Nawal El Saadawi: Searching

He vanishes. After seasons of being together and meeting every Tuesday in that restaurant overlooking the Nile, Farid does not show up. This catapults Fouada into a period of searching.

“How had a man become her whole life? She didn’t know how it happened. She wasn’t the sort of woman who gives her life to anyone. Her life was too important to give to one man. Above all, her life was not her own but belonged to the world, which she wanted to change.”

And yet, here she was, searching; for him? or has his disappearance allowed her to seek out a purpose and a deeper meaning to life? What was she seeking, exactly?

A female chemist in Cairo’s patriarchal society, Fouada is intelligent and strong-willed. But our daring author impales a nerve here, an uncomfortable truth rarely dissected and examined — the existential torment and uncertainty that women of strong character endure.

A Nawal El Saadawi work of fiction is an art film; one where nuanced cinematography captures the reflection of the sun on a window pane and which slowly pans toward the distress coursing through a woman’s veins; one that disquiets with its honesty; one with an unbroken tension that does not resolve, but bleeds into a thousand provoking questions as the end credits fade into darkness.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches and Our Lady of the Nile

It is and it isn’t Kafkaesque. 

It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.

It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction. 

“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”

Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”

In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”

This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.

_ _ _

In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.

The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.

I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.

These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.

Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby

The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.

These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.

Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.

The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.

But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”

“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.

And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”

“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question? 

This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!