So Long a Letter

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A Year in Reading: Shobha Rao

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My reading choices this year were far more focused than they have ever been—rage has a way of focusing you, as does getting the Grace Paley Teaching Fellowship at The New School. I spent most of the year reading in preparation for my course, “Traditions in Non-Western Feminism,” and began by breaking up the regions and peoples and continents that I wanted to explore: East Asia, Africa, South America, the Indian subcontinent, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and so on. Then I started reading:

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ; “Forgive me once again if I have re-opened your wound. Mine continues to bleed.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang; “She laughed. Faintly, as if there were nothing she wouldn’t do, as if limits and boundaries no longer held any meaning for her. Or else, as if in quiet mockery.”

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli; “In the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means: to stay is the founding myth of this society.”

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez; “Made a battlefield, your body has become acutely vulnerable.”

Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur; “In the spring her entire body was covered with new leaves. It was a good spring. She learned the water’s song.”

In choosing these books for the course, I had thought to show my students (and myself) how the struggles of women in the non-Western world are unique, unexplored, silenced. We read, discussed, dissected. We asked questions of each other. Has there ever been an instance in Western literature of a woman turning into a tree? Why don’t any societies exist (outside of some regions of Tibet) in which a woman takes multiple husbands? How would one take the Terms & Conditions to which we agree whenever we sign a contract and apply them to the body, the boundary of a woman? How many orifices does a woman have?

These questions and more swirled around the room. We debated and we laughed and we cried and we shouted and sometimes we grew quiet. Quiet, quiet. If you say this word softly enough, the wind rushes back into the room, and seas surge, and you can hear the birds. You can hear the sigh of a woman who is not even in the room. Who is on a far continent. Or is she?

Toward the end of the semester, literature did what literature does. Our hearts began to beat in tune. And then we began to understand that yes, each story was unique, perhaps even unexplored, but not one women, not anywhere, was silent. They wrote landays, they pierced their bodies, they wore their abayas inside out. Silence is capitulation; it refuses to be an option for many.

As conversation deepened, as awareness grew, here is what else I realized: it had been so very naïve of me, that breaking up into regions, peoples, continents. It had been so very fustian. Every day gone by, every book read, made me see that the distinctions I had made were arbitrary, elusive. There was only the human journey, the one where we all cry out with mouths full of dirt, the one where we all wear laurels for a crown. Why the segregation? There was only us. As the astronaut Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said about his time in space, “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.”

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Resistance Blooms in Nigeria


Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions — is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior — Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society.

The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished — “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place.

In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza — a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love — we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched.

Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers — Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption — her redemption, to making him a better person.”

Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions — when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper — with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions.

If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls — when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life — it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.”

Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma.

And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.”

Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel — forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) — but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other — expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.

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