The Gambia: a clamour of voices

I learnt a valuable lesson during the hunt for this title: if you’re looking for suggestions of books to read, contacting national writers’ associations may not always be the wisest option. No sooner had Cherno Omar Barry, general secretary of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia, kindly sent my request out to the organisation’s members than my inbox was flooded with emails from writers advising me to read their books. One person even asked if I was in The Gambia at the time of writing as, if so, he would hand deliver me a manuscript to make sure I got it safely.

Excellent though I’m sure many of the suggestions were, the fact that they were being recommended by the authors themselves meant that I had no reliable way of choosing between them. In my experience, it’s rare that you find an author who doesn’t think you should read his or her book, and the enthusiasm with which writers advocate their creations is often no indicator of the quality of the work.

However, in amongst the flood of messages, there was one apparently impartial suggestion. It was from Joy, who recommended Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang. I googled the book and, finding it was also championed by the African Books Collective – whose publications I have enjoyed consistently throughout this project – I decided to give volume one a go.

Written in response to a realisation that traditional fireside storytelling is dying out in The Gambia, the work brings together stories told by the authors’ grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as tales from friends and neighbours, in a lively anthology. Magic and myth jostle with creative explanations of rituals and natural phenomena to create a fascinating world, in which hares and hyenas can be brothers-in-law, cats go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and severed heads boss heroes about from the branches of trees.

There are some mind-bending events and images along the way. From the marvellous depiction of a herd of violin-playing goats descending on the field of the helpless landowner in ‘The obstinate farmer of Njaiyen’ to the drowned boys who are transformed into a pumpkin and served up by their unwitting mother in ‘The Hassan half brothers’, the stories are frequently surprising. Indeed, many of them are shocking in the cruel and unusual violence they portray – in ‘Lolly the Witch’, for example, we hear about how a cunning boy outwits a cannibal enchantress, who takes delight in tricking and devouring her daughters’ suitors, with a pile of human faeces and a bag of eyes. Similarly, the stories don’t hold back from outrageous, physical humour, with farting playing a pivotal role in several tales – Waahou is even knocked dead by another character’s legendary flatulence in ‘The three men of Tangana’.

The tales are so diverse, ranging from naturalistic human stories through to outlandish, magical fables, that it’s hard to generalise about them. However, if I had to pick a recurring theme it would be the idea that it is impossible to transcend your nature for ever. We see this in the first story, ‘Burr Njai takes another wife’, in which the donkey queen, having transformed herself into a woman to marry a human king, is at last forced to change back and rejoin the herd. The idea also drives the plot in ‘Samba Becomes Friends with Gaindeh Njiai’, in which a lion and a man realise it is impossible to maintain a childhood friendship, and ‘The Cow, Hyena, Lion and Hare Share a Home’, in which an attempt at a peaceful, cross-species community fails.

Interestingly for a work inspired by traditional local storytelling, this book is perhaps the most international and modern I’ve read to date in terms of the way it was put together. As Bojang and Bojang explain in their introduction, the final version was shaped by comments from fellow Creative Writing and New Media Google group members and readers on the peer-review writers’ site Authonomy.

For all the feedback, however, there are still one or two editorial choices that jar. The decision to include stock photographs of some of the animals mentioned in the stories is a strange one. In addition, although Bojang and Bojang have clearly made an effort to make the narratives read well, there are some abrupt endings, changes of direction and omissions that leave the reader foundering. The blunt, pragmatic language of the stories, while often adding to the humour, also sometimes misses the mark. Waahou’s fatal pondering as to whether Fusall has ‘any bad odour left in his anal system’, for example, raises a laugh for the wrong reasons.

All in all, though, this is an entertaining and illuminating collection. It is sad to think that many of these stories, which surely would be even richer in the hands of a skilled narrator around the fireside one Gambian night, are now rarely told.

Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia (volume 1) by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang (Educational Services, Gambia, 2011)

Oman: a rare treat

Last December, when Cairo-based blogger mlynxqualey wrote a post on her excellent Arabic Literature (in English) blog giving me her recommendations for books in translation, Oman proved to be a stumbling block:

‘Someone help me so Morgan doesn’t end up reading something dreadful like Behind the Veil in Oman. I am not saying there are no Omani writers; I’m just saying that, outside of stories published in Banipal, I don’t know of anything in English,’ she wrote.

In fact, it wasn’t until nearly nine months later that an alternative presented itself in the shape of a recommendation from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington. It had recently published a translation of a collection of Omani fairy tales and was happy to send me a copy if I was interested. I needed no second invitation to take a look.

Much like Camara Laye’s The Guardian of the Word (see the Guinea post below), My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar is a work with big ambitions. As set out in a variety of introductions and prefatory materials, author Khadija bint Alawi Al-Dhahab intends the collection, which is dedicated to ‘His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said and the people of Oman’, not only to preserve the tales that she has gathered and transcribed but also to convey the different lifestyles that were traditional across the Dhofar region. In addition, translator W Scott Chahanovich, who undertook the project as a Fullbright Scholar, regards the recording of such stories as essential to ‘cultivating a sense of Omani nationhood’ and hopes the book will help challenge the fact that ‘the contemporary Arab world is, by and large, still represented by mass media almost exclusively as a monolithic idea’.

If that wasn’t enough to take on in 90 pages, there is also the issue of explaining certain cultural traits that bear on the tales, such as the Omani aversion to bragging and the national admiration for astuteness, and the challenges the author faced transcribing stories told in dialects for which no written form exists. This is further complicated when it comes to translation, with even small metaphors proving challenging to convey, as Chahanovich found when he came to the phrase ‘a cut of your hand’:

‘Confused by the phrase, I consulted the Omani student translators [with whom I was working]. “A cut of the hand,” they explained, is a local colloquial adynaton – a figure of speech expressed in hyperbole that conveys an impossibility. At first, “when pigs fly” seemed most suitable for an English children’s fable; but this is both religiously inappropriate and culturally irrelevant. Islam, like Judaism, prohibits the consumption of pork. Also, there are no pigs in Oman. Choosing “when pigs fly” would be insulting to Omanis and would disregard the cultural particularity of this region, the setting represented in the tales.

‘Instead, I chose another popular adynaton in Arabic, the image of which is shared in other Western versions of the English “when pigs fly”: the cow. In Arabic, the expression is, “when cows go to Mecca to perform Hajj [the religious pilgrimage]”. This is too long and culturally dense to include in an English children’s story. […] Therefore I chose the phrase “when cows fly”.’

With so much going on behind the scenes, you might expect the stories to show signs of strain and awkwardness. Not a bit of it. Lively, witty and original, the tales flow as though they are being told as you read by a seasoned storyteller who combines a sound knowledge of Omani traditions with a gift for creative embellishments when the occasion demands. This is a world where foxes make deals with camel traders, wells produce magical rams, and genies transform puppets into living brides for princes.

The stories often have a dark side too. There is Princess Salma, who has her limbs amputated by a jealous genie ‘insistent that he would not leave her alone until she was in the worst pain imaginable’, and the foolish old couple Shaq and Shurambaq, who kill their grandchild because of their ignorance. Even suicidal thoughts make an appearance in ‘The Poor Woodcutter’.

The advantage of this is that the stakes are nearly always high, making for some gripping stories. It also gives rise to some intrepid women characters, who, while they might need to use disguise or ingenuity to overcome the limitations placed on them by society, nearly always carry the day. Hearteningly there is repeated emphasis on the value of women being clever and shrewd and the importance of marriage being a meeting of minds. Even the unfortunate Salma triumphs in the end, though she pays dearly and disturbingly for the privilege of keeping her chastity intact along the way.

Now and again the moral message seems a bit like an afterthought. You can almost feel the adult narrator reaching the end of a graphic tale of derring-do and adding on a neat little observation out of a sense of duty. In addition, some of the tales finish a little abruptly. The book is also not helped by a formatting glitch that means the contents list page numbers do not match up with the stories.

All in all, though, this is a strong, intriguing and welcome taste of a literature that has until now been off-limits to English-language readers. Let’s hope it’s the first of many to come.

My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar collected and transcribed by Khadija bint Alawi al-Dhahab, translated by W Scott Chahanovich, Munira Al-Ojaili, Fatima Al-Mashani, Muna Al-Mashani, Muna Saffrar, illustrated by Fatima bint Alawi Muqaybil (Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, 2012)

Guinea: history reclaimed

Guinean author Camara Laye is best known for his novel The Radiance of the King. In fact if you search for Guinean literature in English, you could be forgiven for thinking that this work is the only book from the Francophone African nation, which is made up of more than 24 ethnic groups, to have made it into the language of Milton, Shakespeare and Dan Brown.

I’ve certainly not been any able to find any other translated Guinean authors (although I’d love to hear about it if you have), so, in the interests of not making the most obvious choice, I decided to read one of Laye’s lesser known works: The Guardian of the Word.

Part anthropological account and part novel, with a dollop of sermonizing thrown in for good measure, the book focuses on the month Laye spent recording the stories of renowned Guinean griot (storyteller) Babu Condé in the village of Fadama in 1963. Beginning with the quest of brothers Moké Mussa and Moké Dantuman to hunt the fearsome Buffalo of Dô, the tales broaden out to bring in a huge cast of historical and mythic characters who contributed to the rise and eventual break up of the medieval Mali empire, and reveal a world of magic, mystery and rich heritage.

Laye makes clear from the start that he has high ambitions for the work. Through recording these stories, which to him ‘constitute the soul of ancient Africa’, he hopes not only to preserve the region’s history before development sweeps it away but also to prompt ‘the awakening of a new civilization’. As he explains at length in his opening his chapter, ‘Africa: Voices from the Depths’, Laye regards traditional stories as essential to his compatriots’ developing a sense of identity and a society that is more than a mere emulation of the European structures they had imposed on them until the mid-20th century:

‘Should not the wisdom of the Ancients and of their past serve as an example to our rising generations? In a continent where the heat in certain regions reaches 40° in the shade, should our African “emancipation” consist of the three-piece, all-wool suit and the bottle of scotch? Should it not rather have its source in our own deep roots in the distant past, and, at the same time, in the opening up of our new frontiers to universal values?’

However Laye’s impassioned appeals and his fascinating descriptions of the steps he had to take to win the privilege of recording the stories – from wearing certain garments to observing particular forms of etiquette – are just the prelude to Condé’s tales. Bristling with proverbs, rich imagery and bursts of humour, these accounts show storytelling at their best. As a Western reader, I found myself continually surprised by twists, turns and tropes that were like nothing I had come across before: where the hero would pick the wrong girl in the European fairy tale, he picks the right one and then comes to grief another way; where Western legends are usually content with mighty men having one formidable mother, here the tyrant Sosso is carried to term by three women, transferring between wombs every three months; and where marriage is usually a happily-ever-after scenario in the stories I grew up with, it is here the start of a battle of wits and (more often than not) sorcery between husband and wife.

Indeed the graphic nature of the storytelling, both sexually and in terms of the violence it involves, is often shocking. Maghan Kön Fatta’s eventual conquest of his wife Sogolon, who casts spells on him and refuses to sleep with him until he threatens to slit her throat ‘like a chicken’, makes for challenging reading, not least because the couple seem to get along very well after Fatta has his way.

Now and again, Laye’s passion for what he is doing threatens to overwhelm the narrative. At points in the stories where the rhetoric gets too grand or digressions with unnecessarily detailed cultural exposition and musings on the role of women creep in it’s tempting to wonder quite how much of the work is as Condé told it. More than once, Laye’s Uriah Heapish protest that ‘We are but the modest transcriber and translator’ seems to ring a little hollow.

But this does not take away from the book’s charm or how engrossing it is. If anything the subtle tug-of-war between oral storyteller and modern novelist adds to the richness of this fascinating text, which itself records a story that was shaped and embroidered over generations as the griots passed it down. I wonder what, if any, version of the saga is told in Fadama today.

The Guardian of the Word (Le Maitre de la Parole) by Camara Laye, translated from the French by James Kirkup (Fontana, 1980)

 

Cuba: stellar work

One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.

Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.

The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.

Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.

Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.

In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.

For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.

There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:

‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’

Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.

Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

Marshall Islands: telling tales

The Marshall Islands posed a dilemma: preliminary research showed that all storytelling on this remote archipelago in the Pacific was done orally. As far as I could find out there was no such thing as a Marshallese writer.

Beginning to wonder if I was going to have to fly to the Pacific to listen to the stories myself, I contacted Peter Rudiak-Gould. An anthropology PhD student at Oxford University, he has written a textbook on Marshallese and Surviving Paradise – an account of the year he spent as a volunteer English teacher on one of the Marshall Islands. If anyone could help me, surely this was the man.

Rudiak-Gould came back with two suggestions: Melal: A Novel of the Pacific by Robert Barclay (a non-Marshallese national – although he did grow up in the Marshall Islands) and Marshall Islands Legends and Stories collected from indigenous storytellers by Daniel A Kelin II, a non-Marshallese national and Director of Drama Education for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

Both sounded like contenders, but in the end I plumped for the Kelin. This was because I was curious to see what the country’s traditional stories were like, but also because I wanted to test how it felt to read stories that were originally told in another medium. I had a suspicion that folk stories transcribed and set down in a book might have the dry, correct feeling of exhibits in an old-fashioned museum: neatly curated and labelled, with all the life and sense of their original purpose sucked out of them. Would Kelin, himself a performance artist, have managed to preserve some of the immediacy of the tales?

The 50 stories in Kelin’s collection present a broad and intriguing picture of Marshallese folklore. These are creations in which the impossible is commonplace: whales sleep on the roofs of houses, women fly, children are born 12 at a time and kingdoms exist at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes containing explanations of aspects of island life – such as how turtles first came to the nation or how women learnt how to survive childbirth – they weave a complex web of duties and preoccupations, in which the importance of hospitality and respecting customs and authority jostles with a love of ingenuity, wit and cunning. There is the youngest son who defies his older brothers to feed his family, the iroij (chief) who strikes a deal with demons and gets washed out to sea when he fails to keep it, and the fishermen who lose the art of magic fishing because they do not pay attention to their elders.

Even more interesting than the stories themselves are the potted biographies of the storytellers and their incidental comments (included in italics), many of which reveal an extraordinary sense of connection with the tales they are telling. ‘They invited me to eat with them that day. If you ever stop by my island, I’ll show you the hole where the boys stayed,’ says Tonke Aisea at the end of a story about brothers tricking a demon, while Jeljel Jerbal leans out of his house to point out where the boy who wrestles a demon to death in his story lived.

This sense of ownership is complemented by Kelin’s explanations of the lengths he had to go to to obtain permission from the local iroijes to hear the stories  – the right to tell and listen to the stories is only granted to a lucky few – and the narrators’ moving comments about the slow death of their tradition through the westernisation of the younger generation. In addition, there are the illustrations by local artist Nashton Nashon, which give the book a striking character – so striking in fact that a woman on the tube even asked me what the book was about because it looked so unusual.

There’s no doubt – particularly in the tales with a lot of poetry and song – that something of the experience of hearing the stories in person is lost in the book. There were points when I found my ears straining in vain to catch the voice singing or chanting far away across the sea.

On the whole though, it was hard not to be impressed with Kelin’s passion and diligence and his evident efforts to present as much of the experience of listening to the stories as he could, even down to including photographs of many of the narrators. It made me glad that I had trusted him to transport me rather than making the trip myself. Besides, who’s to say whether I would have been allowed to hear the tales when I got there?

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories told by Tonke Aisea et al, collected, edited and translated by Daniel A Kelin II, illustrated by Nashton T Nashon (Bess Press Inc, 2003)

Chad: written out

April was a proud month for A Year of Reading the World. The Scotsman published an article about it, UNESCO featured it on its list of World Book Day initiatives and I got to write a piece for the Guardian books website about some of the highlights and challenges of armchair adventuring so far.

One of the best things about all the excitement was the flood of new visitors it brought to my little corner of the web and the book leads they brought with them. A couple of them even solved countries I thought would be tricky in a single message.

Writer Mark Staniforth was one of these people. He had recently written his own post on a book from Chad as part of the excellent Africa Reading Challenge and was more than happy to share the details with me. As I had made up my mind from my preliminary research that getting a book in translation from this impoverished and troubled country (the Fund for Peace even goes so far as to call it a Failed State) was going to be a mission, Staniforth’s lead seemed too good to be true.

It seems I wasn’t the only one conscious of Chad’s bad rap. Writer and politician Joseph Brahim Seid, who was Minister for Justice until two years before his death in 1980, was clearly sensible of it too – so much so that he sets out to give a very different account of his homeland in his slender short story collection Told by Starlight in Chad.

As the title and romantic preface suggest, the book paints an idyllic picture of rural life in the war-torn country. Drawing on scenes from Seid’s childhood, snatches of folklore and history, and the author’s own imaginings, the tales weave a rich tapestry that is by turns deceptively simple and strange.

Often, there is a fable-like quality to the stories, which, though set ‘in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us’, frequently contain lessons readers can apply to the modern world. We hear of creation myths that summon pride in the beauty and long history of the country and its peoples, disputes among animals that are strangely reminiscent of human politics, and an ancestor’s shadow that continues to haunt the Bulala warriors to this day.

Some of the morals and conclusions are intriguingly alien to the Western eye. ‘Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl’, for example, sees an abused runaway return to endure her foster mother’s beatings because ‘in this life happiness consists in being virtuous’. However, there are points of contact. The last story of ‘The Misanthropic King’, for example, in which King Choua passes his powers to his people only for them to end up under a tyrant once more, is a fascinating dissection of the steps by which a democracy becomes an oligarchy and then a dictatorship in the absence of proper accountability and controls.

As the book goes on, more and more characters emerge from the stories. However, there is a strangely faceless, flat quality to many of the groups and people in the tales, as though they are types instead of fully realised individuals. This may be partly explained by the eulogy to the oral tradition that begins the final story:

‘As far back in time as men can remember, albeit they forget very fast, the oral tradition is there to remind them constantly of events that happened before they were born. Its elasticity and capacity for changing and evolving allows the tradition to yield to the exigencies of the moment; it adapts according to the place and the time in which the individuals live. And thus it guarantees the orderly continuation of custom, linking the past to the present and the present to the future.’

This evocation of the flexibility of the oral tradition inevitably shows up the somewhat stilted quality of some of Seid’s tales. Caught between the spoken stories the author remembers affectionately and the written canon of his formal education, they feel like butterflies pinned to the page: trapped forever in a particular form and robbed of the fluid motion that is also part of their essence. They are fascinating specimens, but you can’t help feeling they are, for the most part, display models rather than living, breathing creations. The real heartbeat of Chadian storytelling, it seems, throbs elsewhere.

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from the French by Karen Haire Hoenig (Africa World Press, Inc, 2007)