AiW Guest: Rebekah Bale
This week, we will feature reviews of the five stories shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize winner will be announced on Monday 3 July. Our first review is of Sudanese author Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’.
‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’, the hypnotic, highly descriptive work by Sudanese author Bushra al-Fadil,tells of an encounter between the narrator and a girl who ‘had the swagger of a soldier, the true heart of the people’. The girl is accompanied by her sister who is a talisman, ‘brought to steer her away from evil.’ The sights and sounds, smells and tastes of a busy city market are the setting for the meeting, and when a bus arrives, the narrator follows the girls. A friendship is formed but the narrator realises that the girl cannot be protected no matter how strong her talisman. Her birds have already left. At the end of the story, the two girls are found covered with blood (and henna, perhaps) with a suggestion that they have been murdered. The narrator is convinced that this is a traffic accident, although the crowd at the hospital declares that the girls were found spread-eagle on the beach and called the police. The passers-by are suspicious but the story ends with the narrator walking away from the scene.
A summary hardly does justice to the trance-like nature of the work. Through the use of description and dialogue, the writer conjures up the hard-scrabble existence of the bus passengers and market-dwellers. At the same time, the girl is set apart from the others in this world, through her appearance and the narrator’s sense of the girl’s ephemeral presence. The narrator senses the eyes of the other passengers on the two girls as a kind of threat; in a fantastic passage, the narrator recounts that ‘their eyes had taken flight, leaving two holes in every face’. The cut and thrust of the surrounding area contrasts with the stillness and serenity of the girl. The narrator describes the rest of the characters negatively, a man who ‘smelled as if he was stuffed of onions’ is one vivid example. In contrast to the girl and her sister, the narrator too described himself as a beast with hooves but also as someone in touch with dreams and fables.
The ending of the story reminds the reader of the random violence done to the girls. ‘As long as the innocent birds were struck with stones and selfish desires, they would continue to land in such ugly places against their will, in patches full of violence and hate’. It is possible to see the story as an extended metaphor for peace under threat in a dangerous place. But to see this as a fable would be to ignore the story’s strengths: the intricate sense of dialogue and setting that leaves the reader feeling immersed in a complete society for the period of the story.
Rebekah Bale received her doctorate in 2015 from SUNY Albany. Her research interests include African adaptations of Shakespeare and post-colonial Asian literature in English. She is currently Lecturer in English at IFT, Macao.