On Admiring Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’

by zunguzungu

A Review by Stephen Derwent Partington. Read Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story, ‘La Salle de Départ’ here, in pdf form.

On reflection, I’m a little ashamed of my last Caine Prize post, on Stanley Kenani’s short story, ‘Love on Trial’. Specifically, I feel that this review lacked generosity; that I childishly stomped my petulant way through a readerly sulk. And so when, after a first reading, I felt so-whattish about Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Senegal-set story, ‘La Salle de Départ’, I decided that it was probably my own stubbornness as a reader. Consequently, I went for a walk, gulped a cup of coffee, and sat down beside some goats for a second reading. Following this, it was confirmed: yes, it was my stubbornness as a reader – the story is, indeed, very good. Consistently so. Which makes me feel even worse about Mr Kenani.

My initial beef with ‘La Salle’ – a complaint that I have raised elsewhere, in an article in The East African that celebrates this year’s Caine shortlist– was misdirected. I was concerned that would be an African story of, shall we say, Emigration and Return (‘E&R’). The émigré; the cosmopolitan; the déraciné traveler. Let’s face it, if badly done such a theme can be yawn-inducingly imitative. The story of the youngster who moves to America to study and who returns ‘alienated’ is so frequent in African literature since independence that it runs the risk of now appearing lazy, faux-profound and mock-meaningful. Indeed, it is almost the essential rite-of-passage story, which all budding members of the Afro-literati must pen in order to be accepted by the conservative old-guard as ‘African’. Writing such a text is, for emerging authors, what being anti-gay is for Ugandan evangelical pastors; a real obligation. Certainly, here in Kenya, such texts, which are often amongst those we used to itemize as ‘popular literature’, tend to be extraordinarily moralistic, chastising those who would study abroad and who return ‘alienated and superior’, unable to relate to their ‘authentic culture’ back home in, usually, the rural areas. It is women who, especially, suffer the authors’ wrath in such stories, as the usually male authors seem to work within the trope of ‘Mother Africa’ (which some feminist writers have since reformulated as a liberating concept), holding that it is women who should uphold ‘African cultural traditions’ (what’s them, then?) and who, on abandoning them, should be condemned; a state of affairs that is at best patronizing and at worst oppressively sexist.

And yet, I’d fully agree with most postcolonialist scholars that the state of being some form of exile – the émigré, the nomadic pastoralist, the cosmopolitan diasporan or, more painfully, the refugee, the ‘internally-displaced person’, the slum evictee or the migrant worker – is a core aspect of ‘the postcolonial condition’, and so to dismiss all texts that feature it is certainly to display an utter arrogance, is a dismissal of people’s very real experiences. The question then has to be: how is E&R dealt with in the myriad cultural and other contexts in which it plays out; or, how do writers sensitively deal with specific instances of postcolonial ‘movement’? While I have great concerns about those probably sexist Kenyan texts hinted at above, there are undeniably many other ways to approach ‘movement’, and perhaps the different, competing ways in which it is portrayed by various writers indeed constitutes one of the productively responsible joys of African literature, or postcolonial literature in general.

On a second reading, I think that Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’ redeems the genre, performing an important service for the continent’s literature. The problem with stating that a story performs an important service is that it perhaps implies that the message compensates for the lack of enjoyment or formal aesthetic pleasures-of-the-text, and yet this is not what I mean: indeed, I greatly enjoyed this story, on all levels.

‘La Salle de Départ’ is deceptively simple in terms of its storyline: a young Senegalese Muslim man, Ibou, is studying in America, and there falls in love with a fellow student from Egypt, Ghada; he returns to Senegal for a short break, where he spends time with his in-place sister, Fatima. Almost all of the ‘action’ takes place during a drive at the end of the visit, when Fatima escorts Ibou back to the airport in a relative’s run-down taxi. During this journey, the uncomfortable conversation begins when Fatima plucks up the courage to ask Ibou to take her young son, Babacar, to America with him. Awkwardly, Ibou dodges the issue, ultimately refusing to do so.

What interested me most is the way in which this story partial inverts those more conservative examples of the E&R genre hinted at above. That is, it argues back. Importantly, as if to simultaneously contradict the influential and important ‘The Empire Writes Back’ [to the metropolis only] thesis pushed by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, Myambo’s story instead appears to write back to already-existing African texts. That is, even though it invokes the West in its argument, the text bypasses the West by refusing to be dependent upon its literary canon. It performs, then, what one of Kenya’s leading young theorists, Evan Mwangi, has convincingly called the act of ‘writing back to ourselves’. This attitude itself constitutes one of this story’s major strengths: its confidence, its lack of that derivativeness that I had initially feared.

You see, while Ibou is, yes, deracinated – a term that I will use because the story is set in Francophone Senegal – as implied by his new attire of baseball cap, sagging jeans and iPod, all of which are mentioned to highlight his difference from his father’s traditional clothing, he is not only simplistically condemned for this. Indeed, it is left to the reader to determine how to read Ibou, who might come across to some as a heartless young man who’s unwilling to assist his extended family, or else as a man who generously refuses to help Babacar, afraid as he seems to be that Babacar will himself become alienated from his culture and his mother – in this second reading, Ibou’s refusal to help is, ironically, rather assistance and kindness, a refusal to break-up a family, to allow Babacar to desert the mother who depends upon him as, we are told, her only happiness.

The major confusion stems from this refusal: how should Fatima read it, Ibou’s apparent unwillingness? Ultimately, she simply cannot understand it, and incomprehension is the result – not necessarily anger or upset, but confusion: Fatima simply no longer knows how to interpret her Americanised brother. That is, translation between their now different cultures has become increasingly difficult. And this is at the heart of ‘La Salle’ – the difficulty of translation, between languages, yes (there are instances of speaking in tongues that others don’t understand), but more profoundly between cultures. Because she has been left ‘in place’ and has no idea of American culture – indeed, all of her ‘understandings’ of other cultures in the story seem to be based on simple stereotypes, such as ‘all Lebanese women are loose’ – Fatima can not understand what Ibou seems to understand: that he is now so distant in time, space and culture that those he once loved as family have become ‘other’, alien. There is no real sense in which Ibou is necessarily arrogant, looking down on his relatives in the way that ‘leavers’ do in the conservative examples of the E&R genre – rather, it simply seems (as I see it) to be offered as an amoral inevitability that movement engenders wrenching change. Ibou hates no-one – he just feels that the sort of help he is being asked to give would in fact hinder and hurt his sister. But Fatima can not understand, and is left at the airport, waiting for his plane to take off, her mouth open in a sort of confusion of abandonment – and this after she has seen him pass slowly through the airport’s metal detector, ‘trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers’.

For me, the story’s more interesting character is not Ibou, but Fatima. In so much other E&R literature it is the psychology of the one who moves that it most frequently analysed and – in ‘committed’ fashion – censured as treacherously ‘comprador’. But ‘La Salle’ refocuses us subtly towards the one who remains behind, Fatima, the in-place figure. This is fascinating to me, as it rights what I tend to perceive as an arrogant wrong of much of the more cosmopolitan writing from, especially, the diaspora, which often celebrates the productively and joyfully hybrid identities of wealthy émigrés who, let’s face it, are merely one very privileged section of the postcolonial world; most of us tend to either move less pleasantly (I hinted at evictees and others, above) or stay very much put, in-place. And ‘La Salle’ reminds us of the unequal power-plays that lead to these different states of placedness and uprootedness. For instance, Ibou is a man, and according to the culture from which he has been privileged to emerge, butterfly-like, he may escape. Fatima, on the other hand, gets no money from her father for her education, as it all goes to Ibou, and instead she must go through the well-trodden route of marriage, motherhood, and so on. It is not that she is a foolhardy victim, for clearly she aware of this injustice, pithily and eloquently stating to herself at one point that ‘A son could fly, a daughter could only nest’. She understands her subjugation. However, her chosen route out is to perpetuate the cycle by getting her own son (she is glad that she doesn’t have a daughter) to ‘fly’ with Ibou, and she is confused when Ibou, a young man, seems unwilling to play the game, either because he wishes to save Fatima from heartbreak or because he’s too selfish to give his time to Babacar when back in the USA. It is left to the reader to agonizingly debate: is this a blessing for Fatima (who in her ability to cry at nothings is, it is hinted, depressed), or is it a further part of her curse, her (double) oppression, oppressed by both men in-place and by the American individualist culture that, through Ibou, won’t assist her?

I have been asking many questions. And that is the second major strength of this story: it forced me to think, to reach no easy conclusions, to sympathise with Fatima, and this without pity.

But there was so much more. Very swiftly: for instance, class came very pertinently into play at some point. The previously poor Ibou is now comparatively wealthy, and as such we now see him being better able to relate to his rich Egyptian lover (Fatima doesn’t understand the idea of ‘lover’ within the moral economy of her Muslim faith), Ghada, whose parents were benefitting ‘collaborators’ during the years of Egypt’s colonization. It is not, then, only that Ibou has shifted in his interpretation of Islam (he understands scripture not as God’s word, any more, but only as ‘God’s word translated by man’, and during Ramadan [which he has come home for] he only performs a token fast while others fully observe the month), but that he has bought into the American Dream of class mobility and commodity obsession – that iPod and all his other gadgets. Also opened to discussion in this story is the issue of illegal immigration – Ibou is fraudulently in the USA, a point that I read as evidence that he has no moral right to say ‘No’ to Fatima’s request that he take Babacar. And intercultural relationships are also touched upon very strongly: Ibou is the head of his university’s ‘African Students’ Organisation’ when he meets and falls in love with Ghada, the head of the same university’s ‘Middle Eastern Students’ Association’. This, then, raises the spectre of African disunity – Egypt and the Maghreb against the ‘black’ Sub-sahara – as to read Egypt as part of the Middle East (as Ghada’s organization does) is to buy into a worrying myth of Northern exceptionalism of the sort that Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine (eds) criticize in their wonderful new Pambazuka book, African Awakenings: the Merging Revolutions, which collection of essay refuses to view ‘the Arab Spring’ as not African. Or is, rather, their love a hint at the possibility of a more positive hybridity, or…? And so on, and so on. And I like stories that make me breathlessly question, especially when the story itself is so unpretentiously tender, so non-preachy, so generous to its protagonists, so willing to trust its readers to perform responsible readings – so, how shall we put it?: GOOD!

For what it’s worth, then, my personal ranking so far is: 1) Kahora’s ‘Urban Zoning’; 2) Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Départ’; 3) Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’; 4) Kenani’s ‘Love on Trial’.