After a two week hiatus, here are reviews of several short stories I have read these past few weeks. All three stories are written by women from the African continent – specifically Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Africa – and all deal with family conflict, the complexity of spoken and unspoken communication.
“Wafa wanaka, our elders say. Not only does this mean that death is the ultimate peace, it also means that we are not to speak ill of the dead. Once a person has crossed over to the realm of the spirits, he takes his transgressions with him, and we speak only of the good.”
Petina Gappah has written a wonderful – but painful – story about family relationships, and dealing with familial conflict while in mourning. It is also a story about trying to manage sensitive family dynamics and grief in a context of political oppression and economic desperation.
The story is told from the perspective of Mary, a young woman living and studying in Harare to become a doctor. Her younger brother Peter died while living in Birmingham, and now his closest relatives and their extended family are waiting in Zimbabwe’s capital for his body to be sent back. Mary’s cousin, Lisa, lives in London and has made the arrangements. Mary and her other brother Jonathan wait at the Harare International Airport, but Peter’s body never arrives, and neither does Lisa. And so begins an extended wait until they can hold the funeral. While they wait, the different sides of the family fight and gossip about each other, and overstay their (half-hearted) welcome – they cannot leave as they do not have the money to return a second time.
No one, however, dares discuss Peter’s life and the fact that he was an alcoholic (and possibly a drug addict) who used emotional blackmail to get this mother to send what little money she had, and sometimes money she didn’t have. It is considered inappropriate to speak ill of the dead, and so Mary begins to feel suffocated by the silence, and by the constant family bickering. Her anger and frustration builds, until she can’t contain it, leading to an explosive conclusion.
Rating: 5/5: Excellent and highly recommended.
Petina Gappah is a writer and lawyer, born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Something Nice from London is part of a collection entitled An Elegy for Easterly, and has been made into a movie. You can watch the trailer here. You can find out more about her and her writing on her website.
“While walking on the treadmill in the gym, Matt read a Time magazine cover story about AIDS in Africa and suddenly all those orphaned children, those dying men, made him want to try the recipe with vine-ripened tomatoes, to live each day to the full.”
The first time I read this story, I was not quite sure what to make of it. I found neither of the main characters particularly likeable and their motivations were troubling. I realised, however, that I was struggling to understand the story as I was reading it from the perspective of Matt, as the narrative is told from his perspective. Matt, a white man from the United States, is walking in an Amish market in Philadelphia looking for tomatoes, when he bumps into a woman, Ujuaku. Ujuaku is a Nigerian journalist visiting the US, and Matt strikes up a conversation. Matt asks her to coffee, and then dinner, and from there a friendship blooms. From his perspective, Ujuaku is cold and distant at times, but then also friendly. She seems to blow hot and cold, and he can’t make head or tail of where their friendship is going – if anywhere. He also can’t explain to his friends who are a little confused but also amused by their friend’s relationship with Ujuaku.
Ujuaku’s friendship with Matt is framed by the limits imposed by his own mind. He can’t not see her as a black, African woman from a strange, baffling continent: “He wondered if she liked condoms. The Time piece had said many Africans loathed condoms” and “The photos surprised him. He had not expected her pictures of home to be so familiar” – his thought when she shows him photos from home in which he was surprised to see people standing in front of expensive cars and formal houses… rather than huts, we are to assume. There’s even a white person in the background! While the story is told from Matt’s perspective, the underlying themes of the story are best understood when considered from Ujuaku’s viewpoint. She is walking in a market when a man she doesn’t know introduces himself. She begins a friendship, and is constantly confronted by his fascination with her “exotic” body, his ignorance of her home and culture, and his assumptions about who she is based on the prejudices of his own culture. This is a wonderful story, and rewards multiple readings.
4/5 – Very good and recommended
Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi is a Nigerian author. You can find out more about her writing at her website. I have previously reviewed one of her books, Americanah, as part of a five-book review of African fiction.
“When new acquaintances remember to give her the obligatory polite attention, with the question ‘What do you do?,’ and she tells them, they clearly wonder what she and the cellist who is married to her have in common… ‘What do you do?’ ‘Can’t you see? She makes fulfilment possible, for both of them.’”
The First Sense is told from the perspective of a woman whose name we never learn. She is the wife of an accomplished cellist. Her meaning and value – in her own mind and in the minds of others – comes from her relationship with an important, talented and well-known musician. They decide that they won’t have children as it would take his time away from his music, and her time away from being his biggest supporter. Is hers a life unrealised? Or is being loved and chosen by the one you love sufficient to give meaning to your life? This couple have a close relationship, and in their private time together, he plays his cello for her. This is an intimate dialogue in a secret language, so when the tone of conversation changes, she notices. Suddenly, his music doesn’t sound the same. He stops asking her to accompany him wherever his music takes him. She begins to worry about the distance growing between them. If she is not an integral part of his music, then how can she be part of his life? This is simply told story, but with complex themes.
4/5 – Very good and recommended
Nadine Gordimer was a South African author and activist. At the time of her death in 2014, the Mail and Guardian compiled a special report about her life and work. Here is one of my favourite interviews with her, conducted by the Paris Review in two parts, in 1979 and 1980. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.