Friday, 1 June 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize: Story 4 - Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Depart"

I'm actually getting my review out on time today. Once a week, a group of bloggers will be Blogging the Caine Prize. This week's story is Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Depart". As always my criteria for reading these shortlisted stories are: if they beat the "stereotypical narrative" and if I enjoyed it.

I'm just going to come right out and say it I really enjoyed this story and if I'm honest I don't feel I can write a review that would do it any justice. There are so many themes coming out from it (gender, language, class, difference, change), and if more short stories were like this, I might really like it as a genre. This story also made me think and I'm sure anyone who read it would have different perspectives and views on the two main characters. So a quick summary.

Ibou, who lives in America, is back in Senegal for a bit to visit his family. He moved to America as a kid thanks to the generosity of his Uncle Thierno but his move to America came at a cost - "he was supposed to sacrifice all he had gained for them. Up to and including every last penny ...". At the same time there is Fatima, his older sister, who was made to stay in Senegal and become a wife and mother (mainly because she is a woman and all the resources went to Ibou). She is divorced, but thankfully had one son (again more issues of gender) and now wants Ibou to take her only son, Babacar, with him back to America so he can have the same chances he had. Majority of the story takes place in Uncle Djiby's "box of battered tin of wheels", which he used as a taxi to take Ibou and Fatima to the airport. In the end, Ibou says no and we are left wondering why Ibou doesn't want to take his nephew with him back to America.

I don't even know where to begin with La Salle de Depart. I could begin with Ibou. At first glance he might come out as a selfish individual - why isn't he taking his nephew with him? If his uncle didn't take him when he was young to America then he wouldn't have the life he now has in America. But if you read a bit deeper you see that Ibou isn't this selfish individual that doesn't want his nephew to ruin his American lifestyle, but a man who wants to spare his nephew from his new life. Yes, a move to America would improve his nephews life - better education, possibly a great job. But a move to America also means distance and ever-lasting change. To his sister, Ibou says it's "not about the family. It's about my life. I can't sacrifice my life, our life, our privacy, our time. And Babacar won't be happy. Trust me. He should stay here and go to a good school here. It's for the best." Yes, on the surface, Ibou is a selfish man, but what I got from it was Ibou saying Babacar won't be happy away from his home and his family. Ibou knows this because when he was younger "he had almost died of homesickness the first three years in Maryland". He was trying to spare his nephew from the loneliness of an immigrants life in America. Yes, Ibou had a great life in America, with his Egyptian girlfriend, but "somewhere along the way, Senegal had died for him" and I genuinely believed he was trying to spare his nephew from that. 

I guess I could also talk about language - there is French, Arabic, English and Wolof in this story, which to me shows the heterogeneity of language in Africa and the fact that even in one family people could speak different languages. How Ibou has to constantly remember to speak in Wolof or French, because his sister doesn't speak English and the difficulties he has in translating some English terms to Wolof or French. Fatima's father "found it easier to read Arabic than French", Ghada,  Ibou's Egyptian girlfriend, "speaks fluent French and English and has read the entire Koran in Arabic", and Ibou used to write "letters home every week in a mixture of French and Wolof" when he first moved to America. 

I could also talk about the issue of class. Ghada, Ibou's girlfriend, comes from a wealthy Egyptian family and she doesn't face the same burdens Ibou faces with his family. To Ibou "Ghada was close to her family because this inconvenient difference in income-earning potential didn't exist between them". Ghada's grandmother was part of the Egyptian elite educated by the French. Ibou, on the other hand, came from poverty and coming home all he saw was "dust", "hygiene", and "other ways". "When Fatima reached into the communal serving bowl to expertly shred the cebujen's vegetables with her nimble right hand, all he could think about was the dirt under her fingernails. And yet, she was being a good hostess". Ibou didn't feel guilty about seeing the dirt and being disgusted by the poverty (even though he wished he did) and it goes back to me seeing it as one of the reason he didn't want his nephew to move to America - so he would never be disgusted by his mother and her surroundings.  

And I could talk about Fatima - the sister who didn't have all the opportunities because she was a woman. Uncle Thierno offered to pay for Fatima's university expenses but her father said "better to use that money for young Ibou". The one who stayed home to be a wife and mother and looked after her own mother after she had a stroke. The one who only gave birth to a son (so much better than a daughter) but whose husband divorced her because she couldn't have more children. Now she was divorced, all that she had was Babacar and "she needed to invest everything she had in him". For her that was giving him the opportunity to go to America with Ibou. She just couldn't understand why Ibou wouldn't take him. He had the resources, the money, Babacar was a good boy, he was only slighter older when their Uncle took him to America. Why couldn't he do what Unle Thierno did for him and take Babcar with him to America. So many things, so many questions. I really did enjoy this story and I loved it even more for making me think.

Oh and did it beat the "stereotypical narrative"? Initially I thought it would be the usual, African man goes abroad and forgets who he is narrative, but surprisingly it was more than that.  Sorry Bombay's Republic but I think I may have found my favourite. So as it stands, this is now my number 1, followed by Bombay's Republic, then Urban Zoning and finally Love on Trial.

For other reviews on La Salle de Depart: Black Balloon, Backslash ScottIkhideStephen Derwent Partington

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