Neyla - a novel by Kossi Komla-Ebri

NEYLA

a novel by

Kossi Komla-Ebri

 

Translated and Introduced

by Peter N. Pedroni

Madison • Teaneck

Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

 

©2004 by Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp.

All rights reserved. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the copyright owner, provided that a base fee of $10.00, plus eight cents per page, per copy is paid directly to the Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, Massachusetts 01923. [0-8386-4020-6/034 $10.00 + 8c pp, pc.]

Associated  University Presses

2010 Eastpark Boulevard

Cranbury, NJ 08512

The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials

Z39.48-1984.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Komla-Ebri, Kossi.

(Neyla. English]

Neyla: a novel / by Kossi Komla-Ebri; translated and introduced by

Peter N. Pedroni.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 0-8386-4020-6 (alk. paper)

1. Africans-Italy—Fiction, 2. Blacks-Italy—Fiction. I. Pedroni,

Peter N., 1938- II. Title.

PQ49I I.O55N49I3 2004

 853'.92—dc22                                                                                                           2003020024

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

Contents

Introduction 7
PETER N. PEDRONI  
Notes 19
Partial Bibliography of Migrant Literature in Italy 21
   
  Neyla
I 25
II 30
III 34
Epilogue 101
Glossary   105
Regarding Neyla 107
Kossi Komla-Ebri  

 

Introduction

NEYLA, BY THE TOGOLESE-ITALIAN Kossi KoMLA-EBR1, IS THE FIRST

African-Italian novel to be translated into English and published in the United States. Since its Italian publication in December 2002 it has attracted the enthusiastic attention of a broad spectrum of the Italian reading public as well as those specifically interested in migrant literature.1 A review in the Milan edition of La Repubblica compares Neyla to Elio Vittorini’s classic Conversazione in Sicilia (In Sicily) for its expression of the theme of nostalgia and return and calls Neyla “a very beautiful and necessary novel that demonstrates the existence of Italian writers of African origin that go straight to your heart.”2

Komla-Ebri was born in Togo in 1954 and is a naturalized Italian citizen. He studied medicine at the universities of Bologna and Milan and is a practicing physician at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Erba, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. In May of 2001, he became the first black Italian to stand for election to the Italian Parliament. As a candidate for the Ulivo coalition of the center-left he won a surprisingly high 36 percent of the vote in a traditionally center-right stronghold. He is also a leading force among immigrant writers in their attempts to organize themselves into a cohesive literary group. He has won several literary prizes for his short stories, including first prize for creative prose at the third annual Eks&Tra competition, held in Rimini in 1997, for his short story, “Quando attraversero' il fiume.” (When I cross the river).3 He has recently published Imbarazzismi (embaracisms), a collection of brief narrative sketches that illustrate examples of latent Italian racism.4

Komla-Ebri is indeed representative of a new development in Italian cultural history. Although Italy began the twentieth century as a country of emigration, it has entered the twenty-first century as a country of immigration attracting millions of people from almost every part of the world. The reasons for this reversal of role include current Italian economic prosperity, a relatively flexible immigration policy, and geographic proximity in the case of Africa, the Near East and the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, Italy’s birth rate has become one of the lowest in the world. The combination of these phenomena has resulted in a significant demographic change with consequential social and economic tensions. Nevertheless, Italy’s immigration experience differs from the French and English experiences in that relatively few of Italy’s immigrants come from former Italian colonies. It also differs from the African-American experience since Africans migrate to Italy of their own free will. One manifestation of these differences is that in a relatively very short period of time a body of literature has emerged in Italy to express the immigrant experience, presenting images of Africa and Italy that often differ from those created from a Western point of view.

Komla-Ebri is one of the many immigrant writers who have emerged in Italy in recent years. Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, including Armando Gnisci in Italy and Graziella Parati in America, have been studying the evolution of migrant literature in Italy since its inception.5 The first manifestations of this new literature were autobiographical statement’s transcribed into Italian by a collaborating  Italian  writer. The best known example is that of the Senegalese Pap Khouma, whose novel Io venditore di elefanti (I am an elephant salesman) was dictated in French and transcribed into Italian by Oreste Pivetta in 1990.6 Parati discusses this collaboration in her very instructive introduction to Mediterranean Crossroads, Migration Literature in Italy, an anthology of migrant short stories in English translation.7 An element common to many of these statements is the image of Italy as a land of wealth. “Italy, at that time, was our America” states the first person narrator in the Ethiopian Maria Viarengo’s “Shirshir N’demma."8  Italy rich ... The Italian dogs eat more good than childs of my town” says the narrator of the Brazilian Cristiana de Caldas Brito’s “Ana de Jesus” in an English approximation of the immigrant street Italian of the original.9 Almost as common, how- ever, is the desire for return to the native country, as stated by the Somalian Shirin Ramzanali Fazel in “Far Away from Mogadishu": “what is common to all of us is a deep nostalgia for our country and the desire to go back.”10

In Komla-Ebri’s writings, as well as in those of other immigrant writers, we encounter a gamut of situations and attitudes regarding the immigrant experience. Many authors express disappointment with Italy and with their personal experience there: “I often saw homeless people, forced to scrounge a place to sleep, something to eat” (the Moroccan Mohamed Bouchane’s “Call Me Ali”); 11 “Idris told me that he could be ten, twenty, forty, sixty years old and many shopkeepers will address him calmly as ‘tu’ in the informal.”12  But there are also favorable impressions and pleasant experiences: “It must be our lucky day. Everyone seems so friendly and kind...  A Christmas party at the church of San Francesco….   Christians through one entrance, Muslims through another. In fact, they had pre- pared two separate cafeterias with different foods. A bountiful feast”;13 ‘There’s always someone who comes to our defense”;” 14 I would always go to the same greengrocer’s, where there was a very nice woman ….[whose] smile when she saw me for the first time and understood my difficulties filled my heart with emotion” (the Palestinian Salwa Salem’s “With Wind in My Hair.”)15

Bouchane’s story reveals the problems faced by an immigrant in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that he already speaks standard Italian. Khouma’s experience is that of the much more difficult and sadly typical life of the ambulant street vendor. The Tunisian Mohsen Melliti’s story, “Pantanella,” is based on the facts involving the immigrant occupation of an abandoned pasta factory. Viarengo expresses the challenges of living in Italy after growing up in Ethiopia as the daughter of an Italian father. Salem’s Italy is a refuge after forced exile from Palestine and an unpleasant sojourn in Austria. Brito’s protagonist expresses her unhappiness and her desire to go home despite Italy’s material well-being. The difficulties of entering Italy are expressed by the Syrian Yousef Wakkas in “I am a Morokkan” and by the Senegalese Saidou Moussa Ba (with Alessandro Micheletti) in “Hamadi’s Promise.”

In his short story, “La mia tradizione in valigia” (My tradition in a suitcase), written directly in Italian and published in Memorie in valigia, the Ugandan Sinan B. Wasswa expresses the sense of exclusion that he feels in relation to the European world.16 He talks about the “white circus of the knights of the round table, the stock from which descended a noble people, of transparent heart and spirit pure as snow.”  And he goes on to say that “you get to enter only when you become a full-fledged member of the clan, in every minute detail.  No one has ever yet gotten a foot in from the outside.” 17

He uses the term “extracircolari” (outside the club), with ironic reference  to  the  exclusionary  Italian  political  term  “extracomunitari”  (outside  the  European  Union—i.e.,  persons  from  countries  that  do not belong to the European Union), to define,  by  contrast,  his  own African world where the dominating law is “equality for all.”18 Wasswa’s text seems to suggest a European need that Africa remain different and unknown in order to justify Europe’s own socioeconomic exclusiveness.19 All those issues, among others, are also included in Neyla and other texts by Komla-Ebri.

The most important work available in English on migrant literature in Italy is ItaliAfrica: Bridging Continents and Cultures edited by Sante Matteo.20.  Based on an Italy-Africa symposium held at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, this volume brings together the works of geographers, classicists, historians, political scientists, economists, sociologists, and theater and film critics, as well as italianists from three continents. The subdivisions of this work indicate its depth: Geography and History, Politics, Economics, and Sociology, The Legacy of Italian Colonialism, Africa and Africans in Italian Theater, Africa and Africans in Italian Cinema, Africa and Africans in Italian Literature, African Immigrant Literature in Italy.

The book culminates with an interview of Komla-Ebri in which he ex- plains that, while he is by definition an immigrant, he rejects the label of African-Italian writer, preferring to be considered simply a writer who uses the Italian language, and to be judged accordingly. “Now it's obvious and inevitable that one talks about one’s own life and one’s own experiences, but through these experiences one hopes to find something that will be universal.”21 In still another interview to be included in a scholastic edition of his works he gives an eloquent definition of what it means to be a migrant, concluding that “only if he succeeds in assuming in that critical space of transverse identity and in joining together past and present while giving coherence to his multifaceted identification, will he be able to enjoy the richness of becoming a citizen of the world.”22

The autobiographical narrator of Neyla is indeed a migrant and the novel’s inspiration and fundamental theme is nostalgia and return, a theme expressed throughout literary history from Homer to Dante to migrant writers of today, including the literature of Italian emigrants to the United States and elsewhere, studied extensively by scholars such as Fred Gardaphè, Paolo Giordano, and Anthony Tamburri.23 This theme is a manifestation of a basic human dilemma. Mankind suffers from two op-

posing stimuli: the one that makes us seek a better life through change, exploration, and migration; the other that makes us yearn for stability, identity, and security. Because of these opposing stimuli, the static person suffers from a lack of self-fulfilment, while the migrant person suffers nostalgia and a need to return. In Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia (In Sicily), Silvestro is a Sicilian who had migrated to northern Italy and feels compelled to return to his homeland where he undergoes a spiritual purification. In Cesare Pavese’s La luna e I falò (The Moon and the Bonfires), another classic Italian twentieth century novel, Anguilla returns to Italy after twenty years in the United States. His status, or lack thereof, is similar to that of the protagonist of Luigi Pirandello’s masterpiece drama, Enrico IV (Henry IV), who, after twenty years of real and then feigned belief that he is the medieval emperor Henry IV, is forced to return to everyday reality. In Komla-Ebri’s words, the returning migrant is destined to discover “with a deceiving fit of jealousy and disillusionment that ‘they’ have continued to live without him, and his place, like in an abandoned field, neglected by its proprietor, has been invaded by others.” 24

The narrative structure of Neyla is one side of a dialogue between the narrator and the female protagonist Neyla, reminiscent of Vasco Pratolini’s novel Cronaca familiare (Family Chronicle), in which the narrator speaks directly to his now dead brother. In Neyla, the narrator addresses himself directly to the female protagonist, Neyla, as he recalls their experiences together during his vacation in Africa after five years in Europe. By appearing not to speak to the reader the narrator avoids the didactic tone characteristic of much Italian migrant literature and some of Komla-Ebri’s earlier stories in which expressions like “in a society like ours” and “in our countries” revealed the assumption of a non-African reader and the author’s attempt to educate his reader about the customs and rituals of Africa. In Neyla, the representation of African culture appears to be casual because the author creates the illusion that the reader is simply listening in on what the narrator imagines saying to Neyla. On the other hand, the use of African proverbs, effectively translated into Italian, continue to pepper the text of Neyla as they did Komla-Ebri’s earlier stories. However, in the novel, they are used characteristically by the various friends and relatives that the narrator talks about to Neyla as he recalls their experiences together in Africa. Similarly, the oral storytelling quality, reminiscent of the traditional African griot and prevalent in the earlier stories, is maintained in certain episodes of the novel, such as the visit to the narrator’s witch doctor relative. Nevertheless, the use of the second person, as opposed to the more common first or third person, as the dominant narrative voice, creates an atmosphere of private intimacy, which, in turn, creates a more effective illusion of reality.

On one level, Neyla is a love story, but as Komla-Ebri himself explains in “Regarding Neyla”, at the end of the novel, “it is above all the schematic representation of my love for Africa and a vision of the Africa of today. Africa is Neyla and Neyla is Africa” (107). In fact, she embodies the conflict between traditional and modern Africa and as such, serves as a means by which the narrator recovers his own adjusted African identity. “Thank you, Neyla, for having reconnected me to myself, to my people and to my childhood” (59). But as Remo Cacciatori notes in the afterword of the Italian publication of the novel, just as Neyla has been used and abandoned by a European man, so “the Africa that Neyla represents is not an idyllic land: it has experienced Western exploitation and is still living out this seduction. Nevertheless it is exactly this Africa that the narrator, with a sense of realism that goes beyond the allegorical, loves, struggling between desire and repulsion, acceptance and the utopian will for change.” 25

Neyla is a treasure of experiences recorded through the eyes of an African narrator who is at once a participant and an observer, the latter due to the fact that he has come home after five years in Europe. The natural story line exposes the reader to middle-class city life, urban slums, an adventurous trip to the hinterland, and life in a village, including the work of a witch doctor.  His particular status also legitimizes comparisons between Africa and Europe. Thus, we have comparisons between African and European cities, African and European medical practices, African and European family relations, African and European reciprocal stereotyping and prejudices. And there is certainly no lack of criticism for both continents.

On still another level Komla-Ebri expresses lyrically his situation as the classic migrant, living between two cultures, or as his narrator puts it, “no longer totally African but not European either” (59). He expresses the good feeling he experiences by being back in Africa, but at his first exposure co some peculiarly Togolese cultural rituals, like kissing the lips of spinster aunts, he realizes how much he has changed. But, in the process of his visit and through his relationship with Neyla, he discovers that he is still emotionally African. Most importantly, through Neyla, and therefore through his reattachment to Africa, he discovers his ability to cry, and in a central passage that reveals the author’s strong sense of lyricism he expresses all the things over which for years he would have liked to cry, from the personal: “the oppressive anguish that held me in its grip”; to the societal: “Africa, always on the edge of misery over my people whose lives I shared and felt so closely as to break my heart” (59, 60).

The difficulty of living between two cultures is also a theme of his short story “Mal di ...” whose title plays ironically on the expression “maI d’Africa” in reference to the nostalgia that some Europeans experience when they are back in Europe. Here instead it is the “mal d’Europa” experienced by the female narrator when she reflects back on her life in Italy. In the process, the reader is exposed to images of Italy that reflect the African point of view and contrast with the usual stereotypes. For example: “I think that here [in Italy], the rhythm of life is such that time washes away feelings, devouring life and people”; and “this country, this fog, aren’t for me; I miss the sun, the village festivals, the weather, people laughing, living together with the people.” But after she has established her life back in Africa, she recalls positive images of Italy and tries to recreate them in Africa. Thus, she and her friend go out for “an aperitif at the 'Gattobar,' a pizza ‘da Silvia,’ a movie with Mastroianni and Sofia Loren, and listen to the songs of Baglioni, Ramazzotti or Zucchero.”26

Komla-Ebri is a migrant writer inasmuch as he left the country in which he was born to settle in a different country. This fact does not distinguish him from the countless millions of human beings who have done the same thing since the beginning of time and continue to do so today; Indeed “migration” is a fundamental condition of the human race. It is synonymous which movement, change, and therefore with progress. Migration enriches the human race in many ways› from territorial exploration and the diffusion of ideas between cultures, to the challenge of competition that newcomers bring to the status quo. Migration is not defined solely by political boundaries. A migrant is also someone who moves from one geographical area to another, from one society to another, from one social class to another. Furthermore, migration can be mental and of the imagination.

For example, in Komla-Ebri’s novella entitled “All’incrocio dei sentieri” (At the crossroads), Abra, the female narrator, migrates from her native village to the big city. She tells the story of the events that led up to her decision to leave home and the subsequent curse put upon her by her mother. The reader is thus exposed to a multitude of peculiarly Togolese cultural traditions, including a family assembly, which is called to settle a question of burial rights but unexpectedly has also to consider a marriage proposal. But the reader never has the feeling that this is the reason that the novella was written. On the contrary, the reader is more impressed by the universality of the story of Abra, who is torn by her inclination to respect the traditions of her society and her desire to marry the man she loves in spite of her mother’s objections. It is at once culturally specific and universal. "I was about to take a big step, to leave for good my village that had seen me born, grow up, play, laugh, cry, dance, and fa)1 in love. I was leaving my innocence, my childhood, and my carefree feeling. I was leaving my mother and my best friend that I would never have again. I was leaving a part of me in Ablomé."27 It would suffice to substitute a different place name for Ablomé so that these thoughts and emotions could be ex- pressed by any migrant, in any place, at any time.

Writers who live in a country where a language different from their own is used must make a fundamental decision, whether to write in their native language or in the language of their host country, Komla-Ebri’s native language is Ewe, a language spoken in parts of Ghana and Benin as well as in Togo, and his first acquired language was French. However, since he lives in Italy he has made a conscious decision to write in Italian. Therefore, to the extent that it is necessary to categorize writers on a national basis, he can be considered an Italian writer. Similarly, Italo Svevo is considered an Italian writer even though he thought in the dialect of Trieste and conducted business in German. Indeed this is a common phenomenon among Italian writers from Dante to Manzoni to Pirandello, for whom a regional dialect, and not Italian, was their native language. The result has always been an enrichment of the Italian language through the infusion of new words and expressions. In addition to Ewe words such as fo (brother or husband), (destiny), and yovo (white person), Komla-Ebri enriches the Italian language by the introduction of new proverbs, greeting formulae, and narrative rhythm.

Nevertheless, Komla-Ebri prefers being considered and judged simply as a writer who writes in Italian because he lives in Italy. Furthermore, he rejects the notion that he is writing “for his people” any more than he is practicing medicine “for his people.” He is fundamentally a lyricist who measures the success of his work by its effectiveness in provoking emotional reactions in his readers: “If I, with what I write, succeed in making my reader experience an emotion, that is an excellent result because I have succeeded in crossing the threshold of his/her soul and in touching upon those sensations that we have in common.” And it is exactly in that notion of feelings that we all have in common that the sociopolitical message of his narrative lies: “ And if it’s an immigrant that is writing, it can be useful inasmuch as it causes others to realize that immigrants experience the same sensations that everybody experiences, and think and dream like everyone else.”28

While the difficulty of cross-cultural conflict is a basic theme in Komla-Ebri’s work, he expresses this difficulty with a large dose of optimism for the future in his short story “Sognando una favola" (Dreaming a Fable). The third-person narrative voice is situated two generations into the future. The African grandfather and Italian grandmother, who live in Africa, use the historical past tense to tell stories to their incredulous grandchildren, who have come from Italy with their parents for Christmas vacation. They talk about the way things used to be: “Mixed couples in Italy were considered strange because it was something new for people”; “I saw parents cut off relations with their daughters because they were guilty only of being in love with a black man”; “We weren’t all ready to accept the differences, to welcome diversity in our midst.” By contrast, the world of the grandchildren is one of cultural harmony: “They were really happy to belong to worlds at once so different and so similar.” The grandfather can now tell his grandchildren that, “beyond our differences, we are first of all citizens of the Earth.”29

Komla-Ebri suggests that a basic obstacle to cultural harmony is ignorance, even among those who might considers themselves open-minded and well intentioned. For example, the image of African children with swollen bellies and hands extended begging for money, undoubtedly created and constantly reinforced with good intentions, inevitably places African children in a position of inferiority in the eyes of Italian children, and should be balanced with positive images of African children. In his frequent visits to schools, Komla-Ebri likes to show toys that are hand- made by African children from discarded materials and then to challenge Italian children to build similar toys with similar materials. In addition to the ecological lesson, the Italian children learn to admire the African children for being able to accomplish a task that is not so easy for the Italian children. He also believes that Italian schools are insufficiently prepared to handle the reality of the new and changing Italian demographics. In response to a question that he is often asked, “if I have a Moroccan child in class should I concentrate on Italian culture or Moroccan cultured?” he answers, “in my opinion, neither one nor the other. The pupils should be educated in essential values, the values of human rights. Then there will be the peculiarities that distinguish the richness of each person’s culture.” Furthermore, he claims that the mass media do nothing to promote cultural harmony, and, on the contrary, make things worse by depersonalizing immigrants which headlines like, “Illegal immigrants kill,” without specifying the names of the individuals involved. He argues, “treating immigrants in that way results in penalizing all of them. It ends up where you’re afraid to walk on certain streets because people look at you like "one of them” 30

On  an  intellectual  level,  a  review  of  canonical  Italian  fiction  of the twentieth century reveals a surprising absence of African characters. This absence may be explained by the preference on the part of writers to write about what they are most familiar with. Some exceptions found in the work of Alberto Moravia only serve to underline the fact that Africans are unknown and therefore exotic and unexplainable. For example, the three travel books and one novel that resulted from Alberto Moravia’s extensive travels in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s reveal the author’s apparent need for Africa to be unknown, mysterious, and different. He often refers negatively to modernized cities as “Europeanized” or “Americanized” and positively to undeveloped areas as the “real Africa.” He also shows little interest in contemporary African writers whose works might serve to diminish his sense of inexplicability regarding Africa. Instead, his interest is in the primitive beauty of a dangerous and irrational nature. In his novel, La donna leopardo (Leopard Woman), “woman,” incarnated in the ambiguous, mysterious, irrational and unexplainable wife of the protagonist, is a   reciprocal metaphor for “Africa,” as explained by Giuseppe Stellardi.31 Neyla is also a reciprocal metaphor for Africa, but she is, by contrast, direct, sensitive, caring and explainable. In fact, Neyla serves as a means by which the narrator recovers his own readjusted African identity. While the novel is highly lyrical in tone it is also a means by which the author reveals a less exotic and more familiar Africa, one that is more readily accessible to Italy and the Western world.

Certainly,   Komla-Ebri   expresses specifically African   cultural differences, but more importantly, he expresses human emotions common to Africans and Europeans. Even in a short story like “La manif” (Demonstration), which might otherwise be a journalistic account of a peaceful demonstration turned violent, what is really important  to the author are the psychological reactions of the narrator who makes this observation, which is certainly more universal than peculiar: “It’s strange how the human mind is made: that grasping onto or recalling some futile events,  like the sudden opening of a security valve, a surge of thoughts that help to keep away the anguish of a drama, of the unbearable.” ”

Komla-Ebri writes about what he knows best: Togo remembered and revisited, Italy as his country of adoption, cross-cultural diversity and similarity, the challenges of assimilation and retention of cultural identify, and the struggle of the individual within these contexts. Each of these contexts, characteristic of today’s migrant writers, are reassumed in the universal theme of nostalgia and return which is the inspiration and theme of Neyla. With this theme and through the use of various narrative strategies, Komla-Ebri has achieved, in Neyla, a universal lyric quality that transcends the categorization of African-Italian and places him in the mainstream of Italian and world literature.

NEYLA

IT WAS SUMMER AND I WAS COMING HOME FROM EUROPE ON VACATION.

It had been five years since I had last been home and, like all the other times, I was wondering how I would manage to readapt myself to the changes and how I would get along with my younger brothers, who in the meantime had grown up.

That afternoon, two days after my arrival, I had gone to the office of my brother Basile, who had become an agronomic engineer, to see what kind of an atmosphere he worked in and most of all to understand what kind of work he did.

When I arrived, you were there at the reception desk with your slightly tinned glasses, with your petite face and brilliant skin, and your hair pulled back on the nape of your neck. What struck mc immediately was that stinging, impudent look of yours, the way you spoke French with a metropolitan cadence, and the particular odor of that perfume of yours.

When I asked you for the engineer Ameko Basile, you replied that I should wait a moment and, from behind my sunglasses, I found myself glancing at you, to observe your beautifully long and slender legs that you were stretching out beneath the desk, You, on the other hand, didn’t con- sider me worthy of an interested glance.

Basile came in all content and introduced me, not without a touch of pride in his voice, as his older brother who was studying in Europe. You replied with a pinch of insolence, “You can see from his sunglasses and from the pipe that he has in his mouth that he has come from Europe!”

And then you started laughing with that silvery sound that, still today, reverberates in my mind.

I have to admit, looking back now, that what won me over right away about you, was your way of not letting yourself be intimidated or overly influenced by events or situations. In general, our girls either close up right away like a clam or become clearly aggressive and scorbutic, or else they blissfully expose themselves to compliments regarding their name and titles. For you on the other hand, everything was a game, everything became relative, you seemed to have cut through the bark of an affirmed and secure man who went around showing off his certainties, to my weaknesses, my limitations and my insecurities. I felt my soul bared before your gaze.

I went away, a little stunned and a little astonished that I (who had the reputation of being a pretty witty guy) had been unable to find the words to retort to your self-indulging irony. I left with my brother, who was talking to me, still absorbed in my thoughts when he stopped short and said, “Hey, aren’t you listening to me?”

Seeing my puzzled look he added, “I would have bet on it!”

“On what?” I replied, and he explained, “Neyla made an impression on you.”

“Who?” I asked, even though I had already understood that he was talking about you; then I added, “The Parisian with her airs?” with a voice that wanted to be neutral and teasing ... he started laughing and didn’t know that I had already been bewitched.

On the way home, I tried to get you out of my mind, by concentrating on the organization of the homecoming party that I wanted to have with my brothers and cousins with music, dancing, refreshments, and sandwiches.

Then came the time to draw up the guest list.  Each of them would want to invite his or her boyfriend or girlfriend to make the evening more pleasant. I, who was the guest of honor, didn’t have anyone to invite. I hadn’t left behind a girlfriend at home because I had never believed in sentimental relationships at a distance of thousands of kilometers. What hap- pens inevitably is that you write in the state of mind of a precise moment and the person who gets the letter understands it in a different way.

Then in the time it takes to get the reply, you’ve already gotten beyond that moment and are in a different state of mind. The telephone, because of the cost, gives you just enough time to get into an argument or to cause a misunderstanding. You barely have time to make up and it’s already time to hang up.

That evening after supper, Basile and I went to get a cool beer at the bar near our house.

Coming out from the courtyard of our house, we suddenly found ourselves immersed in the hubbub of cars with their blinding white lights, the darting in and out of motor scooters and the sticky dust that they stirred up. We walked almost up against the wall so as not to get run over, since those streets have no sidewalks. Upon turning the corner, the darkness of night swallowed us up and wrapped us in a mantle giving me the pleasant sensation of being invisible, perhaps because my eyes were unable to distinguish the features of the people passing by. My brother, on the other hand, like everybody else, had developed something like a sixth sense that enabled him to recognize the people chat we met from their silhouettes together with their way of walking.

We sat down at a table in a discreet corner in the semidarkness of the veranda and each of us ordered a big bottle of nice cool lager and a couple of spicy snacks to inflame our palates. There was such torrid heat that whatever I threw down seemed to gush out through my pores. It was a real delight being there in the roar of the music that was going at full volume, there in the half-light, being at home, anonymous among so many others, with no one looking you over, without feeling like a rare beast, as  in Europe. I could have started shouting or dancing and no one would have stared at me in a strange way. Yes, I was home. After all, it is others who are the drama of “diversity,” because it is they who mirror you as “diverse” and they send back to you in some way that reflection of you which some- times you can’t even recognize.

All of a sudden Bé (that was the nickname I gave to my brother), snapped me out of my thoughts, “What do you think of Neyla?”

“What do you mean what do I thinks” I heard myself answer  him with  a hard and defensive voice, while I felt my face heat up stupidly and  I added even more stupidly, “Did you make it with her?”

From Bé’s astonished silence I realized that I had offended him and readopted a more easy going tone of voice.

“You know, I hardly saw her and I didn't have a chance to talk with her, but from that little that I heard, she must have lived in the Parisian area.” “You’re wrong brother, Neyla has never lived in France, she’s never been out of the country.”

“And  yet," I resumed, “her composure and her way of speaking are typically French; she seems like a white woman tinted black.”

“So you don’t like her,” concluded Bé.

“I didn’t say that. I have to admit she has class. She seems to be a girl that is very refined and sure of herself, maybe too much so,” I said.

“So you like her,” he retorted. “I didn’t say that either.

"And yet I’m convinced that she’s the type of girl that you like.”

“Oh really?” And I started laughing in amusement and added, “At least, my dear brother, give me the time to get to know her.”

I was enjoying this concern on the part of my brother to get me at all costs to settle down, a concern that I knew was shared by all the rest of my family, for the fact that at twenty-five years of age I still didn’t have a fiancée. They also lived in fear of the idea that I would end up tied down to a white woman in Europe.

Marrying a white woman for them meant erecting a definitive wall be- tween us. It wasn’t racism. It was just that I represented a lot for them: I was the one who could make their dreams come true, could give them a hand materially to come out of the tunnel of misery. I was the one who could pull up the rest of the family, giving my brothers the chance to pursue their studies, perhaps as my guests, in Europe. I was the fofogan (oldest brother) and that meant not only privileges but also, and above all, duties.

I was surely the one who could some day build another floor over the paternal homestead, to gain respect in the neighbourhood and make them feel more important. I was, for all of them, an important investment, a passport to the future and the retirement fund for their old age. If instead I was to marry a white woman, “Goodbye to all those cows, milk, and eggs”

Marrying a white woman meant always speaking French in her presence or in any case some foreign language, telephoning before arriving at dinner time or else waiting to be invited, or else leaving before meal time, so as not to create excessive tensions or so as not to undergo the humiliation of waiting in the living room while my wife and I would be eating.

Marrying a white woman meant bringing in  a  “stranger”  who would not appreciate our  customs  and  traditions,  who  would  not  be  accustomed to this heat, to the flies, to the mosquitoes, to the smells, to the noises,  to the plethora of relatives, the real ones and the parasites, to the reality of always being mixed up in the problems of the family, from the frivolous ones having to do with somebody’s touchiness to  those  that  were  more  or less serious.

Marrying a white woman was for them like losing me. It would be an act of major betrayal). What they couldn’t imagine was that, deep down, perhaps I had become more individualistic and egotistical than the whiles themselves. Yes, for them it would have been a real drama.

The end of a phrase that Bé was saying to me, brought me back again to reality: “… invite her to the party. Hey are you listening co me?”

“What?”

“If you want to, invite Neyla to the party,” my brother replied.

“You really don’t give up, do you? I can see that you’re really hung up on this,” I responded without adding anything else.

He took my words as an acceptance because he didn’t talk about it any more for the rest of the evening, while we were gulping down the third bottle of beer.

Instead we talked about our dreams for the future, about what our political leaders should do or could do to make a contribution to the future of our country. The two of us together could do great things! In other words, at the fourth beer we were both pretty happy, all ready to remake the world. It really was nice to be home again!

 

Search