Saturday, 9 June 2012

LE SALLE DE DEPART BY MELISSA TANDIWE MYAMBO

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo may well be the most skilled writer I have encountered yet while reading this year's Caine Prize shortlist. Her story has none of the subtle (but to some readers, fatal) imbalances as Rotimi Batunde's or Billy Kahora's, nor did it present the reader with a merely story-like object, as Stanley Kenani's tale did.

Myambo's story resonated with me on a personal level, as several of these stories have. It tells of a Senegalese woman named Fatima whose brother Ibou, the lucky one of the family, was sent to America to stay with an uncle, another lucky one who flew the coop. She made sacrifices to help make this happen; her own promising academic career being one of them. In return, she hopes he will take her son back to America with him and give him the same chance. Even a middle class Indian family like mine tends to be divided into the ones who have been able to gain a foothold in 'phoren' countries and those who stay behind, even in an India that is supposed to be turning into a true Asian tiger (doomed to extinction perhaps?).

But her brother, Ibou is not impressed by the idea. At first it seems like selfishness; he has a liberal new Egyptian girlfriend. They are living together. The boy will be a burden. He refuses to be a ticket out of poverty for another child like the one he once was. But then Myambo shows us the loneliness and alienation Ibou experienced growing up in an alien world, far away from his home. Ibou is trying to save Fatima's boy from this loneliness and displacement as much as he is trying to protect his own hard-won life on its own terms.

It's not a story that allows for easy judgements. And like all the stories on this list so far it has so many nuances; the contrast between 'backward' Senegal and comparatively modern Egypt being another. Most of all, it contains the most richly realised character I have encountered in these stories in the person of Fatima.

This story touches closest to the topics we are supposed to be weary of, coming from African writers: most of all, poverty. Yet it is one of the most haunting and powerful stories thus far. This is equally due to Myambo's skill as a writer - I definitely want to read more by her - and due to the fact that she doesn't simply tell us a tragic story but lets us see many sides to it. The desperate hope of the sister; the scheming calculation of the family balanced against the extremity that necessitates it; the dilemma of the brother who has both escaped and lost his homeland. A very good story, moving and memorable, I think. It is upsetting my ability to rank my favourites among these stories!

Other blogs about this story:

Method to the Madness
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
bookshy
Loomnie
Ikhide
Ayodele Olofintuade
Practically Marzipan
City of Lions

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