AiW Guest: Nafeesah Allen
The Hamburger that Killed Jorge is an anthology of short stories, written by young and emerging Mozambican writers, meant to open an aperture for a new branch of crime fiction. Born out of a 2016 national competition, the selected short stories that appear in the English (released with 11 short stories in August 2017) and Portuguese versions (released in Maputo with 15 short stories in July 2017) explicitly show the editorial intent to highlight the African specificities of detective fiction and mystery thrillers. The true novelty of these texts is that stories of this kind in Mozambique are typically not fiction entertainment. They are reported on the nightly news, shared over beers in bars amongst friends, and whispered about amongst families behind closed doors. They are simultaneously distant, intimate, and spiritual rumors that are rarely explained in any detail.
While a positive editorial exercise for outside gaze, particularly in English, this anthology’s real contribution to Mozambican literature, particularly in Portuguese, is the space it opens for new writers to discuss topics that are close to lived experience. These never make it into local print or bookstores. Instead, Portuguese translations of Western texts dominate the shelves. A moral spectrum of what should be written by Mozambican authors often marginalizes both what they want to write and what readers enjoy. In either language, the text is an entertaining, though gruesome, read that differs distinctly from the magical realism and traditional mysticism of Mozambique’s great fiction works.
Overall, most stories herein depict believable urban realities. They are neatly packaged snapshots of often inaccessible headlines. This anthology offers readers an exhaustive survey of writing styles and social subjects that peer deeply into Mozambique’s bouts with urban poverty and gendered criminality. Save a handful of submissions, like “When Bernardo Mavique’s Piano Mourned in A-Sharp” and “The Hamburger that Killed Jorge,” few stories require the suspension of disbelief; most are genuinely mundane happenings of petty crimes of manipulation, indiscriminate brutality, and investigative futility.
Nevertheless, all of these stories offer what Mozambican realities do not – real answers. There is always an answer for “Whodunit?” As discussed in the books’ introduction, in Africa, police corruption, victim complicity, and poor investigative resources lead to real crimes going unreported and unsolved. Mozambique’s fiction stories explore additional reasons: the shame of sexual victimization, finger pointing at the most likely perpetrator, and the overarching sentiment that those who look for real answers may actually turn up dead themselves. Readers should relish the privilege of not only knowing who was blamed, but who actually committed the crime.
My principal critique rests in the fact that the English version severely lacks the nuance of language and context captured in most of the Portuguese originals. In Mozambican Portuguese, young urbanites mix Portuguese with English, Ronga, and Shangaan in common parlance, without signaling social hierarchy or uncouth slang. Local speech has a character whereby sarcastic humor and lengthy soliloquy are oft used as verbal tools that indicate more about the relationship between the speaker and the listener than about the actual content itself. Further, the use of expressions in native dialects has a cultural and linguistic value that has been retained where English or Portuguese translations do not accurately convey parallel meaning. It is regrettable that the English translation masks what the Portuguese diction intends to communicate – the fact that 70% of the contributing writers are under the age of 25 and most are first-time authors. The Portuguese version also includes crime scene illustrations and comic strips that perhaps foreshadow Mozambique noir’s eventual leap into film. In short, the attention to young Mozambicans’ language and meaning patterns is largely lost in the English version, but deeply intrinsic to the Portuguese original. The word choices and expressions captured in Portuguese make the writing more groundbreaking as a locally published work and as a genuine reflection of young, urban vernacular.
In conclusion, if this anthology’s premise is to simply create literary space for a Mozambique noir, then this volume succeeds. Readers will surely find these well-packaged short stories accessible for both novice and sage crime aficionados. The Portuguese original is a captivating read for those familiar with Lusophone wordplay and African living. The English version introduces readers to a world where ordinary events take tragic twists and result in cruel heartbreak. The fact that readers like me find these stories intensely engaging leaves room to hope that authors and editors will continue such writing in the future. This anthology creates ever more space for new authors to explore their lived realities through drama and fiction in ways not yet explored in Mozambique’s current literary canon.
Nafeesah Allen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. From 2014-17, she lived in Mozambique, where she conducted ethnographic field research on Mozambicans of Indian and Pakistani origin. Her recent work focuses on African literature, Asian and African Diasporas, and public policy. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College, completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University, and concluded a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi, India. She is a New Jersey native. www.nafeesahallen.com