Here's the fourth installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story I'm reviewing is Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Depart" (pdf).
This is the first of the Caine stories which actually seeks to thoroughly understand the characters that it depicts. Fatima is wonderfully drawn, and in beautiful sentences and fantastic imagery that is both tender and unsparing in its honesty. What you get is a real economy in the sense that we are told everything we need to know about the characters to neither excuse nor rebuke them, but to understand them. You can almost see the tension as Fatima seeks the words to ask Ibou about Babacar, you see the resentment and even the inadequacy that goes into Ibou’s rejection. In the salle de depart, Ibou does more than travel back to America; he emphasizes the differences between Fatima and himself. Even as he physically was in Senegal during his visit, he had left them a long time before, and would always feel that degree of remove.
One comes away with a sense of just how different we become when we leave our respective African countries to live elsewhere. Nothing looks the same anymore, and there is often this tug between disillusionment of greener pasture you have moved to that clambers awkwardly alongside this new vision of where you have left. Sometimes home benefits from the distance, and other times, in many ways, it does not. Home did not benefit from the distance for Ibou, and you get the sense that Ibou flounders as he tries to explain, because to speak more eloquently will be to express how much he neither wants to be home, nor wants to be reminded of home. Myambo also alludes to Ibou’s shame of not being well-to-do in Senegal, compared to Ghada’s wealthier French-educated family. Where she and her mother speak classy French, his family is simpler, especially the sister he used to be so close to when he was younger,
When she reminds him of how her education was sacrificed for his, he does not say anything, mostly because there is nothing to say. It was never anything he had to think about. It was not among the list of annoyances that he thought of when he texted Ghada that he felt “like an ATM machine”. It was just the way things went. There was nothing he could say about that. It was not his fault, after all, that she was bound by her womanhood and sisterhood into such a sense of duty that, even as upset as she was, she would still stay in the airport until his plane had taken off. It was not his fault that he felt no similar sense of duty. They were the ones that had sent him away.
What I love most about this is that, even with the familiarity of this story for a lot of Africans, especially those in the diaspora, Myambo gives us a real story. She takes the time to give us imagery, to make us feel the words stuck in Fatima’s throat, to understand her confusion, to get a sense of Ibou’s relationship with Ghada, to stand there in the airport with Fatima and understand how hard her final words to Ibou must have been to say. She walks the fine line that African writers often walk between managing the weight of testimony and the skill of fiction. She does not for one moment forget she is telling a story, and this story is the better for it.
Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:
- Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) ‘Bombay’s Republic’
- Billy Kahora (Kenya) ‘Urban Zoning’
- Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’
- Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) ‘La Salle de Départ’
- Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’
Other bloggers' reviews: