Launched twelve years ago, the Caine Prize celebrates short fiction from Africa. And judging by 2002 Caine winner Binyavanga Wainaina's scathing satirical article "How to Write About Africa," it's about time. In collaboration with The New Inquiry and a horde of like-minded bloggers, I’ll be writing about this year's five finalists—and linking to each story so you can read it yourself.
Part 4: Zimbabwe's Tongues
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Départ" [PDF] straddles the uneasy borders between languages. The title, "Departures Terminal" in French, serves as a warning sign: the story weaves between different tongues, recording its characters' rifts of comprehension.
Because Africa is usually portrayed in the media as a homogeneous continent (or even as one enormous country) and because we monolingual Americans read literature in English, it's easy to overlook the sheer variety of Africa's languages. English is certainly common in many countries there—either as a pidgin, or, because of Britain's colonial impulse, as a full language. But so is French (which boasts another prize as good as the Caine), and Portuguese, and Afrikaans. And then there are the native languages struggling against the European incursors, including Hausa, Wolof, Kinyarwanda, and Arabic.
The story opens with Fatima and her father, an old man who "found it easier to read Arabic than French." (It's not uncommon for Zimbabweans to speak two or more of the country's official languages and a few others.) But what language are the different characters speaking? The story is written entirely in English, and we're given few clues that there is a welter of languages until we're told that Fatima's brother "was unconsciously speaking in English...[before] he suddenly realized what he had done and guiltily resumed in Wolof." This kind of information, about each character's unconscious choice of languages, determines their relationships far more than anything they do to each other.
Language itself is a tool for everybody here. Fatima recalls how "as a child she had thought that eating candy would dulcify her words, make them come out sweet as young coconut milk." And it is a matter of convenience: the child, Ibou, moves to America to learn English, but "learned Spanish faster than English and wrote letters home every week in a mixture of French and Wolof."
But sometimes translation is not enough. Or rather: translation simply does not happen. As the story opens with Fatima failing to understand the little things being said, so it closes with Ibou's uncomprehending stare as Fatima reveals that she is staying behind and watching everybody else come and go. We Westerners might not see it immediately, but there are so many languages in Africa, so many cultures jostling up against each other. And even within a close-knit family—father, uncle, son, mother—those languages and lives can drive them apart by their mere difference.
Here's the story as a PDF: Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's 'La Salle de Départ'
And below is a list of the other bloggers contributing to the discussion on this story.
image credit: map of languages in Africa, wikimedia.org