Every now and then one comes across a story that belongs in you, that should have come from you, that tells it exactly how you have been meaning to tell it, but you can’t because well, you are the story. La Salle de Départ shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize was stolen from inside my soul. I should sue the author, Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo for doing this to me. This is one of the finest stories I have ever read. It features vivid soaring searing imagery with profound insights, yet tender, sensitive, touching. Still, Virginia Woolf’s gentle but insistent spirit comes bleeding through, holding the hands of her brown sisters. I salute you, Myambo.
What is this pretty story about? A young man (Ibou) ends up in America thanks to the generosity of the extended family. On a visit back home (Senegal), he balks at taking responsibility for the future of his nephew Babacar who the mother (Fatima) wants to go to America, the land of milk and honey. The dream is America; the nightmare is the nephew, Babacar. The extended family spreads poverty and the protagonist kicks against this new imposition.
Where do I start? Pretty does not even begin to describe the prose. The dignity of this story spoke quietly to me and comforted my soul. Bravo. La Salle de Départ is a familiar story revamped in colorful black and white. In untrained hands, this would have been another tired tale of home and exile. Instead, Myambo pulled it off as a thoughtful treatise on that movement we call immigration. Quietly, everything is laid bare: The politics of blood and (un)belonging in the era of globalization.
A good story should be like good sex, you want some. I got some in this story. The reader’s mind floats on a lazy river of laconic prose, built on the sturdy backs of painstaking research and searing attention to detail. It is interesting, Myambo barely moralizes or editorializes, for once, this is a story, what a concept. You enjoy it quietly, sigh, and then the story’s issues start to tug at your conscience’s shirt, insistently thus: “Can we talk about this?” And for once the italicized words did not draw my ire; they seemed to dignify the words, drawing you in, inquisitive at these French words that are now the other against Senegalese words. It is brilliant how she explains the words – with dignity and pride. Nice.
Rather than a tired tale told perhaps for profit and a desired audience, this story comes across as a lovely time marker of an era when all the civilizations came together under a gnarled baobab tree and amused each other with the strangeness of (not knowing) the other. These civilizations and their technologies, tools and toys brush against each other like strangers overflowing in an overloaded elevator. And the reader is reminded: Halcyon times are dying, love letters giving way to the intensity of digital texts and (e)motional affairs. Myambo’s eye for detail is complimented nicely with exquisite prose poetry. Hear her describe those Baroque buildings that are the hallmark of American university campuses:
“Father nodded at her to begin reading the letter and it was only then that she noticed the photograph that had slipped out from between the pages. Picking it up, she gently shook the dust off of it and wiped it on her pagne. It was Ibou with two other young men and two girls standing on the steps of what looked like a library or some other majestic university building propped up by ornately-decorated columns. To Fatima, it looked like a concrete wedding cake.”
“It looked like a concrete wedding cake.” Anyone who has ever been in an American university campus will enjoy the brilliance of that quote.
It is very clever how Myambo buries the clues to the meanings in subsequent sentences, like a lovely and enchanting egg hunt. To get a sense of how beautiful this story is, think about Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun), Chinua Achebe (No Longer at Ease) and Camara Laye (The African Child). Behind all that beauty and powerful prose she fearlessly examines and updates notions of physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries. This she does with careful research, exquisite pacing and lovely prose poetry wrapped in a familiar but enchanting ambience. And yes, there’s technology jostling for space under the Baobab tree. People actually text in Africa! What a concept:
““It’s a text message from Ghada. I can’t believe my roaming is finally working again and of course, just in time for me to go to the airport.””
Where there is a certain viewpoint, it is not a cloying, in your face unctuousness; you simply catch a whiff of it. And they are real issues, e.g. patriarchy, the extended family system, immigration, etc.
“Perhaps she would have more choices if she had more brothers to rely on. Brothers were like the wind, they could go places she could not. She was like the sand. She could only be blown by the wind. But now she had a son and Ibou had to help her build wings for him. Her dream for Babacar was for him to go and live with his Uncle Ibou all the way, theeerrre in America, to go to school there, sow success for the family there and harvest green US dollars to bring back here.”
Everywhere the reader’s eyes roam, there is sad beautiful prose:
“Again. He was always leaving. Her memories of him were distilled down to a series of departures, snapshots of ever leaving. And now he was leaving without having agreed to take Babacar with him. It was her turn to fix her gaze on him, willing him to respond in the affirmative…”
“I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”
The story reminds us that daily familiar themes are renewed in our consciousness even as we fight our individual wars and get comfortable in the new municipality of the individual, the ME. In Senegal, we witness culture clashes, with hygiene as proxy, resulting in alienation at home and in exile.
“Delicious! An excellent cook, but why was the squat toilet never flushed properly? Why were there always lumps of other people’s shit floating next to the foot pads? He pushed the carrot around with his tongue, trying not to think about that and he wished he felt guiltier for constantly thinking about it. But he couldn’t stop himself. Ghada was luckier in that sense, she was closer to her family. But then again, her family was different.”
The advocacy here is more sophisticated than I remember. All through Myambo expertly takes us on ride through sleepy streets pregnant with the fragrance of fried beignets and cold bissap juice. Lovely.
The new nuclear family is about cutting clean through the umbilical cord of poverty and family ties. Or is it? Are we breaking free past the shame of self-loathing? Is this self-loathing, liberation, acculturation or mindless assimilation?
“He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony. When his mother passed away in October of his first term at university, a strange aloofness was born in him. He never mourned her. It all happened so far away, in another time and place. Instead, all his childhood memories were slowly suffused with a sepia tint typical of old-fashioned photos, the type of photos one looks at but feels no connection to. Somewhere along the way, Senegal had died for him. It was all too abstract, too removed from his daily reality; family responsibility weighed on him but not as heavily as he felt it should. How many years had he been away? Half his life had been spent in another country, in another culture, where the ties of family do not strangle one’s bank account and stifle one’s emotional resources. He wished he felt more guilty. If he were a better person he would.”
We see the tension between home and exile and the expectations of the extended family that ironically funded the protagonist’s new independence:
““When we sent you to America, it was for the good of the family. We sent you to study for us.””
This story cut me all over like a playful knife and it ends too soon for me, gifting me with the best sad ending I have encountered in a long time:
““Goodbye,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” Awkwardly, he embraced her rigid shoulders and then quickly turned and pushed into the crowd putting their luggage through the X-ray machine. He took his carry-on and put it on the moving belt. Then he took off his watch, his iPod and his cell phone and put them in a tray along with his laptop. He stood in front of the metal detector. When the official waved him to come forward, he stepped through the metal frame, trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers, silhouetted against the bright light of the other side. Time teetered; she held her breath. But then he was through, into a world where she would never venture. He looked back at her and lifted a hand. Then he was gone. She would wait for his plane to take off.””
I have thought hard about what I did not like about this story; I am not coming up with much. The themes are familiar but they are still here with us and Myambo addresses them expertly in real, rather than in nominal terms. Of all the writers on the Caine Prize short list that I have read to date, her writing comes across as the most polished and sophisticated, it is almost as if she is overqualified for the competition. She is not; there are many more where she came from. As an aside, Myambo must lead a very interesting life, a Zimbabwean writing so convincingly and evocatively about Senegal.
Finally, as I was trying to figure out how and why Myambo’s La Salle de Départ spoke to me so beautifully, I chanced upon Jasmin Daeznik’s poignant and at times sad New York Times piece, Home is Where They Let You Live. And then it came together for me personally; both pieces made me refocus and reflect in a profoundly personal way on the notion of home and exile and the responsibilities and burdens I have had to bear and in some instances jettison on the way to crafting a sustainable self-identity. Home is not always home.