We are currently reading and writing about the stories in the Africa39 anthology, as well as linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. (The previous review was of Ugandan Caine Prize Winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko‘s latest short story, “The Banana Eater”).
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 “Sometime Before Maulidi” by Ndinda Kioko.
This review is of “Two Fragments of Love” by Eileen Almeida Barbosa.
“Two Fragments of Love” by Cabo Verdean, Eileen Almeida Barbosa, is an intimate epistolary short story. It is one of several stories in the Africa39 anthology that are decidedly romantic love stories. Of all the stories in the anthology, regardless of overall “theme”, Fragments is this reviewer’s personal favourite.
“Professor” by Ivorian Edwige-Renée Dro, is another love story in the anthology. It is a story about a long-lasting friendship and love between a secondary school student and her teacher — a somewhat troubling dynamic to be sure, one whose transgressive aspects Dro freely acknowledges — and is the next Africa39 love story under consideration in this Reading Africa39 series. Both stories are narrated from within the unending ache of longing, through the long agony of irrevocable loss. In an interview after attending the Africa39 book launch in Port-Harcourt, Dro said, “love is a very important instrument in [my] writing life. I write more when I’m in love […] I just want to write because I want the person to read my work and just wake up happy. I feel alive when I am in love and my subject tends to be more love and romance. And right now I am in love with my daughter so there could be something there.”
There’s something reassuring (deeply comforting, even) in hearing the Ivorian author speak about romantic love and its place in her life and writing in this way. After all, it is typically considered gauche to espouse such sentimental ideas in a world overrun by intimate partner violence, beset by the atomisation of life, and inflected by capital’s conversion of all human experience into commodity and all human life into a market place. These ideas seem, to the jaded realist’s cynical mind, somewhat anachronistic if not unrealistic: “I feel alive when I am in love,” is a magical assertion. In Barbosa’s Fragments the experience of the will to love is a long solitary suffering in relative silence. In love, however, Barbosa’s narrator defies living death.
Beyond romantic love, Dro speaks about being “in love with my daughter,” and in that statement is the kernel of the true revolutionary power of love. Virginia Woolf said that women think through their mothers. Memoirist, Vivian Gornick, asserted that, “[t]he necessity, it now seems, is not so much to kill our fathers as it is to separate from our mothers, and it is the daughters who must do the separating.” Gornick goes on to say that one of the questions women interrogate in modernist literature is “whether to be in the world or to become one’s mother; supply sympathy to men or to be odd, lonely, unmarried: an artist.” She determines that the important idea, especially for women, has been, “[w]here is the world? Without or within? […] No man could embody the metaphor behind this question as well as these anxious, intelligent women.” In fact “maybe only a mother and a daughter will do.” The mother-daughter relationship (and by extension, relationships amongst women), increasingly important in literature by and about women, provides the revolutionary potential of love when the exhausting labour of women supplying sympathy to men, through romantic love, reaches its breaking point or its inevitable limit. Fragments and Professor are oriented around this unavoidable breaking point, this inescapable limit. They write towards it but not beyond it, not yet. Instead, they linger in the place of hope and nostalgia, where romantic heterosexual love can still do the work of making women’s lives pleasurable and meaningful.
Barbosa’s Fragments is a story about the breaking point, the seismic fault that cracks the heart into two separate fragments: one a jagged mirror of the other; one a piece of the past, the other a piece of the future as lived in the present; one of lost hope, the other of hope regained; one of looking outward, the other of looking within; one of looking backward, the other of looking forward; one an image of a lost self, the other of a new image of a new self; one of damage, the other of healing; one a memory of him, the other a reconstitution of herself — two fragments of a broken heart, two fragments of lost love, two lamentations, dual depictions of loss; each fragment orbiting the other, apart for eternity or to collide unto destruction; two repetitions of love; love, as described by Nina Power, being, “a repeated performance, one that is often miserable.”
Love’s fragments materialise memory and are sublimated as memory, defying death, resisting loss. Artist, Hannah Black, writing on sex, love, and gender, describes the detritus of love by asking, “[w]hat remains of a couple when it’s gone? A small collection of souvenirs: phrases, images, sensations. These fragments persist long afterwards, as vivid as they are completely and radiantly meaningless, as if they were signs that will one day reveal their secrets.”
“Loves die from disgust, and forgetfulness buries them.” (Jean de La Bruyère Du Coeur) But there is no disgust in Barbosa’s story — at least, not yet — and there is no forgetfulness in either Barbosa’s or Dro’s stories — at least, not yet — and yet, even remembering is a form of forgetting, memory being that vast process of rewriting the past into the deep territory of intensified desire and subjectivity which battles the transitory, always too-brief experience of love with the exposition of eternal feeling and timeless devotion.
I don’t know what came first: becoming your muse, your biggest fan or falling in love with you. Or did it all happen at the same time? […] I always wanted to be with you, though I never really knew why you stayed with me. I was never artistic. But no one loved you more! (I. Graffiti)
The first fragment takes the form of a plea, a form every mourning lover knows and has reprised, with which such a lover can easily empathise. Pain from love and loss is always recognisable. In our ability to recognise it, such suffering is revealed as universal. Thus, the rituals of mourning love: the recounting of what was in a dazed bid to negate the loss that is, to conjure up the past or exorcise it, to recreate the power of feelings once mutual now solitary, or to banish them. For Barbosa’s narrator, to speak of and to her beloved is to speak in desperation, moving towards resignation, to speak of love in the past tense as though love were dead. James Baldwin said that the lover is a dreamer and the dreamer’s goal is to keep on dreaming. Barbosa’s narrator is in love with love, and love is dead because unrequited and, to begin with, unsuitable thus doomed.
I could weep. Prove my parents right and leave you. I could sit quietly and hope that it’s only a fleeting passion. That in the end you’ll choose me.
Barbosa’s narrator, Saladine, falls in love with an artist, Salazar, a painter, who is single-mindedly focused on his art. Saladine obsessively seeks out and studies Salazar’s art, settling for this relentless absorption in Salazar’s art instead of physical and emotional intimacy with Salazar himself. Such intimacy, after all, is not forthcoming: Salazar is never physically present and, in the story, he has no voice. For, in order to mourn, the beloved must be objectified — to a greater or lesser extent — by the lover. That is, the object of desire becomes an object of grief, reconstructed through the lover’s or mourner’s eyes and pain. The reconstruction that is recollection is, as Toni Morrison’s describes it — apt even though she is speaking about ancestors and lineage — such that “these people [those who were loved and lost] are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life. […] I acknowledge them as my route to a reconstruction of a world, to an exploration of an interior life that was not written and to the revelation of a kind of truth.” This revelation, incendiary after love is lost, is the lover’s curse: piecing together the presence of the beloved from scraps of their artwork; enduring the silence of the beloved by filling their absence with an unrelenting self-narration of what must always be a fantasy, rooted in a certainty, or a certain hope, that love can produce truth. Saladine declares,
For a long time I’ve read you better than anyone. Better than your false friends or your true ones, your fellow artists, your critics, your parents.
That was how, when you drew bolder strokes, I discovered how happy you were, when your strokes seemed to tremble I felt you hesitate, when you used contrasting colours I knew you were comparing us and when your strokes wavered I sensed that you wanted to leave.
(What a delicious eroticism to this memory of loss and art.)
Barbosa’s narrator, gripped by the lover’s curse: searching for the beloved’s voice and presence wherever it might be found. Perhaps all obsessive lovers are necessarily stalkers. Saladine’s agony:
I wandered around the city, deciphering the drawings you spray-painted on public buildings, telegraph poles, crumbling walls, or wherever the police let you and the gangs don’t bother you. I followed the trail of renegade, illegal artists, of non-transportable art all around Coimbra. Art for the street, your favourite place. I saw myself everywhere, but in the faded paint of someone drawn only in the past.
The art of the beloved, fading in the present, fading with memory, fading as memory fades, but, for Saladine, always art as the truth by which to perceive the beloved. In Art & Lies, the eternal Jeanette Winterson observes that, “Love wounds. There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet. No love that leaves the lover unmarked.” (So severe is the widespread pain from and of love that serious pharmacological and neuroscientific research is going into a question that has likely lasted as long as apothecaries have existed: is there a drug that can cure the lover of love? To rid oneself of love is to cure an often severe, regularly physically debilitating, emotionally crippling form of existential anguish.)
In the second fragment, Barbosa reveals just how deeply love wounds, how long the body is marked by past love, how permanent the callouses and keloids that lost love burns onto the heart are. The title of the second fragment is mysterious and ominous, painful and desperate: “II. I am not a witch”. Is Saladine attempting to convince Salazar that she is not the evil that he has convinced himself she was (always an impossible, futile task, to change the beloved’s mind once it is turned in a direction away from the lover)? Is she describing how she is treated now, where she is? Is she attempting both these things simultaneously, the former through the latter, to redeem herself in his eyes?
After many years, after a life very much altered, after a great distance travelled away from ground zero:
This is my life now. I leave work, and as I walk I greet familiar faces, acquaintances whose worries trouble me more than yours because I know their relevance, and they spit at my feet. (II. I am not a witch)
Saladine’s love for Salazar occurred across a barrier of class, the two people from different backgrounds, inhabiting different worlds: Saladine from privilege, Salazar from privation; Salazar intimate with loss and suffering, Saladine sheltered.
I want to tell you that I’ve got tougher. I see young women who’ve been raped. Women who poison their husbands then regret it come to me asking for antidotes. I’ll tell you just what I say to them: I am not a witch.
Saladine recounts her ongoing recovery, her struggle to redefine herself, not as “Saladine and Salazar”, but as Saladine on her own, her own self, by herself, as herself, wounded but living, living with loss, working:
I’d just lost you. The days were like Everests that I had to climb, becoming more and more breathless towards evening, which was when I had to be on my feet, at the restaurant, serving drinks. I never confessed to my supervisor that I felt ill; that I always felt seasick. And what with the pain of having lost you […] I spent the days crying. I saw streets I’d never seen before. […] And I cried. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t summon up the courage to throw myself under one of the cars that passed me by, indifferent.
Weltering in ennui, trudging through melancholia, Saladine is lifted and carried along into care and safety. A man, a stranger, finds her, holds her, takes her to his home, treasures her. Saladine finds pleasure and comfort in the new relationship but the pall of loss still lingers. The man whom she calls “my Catalan” doesn’t get a proper name or a voice in the story. While the Catalan was important to Saladine, he nonetheless occupies a smaller, less substantial place in her heart than Salazar, whose name she utters in the opening sentence of the story as though, as obsessive lovers are wont to do, she wakes up thinking of her beloved, speaking his name — “Saladine and Salazar” — signing him into her story, the beloved’s name forever present in the lover’s mouth. Her relationship with the Catalan endures then ends. Saladine feels that, even when love and affection last long, they are nonetheless always temporary, repetitive:
My life has always been like that, I get shipwrecked, then the tide carries me to a beach and to safety. I spend a few days, or years there, then I get shipwrecked again.
Saladine no longer pleads when she is replaced and abandoned. Her longing stretches into the past as a thread of pain and love. But in this second part, with its detailed renditions of her life and, importantly, her work, her daily ways of being herself, we sense that she is stronger — battered, no doubt, but stronger still. This is not the strength that comes from learning to forget or to treat romantic relations as disposable. It is not, or doesn’t seem to be, a ruthless strength but a strength in the service of creating out of her ongoing history a narrative, not of violence, but of tenderness, for herself and for her lovers. She loves herself even as she grieves, even when she is passive. Importantly, she grows up, she becomes her own woman. As Gornick reminds us, “the task implicit in all love relations is how to connect yet not merge, how to respond yet not be absorbed, how to detach but not withdraw.” Hannah Black articulates this tangle of desire and hurt thus: “[F]or many people, especially women, especially impoverished women, denying life is the only way to have one. Overall, the couple seems to endure mainly negatively: break-ups are painful, being alone means you’ve failed, good sex is hard to come by, the world is a scary place, etc. […] The twin mystery of separateness and sympathy – how we are something to each other, and not nothing; something to each other, but not everything.”
Thus, Saladine signs her letter, after so many years of silence, with:
Tell me about you too.
Lots of love,
From your Saladine.
Eileen Almeida Barbosa’s Two Fragments of Love is such a gift within the Africa39 anthology. While reading it with friends, the silence of the room in which we were was punctuated with sighs, which were repeated and echoed, then were submerged in deeper silence as the story was re-read and internalised. It is thus only fitting that the translator, Lucy Greaves, be thanked for her translation of Barbosa’s powerful, memorable, heart-rending text.
- Black, Hannah. “The loves of others”.
- Baldwin, James, “Another Country”.
- Dro, Edwige-Renée. “I refuse to be troubled by anything”.
- Gornick, Vivian. “The end of the novel of love”.
- Morrison, Toni. “The site of memory”.
- Power, Nina. “Run, boy, run”
- Schwartz, Beth C. “Thinking back through our mothers: Virginia Woolf reads Shakespeare”.
- Winterson, Jeanette. “Art & Lies”.
- Wolf, Virginia. “A room of one’s own”.
- Wolf, Virginia. “To the lighthouse”.