Pakistan: the long view

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)

Lesotho: women’s rites

The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.

I was sure there had to be more some more recent Sesotho literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Mosotho author.

Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.

If I found a book by a Mosotho author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Basotho women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.

The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Sesotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.

Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.

The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although local traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.

This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:

‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” […]

‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘

Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e’, in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Basotho women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.

The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.

Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)

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)

Niger: a great saga

I knew Niger was going to be a tough nut to crack when, in response to my searching for ‘Nigerien literature’, Google asked me whether I meant ‘Nigerian literature’ instead. Although I did eventually track down the names of several Francophone authors from the country, among them Abdoulaye Mamani, Amadou Ousmane and Idé Oumarou, none of their work seemed to have been translated into English.

This may be because, as AS Kindo Patengouh argues in his 2005 paper Literary production in Niger: The case of the novel, in this very ethnically diverse country only 30 percent of the population read and write French, meaning that the audience for works in the country’s official language, in which most if not all Nigerien novels are written, is relatively small. As such, it is probably difficult for the works to make enough of an impact to attract notice from further afield.

There was an outside possibility in the shape of Harmattan, a novel about child marriage in Niger, by Belfast-born Gavin Weston, who lived and worked in the country for several years during the mid-eighties. However, any whisper of an argument that the book might count as Nigerien literature for my purposes was silenced when my copy arrived bearing an endorsement from Kellie Chambers at Ulster Tatler, declaring it the harbinger of ‘a new era in Northern Irish literature’.

Reluctantly, I added the book to next year’s to-read mountain. There had to be something out there available in English by a storyteller more closely linked to Niger itself.

Then a colleague volunteered to see what he could turn up. Clearly, his research skills are better than mine because, within a couple of hours he was back with a possible solution. It wasn’t a Nigerien novel. But in many ways it was something even more exciting: the transcription of an epic story told by a Nigerien griot over the course of two evenings in the appropriately named village of Saga at the beginning of the 1980s.

Ten years in the transcribing, translating and annotating, Nouhou Malio’s account of The Epic of Askia Mohammed tells of the life and times of Mamar Kassaye (also known as Askia Mohammed), who ruled the Songhay empire between 1493 and 1528. Switched for his mother’s servant’s child when he is born to protect him from his uncle, who has killed all his older siblings because of a prophecy that one of them will kill him, Mamar grows up in a brutal and brilliant society. He dedicates himself to spreading Islam and prosecutes a holy war across the region, fathering a dynasty and leaving a legacy of brave and bloodthirsty deeds that ensures his life is the stuff of legend six centuries after his death.

Mamar’s world is at once strange and oddly familiar. Levitating cities and uncanny enchantments fill the text, while shocking deeds, such as cutting a horse’s tendons in a fit of pique and laying a trap to bury a rival alive, are narrated so matter-of-factly as to feel distant, as though the emotional compass of the epic is calibrated very differently from our own. Yet, every so often a line, image or event will strike a surprising parallel with the modern Western world. I particularly liked the description of the group of griots spreading rumours about Amar Zoubami’s prowess in the run up to a competition to win the hand of the richest woman in Gao – by the sound of it, it would have given the snappiest PR team a run for its money.

Throughout the narrative, the meticulous work that editor and translator Thomas Hale and his team of transcribers and scholars have done to preserve the character of Malio’s performance as faithfully as possible is clear. This comes across in the unusual use of repetition, both of individual words and complete phrases, which creates a strong sense of the rhythm and drama of the rendition. It is also clear in the ellipses, which mark words and lines that could not be made out on the recording.

Rather than give in to the temptation to create a polished, complete work at the expense of absolute fidelity to the original account, as I suspect Camara Laye may have done in The Guardian of the Word (my Guinean pick), Hale and his team present exactly what they heard. When it works best, it is as though we are sitting in Malio’s hut, moving up to let someone past and so missing the odd line. The flip side, of course, is that certain passages can be quite fragmented and hard to make sense of, although Hale has done his best to make up for this with a plot summary at the beginning.

Overall, this is a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounted by Nouhou Malio, translated from the Songhay by Thomas A Hale (Indiana University Press, 1996)

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)

 

Kyrgyzstan: a lonely road

I’ve written before about one-author countries: states from which the work of only one writer seems to have been translated into English and/or received recognition on the world-literature stage. But the landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan, which apparently enjoys the distinction of being farther from the ocean than any other state in the world, is certainly up there with the best of them. Anglophone readers wanting to sample Kyrgyz literature will run up against the work of the country’s most famous author Chingiz Aitmatov, whose 1957 novel Jamilia made his name – and not much else.

So far, all my efforts to find translated alternatives to Aitmatov’s books have run into dead ends. If you know of another Kyrgyz writer whose work has been translated (or you know of someone who should be translated and want to get the word out), please leave a comment and tell me about them. In the meantime, partly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and partly – I’ll confess – because I really liked the picture on the 2007 Telegram edition, here’s what I thought of Jamilia.

Framed as an artist’s explanation of the story behind one of his paintings, the novel sets out the circumstances of a surprising love affair that springs up between the artist-narrator Seit’s sister-in-law Jamilia and disabled war veteran Daniyar back in Seit’s childhood. Charged with carting grain across the Kyrgyz plains to the railway station because the healthy men, including Jamilia’s husband, are away fighting on the front, Jamilia and Seit amuse themselves by teasing and tormenting the awkward Daniyar. But as time goes by, a deep bond springs up between the three of them that will make it impossible for them to stay in the traditional village that is their home.

A strong sense of obligation pervades the opening section of the book. Everything in the community, where ‘happiness[…] belongs to those who retain their honour and conscience’ and Seit’s father is ‘duty-bound to the spirits of his ancestors’, is codified and ranked, to the point where there are particular forms of address for each relative and even letters to and from the front must be written and read according to a set of rules.

Beneath this rigid and formal surface, however, strong currents surge. From the sinister sexuality of the lone men who eye Jamilia, to the horrors of war that ‘formed a hard clot deep in [Daniyar’s] heart’ and keep him silent, the books is full of unspoken intensity. Often sublimated into passionate outpourings on the beauty of the natural world and haunting singing from Daniyar, these hidden seams of feeling imbue tiny actions with huge significance. A look, a touch, a head rested on a shoulder reverberate like the blasts of the weapons being fired far away across the steppe in this hushed, restrained world.

And so it is that, by observing the silent drama playing out between the two young adults, Seit discovers his passion for expressing unspoken emotions through art. ‘Words were not necessary; besides, words can never quite express a person’s feelings’, he explains, going on to describe his desire to capture ‘the truth, the truth of life, the truth of those two people’, in what is surely one of the most subtle and touching depictions of the development of an artistic sense we have.

Now and then the flashbacks feel stilted. In addition, some of Aitmatov’s more hackneyed tropes wear a little thin. Personally I could have done without the storm the night Jamilia and Daniyar consummate their love.

Overall, though, this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. If this novel is at all indicative of the quality of Kyrgyz writing, it’s definitely time we English-language readers had access to some more.

Jamilia (Djamilia) by Chingiz Aitmatov, translated from the Russian by James Riordan (Telegram, 2007)

Nauru: small triumphs

Every so often on a literary adventure like this, you come across someone who, as if with the wave of a magic wand, is able to solve several of your dilemmas at a single stroke. Thomas Slone is one such written-word wizard. As owner of US-based Masalai Press, a company specialising in work from Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southeast Asia, he knows a thing or two about books from some of the most remote and least published nations in the world – and has a store of rare and out-of-print texts that simply aren’t available through many other sources.

I was put on Slone’s trail by the team at the University of Papua New Guinea Press, which in turn was recommended to me by Kate, who kindly responded to my halfway appeal for help with countries I have yet to find books for. After months of hassling people about Pacific Island literature, it seemed almost too good to be true when Slone not only came back with a list of recommendations for titles from several nations in the region, but also looked out some works that I could buy right there and then, among then Stories from Nauru.

Perhaps fittingly for a book from the world’s smallest island country, Stories from Nauru is a tiny work. Weighing in at just 20 pages, it looks at first glance as though it might sit more comfortably in pamphlet territory rather than trying to fight its corner among volumes ten times its size. The books dated cover design and yellowed pages also make it seem as though it hails from another era altogether, rather than from 1996, the year my edition came out.

The book’s slight appearance, however, belies the scale of its ambitions. Published off the back of a University of the South Pacific workshop on Nauru in 1990, ‘organised so that a conscious effort would be made to encourage Nauruans to write and to record their folklore in the attempt to build up a Nauruan literature’, as the Foreword explains, the collection has grand aims.

However, unlike other short story anthologies I’ve seen from the region, this book is not merely an attempt to document the island’s traditional tales. Instead, it is a collection of fresh creative writing, informed by but not confined to folklore. While some stories, such as Ben Bam Solomon’s ‘The Origins of Nauru’, which features three giants, clearly draw on local mythology, others like Jerielyn Jeremiah’s ‘The New School’, a tale of one girl’s experience of prejudice at  boarding school, deal with the practicalities of modern-day life.

Perhaps most startling of all is ‘A Plea for Help’ by Elmina Quadina, which is about a 30-year-old woman who is losing her hearing. It is impossible to know whether Quadina and her narrator are one and the same, but the piece’s plain language and simple power act like a hand reaching out from the text to draw you into the bleak existence facing disabled people in this remote corner of the world in a way that feels almost too personal to be anything other than real:

‘People, including my colleagues, think I’m stupid. They think I’m just a silly, stupid creature because I cannot hear properly. I don’t blame them for thinking of me in this way because I know it’s hard to talk to someone who is deaf. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a naughty little child who does not wish to listen. But it’s not like this with me because I have my brain and I wish to listen, hear and learn, But how? There is no-hearing [sic] aid or any other aid to help me.’

What the collection does have in common with other texts I’ve seen from the region is a recurring concern about the erosion of traditional culture and the encroachment of the Western world. Indeed, there is a slightly panicky air about some of the pieces, such as Roy Degoregore’s ‘Nauru: The Way it Used to Be’, which feels like a kind of literary Kim’s Game in which he tries to get down everything he remembers about the old customs before time runs out. Other stories, like Lucia Bill’s striking ‘Egade’ have a more wistful, haunting air.

As you would expect from stories produced in workshop conditions, a few of the pieces lack polish and there is a fragmentary, unfinished quality to some of the writing. However, the overall effect of this varied and surprising collection is impressive. The storytelling is, on the whole, fresh and immediate – far from the dry and earnest exercise in cultural preservation the Foreword might lead you to expect. I’d be very interested to know whether the book spawned further such workshops as Nauru clearly boasts some good writers among its 9,378 residents.

Stories from Nauru by Ben Bam Solomon et al (The University of the South Pacific Nauru Centre & Institute of Pacific Studies, 1996)

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)

Gabon: mother courage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gabon. It’s not a country that we in the UK hear much about. In fact, a quick search of the BBC website shows that only a handful of stories have mentioned the place in the last 12 months – and most of them were to do with the African football Cup of Nations.

With nothing to go on, it seemed to make sense to return to a trusted source for a steer on what to read. And so I picked out Daniel Mengara’s Mema from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a collection which introduced me to the excellent Bessie Head a month or so ago.

I was in for a surprise. Told by a son in memory and praise of his ostracized mother, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read.

The novel records the downfall of Mema (mother) as she runs up against the strict codes and mores of rural Gabonese society. Left to fend for herself in her in-laws’ village after her meek husband dies, the fearless and even fearsome woman, who has a habit of settling disputes with a machete, finds the whispers and suspicions that have dogged her throughout her marriage swell to fever pitch until she is separated from her children and must watch her son go off alone ‘into the new world that the white man was slowly creating for us’ because it is ‘the only way out’.

Mema’s world is a world of storytelling and rhetoric. When problems crop up, they are dealt with through a medzo or village meeting, during which the most persuasive speakers – usually the old women – carry the day. ‘Tales were what made people wise’ in this milieu of ‘psychological games and scare tactics’, the narrator explains, adding that ‘it was up to the youngsters to show cleverness by getting out of the tale the wisdom that they needed’.

The impact of growing up in a world where everyone is expected to be a literary critic and stories are the way of getting things done, is clear from the narrator’s doubts about what he is doing with his own act of telling:

‘Is it because I have travelled across the seas to the white man’s land that I have decided to desecrate my mother’s memories by telling them to strangers who will not even care to read her story to the end? Strangers who may not like what I have to say or may hate me for daring to say it? And how could strangers understand what I have to say? What will they do when the story of my mother proves too much for them and starts to haunt them, eating them from the inside?’

The novel’s portrayal of the power of women is equally intriguing. While making clear that the society he describes is ostensibly patriarchal, the narrator shows how women maintain control behind closed doors. ‘The lion had to be kept roaring for the sake of appearance’, he explains, but ‘when a woman was angry, nothing in the village worked’. The most striking demonstration of this is played out in the description of the rituals surrounding deserting wives in the region. Form dictates that the husband, who has usually been deserted on the grounds of cruelty, must go to apologise and beg his spouse back from his in-laws,. However if a husband is slow to do this the village women will launch a campaign of non-cooperation with their partners to force his hand.

For all the power women wield collectively, though, the radical Mema finds that individuals who don’t conform face a lonely road. Shunned for displaying masculine traits and daring to use mimbiri (witchcraft) to try to heal her dying husband, she is forced out of society and must carve out her own road for herself and her child.

In the wake of her death, only her son’s fierce admiration remains, fuelling this passionate elegy, which cannot fail to resonate with readers. Angry, abrupt, strange and moving, Mema’s tale is as haunting as its narrator describes. I was consumed and challenged by it. In its turn it will give me food for thought for a long time to come.

Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2003)