31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 24: “Préférence Nationale” by Fatou Diome (trans. by Polly McLean); “An Unexpected Death” by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (trans. by Stefan Tobler)

May 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Granta Book of the African Short Story

Granta_Book_of_the_African_Short_StoryToday, an object lesson in the practice of writing short stories. The two stories under consideration both deal with the theme of racism, but one does so in an overly didactic, heavy-handed manner, while the other seamlessly integrates this theme into a carefully constructed fictional edifice. On the level of technique, there is no question which of these two stories is the more interesting.

Fatou Diome is a Senegalese-born author living in France. Her story takes its name from a French political attitude endorsed, according to the great Oracle Wikipedia, by far-right groups such as the National Front, that gives preferential treatment regarding child and other social benefits to French citizens, while also making it more difficult for immigrants to obtain citizenship. This clearly racist social policy forms the backbone of Diome’s story about a Senegalese woman’s unsuccessful attempts to find employment in France.

Mozambican writer Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, by contrast, tells the story of a man who dies a horrible death in a freak accident involving an apartment elevator, and the reactions of various people close to him, including his mother, his neighbours, and the building watchman.

Two representative paragraphs from these stories should suffice to illustrate the difference in approaches.

Here is how Diome opens “Préférence Nationale“:

The law changed very quietly, thanks to Mr. Borders: if you’re married to a French citizen, it will now take two years’ fucking for the fragrance of France, and its papers, to rub off on you. For African women married to French men, access to citizenship increases with the fecundity of their womb, though the French foetuses know nothing of préférence nationale. But Mr. Borders is not as foolish as he may seem. By delaying the conferral of citizenship to two years after marriage, he is counting on the flighty nature of his countrymen and the racism of in-laws to destroy the couple before the fateful day. Then, as the ex-wife of a French man, the foreign woman becomes no more than an exotic ex-object. And as with any object, she has no rights, not even the right to earn an honest living. Left to her own devices, she does her best to survive. The government soothes its conscience by supplying a list of contacts, each as worthless as the last. They all say, “Yes, but you are not entitled to that benefit because you’re not a French citizen. Try this other department.”

What is most striking about this paragraph, as the opening to a putative piece of short fiction, is how baldly factual it is. It conveys information, but does nothing in the way of setting a scene or developing a character. This style, didactic and expository, is more suited to a personal essay than a work of fiction.

Indeed, it is probable the Diome’s story is at least partly autobiographical (like her character, the author married a Frenchman and immigrated to France). Certainly, the paragraph above seethes with righteous anger at the politically sanctioned mistreatment of minorities in French society: the word “fucking” in the opening sentence is deliberately coarse and aggressive, and the explanation of the prejudicial double standard applied to non-citizens residing in France is frank and succinct. But the plain declarations contained within this paragraph (“And as with any object, she has no rights, not even the right to earn an honest living”) have not been filtered through any kind of fictional technique or strategy: they are simply declaimed in the manner of a stump speech, rather than unfolding as organic elements of a crafted story.

Compare this to a representative paragraph from “An Unexpected Death.” In this scene, two boys have rousted the alcoholic apartment watchman from the bar to which he has decamped.

He put down his beer and walked away from the bar. He wiped his lips and straightened his old jacket, a gift from an elderly lady desperate to forget the husband still robbing her of sleep, who in death threatened her as gravely as he had when he pronounced his macabre sentence on the point of dying, so long ago now, shot by a capricious bullet that had been hiding away in the gun he decided to clean after years of neglect, recalling as he did the beautiful campaigns to pacify the blacks, who in despair threw their bows, arrows and skin shields into the air in outlandish and sometimes phantasmagorical arcs as they, incredulous that death was striking them, scattered over the plain and made unintelligible guttural sounds.

Here we have a vision of a racist, colonial society, one that allows invaders with firearms to belittle their indigenous victims by savouring the “outlandish and sometimes phantasmagorical arcs” made by their more primitive weapons that are tossed in the air during their death throes. The colonial soldier, ironically shot by the very gun he used against these blacks, recalls the “beautiful campaigns” to put down an entire class of people he clearly feels to be beneath him, no better than savages.

But note that none of this is stated explicitly. Rather, the author incorporates the theme into a fictional context, allowing the ironic implications of the situation to unfold organically from within, rather than artificially loading them on from the outside. The psychic distance here is incredibly subtle, placed at two removes: first, the wife of the dead gunman, who passes the coat off to the watchman; second, the watchman himself.

“An Unexpected Death” shuffles perspective and chronology, teasing out its connections over the course of the story. The identities of the boys at the bar are not made clear until later, nor is it made explicit that they are the two boys who appear in another scene tearing off down the stairs after the man is killed.

The accident victim dies heading off to school, an ironic inversion of the prophecy his mother invokes when he refuses to attend school as a teen: “You’ll die a terrible death, son.” Here, again, racial aspects of the story crop up, as the adolescent argues that “black people had lived for centuries without quinine and books … their vitality was passed down the generations and their history was alive in the fertile memory of the old people who had lived in these lands before men the colour of a skinned goat had come with the noise of their weapons, their tongue and their books.”

How much more satisfying is this approach than Diome’s rigidly linear presentation and straightforward didacticism: “My French friends having no awareness of what life here was like for me, often thought I was being paranoid. I didn’t resent them for it. When you have Cleopatra’s nose and the complexion of Anne of Austria, you don’t feel French racism like someone with Mamadou’s skin.”

Préférence Nationale” scores its points using furious rhetoric and a journalistic approach to its subject. “An Unexpected Death,” by contrast, is more complex and lyrical, employing a host of literary strategies and devices to tell its story. This at once makes the reading experience more affecting and enjoyable and, not incidentally, renders the thematic undercurrents that much more potent.

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