Roy Udeh-Ubaka had just returned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop in 2018 when the idea for his Gerald Kraak Prize-winning short story “Until It Doesn’t” came to him.
“I knew that I wanted nameless characters, I also knew that I wanted to compress time, and finally—because this came about a little later—that I wanted ‘Love’ to be the narrator, [so I could] tell the story simply as an observer,” he says. “But with the characters themselves, J and K, I wanted to portray ordinary lives, people we occupy this space with daily. I read somewhere that every life is meaningful because it is not extraordinary at all, and I wanted these characters to resonate.”
Although he was exploring form and style in ways that were unfamiliar to him, the words, characters, and scenes built up quickly and took two weeks to write. “I remember taking long walks and having conversations with my characters. It was as though they needed to be heard and wouldn’t stay mute until they had said everything they needed to say. And because I write on my phone, it was easy to capture these conversations as quickly as they came to me.”
“Until It Doesn’t” is an engrossing tale of love and friendship. Its two male characters, J and K, are best friends and lovers whose attachment begins while they are teenagers and lasts into their sixties. Friendship, Udeh-Ubaka agrees, is one of the major places where love breeds, and in the story, “the bond between J and K remained alive because of that friendship.”
Udeh-Ubaka’s story was chosen from a shortlist of 12. The judges—Caine Prize chair Ellah Wakatama, influential journalist Mark Gevisser, and Open Country Mag editor Otosirieze Obi-Young, who served as chair of the panel—described it as “brave fiction that tweaks the possibilities of the short story form, both in its use of voice and the way it compresses time, to illuminate the truth of so many queer people. . . it is beautiful how so much life is packed in and yet there is restraint.”
He always knew his story would span a lot of time. “I thought a lot about an older Jamaican friend of mine whose life loosely mirrors one of my characters, and because his story of finding and losing love was so encompassing, it only felt true to tell it in this way. The style seemed informed by need and efficiency. The story demanded some kind of whimsicality that felt true to its form, and I felt I had to work hard to get not just my approval, but the approval of my characters as well.”
Udeh-Ubaka’s writing journey began in 2015 as “a way to evade spaces.” At that time, he wrote to escape the pressures of life and build stability and safety. He loved to immerse himself in the world of a story, into the endless possibilities of character.
“Until It Doesn’t” first appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern in 2019, and that year he was named by Electric Literature among “promising new voices of Nigerian fiction,” in a feature introduced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. An MFA student at the University of Florida, he is currently working on a book, which he says might or might not be an expansion of the short story.
The Gerald Kraak Prize—Africa’s only award for writing and photography on sexuality, gender, and social justice—puts its winners on a path of notability. It is “an ongoing shock of my life,” says Udeh-Ubaka, who attended the award ceremony in Cape Town on May 25, hosted by the prize funder, The Other Foundation, as part of the Kopano Festival. “The shortlisted stories left me breathless, with each narrative stretching out what it means to be human, what it means to occupy space in our individual lives, and what it means to love ourselves even when the world isn’t loving us back.”
He received $2,000, the runner-up Ukamaka Olisakwe got $500, and for the first time, the rest of the finalists were paid $200. All the shortlisted works will now appear in the prize anthology, The Beautyful Ones Have Just Been Born, published by the prize’s other partner, Jacana Media, and edited by Otosirieze.
Winning the prize is affirming for him. “Having grown up in a small city in Nigeria where I had to cobble communities—both queer and literary—when access to them was scarce, the value is in becoming a part of this incredible anthology that makes it possible for us all to exist—even for a moment—within a world that reminds us to be, to live and occupy our space,” he says. “I can only hope that our stories continue to influence people in ways that make us all attuned to our humanity.” ♦
The Gerald Kraak Prize Anthology IV, The Beautyful Ones Have Just Been Born, edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young, is forthcoming from Jacana Media in June 2022. Read the shortlisted stories on The Other Foundation’s website.
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