Monthly Archives: May 2016

Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman

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fairytales for lost children

Imagine if your cultural identity is wrapped up in being part of a Somalian Muslim large family which is not only patriarchal but also conservative. You are dispossessed of your country of origin and seek refuge in Kenya. In Kenya, you are not very welcome and constantly have to hide from the police. Finally you land up in London where you are more welcome but still not part of the mainstream. Add to this being gay, lesbian or trans and you are further on the periphery with nowhere to call home. Most of the stories in this collection describe a version of such lives.

Each one has a unique protagonist with a unique set of circumstances. A further dimension is added in that several of the protagonists also suffer from mental illness in the form of psychosis. In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the voices in the protagonists head stop once he distances himself from his family. In Earthling, a cathartic moment helps Zaytun towards wholeness.

There is tenderness, anguish, pride, revenge and courage in abundance; all the emotions that exist in relationships are wonderfully portrayed. The writer does not shy away from describing sexual encounters very explicitly until the lust and tenderness and sweat virtually drips from the pages.

In one of my favourites, the title story, Fairytales for Lost Children, the boy is learning “Ingriis” living in Kenya. The school has a wonderful black teacher who subverts all the fairytales so they learn of Jomo and the Beanstalk and Kohl Black and the Seven Street Boys! so inventive. Sadly the teacher does not last long. This story ends a little in the air with the reader wondering if the worst really did happen.

At the beginning of each story there are beautiful drawings sometimes displaying the titles in Arabic. They do not illustrate the story so much as convey the mood and tone. Here is an example of one of them.

drawing

The language changes depending on the character, some use english slang, some are aggressive and macho, some reflective. A feature that seems prevalent in writers of African origin is a wonderful use of metaphor. In describing the effect of a tranquiliser, the protagonist says it dilutes the voices “until they were faint crackles: a transistor radio still picking up signals but at a low volume.” In, If I Were a Dance, Anas says of his ex-lover ‘if his ego were bottled a drop would poison a scorpion.” This story is heart-wrenching as Anas and Narciso dance out their relationship in front of an audience.

I often avoid short stories because I can get frustrated with their abrupt endings. In this collection, they seem sufficient unto themselves. Every story has something different to offer as each describes, in one way or another, how they have been displaced and outcast as much in terms of nationality as sexuality. It seems impossible to cast oneself away from the family and/or culture that is deeply loved and to find what truly embodies home. Nevertheless these stories show ways of doing just this.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

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The Book of Memory

Memory is the name of an albino woman who is in a Zimbabwean jail, awaiting the death sentence, for the murder of her guardian, Lloyd Hendricks. Her parents sold her to this white man when she was 9 years old and she never saw them again.

The title has two meanings, in that it is the book Memory wrote about her life and it also explores memory itself; its fallibility, its haziness, how it can be misconstrued. Memory is writing to an American woman, Melinda Carter, who writes columns in a magazine. Her focus is to expose miscarriages of justice so Memory’s lawyer, who is appealing against her sentence, introduced Melinda to Memory in the hope that a sympathetic article in a prestigious magazine would help her cause. This device enables the writer to explain village life, Shona culture and Zimbabwean politics as it would be explained to a foreigner.

Her story shifts between village life, life with her birth family, prison life and life with Lloyd in a largely white farming community. The vibrant essence of village life as well as the squalor is brought to life. Memory is ostracised, feared and teased because of her albinism. She is further excluded from normal life by having to avoid the sun. Her life is lived narrowly between home, school, church and hospital. By contrast, life at Summer Madness, the homestead in which she lives with Lloyd is tranquil and calm; it has a swimming pool, a library, a treehouse, dogs and horses. She is bewildered by her surroundings and longs for home. She also has no idea why she has been removed from her family. She remembers her mother’s ‘white dress with big red poppies all over it’. She remembers her two siblings that died, the one shortly before she was handed over to Lloyd and she misses her sister, Joyi. She suffers from terrible nightmares.

Memory’s life in prison is brilliantly described; the conditions in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison are appalling as is the manner in which the inmates are treated by the wardens. The corruption is terrible as the wardens take supplies meant for the inmates home; even the sanitary pads. Despite this, the conversations held between wardens and inmates are very funny. The warden, Synodia, makes so little sense that Memory refers to her statements, as Synodic Utterances. This tone of witty cynicism permeates much of Memory’s writings on the deprivations of prison life. Some of the inmates too are quite eccentric and their attitudes to their crimes give more than an inkling about their lives outside prison.

The story of how she was sold and how Lloyd died are the two things, the reader is dying to know. This is eked out in between flashbacks to early childhood, flashbacks to life with Lloyd and prison life. At times the flashbacks to village life were a little repetitive but it certainly has the effect of increasing the tension. When the truth is revealed, Memory has to re-consider everything she previously thought about her life.

One of the major themes in this novel is the effect that superstition and cultural beliefs have on people’s lives. The customary practice of ngozi in Shona culture is meant to appease the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death. It raises the question of what is to be done when traditional cultural beliefs and practices place limits on human rights. Furthermore, the superstitions around albinism are highlighted; a taboo that must be exposed as such. Another theme is the effect on a person of being removed from their culture but never quite being accepted by the culture in which they are placed; reminiscent of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

It may seem, on the face of it, that the novel is tackling too many pressing issues and may run the risk of doing too much; however, this is not the case. The different strands knit together naturally and show the domino effect of how decisions taken before one is even born can have dire consequences on one’s own life. The writing is exemplary and the suspense as the story unfolds ensures the reader’s interest does not flag.