
‘You like that?’
I nod. Sigh. Sell it. I can hate myself all I want, but at least I’ll wake up with my teeth tomorrow morning.
Hot water soothes him. His legs loosen their grip on me. Spidery hands crawls down my small breasts, down between my thighs—goosebumps of pleasure break out on my skin, how awful—as expert hands work me from the inside out. My breath is connected to him now. My back arcs against his chest. Sparks shoot from his fingertips, explode in my womb, limbs, chest, toes, nerve endings awaken like a coral reef. I tremble in his arms. He licks the tears from my cheek.
‘You know, it’s growing on me, your new colour.’
I say: ‘I’m so glad.’
‘No, I like it a lot.’
I smile, at least the worst is over.
‘Speak to me like Vannette.’
I spin round. Hot water sloshes over the sides.
‘C’mon, I’ve heard you practicing English with her.’
I look him in the eye.
‘Speak like Vannette.’
Have I ever hated him more?
His hand flies out the water, grabs onto my ponytail, my neck yanks backwards like the lid of a tin can.
‘Speak like Vannette.’
‘Go fuck yourself.’
There’s a slit where the maroon drapes meet each other at the bedroom window; where sunlight charges through, hammering my eyes. What’s this caked on my lips? I lick it. Dry flakes dissolve on my tongue. Why can’t I taste what it is? Why am I mouth-breathing? It comes rushing back now. Don’t touch my nose. Only lifting my head from the pillow hurts more. It’s not the first time. Keep it together. There’s blood on the sheets turning dark brown. Better get rid of it before he decides to break something else. But easy does it. My balance is shot.
I take my time putting my sunnies, hoodie and slippers on. I shuffle my way to the stairwell and go down the two flights of stairs. I push on the steel door and emerge in the rear of the compound. They keep the dumpsters and industrial generators in this courtyard.
Early morning, but the sun is a beast already. Through my swollen eyes I see William by the generator opening one of those glass jars everyone uses to transport petrol in over here. His Nissan pick-up is parked a few metres away, all rusty from the sea air. For years, William’s been refuelling generators for businesses up and down the boulevard. Seems to enjoy telling me stories about President Tolbert (good), President Taylor (complicated), President Sirleaf (useless), the displacement camps in Guinea that sheltered him during the war (c’est la vie), but mostly about his retirement if the government ever builds that grid that will put him out of a job (happy days).
‘Well, hey girl,’ he sees me coming.
I keep walking to the dumpster and toss the sheets. I’m grinding my teeth. I want to crawl back into bed and die, but I’m done with the old me. The new me goes back to William.
‘How you been keeping now?’
It hurts to speak, so I just stand there. It’s fine, William’s a talker. Like many Liberians, he throws away the ends of his words to confuse outsiders, but I like it, it soothes me. Only William’s not saying much today.
His eyes keep wandering to the swelling under my sunnies.
Before I can ask him about the petrol, he blurts out, ‘Hey, I ever tell you about the dogs in the camps?’
I shake my broken clock of a head.
‘Ah, well now, they were these street dogs, mangy old things, always trying to sneak into camp. One day they go and steal a baby. Got in through a hole in the fence.’
I wonder how many jars of petrol William has left in his pick-up truck.
‘By the time the mother knew they were gnawing on the bones.’
What will it take to burn this all to the ground?
‘Now some people said they was just dogs being hungry, but uh-uh, I always said they were bad to the bone.’
He starts pouring petrol into the generator through a funnel. ‘You know any dogs like that, darling?’
‘How much?’ I point to the empty jars by the generator.
William leans away from the fumes as he looks at me.
‘How much?’ I rub my fingers together.
‘How many you need?’
He catches me looking at my husband’s office on the first floor of the compound. When I stare at him, he twists the cap back onto the tank and restarts the generator. The noise punches me in the nose. I want to vomit, but there’s no time. William’s carrying the empty jars to his vehicle. I stagger over there and brace myself on the side of the truck. Everything’s blurry, but I can see jars of petrol inside.
William scratches his head. ‘Hey now, where’s Vannette at? I ain’t seen her all morning.’ He stares down the length of the dirty compound towards reception.
I cross the courtyard as fast I can. Push against the steel door. Crawl up the stairs. I’m in my bedroom. Where did I hide the shoebox with all the cash that I made? As I kneel to look under the bed, my stomach tips over. I puke down the front of my pink hoodie, but there’s no time to change. I hurry down the stairs. I open the door to the courtyard, but I already know.
My kneecaps turn to cartilage. I hit the ground so hard I throw up again. I’m lying in the gravel, staring at the deserted parking lot sideways.
The sun climbs in the cloudless sky, making everything itch.
I start scratching my sides, but it’s no use. It itches like skin growing under a bad burn, like skin still blistered from when my heart was an oil rig and my blood was gasoline.
But it itches less when I’m moving.
I get up slowly on my iffy knees. I go to the front gates and roll them shut. I take the key tied to the string around my neck and snap it off in the padlock.
I go back to the restaurant. I scratch around in the ashtray on the silver pedestal outside. While I smoke the end of somebody’s stale cigarette, I press my face against the front door.
I imagine seeing Vannette working the till behind the front desk as I push open the door now and step inside. That look on her face. That light in her eyes. It is mine. I have earned it.
I walk away from her for the last time. I do not falter. I march into the restaurant, go past the round tables. When I reach the back, I shove open the swing doors and enter the hot and smoky kitchen. Stride past the roaring gas burners, two of them side by side.
My sister-in-law is scrubbing a pot in the sink, singing her gaudy love songs, too drunk to see me coming.
My new lips whisper new truths: There is no one left to be. Nowhere left to go. Nothing left to burn.
My new ears hear the ghosts of those who fought on Tubman Boulevard, distilled to tooth and nail.
Yesterday I knew how to be deaf, how to be blind, how to be somebody else’s. Today I know why bullet holes still riddle the walls outside. Why war soaked this wind, these skies, these rivers, this soil.
I pick up the cleaver.