Heather Snell continues our summer voyage into children’s literature.
AiW Guest: Heather Snell
The Mirror and Nine Other Stories is a product of Langaa, a press with offices in Bamenda and Buea. As Langaa indicates on their website, access to publishing is a problem for African writers. Distribution is an even bigger problem: Langaa partners with the African Books Collective, Michigan State University Press, and Amazon to distribute African stories, but due to high printing costs Langaa must operate on a print-on-demand-only basis.
Stories such as Nde’s are therefore not easy to come by. The Mirror is forced to compete with books produced and distributed by much larger, transnational presses in a hypercompetitive global market where the value of books is tied to prestigious prizes. When one considers the challenges of competing with other globally circulating
popular media, including films, television, and video games, much of it emanating from transnational companies, the publication of The Mirror seems like a small miracle.
It is important to consider this context when reviewing a collection such as Nde’s. Lacking the production values that would accompany a contract with a large, transnational press, The Mirror is rough around the edges: the writing needs more polish, and the stories themselves are not fully finished. They lack the kind of structure to which one becomes accustomed in a global book market where rigid rules and conventions engender recognizable cues, trends, patterns, and sometimes reassuringly predictable narratives. The endings of Nde’s stories in particular are abrupt, offering the impression that they are not quite done, or that resolutions are not possible in narratives that aim to illustrate everyday life in Cameroon.
The collection’s greatest weaknesses are, perhaps, also its greatest strengths, for the stories, in escaping the kind of control that would accompany big production values, deftly capture the voice of its author. Nde’s stories are set in Bamenda, Buea, Yaounde, and Bambili, the very same places that have helped to shape her as a writer.
The stories in The Mirror are about the struggles of diverse characters: a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality in a world where local lifeways collide with glossy representations of global girlhood; a bank manager who is forced to let go of an old grudge when an adversary from his student days moves in next door; a village boy who learns the value of friendship during his first year at university; a couple that attempts to find some common ground in their marriage; a young carpenter who falls prey to the temptations of town life; a mother who reflects on what kind of profession might allow her son to exert influence in paving the road that connects their village to others; or the desperate measures to which many Cameroonian boys resort in order to survive.
The themes are equally diverse and are developed through both first- and third-person narrators. In addition to common everyday struggles, Nde takes on the pressing issues of HIV/AIDS; tensions between Cameroon and its international others; and the distance that can open up when younger generations of Cameroonians imbibe different values, practices, and knowledge than those held by older generations. In “The Dust of Graffiland,” for example, a schoolboy named Lientueh informs his mother that the water in the village pond can make people sick. Her response speaks volumes about the alienating effects of modern education: “His mother had looked at him with eyes that said ‘these children of today, bookwork will turn them into something else'” (184). Lientueh’s mother can only explain her son’s sudden susceptibility to the village water by ascribing it to the new sensibility he has cultivated at school:
She had thought that if the water had to make any one sick, it should be her, let her son be spared. It could not be her because she had drunk the water all her life and she has not been sick. Her son too had drunk the water, but she was afraid that too much book would make her son’s stomach to be soft for the germs in the water and her son would be sick. She was consoled by the fact that the more book he learnt the less time he would spend in the village. (184)
While Mami Milia is open to the notion that there could be something wrong with the water, and is willing to sacrifice herself for her son, her own lack of susceptibility to it drives her to conclude that it is Lientueh’s education, and not the water, that has made him “soft.” Here the water comes to stand in for the village, which Lientueh leaves behind in his pursuit of new knowledge in Bambili. Throughout the rest of the story we are privy to the thoughts of Lintueh, who has begun to see his mother’s village beliefs and practices through a lens that effectively estranges him from the village. At one point he pressures his mother to come up with a rational explanation for her eating of soil and inwardly laughs at her for conflating taste and smell–at school he has learned that there are five separate senses. Nde shows that education is not just a means of upward mobility but something that separates children from their parents.
The title story is notable for elaborating the unique struggles young girls often face in Cameroon. The protagonist, Christina, has just reached puberty; the mirror that hangs on the wall of the family parlour has accordingly become a special obsession as she explores the changes evident on her body. Aspiring to be like “the women she had seen in the magazine which [her friend] Pascaline brought to school”(6), Christina allows herself to be lured into a backroom by a boy who works for a retailer. He comes on to her aggressively, promising her “a dress, money, anything she wanted” (32). Christina does not want to sleep with the boy, yet her body, ever alert to new sensations, tells a different story: “She liked the way the boy held her and spoke to her though she was scared” (32). The boy rapes Christina despite her repeated objections, and the story ends with her discovering upon once again looking into the mirror that “Nothing had changed, but everything had changed” (33). As if to confirm this, the last sentence of the story suggests that Christina is most likely pregnant: “That month Christina did not see the flow of blood” (33). This last sentence foreshadows the ambivalence with which many of Nde’s characters greet their coming of age or, as is the case with those who have already reached adulthood, a new place of self-discovery. Tellingly, Christina breaks the mirror near the beginning of the story, foreshadowing also the impossibility of maintaining a whole, unified, and coherent self. It is precisely this realization of fragmentation, not to mention vulnerability, which Nde’s characters encounter in their journeys between and across various sites in Cameroon.
Nde’s stories capture a diversity of voices and situations. Raw and occasionally disjointed, they are fitting vehicles for the kinds of stories she elects to tell. There is, then, something to be said for the collection’s lack of polish. The Mirror should serve as a fascinating introduction to the fiction of Cameroon for those not already familiar with it, and as a compelling addition to the growing body of stories coming out of that country for those who are.
Heather Snell is an Associate Professor at The University of Winnipeg. Straddling the fields of postcolonial cultural studies and young people’s texts and cultures, her work often focuses on literary, filmic, and other cultural representations of youth in Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean. She has published in journals including Postcolonial Text, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and Adaptation, and is currently working on a scholarly monograph entitled Reading Urban Poverty: Children and Youth, Global Visual Culture, and Postcolonial Counter-Imaginaries.
“Susan Nkwentie Nde was born in 1960 in Ndop in the Northwest Province of Cameroon. After attending Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School in Bamenda, and the Cameroon College of Arts, Science and Technology in Bambili, she graduated from the Teachers Training Colleges (ENS) of Bambili and Yaounde. She took courses at the universities of Yaounde and Buea and earned a Masters degree in African Literature, specializing in African Poetry. She has taught English and Literature for the past 23 years and currently teaches at the Bilingual Grammar School in Buea, Cameroon. Her poems, articles, and stories have appeared in various journals, newspapers and magazines.”
The Mirror and Nine Other Short Stories (Langaa) is available through the African Books Collective.
Categories: Reviews - Books