It’s good, but…

Week 4 of the Caine Prize blogathon. This past week (I’m late) the crew reviewed Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ” [pdf].This post is a bit longer than usual (about 1500 words), so if you’re pressed for time I summarize my argument in the first two and last paragraphs. 

Of all the Caine Prize stories this year, the one I have the most mixed feelings about is Melissa Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ.” It took me a while to figure out exactly what my issue was with the story. It does a number of things so well: it’s structurally adept, it doesn’t condescend to its readers, it has some genuinely lovely prose. The story flows so immaculately it’s practically unquotable. And I love what it represents: the flight of an African imagination around the continent, not limited to her own small corner of the world. (It reminds me in that way of the Pilgrimages project, another outstanding example of African writers engaging with different parts of the continent.)

But everything that the story does well it also undermines. At its core it’s about a Senegalese brother and sister who are made distant by his emigration to the US. At that level it’s touching, engaging, and perennially timely. But Myambo clutters up their story with so many details – faint social analysis, tired metaphors of roots and wings, inessential character traits, and so on – that she mars the story’s beauty and blurs its message. At the same time she repeatedly takes aesthetic shortcuts that, I felt, were unworthy of a story that aspires to psychological depth. If I’m being harsher on this story than on any other, it’s because it’s too good a story to just let these flaws pass.

Brief summary: Two main characters. There’s Fatima, the long-suffering sister whose education and freedom have been sacrificed for the sake of the family. Then there’s her brother Ibou, the golden child who flew away to the US leaving Fatima behind. With an Egyptian girlfriend and an American salary, he’s now perhaps irreparably distant from his family and their demands. But now Fatima wants him to take her son Babacar to America, returning the favor that the family did for him. Ibou, on the other hand, is ambivalent about who he’s become in America and refuses Fatima’s request. Most of the story is a conversation they have in the back seat of a battered taxi, taking Ibou to the airport to fly away yet again.

My problem with the story started at the level of character. In fiction there are some characters who exist in and for themselves, and then there are others who exist to illustrate a point. The irritating thing about a character like Fatima is that she pretends to be the former when she’s really the latter. She herself sums up her raison d’être:

‘I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.’”

I admire this sentence for its lyrical encapsulation of Fatima’s character, but I’m annoyed at her character for being so easily encapsulated.

My problem isn’t even that her character is simple, but that it appears to be complicated when in reality it’s reducible to a single sentence. There an incredible amount of detail around Fatima – she has a child, she did well in school, she wears a long gold ring, she makes good pudding – but all of that is just mere information. It doesn’t come from anywhere inside her, nor does it reveal anything about who she is as a person, nor does it affect the story’s outcome. Here’s the thing: all this random detail is supposed to produce the illusion that she’s a real person. Real people aren’t drawn from a single idea; they’re constellations of many facts and facets that don’t all fit together. So Myambo dutifully accumulates miscellaneous facts about Fatima in the hope that they’ll make her look more like a real person. But they don’t make her look like a real person, because they’re too transparently a disguise for who she is: a well-drawn representative of a type. She’s a long-suffering African woman. She’s rooted in place. She’s traditional. She yearns for freedom. She has hidden strengths. Underneath the lyrical smudges, that’s what there is to her.

All the extraneous details and contrivances in Fatima’s character can’t hide the fact that she doesn’t really have a single aspect that would mark her as an individual. But then of course the whole feint towards individuality is a distraction, because it’s precisely the typicality of Fatima and Ibou’s situation that anchors this story. As Ikhide puts it in his review

“Every now and then one comes across a story that belongs in you, that should have come from you, that tells it exactly how you have been meaning to tell it, but you can’t because well, you are the story.” 

In other words what gives this story its key to Ikhide’s heart is how closely it encapsulates his own (and, he implies, many others’) experiences as an emigrant from West Africa to the fraught freedom of the US. I don’t share that experience and I wouldn’t want to deconstruct or gainsay Ikhide’s identification with the story. And if the story’s power comes from its typicality, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story.

But Myambo seems to have decided that in order to make the story speak to the experience of emigration she has to sacrifice real insight into a character as an individual, even while she clutters up the story with the putative marks of individuality. This is even more pronounced in the character of Ibou. Why, besides the bare fact that he’s an immigrant, does he cry in the shower of his new American home? Why does he resent his relatives when they ask him for money? Why does he become the president of the African Students’ Association? The only thing we know about Ibou before he moves to America is that he draws stick figures. Myambo may be pointing at some grand truth about Being an Immigrant, but why does Ibou have to be so depressingly vague?

Maybe it’s better that the story takes shortcuts, leaving us to import the psychological depth that it gestures to without providing, because when we start asking the difficult questions about assimilation, self-loathing, deracination, gender oppression, and so on that Ibou seems to raise, we find a level of psycho-cultural analysis that’s crushingly bland. To summarize: X is not America. America is cold, individualistic, lifestyle-oriented, mobile, and wealthy. X is warm, traditional, family-oriented, rooted in place, and poor. In X people live in intimate groups and they’re suspicious of outsiders. In America anyone from anywhere can meet and fall in love with any other anyone from anywhere. To move from X to America is painful to a person, because a person winds up torn between being X and being American. This is painful to the family left behind in X as well.

Of course, X can potentially stand for just about anywhere that’s “not America.” It can be India in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It can be the barrios of Chicago in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, or the ethnic suburbs of the same city in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or Myambo’s Senegal. What’s important is that the nature of X doesn’t really change, because it’s pre-determined by the need to contrast it with the same old cold “America.” Myambo doesn’t add any new ideas to this framework, nor does she appear to question its validity, though to my mind it wants questioning. What she does instead is produce an italicized sensorium in which the framework can endure. She traces the yellow curlicues of the father’s gray boubou, winces at the zing of the ataya, bumps along amid the lumps in Uncle Djiby’s battered Renault. The pleasures of “La Salle de Départ” are tangled up in this rich, immediate sensory experience, which tries to disguise the fact that the story is a skillful presentation of very stereotypical ideas.

Ikhide’s review made me feel that perhaps this is just not my story, and that I can’t appreciate it enough because I’m not subject to the same kinds of displacements and separations that the story describes. It’s just not enough about me to touch me deeply. And then I read it again, and again. And I realized that, really, the story should have touched me, but I was too irritated by its “literary” touches. I don’t like the characterization that relies on random details rather than individual insights. I don’t like the romance-novel similes – “the waves of hot, choking anger emanating from him, like the winds of the harmattan.” I don’t like the exotic details – why on earth does it have to be set during Ramadan? – that are dumped on top of the story like so much spice on boiled cabbage. I don’t like the conventional signs that are supposed to illustrate churning psychological depths, like Fatima twisting her gold ring. And I don’t like that the story points at important questions without opening up any way to understand them beyond our own imported resources. There’s so much skill in this story, and so much disappointment. 

Other reviews:

Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
Ayodele Olofintuade
Practically Marzipan

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