(This is the long version of a review which will appear in the LUCAS Bulletin, and you can purchase the book at African Books Collective, including a very reasonable £6.99 ebook option)
Summoning the Rains. Eds. Hilda Twongyeirwe and Ellen Banda-Aaku. FEMRITE Publications Limited, Kampala, 2012. Pp. 225. ISBN 9789970700257 (pb) £18.95.
Summoning the Rains is a collection of twenty stories by women writers from eleven African countries, stories which emerged from FEMRITE’s third annual Regional Women Writers Residency in Uganda. There are a number of particularly strong, striking stories here which I would recommend to anyone interested in new short fiction, particularly those by Tanya Sam Chan, Isabella Morris, Sylvia Schlettwein, Wame Molefhe and Mamle Kabu. The collection would also make a valuable addition to courses on Development and Women’s Studies, due to its accessible and insistently human depiction of a wide range of contemporary African women’s experiences—which, of course, should not be so special a recommendation as it is.
This is an engaging, delightful and frustrating collection. Much of what is both fascinating and problematic about Summoning the Rains seems connected to the label that waves banner-like over this book: African women writers. These stories illuminate perspectives which are still too often silenced and flattened. This means that even those pieces which are less arresting as fiction will nonetheless enrich and enlarge Western readers’ understandings of African women and girls. Yet the marginalisation and intersecting oppressions which make this book so valuable and interesting also seem to inhibit and fetter many of the stories’ reach and vision—although some of this may, more simply, be a matter of new writers developing their craft.
In these stories we encounter women and girls whose lives and opportunities are bounded round by patriarchy, violence, poverty. The protagonists in these stories are testing their strategies, concocting uneasy mixtures of accommodation, investment, resistance and escape. They have a lot to lose, and isolation haunts these stories: characters are disconnected from mothers, daughters, sisters, husbands, sons, lovers, aunties, friends. In story after story, intimates stare at each other with wounded incomprehension. Talk withers or wheels round in obsessive circles. Historical and national contexts, the circumstances of their griefs, which have stunted their capacity for love and communication, are sketched briefly, if at all. The political is personal, and the personal is political—but as these authors show, if we move between the public and the private spheres, if we map the impacts of global processes onto individual hearts, we find paradoxical connections and painful refractions, not simple correspondences or slogans.
The collection’s first and last stories are also—perhaps not coincidentally—the ones that engage most explicitly with the sorts of national historical contexts which, for so long, African fiction was expected, even pressured, to engage with. We begin with anti-colonial nationalism and finish with civil war and displacement—but the significance of these events in the stories is unpredictable. The collection opens with Gothataone Moeng’s “In the Shadow of God,” telling the story of Seretse Khama’s return to lead Bechuanaland to independence, and how—lost in the welcoming crowd—a girl loses her mother and makes love to a returned migrant labourer. Through the resulting pregnancy the daughter is released—expelled—from her mother’s oppressive ambitions to liberate her: “I don’t want to be a typist or a teacher, I don’t care about a big house, I screamed in my head….Some of the girls in my class had dropped out of school to get married and start their own families. I too wanted my life to be my own.” Moeng lays down subtle parallels between Seretse Khama and the girl: sexual waywardness, rejection, exile and returns. Yet through these parallels she demonstrates that independence, progress and development have no one, stable meaning.
Flashbacks to Uganda’s civil war intrude on the mind of a busy bride on her wedding day in Beatrice Lamwaka’s “Bonding Ceremony,” the final story in the collection, narrated in urgent second-person. Marriage provides an opportunity for the successful, highly-educated woman to return to the home she fled. This celebration of love and union offers a chance for her to revisit and revise the significance of a traumatic site: “You don’t want to remember the day the rebels sat your whole family down, put guns to your heads…For you [the wedding] was a bonding ceremony. It was a ceremony to make people dance and eat, for the two families to meet and know that forever they are bonded.” Lamwaka begins to imply, however, that hostility and displacement are not simply a past to be overcome, but dynamics with their own relevance to this marriage. From the DJ’s sexist set, to bickering over bride price, to her new husband’s sudden vindictiveness, it becomes clear that there is a limit to how radically this bride, on her own, can rewrite rituals and social patterns. When she realises this, however, her response is sanguine: marriage has not worked; perhaps a PhD will.
Gender, violence and education dance round each other in Wame Molefhe’s witty and moving “States of Matter,” in which studying chemistry provides a means of escape for a bright lively girl, while also becoming a scientific poetry with which to analyse social roles. Though her mother says that “A good woman must be solid,” the child insists “I’m free like a gas, Mama, and I’m going to stay free forever,” upon which she performs an interpretative dance of the hydrogen atom. When an increasingly controlling lover’s attempts to ‘turn her solid’ land her in hospital, her mother appears at her bedside reading A New Certificate in Chemistry “in a strong voice, ploughing through terms I knew she did not understand.… Uncombined hydrogen does not occur in nature to any appreciable extent, but the element occurs in vast quantities in a combined state…” The mother’s uncomprehending—yet deeply understanding—recitation transforms science (at once rational and magical) into a litany of healing and offers one of the collection’s rare moments of loving connection and solidarity.
While realism is by far the dominant mode in Summoning the Rains, two of the stories venture into the realm of the fantastic, to powerful effect. Tanya Sam Chan’s “Flesh to Flesh,” in which an AIDS nurse tries to accept her daughter’s sexuality, is a daring and increasingly strange exploration of emotional switchbacks. Chan’s sparing use of the fantastic—here, a Daphne-esque metamorphosis—hardens rather than softens the impact of her social realism, creating a sense of traumatised dissociation. The combination of minute observation and stark nightmare imagery makes Chan’s the most shocking of the collection’s meditations on mother/daughter hostility, particularly the process by which a mother’s rage against the world’s injustices and dangers may become rage against the daughter who cannot or will not be protected.
“Mother of the Beast,” by Sylvia Schlettwein, is a hard-bitten veldt fairytale about Ingemar Jansson’s tragic love for her son, the talking jackal Waldemar, who leaves home to become a Namibian singing sensation. As he departs, he tells his mother, “Don’t wish me luck and don’t cry. I am a wild animal, after all. You shouldn’t get too attached.” Although it is tempting to read the interspecies devotion and wariness as a (rather unsettling) racial allegory, especially as the farmers who raise the jackal are white, Schlettwein seems more interested in the processes of becoming-human and becoming-jackal. Waldemar the changeling, the werewolf-in-reverse who effortlessly masters language and song, calls into question the humanity of his parents who barely speak and who become, like the land, “dry and harsh and unforgiving.” To adapt Wittgenstein, if the jackal could speak, would we understand him? If husbands and wives could speak, if parents and children could speak, would they understand each other?
Isabella Morris’ “In the Shadow of the Blue Bus” also describes a family mired in silent frustration and disappointment: “The house we lived in should have been warm and bright…But the long shadow of the 60-seater bus that stood on its rusted wheel mountings outside our front door hung over our house…” As the years pass, the father’s stubborn dream of fixing up the bus becomes as worn and brittle as the carefully saved scrap of paper on which he asks his son to calculate and recalculate the expenses. Morris unfolds her tale of disappointment slowly, revelling in fine-grained observations and telling detail. In a particularly haunting scene, the boy spends and afternoon in town at Mr. Venter’s Bike Emporium, watching an old man slowly fixing a puncture. “‘Which one do you like?’ my father asked, the question making me delirious with hope. I raised my hand, ready to point at the blue one with the long, thin seat and the high handlebars, but my father had already turned away.” The father’s generosity and attention to another’s dreams—when it finally comes—will reveal, however, the same extravagant impracticality that has haunted his whole life.
In “Beauty,” one of the collection’s most impressive pieces, Mamle Kabu confronts with witty and moving directness the intersecting oppressions that weigh on African women’s fiction. African women’s writing becomes implicated, almost unavoidably, in a constellation of questions about patriarchy, poverty, development and social change. Well, if that is the case then Kabu arms herself with a protagonist, Christie, who as a Ghanaian academic involved in a development project, is more than able to grapple with the questions that haunt many of the texts in Summoning the Rains. Women’s writing—and the education, confidence, access and resources it requires—is a development issue and a social justice issue. Christie, speaking to the village men about the women’s lack of rights, “felt the thrill, heady and terrifying, of standing alone at the crossroads of wildly diverging worlds….Having access to both but powerless to bring them together, to make either comprehend the extremity of the other.”
Kabu demonstrates that fiction can be a natural, necessary partner of activism and analysis. In this story of a ‘Women’s Focus Group Discussion’ and its repercussions, Kabu shows us moments too personal, tender and confusing to be couched in academic prose: “she tried to dismiss it as one of those many less than lucid interview moments which never made it into a report and were quickly forgotten. But it pulsed all around her, even after she had left Benin…” “Beauty” is a ringing call for women’s education, a hopeful message about the possible rapidity of change—yet at the same time Kabu very subtly reveals the ways in which the agents and tools of such change (for example, a Ghanaian female academic) may be tempted into complicity with existing power structures. Watching a roomful of women, Christie’s imagination “tried to penetrate their serenity, conjure up the unspeakable. The forcing apart of their legs, the metal blade that sliced into, sliced off, their softest parts…” Even sympathetic attempts to grasp the realities of another’s oppression may, Kabu suggests, come worryingly close to re-enacting violations. Kabu does not foreclose the possibility of understanding, however, and her story—intelligent, confident and touching—is beautiful.
If we follow Kabu’s example then, it is no insult to suggest that one of the undeniable strengths of Summoning the Rains is the extent to which it will expand readers’ understandings of contemporary African women, although we must (as Kabu also warns) be mindful of the ways in which empathy and othering can become intertwined. Summoning the Rains is a step towards the freedom, space and peace which will allow women like the twenty authors represented here to develop their voices more fully, to practice and hone their craft, gaining the confidence to stretch their writing and thinking ever further, ever deeper.