Thoughts on Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ”

By | June 2, 2012

This continues the Caine Prize blogathon. Below are some thoughts on Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s “La Salle de Départ”, the fourth story on the Caine Prize shortlist. 

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This is a very beautiful story. I love the prose, I love the plot, and I love the delicate treatment of the characters. The plot of the story is pretty simple and straightforward, and it takes a very good storyteller to turn such a simple plot – and one that has the potential of producing some cringe-worthy moments – into a masterfully written story. This is the setup: Ibou, a young Senegalese-American man is on a visit to his family at home. On the trip back to the airport, on his way out of the country, his sister, Fatima, is trying to talk him into taking her son, Bubacar, to America.

It is hard to do justice to the story in a review, because the pacing of the story, and the sequencing of events as we learn about the characters add to our understanding and enjoyment of the story. That sort of pacing is hopelessly difficult to capture in a review. We start out by thinking of Bubacar as an insensitive man, to thinking of him as a selfish man, and end up thinking of him as a highly complicated man, a product of the ‘immigrant experience’. So many Africans who live in the West and have family back home have had a variant of this sort of conversation with a family member at some point. What is particularly nice in this story is that the reader is getting the other perspective. We see through the eyes of the family member who is imploring the migrant to help her. We see as she struggles to make sense of why a person who has been made into the success he has become by the extended family would refuse to extend the same favour to another member of the family. Fatima is particularly pained by this because their father decided not to send her to university because she is female. He instead spent the money on sending Ibou to a good Catholic school. One of the ways she makes sense of this situation is by laying the blame at the feet of Ibou’s foreign fiancée.

A couple of years ago, an aunt told me that the wife is the default place a man runs to when he looks for an excuse not to do anything. According to her, it works even better when the woman is not from the same race, or ethnicity, or even hometown or village. This of course has the effect of (further) alienating a woman from the family of the husband, a family that might not have accepted her at all in the first instance. Their son would have done whatever they wanted, if not for the stupid, evil, foreign woman who has turned him against his own family. The aunt called it ‘using ones wife’s head’. I remembered this as I was reading this story. Ibou pulls different cards as he tries to convince his sister that he couldn’t take Bubacar with him to New York. But the first card he pulls is the wife card. Life is different in New York, and it would be too hard on his Egyptian wife-to-be to have a boy come live with them. Ghada, the Egyptian lady, is unknown to Fatima, but she, right from the first page of the story, is blaming her for her brother’s decision.

The latter part of the story reminds of the best-written Jumpha Lahiri stories. The immigrant experience comes out very strongly, especially when one considers the in-betweeness of a lot of Lahiri’s characters, and the state that Ibou is – a state he is trying to explain to his sister. Of course, we know that he is not being selfless when he tells his sister that she would essentially lose her son if he were to go with him. But we also know that there is some truth to what he is saying, just as, to further complicate things, we know that Bubacar does not need turn out as Ibou says. These tensions are deftly handled in the story.

The prose is beautiful, the language clean, and the discriptions vivid. See this:

From a distance his eyes almost appeared blue, the dark irises encircled by rings of gray and the cornea covered by a film of translucent gel.

I particularly love this paragraph:

Since Fatima didn’t understand English, she was so grateful for his translation that she nodded to show that she got it now, but as the meaning of these words began to crystallize, her vigorous nodding abruptly ceased. Her emerald green damask foulard slipped back and Ibou noticed for the first time that there were strands of silver streaking through her closely-plaited hair. How old was she now? Almost forty probably.

What the writer has done here is to bring two people’s perception of each other together in the same, short, paragraph. She finds that she needs time to digest and understand him, even when he translates what he said from English to French; he sees her for the first time in years, not even sure of her age, only certain that she has aged. And there is nothing to indicate that he thinks of this in any personal, reflective way. That switch from one person’s perspective is done in the same sentence. Brilliant.

I look forward to reading more of her work.

Fellow bloggers’s reviews:
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
Stephen Derwent Partington

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