By AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi.
So the Path Does Not Die (Jacaranda Press, 2014), the African Literature Association’s Book of the Year by Caine Prize 2013 shortlisted author Pede Hollist, promises to be an ‘issues’ book: its protagonist, Finaba, loses her sister to complications from female genital circumcision, and at one point in the book, Fina (as her goes on to be called by those outside of her Fula community) states her own life goals as stemming clearly and directly from this loss:
“I want to go back home and open up a center for girls and women who have suffered because of this operation” (140).
Indeed, this book would be a good one to recommend to teachers wanting to cover the topic of female genital mutilation with students: by comparing and contrasting the experiences of and responses to female genital circumcision of the various women in Fina’s community, readers get a rich understanding of why women who have undergone the procedure, women like Fina’s grandmother Baramusu, would especially want to uphold it. Female genital circumcision is presented as a contextualized cultural practice, but not uncritically: it is just that the book problematizes not only this practice or any set of cultural practices, but the very idea that cultural practices, undergirded by stories unavoidably told from a perspective that highlights some angles and obscures others, can ever be rewarding if left unexamined. While the book traces Fina’s story from just before her initiation until just before the time would have come to convince her daughter to undergo initiation, it does so really to put Fina’s story, and the debate surrounding female genital circumcision, into contact with conversations about race, migration, and cultural heritage.
“If these myths of Musudugu taught me anything, it was that the imagined wellsprings of a person’s fate and fortune easily elude his or her grasp.” –Michael Jackson, Existential Anthropology, Berghahn Books, 2005 p.66
Fina’s life is constantly set against the story of Musudugu, the idyllic society of women ruined by the curiosity of one of its own. Although she naturally wants to undergo the initiation and take her place in society, both her parents (against initiation) and her grandmother (for initiation) recognize that this childish desire to fit in is lacking in perspective. Her grandmother wants her to promise not only to give her body, but also her whole sense of self, to the community, while her parents, having torn her away from her community, want her to embrace the freedom she has in the larger world. Faced with a fork in the road, Fina heeds the lesson of the story, and turns her back on curiosity. She is proactive, deciding on America as the key to her happiness, but no matter what befalls her, joyful or tragic, she responds by getting on with it. By the time she realizes that something within her is calling her back to deal with her hometown memories and returns to Sierra Leone, the country is embroiled in war, her hometown has been totally destroyed, and the urgent help she can give girls and women has more to do with immediate survival than cultural pushback.
She gets on with it. Fina’s stolid superficiality makes the novel hard going at times: although in many ways she is a fashionable heroine (plucky! passably beautiful! systematically oppressed, yet simultaneously the chosen one –you’ll have to read the book to see why!), she is neither thoughtful nor warm, and it’s often hard to believe the strength of the relationships she forms over the course of her time in the US. But the choice of the writer to omit any redeeming emotionally resonant scenes means that readers can get less wrapped up in the story of the characters and more wrapped up in the characters’ stories: Fina crosses paths with a veritable Romneyesque binder of female types: the institutionally-racist roommate, the white friend who feels more at home in her country than she does (but hates its corruption), the black boss who decides Fina’s shortcomings are characteristics of Africans as a whole, the American-born, Africa-obsessed black friend, the sister who pushes for remittance after remittance, and so on. As in Adichie’s Americanah, their justifications for the paths they take in life us to think about the African experience in the US vs. the African-American experience (and, with the inclusion of Fina’s Trinidadian husband, the Diaspora experience), but rather than contextualizing Fina’s sense of isolation and belonging, they serve as reminders of the never-ending ways in which we adapt, create, and forget details to turn life into stories and stories into culture. Fina has her story, and though she’d make the worst anthropologist of all time, simply living in a multicultural world leads her to glean from the Musudugu story just what existential anthropologist Michael Jackson does (in the quote above).
So man dem walked with a certain edge. Their voices reflected a boldness fortified by their numbers and a visceral understanding of their right to assemble peacefully in America (168).
Although Musudugu is a town of women, and Fina’s story truly is about women – even though her happily ever after includes a man, he is necessary, but not sufficient – I would be remiss in not mentioning Hollist’s description of man dem. As he explains the stories that Fina’s male equivalents tell about themselves and why, his prose sparkles. Some of the male characters in So The Path Will Not Die return to their countries of origin, while others don’t: just as with the female characters, it is the sheer volume of experiences that is important. Though the issues the men face are disastrous in their own way, we see Hollist, on these pages, having fun with the American experience in a way that is reminiscent of the hilarity of his non-fictional ode to America vs. Gatwick Airport at the recent Africa Writes festival. Hollist is a writer on the rise, and I would love to see him revisit man dem’s world in a follow-up.
Rashi Rohatgi has a PhD in Languages and Cultures from SOAS. Her fiction can be found in The Misty Review, her poetry in Allegro, and her academic writing in Matatu, Wasafiri, and other journals. Her recent monograph, Fighting Cane and Canon, is about World Literature in Mauritius.
Pede Hollist is an associate professor of English at The University of Tampa, Florida. His work draws upon the African consciousness, showing through literature the experiences of those on the continent and the experiences of those a part of the African diaspora.
His short story Foreign Aid was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing (read our AiW review here). So the Path Does Not Die is his first novel.
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