AiW’s annual Caine Prize review series is back with this, the second in our reviews of the five shortlisted stories for 2019. In the spirit of our broader and longer conversations about prize culture at Africa in Words – Kate Wallis started off this series in 2013 – the coming days feature reviews of the stories ahead of the announcement of the winner on 8 July. Previous years’ shortlist reviews and coverage of the Prize from AiW can be found here, as well as our coverage of the Anthologies. You can also check out the Caine series of events with the shortlisted writers planned in the UK in the run up to the Prize announcement.
‘The Wall’ begins with a conversation between two seemingly dissimilar people, one saying that ‘It’s not always easy to find the right words, you know’, and the other replying ‘Maybe you just have to know the right language.’ This interaction sets up the foundation for the brilliant story on language and the barriers which prevent understanding. The unnamed protagonist then continues to narrate the story of the unlikely generation-defying friendship between the two conversers who are both refugees: the German-born university professor Herr Weill, and the narrator himself, an Ethiopian-born child who fled to the United States via Berlin with his family. Set in 1980s Midwestern small-town Iowa, ‘The Wall’ oscillates between the narrator’s memories of West Germany and his new life in the United States where he can speak no English, only Amharic and German. As the story unfolds, the Berlin Wall and its division becomes an apt metaphor always in the background of Hadero’s piece, connoting the barriers in language, war, and friendship, poignantly and expertly exploring the diasporic experience between generations.
Hadero’s is a beautifully quiet story from a skillful storyteller who brings historical narratives of conflict in conjunction with contemporary diasporic identities. With vivid descriptions and a tight structure, every word and piece of dialogue forges the friendship between our narrator and Herr Weill into something solid and honest. Grappling which such large themes like silence and war within the burgeoning friendship could easily have been clumsy in the wrong hands, but Hadero achieves the empathic connection between the two adeptly through her attention to character detail.
Halfway through the story, Herr Weill recalls his own refugee status during the Second World War to the narrator, telling him that he ‘left home when he was a teenager because a war scattered his whole family.’ Granting refugees the command of their own story, the dispersed voice of the diaspora is represented by Hadero in a deeply affecting way. In fact, the story, originally published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, draws upon Hadero’s own experience as an Ethiopian-American born in Addis Ababa who came to the U.S. as a refugee in her childhood via East and West Germany. In ‘The Wall’, the characters are built up slowly and assuredly, with Hadero’s prose dotted with intricate imagery which engross the reader in the characters’ lives. One example of this is the immersive description of Herr Weill’s appearance in his ‘suit and wing-tipped shoes’, whose ‘wispy white hair’ ‘would flop as he was talking excitedly, shaking his head and index finger while making a point’, placing the reader presently in the story.
At the beginning of ‘The Wall’, the child’s exclusion from the English language isolates him from his peers at school: ‘My silence, my inability to grasp the very words being said in class, including my own name—mispronounced by the teacher taking the roll. The pungent food I brought for lunch that I ate with my hands.’ Herr Weill gifts the child a leather journal:
I would always have someone to talk to, if only the blank page. I wrote in German so that I could show it to Herr Weill if he ever asked to see it. I was always jotting down notes about my life, about the things I’d encounter and wanted to think about, conversations that were mostly reflections of what I longed to say and hear.
Through the journal, the child’s interactions with Herr Weill, and the story narration itself, Hadero gives the child another voice, a voice to tell his story, his way. Further, in writing in German and to Herr Weill, a new haven of easy, unfiltered communication is opened for the friends. The structure is broken up with snippets from the child’s journal, mostly his interaction with another immigrant child in his class, Li from China. The childlike miscommunication between the two, populated with pandas and passed notes in their own voices, make something like a historical record to complement the archive-like journal notes.
The child receives English lessons from Herr Weill which provide ‘an unexpected outpouring’ for both, both expressing that they are happy to have a friend to talk to in a language which they understand. Sharing stories of their different refugee experiences, the narrator writes: ‘We talked about scars, invisible and visible, instant and latent ones, all real. How hard it is not to keep losing things because of conflict, even once it’s far away, miles or years away, and yet how life fills up with other things all the while.’ Consequently, Hadero sets up refugee experience as a universal one, where uprootedness breeds a silence which can be broken by creating a new home of shared culture. In one moment at school when the narrator tries to interact with Li, Hadero displays this unspoken connection across borders and boundaries of first-generation immigrants: ‘She told me a secret, her family fled from the first country, and she asked me if I knew what she meant and I did. I told her I even knew what it meant to flee from the second country, and also to leave the third country, and that made her smile.’
‘The Wall’ represents war through the metaphor of the Berlin Wall as a shadow which is cast over the victims of the conflict, the refugee. However, Hadero shows that the conflict does not define them. The story ends with the end of the division between East and West Germany and with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The fall is the catalyst for the narrator to see Herr Weill once more after the narrator has moved away. Unable to see him in person, he leaves a note, an old extract from his journal: ‘October 15, 1983: To Herr Weill: Thanks for this journal. It’s terrific. To Journal: Welcome to my life! Herr Weill is my first friend here so far.’ The leather journal once more becomes a symbol for difficult communication, and when he cannot speak to his old friend in person, he leaves a piece of his past which communicates his loss, and his gratitude for their friendship.
Hadero’s prose is clear and honest in its descriptions and insights into the observation of a child. One of the most successful things about ‘The Wall’ is that despite its heavy subject matter, it still maintains touches of humour which soften the story of loss of home, found mainly in these extracts from the protagonist’s journal. Hadero’s language is simple and the flitting tenses seamlessly transport the reader between fractured Germany and 1980s Iowa. Unlike the narrator, the reader has hindsight which forms the true greatness of Hadero’s seemingly local story; it resonates with contemporary global conflicts and the walls between cultures still being put up almost forty years on. Despite this, with the narrator’s half-reconciliation with his lost friend through the old pages of his journal, Hadero allegorically shows a sliver of light through the cracks of the falling metaphorical wall, where language, communication, and friendship forged through shared culture can prevail despite the scars of war. Given the Caine Prize’s global position as a British literary prize for African writers, the protagonist’s diverse identities between Ethiopian, German and American make it such an interesting read about cross-cultural understandings and transgressing boundaries. The fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the story works as a symbol of new beginnings, and with this, I hope that ‘The Wall’ hails in Hadero’s new successes.
Meron Hadero is an Ethiopian-American born in Addis Ababa who came to the U.S. as a refugee in her childhood via East and West Germany. Her stories appear in Best American Short Stories, McSweeney’s, Zyzzyva, The Iowa Review, and others. Her writing is also in The New York Times Book Review and the anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, Ragdale, and MacDowell, and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, a JD from Yale Law School (Washington State Bar), and a BA from Princeton in history. Meron is a recipient of a 2019-2020 Steinbeck Fellowship.
Ellen Addis is the editorial assistant for AiW. She is currently undertaking her Master’s from University College London. Her research is focused on marginalised class identities in the United Kingdom and the global space.
You can click through our Caine Prize Review series by following through each of the review posts on the stories this year, or via our Caine Prize Category here.