Reading the Africa39 Anthology: “Rag Doll” by Okwiri Oduor

Over the next 4 months, we’ll be reviewing the stories in the Africa39 anthology and linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. This first review is of Kenyan Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor’s short story, “Rag Doll.”

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.

The next review will be of “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko.


Okwiri Oduor’s fascinating novella, “The Dream Chasers” begins with a startling recollection:

A week before Mama threw the butcher knife at me, she and I sat at the veranda, sorting pishori rice that she was to cook while I was at church.

The Dream Chasers revolves around the relationship between mother, Mama, and daughter, Lulu. The novella progresses from this moment of disrupted domesticity and household ritual, it begins at this moment of tension and maximum conflict: a mother’s attempt to kill her daughter. Mama is mentally unstable, she has “her episodes. They were back.” Lulu “didn’t see them coming, although I should have. They crept on the balls of their feet and threw acorns on the windows of Mama’s mind.” Within this intimate domestic environment, mother and daughter live and work alongside each other, making each other’s lives possible. Lulu, always grounded, shoulders the responsibility of keeping their lives sane. The world beyond them is slowly imploding during and after a fraught election period that sends Kenya into what is, but is not officially acknowledged as, a civil war. By the end of the novella, Lulu has found a love she almost lost in Muchai, her childhood friend. Her mother, who abandoned her home and daughter after the inciting incident, is reluctant to return. Muchai, who was thought dead, finds Lulu alone and they consummate their love. If a literary story, as the joke goes, is one which ends with the someone waiting for something, then The Dream Chasers ends with Lulu waiting not so much for her mother to return, but for the new life that she must begin: the daughter separated from her mother and joined with a man.

Okwiri Oduor’s Africa39 Anthology short-story “Rag doll”, returns to the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship, re-imagining and reworking it in important and beautiful ways. Rag doll combines the surreal and the childlike. The world in it is uncanny, and the story itself has the feel (or at least some elements) of a fairy-tale. It begins, however, in a sublime girlish harmony.

Tu Tu and Mama wear matching lace dresses with bows sewn on to the back. They each try on a wide-brimmed hat that they found fluttering in the dust devil outside their window, and when it falls over their faces and covers their eyes, Mama pulls at the latch and tosses the hat back to the dust devil.

The fairy-tale is a world of magic, nature, play — it offers trajectories by which the imagination might take flight to examine or challenge mores, and a dynamic space in which beings can transform and the imagination is transformed in making new worlds possible. The uncanny aspect of the fairy-tale also comprises its threat: the world is unstable and unreliable, reality is not quite safe, there may be monsters or other malevolent creatures lurking, tricksters are at work, nothing can be trusted — whatever the case, the world beyond the home (or alternatively, within the home) is one in which powerful, mobile forces embodied in nature, the elements, and animals are at work.

The dust devil in Rag doll is one of these forces, potentially malevolent, but in this case seemingly benign. The dust devil brings with it arbitrary objects, trash mostly, and Mama can speak to it to make demands, or perhaps even has the power to direct it:

With her hands on her hips, Mama says to the dust devil, ‘Next time, bring us something we can use, you hear?’

Tu Tu imagines the dust-devil’s many returns and the useful objects it might bring. When it returns it “has brought them a porcelain jar with a chip broken off its mouth,” and they have a use for it. (Here, this reviewer must note the hilariously playful way in which, in The Dream Chasers, Lulu and Muchai take to imagining what the ethnicities of various natural objects might be, including, of course, that of the wind. For Oduor, nature is always alive and very close to human life forms.) In fact, the home which Solea and Tu Tu have made is one of found and recycled or repurposed objects, things that have been thrown away.

Their house, too. It had been thrown away in the dumpster behind the market square, and they put it on their backs and climbed the hill.

They settle in an arbitrary place, simply where they finish singing a song while they are carrying their found house. We get a sense that the world beyond is one in which profound production and waste are underway. Barely used products are discarded and thrown about into the wind or into the garbage. It becomes possible, natural even, to scrounge and scavenge and hustle one’s way into existing. This is the world of “vagabond capitalism” wherein economic production is trans-nationalised. But “social reproduction — the daily and generational maintenance of individuals, households, and communities — remains largely place-bound.” (Ferguson) The vagabond is highly mobile, and has no fixed home, is unsettled, irresponsible, and leads a disreputable life. Capitalism, in its vagabond form, produces human vagabonds as well as “neglected and undersupported landscapes” (Katz) which become the sites of social reproduction, of home-making, of household-making, of day-to-day living, of loving. It is in such a landscape that Solea and Tu Tu find themselves.

In such neglected landscapes, daily survival is often threatened. Improvisational and innovative ways of interacting with one’s environment become central to survival. Solea, the mother, finds her means of survival in a sense of play, that of her daughter, Tu Tu, and her childlike sensibility and exploration of the world. Lulu’s mother might have taken up a realist’s hard-nosed approach to life to counter her mentally instability, that is, by clutching at a reality which she felt was always slipping away. Solea, however, lets go of her grip on reality and engages directly with the fantastic and the jocose and, “[t]heir bodies are hard at play/work, manipulating both nature and the detritus of human society.” (Ferguson)

In the dying light, they race each other across the yard, fireflies crackling in their hair, lighting their path. Tu Tu slips on a moist snail and she clutches at the hem of Mama’s frock so that Mama slips too, and the two of them crumple down in a heap, laughing and sputtering until their panties are soaked and their tresses are filled with dead grass and earthworms.

Africa39 author, Okwiri Oduor.

At home they go about various domestic rituals involving food preparation and the maintenance of household items. Outside the home, they roam carefree and when it is dark, “Tu Tu and Mama walk home slowly, exhausted from their swimming, drowsily chewing on stalks of grass.” When they visit a burial ground, Mama rescues a stone angel after Tu Tu asks if the stone angel is dead.

Mama says. ‘We have to take her home with us, Tu Tu. She is lonely.’

They imaginatively combine fantasy and physicality in a way of knowing and being that is decidedly that of childhood. Survival and fantasy appear as “indistinguishable affects” (Berlant). In Oduor’s story the gap between adulthood and childhood is closed in order to imagine new possibilities for female life. The story creates a space in which the adult can identify with/as the child and the child as/with the adult.

In this closed gap of adulthood-childhood, Oduor creates a powerful image of the mother-daughter couple and that too is imagined differently than it is in The Dream Chasers, and with such intimacy that mother and daughter are individuals yet together as each other. These shifts in subjectivity allow a fusing of the child and mother’s desire. When Solea asks Tu Tu if she would like the milkman, Kinu, to be her father, the terms by which consent was produced in The Dream Chasers (Lulu, against her mother’s ethnicised wishes, takes Muchai as her lover) are reversed: When Tu Tu says yes, she remains in the room, she watches the two adults coupling, and is a part of their coupling as Tu Tu’s desire is mobilised through her mother and the consent which Tu Tu has to give.

This domestic space that Solea and Tu Tu create (as do Lulu and Mama in The Dream Chasers) is the constructed space for feminine being. The stone angel, a woman, who they name and whose arm they repair, is brought into this space which, until Kinu is invited into it, remains exclusively for women. It is a space of safety, one in which they can recuperate and heal, nurture and nourish one another.

Reading the story, we feel that Tu tu and Solea, in this space of feminine being, and as a mother-daughter couple, might have magical powers, that Solea, if she is not mad, might be a witch. Madness and witchery are terms that have tended to be applied to women whom society rejects and the two designations at times overlap or even coincide. Because they are rejected by society, their spaces are always threatened (or haunted) by society. When Solea tells Tu tu that “they don’t want us here,” she shows her daughter the skinned and dead cat nailed to their door (presumably by “the chief and his cronies”. The milkman, Kinu, denies any culpability but this reviewer is disinclined to trust him after witnessing him being peeping-Tom as Solea and Tu Tu shared a milk-bath). The dead cat is a warning or imprecation or both at once. The magic of mother-daughter is highlighted and threatened: cats, in supersition, have half their bodies in the world of the dead/spirit and the other half in the world of the living. The people (the men of the surrounding/nearby village) are afraid of this pair of renegade women who live together, independent, continuously re-imagining their own world and circumstances outside of and beyond the approval of the society around them. If there are many ways to skin a cat then Solea gets the message: mother and daughter will likely be killed if they continue to live as they do, but there are other ways to solve the problem, one of which is by accepting a man into their domestic space, in Solea submitting her female body to his masculine use, and normalising herself and her life in the eyes of society, represented by the chief and his cronies.

Solea’s refusal to be subjected, until the end of the story, reminds us of the power of the bonds of female ancestries that are always under threat and must always be renewed if women are to survive. The deep engagement and intimate interaction that mother-daughter have with nature, as well as the flickers of magical realism in Solea’s representation of the world, lends a mythic quality to the story. The feminine mythical “contributes to a sense that there is a representable mother–daughter relation that is constituted through a shared relationship to the past.” The conflict, imposed externally by a threatening world, is to sustain the relation, the feminine ancestries. We arrive at the end of the story wondering what the fate of mother-daughter will be.

"The Dream Chasers" by Okwiri Oduor.

“The Dream Chasers” by Okwiri Oduor. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

Whereas in The Dream Chasers, mother and daughter seem to be on the verge of destroying each other, in Rag doll they live healthily with each other and prior to any mediation (Tu Tu, exists as a daughter prior to the existence of her father whom she gets to choose). “To them [mother-daughter], nature is a preferred environment; the ever-fertile earth is their place, and mother and daughter co-exist happily there. They, like nature, are fertile and nurturing, but this does not prevent them from having a human relationship between them. This relationship depends upon the establishment of female lines of descent but not solely.” (Irigaray) In such feminine coexistence of mother and child, the mother is not so much raising the child as they are raising each other in what Oduor alludes to in The Dream chasers when Mama says, “[s]illy is the daughter who teaches her mother how to give birth.” Mama’s rejection of the possible (and “natural”) mother-daughter unity, leads to her undoing and perhaps, in Oduor’s conception of it, her mental instability. Solea, however, does not suffer that fate. Her fate is to be forced to take a man as a lover and designate him her daughter’s father.

After Kinu is done having sex with Solea, she turns away and when he asks her to tell him her name, she describes injuries, an embodied genealogy of all she has had to suffer and continues to suffer in order to survive. She is marked by trauma.

Mama turns in the bed, so that she lies with her back to him. ‘My real name is the marks on my body,’ she says. ‘Call me by the chinks in my chin and the discolourations in my toenails. Call me Trembling Eyes. Call me Torn Ear.’

The story thus ends at what appears to be the point of origin of the estrangement between mother and daughter, instituted by, as with The Dream Chasers, the imposition (and interposition) of a man (even if he is, in both stories, a man with benefits), and the story becomes a journey into the feminine past, in which “she goes back in time, as must any woman today who is trying to find the traces of her estrangement from her mother.” (Irigaray) The Dream Chasers thus finds an interesting continuity in Rag Doll: Oduor, brilliantly philosophical, creates a possibility for Lulu who, seeing that blade fly towards her from her mother’s hand, can go back in time and find where it was that mother-daughter became damaged.

References

  • Bainbridge Caroline. “A Feminine Cinematics: Luce Irigaray, Women and Film.”
  • Berlant, Lauren. “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal.”Public Culture, 19.2 (2007): 272-301.
  • Ferguson, Susan. “Capitalist childhood in film: modes of critique”, Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013.
  • Irigaray, Luce. “The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry,” Thinking Difference: For A Peaceful Revolution, 89-112.
  • Katz, Cindi. “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction,” Antipode 33(4) (2001), 708-727.
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