Book review: Stella Gitanoʹs "Withered Flowers"

Mapping an unknown world

Stella Gitanoʹs "Withered Flowers" is a powerful short story collection that showcases work from the very beginnings of an impressive and unusual literary career. The stories, now translated by Anthony Calderbank, centre on the lives of Sudanʹs marginalised and are elevated by bold, fearless imagery. Marcia Lynx Qualey read the book

This is Gitanoʹs second collection to arrive in English. Both were published where Gitano now lives: in Juba, South Sudan. Although Gitano is South Sudanese, she began writing as a student at the University of Khartoum. Her parents fled north in the late 1960s, during the countryʹs civil war and the author was born in Khartoum in ʹ79. She stayed there for university and also began her career there, moving south after the 2012 partition.

The stories in Withered Flowers were written between 1998 and 2002, when Gitano was still a student. At the time, she was navigating between three Arabics (Sudanese, Juba and classical) while conducting her studies in English. This early work demonstrates vibrant wordplay, fearless empathy and a deep understanding of storycraft. The author attributes the latter to the women in her family, to whom she dedicates the collection.

The translated collection is organised back-to-front, an echo of the Arabic original. The last work in the collection, "An Island the Size of a Papaya Fruit", was one of the authorʹs first. The story centres on a grandmother, whom the narrator describes as brutally ugly and overwhelmingly strong, something like a fairy-tale troll. Yet the young narrator, who clearly loves her grandmother, also shades the portrait with tender love and vulnerable detail. The grandmother has sagging breasts that make "a sound like applesauce" as they slap against her stomach.

The grandmother retells a story about her husband, who was executed by the English. The grandfather, she says, unknowingly carried his own execution order to the authorities and in her telling, the anecdote is comic, tragic and unsettling. The story won the author a Professor Ali El-Mek Award.

Shapeshifting through styles and personas

The other seven stories in this slim collection shapeshift through a range of styles and personas, as though a young Gitano were testing out the possibilities of the form. They move from hyperrealism to fantasy to folktale, with most threading a space between.

Cover of Stella Gitano's "Withered Flowers" (published by Rafiki for Printing and Publishing, Juba)
A singular and powerful part of the Arabic literary landscape: Gitano's short stories in "Withered Flowers" follow in the powerfully empathetic tradition of Muhammad Zafzaf and Yusuf Idris, with a vibrant descriptive language that is entirely her own

Characters in these stories are often determined to escape, start over, or find happiness.

Yet only in the titular story, "Withered Flowers", is a character granted lasting joy – although the joy comes while he is suffering a terminal illness.

The first tale, written in the summer of 2002, is the collectionʹs grimmest, although – like the ugly grandmother – also moving and tender.

It opens theatrically, with bullet points that list a setting, period and dramatis personae. The nameless characters in "Itʹs Getting Very Hot" are known only as "miserable wretches".

Relayed in the second person, part one of the story centres on a bedridden man dying from tuberculosis, who has bedsores but "no one knows about them yet".

From his position of unseen immobility, he observes peopleʹs lives. For him: "The reason you donʹt miss a thing that happens in the street is because basically youʹre living in the street."

While the husband is so immobile he is almost an object, the wife in the story is constantly on the move, keeping together house and home. She is described in the over-the-top yet persuasive metaphor that characterises Gitanoʹs work: "She walks over to you, her skinny body rattling about in her dress like a spoon in a glass. You can see her veins as they branch about her body from the source to the mouth and back again."

Things seem to be going badly enough for this small family. Then police come and raid the familyʹs shack. They dig up the illegal home brew from beneath the floor, pour it away and arrest the wife. At the moment she disappears, there is masterful silence between the two adults. "You know she wanted to say something but…"

The young children return and now they must look after their nameless father. If you thought things couldnʹt get worse, you were wrong: The shack they live in is bulldozed by city officials and the husband-father is left homeless and helpless. All his children can do to take care of him is hold a sheet over him as it rains.

Lost and found

The second part of "Itʹs Getting Very Hot" shifts into the womanʹs point of view. This is the first time we hear names and they come as a jumble of fellow women prisoners, "so many names that nested in her memory just as they had emerged, often mispronounced, from the mouths of the guards who shouted them out".

These, we assume, are South Sudanese women whose names cannot be pronounced by their North Sudanese jailors. When our nameless protagonist is released from prison, she is desperate to find her husband and children. In a difficult ending, she both does and doesnʹt. Characters who lose and find each other recur throughout Withered Flowers.

In "Maps of Unknown Worlds", a young brother and sister go out pickpocketing each day to make a living. The sister often assaults the dreamy younger brother. He wakes to her punch at the beginning of the story "to see the map his nightly urination has drawn. It looks like a country. One day no doubt, heʹll dream of visiting it."

The sister is paralysed from the waist down and the brother must carry her as they go about their daily pickpocketing. After an argument, the boy abandons her and spends time with other beggars. Later he returns, but she is anything but grateful to see him. 

Gitanoʹs second collection, The Return, was published one decade after her first, with a focus on families returning to South Sudan. Although Gitano has not written many books and she lives far from the metropoles of Arabic literature, her voice is a singular and powerful part of the landscape.

One hopes she continues to write in the language about which she told the New York Times in 2015: "I love the Arabic language. I am like writers who write in a language other than their own; I am no different."

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© Qantara.de 2018

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