I went to France last weekend, to celebrate the wedding of the son of two of my closest friends to his long time girlfriend. Neither the bride nor groom nor any of their close families are French but they chose to have their ceremony in a garden in a French village because the location held special meaning for their growing love. And, continuing on this theme, they designed their wedding ceremony as a way of joining their different identities. She comes from a devout Catholic family and he comes from a long line of secular Jews, and theirs was a wedding of deliberate inclusion. It took place in a French garden, under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish canopy, with a contingent of Norwegian women relatives wearing drakter – the long robes that they don once a year to commemorate their community’s past – and the whole ceremony was presided over jointly by a male Catholic priest, and a woman rabbi.
As the ceremony unfolded I was reminded of my fellow judge, Helon Habila’s thoughtful blog for the Caine prize where he talked about what makes tradition. Helon quoted TS Eliot’s assertion that tradition cannot be inherited but be must be made by great labour. I thought about the ramifications of this as I stood witness to two young people who were using their wedding to begin to carve their new tradition out of their different pasts. As I thought about this, some of the multi-stranded stories that I had the privilege to read as a Caine juror came back to me.
I thought about the stories we had shortlisted – and how much I was going to enjoy reading them again for the final stage of the judging process - and then I thought about the stories that we had reluctantly to leave out of our shortlist. I thought about Annie Holmes’s "Leaving Civvy Street" from the Queer Africa collection. It’s a story set in the former Rhodesia and peopled by white characters we used to call “old Rhodies”. Although I am not Zimbabwean, these characters were so familiar to me from a now mercifully changed South African past so that while I was reading Annie’s story I was simultaneously re-visiting my own past and seeing it with new eyes.
And then I thought about Mukoma wa Ngugi’s "Wounded Men": the life, in a few pages, of a boxer who crossed continents only to end up dying a typical Kenyan death. I am a novelist, accustomed to the long form, but what Mukoma wa Ngugi did for me in such a short number of words was invite me into a world of men that was unfamiliar, but which I understood as I watched it unfold on the page. And from wa Ngugi I re-visited a different story: Maurine Ogbaa’s "Chariot" that summoned up a world of women struggling to retain their identities, and make their own lives, in near impossible circumstances.
What all of these stories, and the ones we selected for our shortlist, did for me was to immerse me in worlds that I knew to a greater or lesser extent but that I came away, having read the stories, knowing from the inside. I didn’t worry about which country, or which tradition, I was reading: instead I found myself gripped by the characters, their histories and their immediacy. Each story a world in itself and which, like the couple whose wedding I went to celebrate, were using their pasts, their presents, and their imaginations, to create narratives that continued to intrigue me long after I had turned the last page.