Benin: knowing your place

November 27, 2012

While it’s hard to find books from some nations, other countries are simply hard to find full stop – at least on the internet. Search for Nigerien literature (ie literature from Niger) and often as not Google will ask you if you meant ‘Nigerian literature’. And when it comes to tracking down information about the West African nation of Benin, you might well find yourself reading about events in Benin City, Nigeria by mistake.

In fact, I very nearly ended up reading a whole book from Benin City in error. The memoir, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, was listed on a bookseller’s website as being from Benin. Not having been able to find much other Beninois literature in English, I ordered it a few months ago and added it to the pile of books waiting in the corner of my living room.

It was only last week, when I picked the volume up with the intention of reading it and turned to the back to look at the blurb, that the penny dropped. Instead of perusing the biography of a senior Beninois politician, I was puzzled to find myself confronted with an account of Erediauwa’s education in Benin City and his experiences during the Nigerian Civil War. It took quite a bit of head-scratching to work out what had gone wrong.

This left me in a quandary. I could count the number of weeks left until the end of the year on my fingers and, given how little my preliminary searches had turned up, I was not at all confident that I would be able to find any kind of story from Benin that I could read in English before 2013.

A few hours of frantic googling ensued, during which I entertained all sorts of unlikely possibilities. I was on the point of investigating the cost of flights to Porto-Novo, when I stoogled across Harlem-based writer Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr. Born in Cotonou, Benin, Ismaili came to NYC as a teenager in the late 1950s with the hope of becoming Africa’s first opera singer, according to her profile on the Woyingi Blog. Instead, however, she took up psychology and began to write and has published several collections of poetry.

A number of articles I saw about Ismaili mentioned that she also writes short stories, although I couldn’t find any of her prose collections available to buy. So, with nothing to lose, I decided to contact her to see if she could help me out. Ismaili replied with the news that a collection of her short stories was in the process of being prepared for publication. The book was not ready yet, but she kindly agreed to send me the manuscript so that I could read it. Delighted and more than a little relieved, I downloaded the file onto my Kindle and got stuck in.

Set mostly in West Africa, Stories We Tell Each Other brings together a series of pieces about people coming up against injustice, discrimination and the limits that society puts on them because of their gender, race or age. There is the young girl set on going to university in the face of her male relatives’ scorn for the idea of educating women, the teenager who lives in fear of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and the boy who travels to join the People’s Liberation Army in South Africa.

Ismaili’s eye for detail makes these struggles real. The sadness and anger of ‘Into This House We Come’, for example – in which a woman attends the funeral of a friend infected with AIDS because of her husband’s promiscuity – live in the narrator’s memories of the dead woman’s laughter and her love of dancing. Similarly, the writer lays bare the pretensions of Khadiatou’s relatives in ‘Ici On Parle Francais’ with the simple revelation that her aunt changed her name from Salimatou to Sally ‘after having gone to London once’.

For all the problems facing the characters, the narratives convey a great deal of pride in West African culture. From depictions of personal rituals such as Khadiatou’s grandmother setting an extra place at the table for their stolen ancestress, through to explanations of the significance of particular insults and the traditions that mean an uncle can also be called a brother, Ismaili takes the role of a guide, interpreting unfamiliar concepts for readers so they too may inhabit the world of the book. Indeed, her evocation of domestic life in Benin is often so warm and inviting that it almost makes you homesick for a place you may never have been.

With this pride and love of place comes of strong sense of the importance of championing the independence and rights of Africans. This gives rise to some powerful, angry writing, as in ‘Coloured Beads and Glass Trees’, in which an exiled politician returns home in an attempt to avert a crisis and, among other things, discovers the grubby conditions attached to Western aid in the region. However, it can at times hi-jack the stories, particularly in the latter third of the book, causing the plots to buck and jerk under its weight. For example, ‘Tandi’, in which a lonely secretary gets swept up in the struggle against apartheid in Johannesburg, creaks a little in the effort to contain all that Ismaili wants to say. In addition, devices such as the radio reports that break into the text, begin to lose their effectiveness with repeated use.

Overall, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Ismaili is at her best when she is writing about the small details that bring meaning to people’s daily lives. In this, she has that rare gift of being able to take readers by the hand and introduce them to lives and concerns very different from their own. An extremely lucky find.

Stories We Tell Each Other by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr (publication pending)

You have just three days left to vote for my penultimate book of the year. Go on, tell me what to read!

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