Tag Archives: Bookshelf

On the Social Condition in War

I recently finished Stephen C. Lubkemann’s Culture in Choas: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, and there’s a lot there for interested parties. The book is a dense brick of a book, but there is a lot crammed in those pages, and I found the different directions that Lubkemann goes in really fascinating.

The book is based on about a decade’s worth of research into the numerous ways that people adapted to war in Mozambique. I don’t know that much context about the war, but the narrative that Lubkemann strings together and the arguments he makes are fascinating to scholars of any part of the continent (or indeed anywhere there’s conflict). The backbone of his research is this:

[W]arscapes are often treated as interrupted societies in which the myriad social processes and life projects anthropologists investigate are treated as if they have been suspended. In such contexts coping with violence often becomes the only social task that analysts investigate. Such approaches strip warscape inhabitants of the social multidimensionality that is assumed to shape behavior and inform agency under less dramatic conditions.


War-time social existence in Machaze was never merely a matter of coping with violence; instead, as in peacetime, it centered on the pursuit of a multidimenstional agenda of life projects and “other struggles.” Throughout the conflict an array of “other” forms of gendered and generational social struggle continued to inform interests and orient behavior – migratory or otherwise. In fact, far from exercising singularly determinative force in shaping war-time behavior or proving capable or overwriting prior social and cultural difference, both the meaning and deployment of military violence itself tended to be reshaped by the specific sociocultural problematics that had long oriented the social life of the myriad and highly differentiated local groups throughout Mozambique (323-4).

With that as his jumping off point, he finds all sorts of interesting things in how people pursue life goals throughout the war and even after. The most interesting parts are his work on wartime mobility – displacement and otherwise. This includes the ways that men relied on decades-old migratory patterns (mostly to South Africa) to escape the violence, the ways that women tried to leverage war-time displacement to free themselves from the constraints of bride-prices, how men who remained in South Africa after the war ended tried to negotiate (or not) the dual life of keeping wives in Mozambique but careers (and even other wives) in South Africa, and the back-and-forth that all of these people navigated when trying to deal with ancestors and witchcraft to shield themselves. It’s all fascinating stuff, and at the heart of it is his decision to separate the life pursuits of people (and the contexts in which these are pursued) – what he calls a “lifescape” – from place. People pursue their lives in multiple places, in single places, or along routes between places, and his discussion of this (im)mobility during and after the war is really worthwhile.

One other thing I’ll focus on here is his reconceptualizing of Albert Hirschman’s “exit, loyalty, voice.” Hirschman’s initial idea was that there were three ways that people reacted to a situation that they were discontent with: loyalty, efforts to reach your life goals within the parameters set; voice, efforts to do this by modifying the parameters; and exit, refusing to participate and instead finding other ways to achieve those ends. In his book (mostly chapter 9), Lubkemann adapts Hirschman’s concept by framing loyalty and voice not as two of three distinct categories but by placing them on a continuum – reactions can be more loyalty or more voice, but they rest on a spectrum of participation within the terms.

In the context of this work, Lubkemann uses the continuum to analyze men who attempt to justify transnational life by living in South Africa more and more but maintaining ties to their ancestral land and their families back in Mozambique. Some men returned home after the war; others remained in South Africa but sent remittances or planned infrequent visits to placate families and ancestors; others sought to slowly leave Mozambique behind – one even argued that he had convinced his ancestors’ spirits to move to South Africa with him, thus freeing him from needing to return to his home. These variations of playing-by-the-rules are a useful way of looking at how people navigate these types of situations.

Anyhow, this is preliminary blogging for sure – I just finished the book this morning and felt the need to at least drop a word suggesting it for those interested in these topics. I’ll have to sit on it for a bit as I figure out just how much of the work can be applied elsewhere, but surely Lubkemann’s call for anthropologists to shift the way they study conflict is useful – to all disciplines.

Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

Continue reading

Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others. Continue reading

Caine Blog: “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Here’s a belated addition to the Caine Prize blog carnival. The third story we’re reviewing is “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim from Nigeria. You can read the story as a pdf here and see other reviews linked at the bottom of this post.

I have had some trouble trying to figure out what to write about Ibrahim’s short-listed story. This isn’t because I didn’t like it, and it isn’t because there aren’t things to say. The story says a lot of interesting things about death, is written with some wonderful imagery, and tackles religion and magic in an interesting way.

Twice in the story, our narrator wishes for death. Both times he sees, or imagines that he sees, the world of the dead, the gates of heaven, etc. but is denied entry and forced to live first with his blindness from a car accident and then without the love of his life after she finds somebody else. It is after this second encounter with loneliness (he kept to himself for the most part after being blinded) and the subsequent phase of depression (interpreted by his community as possession by the devil) that he finally succeeds in encountering the world of the dead. He sees souls in the woods, and begins to see them everywhere, regaining a new type of vision that moves far beyond sight.

I’m curious how this plays against the first story we reviewed, Tope Folarin’s “Miracle.” In that story, vision and sight and religion and magic also played a role. But there, we were shown that the power of magic and religion from the blind was really a ruse. It was an attempt to convince people that it was real, an attempt that showed that the miracle wasn’t that the narrator regained his sight (he didn’t) but that everyone saw that he had regained his sight. They all saw the miracle happen, and in that way, the miracle was real. But the reader knows that the narrator still needs his glasses.

In “The Whispering Trees” we see a narrator begin to actually see, but not the same type of sight that he had before. But we, as the reader, see it the same way the other characters do – real. There is no ruse here, no trick to convince the masses or sell sermon tapes. There is only an attempt to free people, to free their souls, and to free our narrator from his waiting at the gates.

Other posts:

Caine Blog: “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist

This is the second review of the Caine Prize 2013 shortlist. This week we’re covering “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone. You can read the story yourself here [pdf] and scroll to the bottom of this post to see the other posts discussing the same story.

Pede Hollist’s short story “Foreign Aid” chronicles the return trip of its protagonist, a Sierra Leonean who has spent twenty years in the States, to his family and home.  The return doesn’t exactly go the way that our protagonist, Logan (formerly Balogun), expects. He loses his suit cases, quickly spends most of the money he brought with him, and encounters trouble in connecting with his family over their needs.  As Aaron has pointed out, this last part is precisely because the journey “is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.” Logan is no longer of Sierra Leone, he is only returning briefly.  While I agree with Aaron that this is where Logan’s problems begin, Aaron calls the return a vacation, and I would push to describe Logan’s trip back more as a debt payment or a journey of obligation.  After all, when he’s preparing for the trip, Logan is not ecstatic to see his sister again or eager to catch up with his parents, he brings gifts because he is “motivated by guilt and a desire to make up for neglecting his parents and sister for almost twenty years.”  If the immigration officer asked him if the travel was for business or pleasure, it’d be hard to discern by looking at the events that follow.

Once in the company of his parents, Logan offers to pay for things or hands money to his family no less than nine times.  But it is clear throughout that Logan has twenty years of debt to pay back, and he never seems to get close.  His gifts are lost, his cash depletes, and his sister isn’t interested in his offer to take her to America.  Finally, in his effort to confront Ali Sayyar, the father of his sister’s child, Logan encounters the hard truth.  Logan tries to put Sayyar in his place, accusing him of being a foreigner and demanding that he support the unborn child, when Sayyar reveals that he is not just the father of the child but he is also supporting the entire family through a host of loans, and that he is a native Sierra Leonean, something that Logan can hardly say for himself after spending half of his life in America.

When Logan explains the situation to his family, arguments break out left and right over the rapidly growing number of debts the family owes this one man.  Logan shrinks into solitude for the remainder of his trip, realizing that his absence had left his family in debt, and that his trip to repay his own debts to his family had done close to nothing. His last bit of respite is to go on a date with his sister’s friend Tima, and even this ends terribly.  After walking into the hotel “with high expectations, like an indebted gambler into a Vegas casino,” and then he is stood up.  His attempt at a last hurrah before returning home to his wife (to whom he might also be indebted, since she refuses to send him more cash as he requests) is dashed, and later explained by a note from Tima explaining her inability to date a married man. Is the house always wins in Vegas, perhaps Sierra Leone always wins when those who leave try to return with only money and intentions.

Besides the frequent presence of debt and obligation, the other major theme here is couched in the title, “foreign aid.” Logan engages in two types of giving, he hands out cash to all of the distant relatives at the party his parents throw for him, and he also gives specific amounts to his parents for specific purposes, such as his mother’s doctor’s visit and his father’s car parts.  He also works to change his family for the better, offering his sister a ticket to America and to help his parents understand the benefits of going.  As several other bloggers have discussed, this attempt fails miserably.  In his effort to set things right with Ali Sayyar, things fall apart even more.

In the confrontation between Logan and Sayyar, it is revealed that Logan’s nativist sentiments collapse under the realization that he is the foreigner in the situation.  While it is important to acknowledge that Sayyar is in some ways more native that Logan, it is also important to look at Logan’s prejudice against Sayyar as it relates to the theme of foreign aid.  Logan’s attempts at assisting his family, both through handouts and direct (shall we say conditional) aid, fail to meet his community’s needs.  Meanwhile, Sayyar is able to pay every member of his family regularly, to the extent that he virtually owns the family and literally owns their home.

Despite his Sierra Leonean citizenship, Sayyar is still a stand-in for the West’s growing competitors in African development: China, India, and the Middle East.  As Kola notes, the boy at the end of the story talks of an “opposite migratory pattern eastwards,” moving to Nigeria to learn to become a pilot rather than travel to America as Logan did.  I saw these as fairly explicit nods to the growing presence of the greater “East” in confrontation with America and the rest of the West.

Lastly, I feel the need to note how much this story reminded me of last year’s shortlisted story, “La Salle de Depart,” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (pdf of the story, my review).  It doesn’t remind me of the story because of the similarities, but for the differences.  In Myambo’s story, also of a man going back home to visit family, his sister begs him to take her son to America and he refuses because he does not believe it is a good decision and he is wary of its effect on his life back in America.  In Hollist’s story, another man goes home and tries to bring his sister to America, but she refuses, saying that “America has problems too” and that she has heard stories of friends who are “worse off in America than here.” I thought it was interesting to see just how directly opposite the two stories were in their depiction of the return trip and of life both leaving your home country and of life being left behind. While much of this story is long and ugly, I think putting it in context of other depictions of the divide between diaspora and home softens it up a bit.

Other bloggers’ thoughts:

Caine Blog: “Miracle” by Tope Folarin

This is the first of five review posts on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. This review is of “Miracle” by Tope Folarin of Nigeria. You can find the piece in .pdf form here, and scroll to the bottom of this post to see additional reviews and analyses by the other participants in the Caine Prize blog-carnival.

In the last two years that I’ve written about the shortlist for the Caine Prize, all of the stories have been set in Africa. It’s a welcome change this year that at least one, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin, is set in America. I think it’s fitting, since so many of these writers have spent at least some time outside of Africa (Folarin graduated from Morehouse and Oxford and now lives in Washington, DC), that some of these African short stories deal with non-African aspects of African lives. The setting is central to this story, as the narrator – a Nigerian in the Midwest – tries to define a miracle from the vantage point of life in the diaspora.

The narrator is attending a Nigerian church service in north Texas, and the gathering of churchgoers excitedly participates in the festivities of churchgoing. They’ve arrived, gathered from across the region, to witness miracles. But instead, they’ve often been left unsatisfied, or at least misled. For example, at the beginning of the church service, the churchgoers have to stop at the beginning of each song in order to figure out what song is playing because there is no cue, no leader to guide them through the music. Instead, they must fend for themselves. When they sing, they sing songs of hope, “hope that, one day soon, our lives will begin to resemble the dreams that brought us to America.” But even in successfully coming to America, a feat that can only be described as a miracle, they have been misled.

The prophet that is visiting the church tries to guide them, but it is literally the blind leading the blind. He leads his followers on a meandering road, telling them to thank God that they have been blessed enough to arrive in America, but in the same breath condemning America for making them accept their ailments. And yet, in neither instance is he leading his followers anywhere new. The narrator describes the needs of the community thus: jobs, good grades, green cards, a clearer understanding of identity, to replace failing organs and limbs. And what does the prophet attempt to fix? The narrator’s poor eyesight. There’s no effort to fix what needs fixing, only to get rid of the narrator’s glasses. When the prophet begins by chasing away the bad spirits, the crowd cheers without conviction. It’s no small wonder that the narrator has the same feeling on an individual basis once he has been singled out. He cheers, but with no conviction. His sight remains lost, just like the prophet’s.

If seeing is believing, and the narrator’s sight is still blurred in the end, then his participation in the event is worth noting. After the prophet performs his miracle, the narrator thinks back to his father’s daily reminder of their place in society – in America. Compared to the journey out of Nigeria and into America, his sight is a minor problem that is no need of miracles. Not when people need jobs and green cards and new organs. Not when he suffers from asthma. But his eyes are what the prophet tries to heal. And so, when the prophet sets about correcting the narrator’s vision rather than his breathing, the narrator plays along, aware that he must in order to keep up both the miracle of healing, the miracle of life in the diaspora.

From the co-bloggers:

Blogging the Caine Prize!

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced, which means a growing cabal of bloggers will be writing reviews/analyses about the five stories soon. This will be our third year going, and I’m really excited about it. The stories are always really interesting, and I get exposed to things I would never find otherwise. The shortlist itself is often more exciting than just the ultimate winner, and seeing the various types of stories that make it this far is really interesting. I’ve learned a lot from my co-bloggers in how to read a text, and it’s helped me recently as I’ve been organizing the African Studies Reading Group here at Yale, an ad hoc eating and close-reading group of folks, within our department this past year.

And so, with that, I’m excited to announced that I’ll be joining the ranks in reading the Caine Prize shortlist this year in the last week of May and throughout June. If you want a taste, feel free to click the “Caine Prize” tag and see posts from the proceeding years, and I hope you’ll check out posts by the whole crew of bloggers at the bottom of each of my reviews. If you’re interested in joining us, please do! Drop me a line and I’ll make sure to link to it.

The shortlisted stories for the 2013 Caine Prize are [links to pdfs]:

We’ll be tackling them weekly and in that order, starting the week of May 27th. Won’t you read with us?

Book Recommendations – South African Edition

So, my online presence has been a bit quiet. Weekend readings and occasional tweets are still outgoing, but not much else. My first semester of grad school has come and gone, and the last few weeks have been spent polishing off two term papers, preparing proposals for my thesis, studying for a language final, and moving Henry James books around at the library. Now that all of that’s done, I wanted to recommend some of the many books I still have stacked on my windowsill.

For a South African history course, I wrote a term paper looking at how anti-Apartheid activists used their own trials as platforms to criticize the government. I concentrated on Nelson Mandela’s trials (when caught in hiding and then in the Rivonia Trial) and Steve Biko’s testimony in the Black Consciousness Trial, but found other examples too. I spent some time looking at court records on microfilm – like an old school historian – but these are a few of the more helpful books on the subject of trials during apartheid:

  • Donald Woods’ Biko is a great book for all things Steve Biko. A journalist and friend of Biko’s, Woods includes lengthy excerpts from Biko’s five-days-long testimony in the Black Consciousness trial which I’ve come to rely on. An alternative to this is Millard Arnold’s complete transcript of the trial, although it’s hard to find.
  • Michael Lobban’s White Man’s Justice, while not specifically addressing my topic, is a really good resource on how the apartheid state used trials to legitimate oppression.
  • Joel Joffe’s The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa is a good account of the Rivonia Trial, on which Joffe served as an assistant counsel to the defense. His writing style isn’t the best, and he jumps back and forth from trial transcripts to his own narration without much notice, which can be frustrating if you’re doing research.
  • Mary Benson edited a collection of speeches given by activists in The Sun Will Rise: Statements from the Dock by Southern African Political Prisoners, which includes several statements I used in my paper in addition to other really interesting excerpts.

Another term paper I did was on the symbol of land and territory as a founding myth for South Africa. It was for my first ever sociology course, and I chose to look at South African history and the founding myth that Afrikaners had crafted. I used a lot of articles (by du Toit on the role of Calvinism, Templin on the Great Trek, and Marschall on monuments), but these books came in handy as well:

but nonetheless I’ve found these texts to be really helpful:

  • T. Dunbar Moodie’s The Rise of Afrikanerdom utilizes the sociological concept of a civil religion, and in this book he paints a clear picture of the role of the Boers’ Calvinist religion in their nationalism throughout the early twentieth century.
  • Leonard Thompson’s The Political Mythology of Apartheid examines the concept pretty thoroughly, looking at the history of the Great Trek and its place at the center of Afrikaner nationalism. It does a good job of looking at how this came about and when.
  • Another helpful text is Donald Harman Akenson’s God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. It compares the prominence of a covenant with God in the narratives of the Afrikaners in South Africa, the Zionists in Israel, and the Protestants in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t say much that Moodie and Thompson don’t already explain, but it’s a great comparative look.
  • The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century by Jennifer Beningfield was a great resource. Required reading for the history course mentioned above, it’s a really innovative look at how apartheid changed the actual landscape of South Africa. For this paper, the chapter on the Voortrekker Monument was essential – the whole book is well-worth a read.

And those are my recommended readings on South Africa. Hopefully someone finds these recommendations helpful. With the end of the semester, you should see more of me over the winter reprieve from school. While I might be done with these papers, I’d love any additions – feel free to comment if you know of other resources on these topics.

Caine Blog: “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh

This is the fifth and final review of stories for the Caine Prize blogging endeavor. We are wrapping up with “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh of South Africa. You can read the story for yourself here and find other reviews at the bottom of this post. The winner of the Caine Prize will be announced next month.

This post is a bit late, as I didn’t know how to write about this last story. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out how to write this post, as I came away from the story with no idea what to think of it. Part of me wonders if that’s also why my blogging colleagues have also been late to review Constance Myburgh’s story. When reading, one often looks at the author’s purpose, but in giving “Hunter Emmanuel” two readings, I couldn’t find a purpose. The story just sort of occurred.

Myburgh’s short story comes out of the pulp fiction genre, or something like it, which is something I really didn’t expect in this year’s shortlist. I think all five stories this year have demonstrated the judges’ commitment to showcasing a new taste of African literature rather than the stereotypical war and poverty, which is a welcome sight. The story follows the title character, Hunter Emmanuel, as he investigates a crime after finding a human leg in the woods.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It follows him. The prose is well-done and includes some interesting imagery and dialogue, but the actual plot is weak. Hunter finds the leg, then has some short conversations with the police before going on his independent investigation. He talks to the woman whose leg was found, but doesn’t talk so much as accosts her because he “must” investigate because he is a man. It all comes across as not really making sense, and continues to get stranger as he intimidates a young troublemaker to find out where the leg came from. Finally, he ends up “solving” the mystery, if you want to call it solved, and the story abruptly ends without really explaining what’s going on. All that you really know is that South Africa has some weird shit going on.

As I wrap up this year’s Caine Prize blogathon, I think others will join me in saying that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story, “La Salle de Departe,” is my clear pick for the Prize. The story is a wonderful look at how migration affects Africans, it avoids the pitfalls of writing for Western stereotypes of Africa, and above all else it is well-written and interesting. In a distant second, I think I like Rotimi Babatunde’ss “Bombay’s Republic.” In hindsight, Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” was too preachy and expected and it clearly played towards Western readers. Meanwhile, I didn’t really get “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora, and I don’t think there’s much to get from “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh. I don’t really know what order to put those in, but they fell short compared to the other two.

All in all, it’s been a really interesting experience and I enjoyed doing it again. I look forward to the announcement and in the meantime I’ll be hoping for Myambo’s win. All of the stories avoided the poverty-porn issue that many were unhappy with last year, and there was a diverse range of topics and style this year. Plus, it’s been great reading what so many ot.  great bloggers have to say about these stories.

For the final co-blogging experience:

Caine Blog: “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

This is the fourth post of five on the shortlist for the Caine Prize. This is a review of “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe. You can find the story here and see more reviews at the bottom of this post.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story is centrally about two characters and the how much difference distance can create. One, Fatima, is a divorcee with a son living in Senegal; the other is her brother, Ibou, who has gone to America to study. A bulk of the story takes place during a car ride to the airport, during which Fatima works up the courage to ask Ibou to take her son to America, and the dialogue between the two goes very far to show how much distance – both physical and beyond – has grown between the two. Throughout their conversation the two face a sort of disconnect. Ibou constantly struggles to find the right words – literally as he translates from English and figuratively as he navigates how to explain his reasoning – to explain why he cannot take her son to America.

The conversation takes on a number of themes, but they all revolve around the growing divide. Ibou is a man, after all, and he can fly, while Fatima can only nest, an idea Fatima returns to several times when thinking about her life and her son’s. This understanding of gender is just one way that Myambo addresses the division in the family. Class also plays a huge role, especially when Ibou reflects on how his partner, Ghada, interacts with her own family. Ibou is one of the few members of his family to achieve the dream of gaining success in America. By doing this, he becomes separate and different from the rest of his family. Meanwhile, Ghada has a health relationship with her wealthy Egyptian family. This fact stresses that class, and not blood, is what makes strong family ties possible. I think the decision to take a story about a family member removed from home and center it specifically on the resulting division was a good one. In doing this, how Ibou changes is only part of the story, and how Fatima doesn’t change, or how she changes in different ways, is another piece. How the two characters interact with each other is significant, and the dialogue in the back of an uncle’s taxi demonstrates this expertly well.

The great thing about this story is how much responsibility the reader has, which was my big problem with Stanley Kenani’s story last week.  Myambo gives you a dialogue filled with tension and emotion, and the reader has to decide what’s really going on underneath. Where Kenani stated everything outright, this story keeps a lot of things hidden – things you have to dig for. Ibou’s firm decision to refuse to take Babacar home could stem from a cultural divide, selfishness, or his honest belief of what was best for his nephew. Fatima’s frustration could have roots in her love for her son, her anger at not being able to do the same thing her brother did, or out of seeming necessity. There are a number of ways to understand the conversation, all while watching two siblings struggle to talk. That’s what I found really powerful in the story.

To read the co-bloggers: