The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Ola W Halim from Nigeria

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Photo of Ola W Halim: https://brittlepaper.com/2021/04/commonwealth-short-story-prize-announces-2021-shortlist-meet-the-african-author/

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

Here is more information on the competition and the shortlist of this year: https://www.litnet.co.za/press-release-2021-commonwealth-short-story-prize-shortlist-announced/.

Ola W Halim from Nigeria talks to Naomi Meyer about his shortlisted story, An analysis of a fragile affair.

Congratulations on your short story, nominated for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize! Please would you tell me what your story is about and what inspired you to write your story?

My story, An analysis of a fragile affair, is about the complexities of living with differences in a strictly conservative society. It focuses on the secret affair of two men, one of them albino, effeminate and agnostic; the other, an older man with a silent, almost imperceptible loathing for everything the first man identifies with.

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Many things inspired me to write this story, but primarily it was because – as diverse as the literary space has become – there isn’t enough representation of albinism. 

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Many things inspired me to write this story, but primarily it was because – as diverse as the literary space has become – there isn’t enough representation of albinism. The few stories featuring albino characters I have come across often portray them as inhuman, the ultimate villain who commits murders like Jack the Ripper; who, by plot-driven fate, must be eliminated at the end so that other characters can have some peace. I wanted to show that an albino can be human, too – starkly human; an albino can be gay, can be vulnerable, can be broken, can struggle through the ordinary, non-albinistic realities of being human. Being an albino myself, I wanted to read myself on the page, see myself outside myself, and perhaps send a message to the marginalised communities: “Hey, dear, you’re seen!”

It was possible to take part in this competition in languages other than English (entries could be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil and Turkish). Tell me about the language you used for your entry. Did you write in your home language? If you wrote in English, do you think the language you speak at home was reflected in the English that you used? Speak to me about the language you used as tool for your writing.

The language of An analysis of a fragile affair is a fusion of standard English and pidgin English. The result is what I’d like to call Pinglish. Pidgin English is a Creole spoken all over Nigeria, and is different to English, its lingua franca. In An analysis, pidgin and standard English exist side by side, so that phrases like “waka like a correct man” are almost always accompanied by “... so that, perhaps, he’d sound like a man”, so that linguistic experimentations like “harmattan brought plenty-plenty wahala” are possible, as well as “rains fell with mad winds”.

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Choosing to write in Pinglish was a decision I made after completing the second draft of the story. I wanted to make the story more Nigerianised, to bring it closer to home, because I was addressing issues which, to many Nigerians, are “imported”.

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Choosing to write in Pinglish was a decision I made after completing the second draft of the story. I wanted to make the story more Nigerianised, to bring it closer to home, because I was addressing issues which, to many Nigerians, are “imported”. Some people, widely read by their own claims, argue that the “concept” of queerness, for example, is Western; to them, many Nigerian writers who humanise queerness in their fiction either have been corrupted by Western values or just want to write for the American market. I thought that if I presented this story as organically Nigerian, unapologetically Nigerian, its reality might hit differently. I had, at one point, imagined rewriting it entirely in pidgin, but I had to think about the comprehension problems I might create for some people if it eventually got published.

What did this nomination mean to you, and what are your writing dreams for the future?

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It meant I can once in a while now look myself in the mirror and call myself a writer without doubt.

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To be shortlisted for the almighty Commonwealth Short Story Prize is a big deal. If I should begin humbly, it meant I was at least able to touch somebody. And on a wider plain, it meant my work caught the attention of an international panel of judges. It meant I can once in a while now look myself in the mirror and call myself a writer without doubt.

In the future, I hope to write more stories featuring, among other themes, the reality of albinism in Africa. To date, albinos are still being murdered for ritual purposes in some parts of Africa. Many people do not know this. Many people do not know that a word like albinophobia exists, yet I have come across many who are actually albinophobic in their own quiet ways. I am currently working on a novel about the experiences of queer albinos living in Nigeria.

Also read:

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Franklyn Usouwa from Nigeria

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Rémy Ngamije from Namibia

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Vincent Anioke from Nigeria

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021: an interview with Moso Sematlane from Lesotho

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