Review Caine 2021: “Repeat after me: My mother has been ushered into the spirit world” – Iryn Tushabe’s ‘A Separation’

AiW Note: It’s that time of the year again and AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist is back!
Every day this week, we are publishing Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn, as they appear on the AKO Caine Prize website.
We hope you enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories in the lead up to the AKO Caine Prize specially curated virtual event at the end of the month, announcing the winner.


Our fifth and final review of the week is of Iryn Tushabe’s ‘A Separation’, published in EXILE Quarterly, in Canada, 2018

NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers! If you haven’t already, you can read the story in full, available on the AKO Caine Prize website, here.

Iryn (1)Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan-Canadian writer and journalist. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Adda, and Prairies North. Her short fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, and in The Journey Prize Stories 30. The winner of the 2020 City of Regina Writing Award, she’s currently finishing her debut novel, Everything is Fine Here


AiW Guest: Bester Makombe.

Narrated in simple present tense and first-person point of view, ‘A Separation’ begins “how it has always been…”, in medias res, with Kaaka making lemongrass tea.  Tushabe’s story revolves around the 30-year-old Harriet, who is named after her 90-year-old grandmother, the woman who has lived with her and brought her up, after her mother’s untimely death by deadly snakebite when Harriet was just 8 years old.

The olfactory suffuses the narrative:

“Kaaka fans the steam toward her nose and inhales noisily, closing her eyes to savour the aroma.

One of the sensory motifs that Tushabe returns to throughout giving us moments that fuse the story’s dualities, this kind of keen attention to detail in the prose highlights both the thematic journey and the story’s plot development.

Harriet has been enrolled at the University of Regina to study Anthropology and Archaeology but before she leaves for Canada, Kaaka ushers six cowries from her lilac satin bag to join the six already on Harriet’s necklace, a legacy from her mother. Both the cowries and lilac satin bag represent a cultural package, a lived sculpture of social histories and memory. Further, the cowries represent a raft of inheritance across the waters of Harriet’s different experiences of separation.  

The narrative presents the ultimate division, that of death, in metaphysical versus pragmatic views. The cowries prompt a flashback that takes the reader back to the tragic experience of the death of her mother and the narrative’s consequent unearthing of Kaaka’s worldview reveals a generational gap. As a primatologist, invested in the physical and material world around her, Harriet intrinsically queries Kaaka’s belief in the omnipresence of the dead as they are called by Nyabingi, the rain goddess:

“But how do you know for certain that Nyabingi took her? How do you know if   Nyabingi exists?”          

Kaaka responds to Harriet’s fundamental questions with gentle strength of will, ultimately bringing forward the challenge of knowledge, world-making and epistemological impermanence: “…just because you can’t see something that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

This links to the most compelling feature in ‘A Separation’ in the idea of language and naming. Newly arrived in Canada to take up her graduate studies, Harriet’s struggles in pronouncing her new address on Munroe Place paints a diasporic image: either “Monroe”, as in “blonde bombshell” Marilyn, or “Moon-row”, a row of moons. Dark clouds and an unexpected call from her father bring a word that the woman she is named “for”, Harriet, her Kaaka, is no more. On her death, Kaaka is referred to by Harriet’s father as “the body”: this transition presents another metaphysical inquiry that Harriet must face in her loss, in the experience, rather than the notional philosophical principles of reality and matter, the immaterial and the soul. 

Another recurrent motif that intertwines with the existential elements is that of animal imagery. Responding to Kaaka’s passing, Harriet compares herself to a caged bird suddenly set loose. The news is so devastating that she runs immediately wild, in distress and longing to be “home”. Her running is stopped short by the bark of a large black dog with a “rumpled coat like the skin of an elephant”, certainly a mixed symbol – that of evil and despair combined with memory and home in these heightened moments of insecurities and grief.   

Realising she is lost in the unknown spaces of this unfamiliar neighbourhood and in such a confused state, Harriet knocks at someone’s door. It is at this house where Harriet meets Ganesh, a “stranger named for a god” with whom she has an instant connection, her body bending “toward him like a vining plant to light”. The sensory composite of events takes shape again when Ganesh prepares lemongrass tea in Harriet’s apartment, “brought…from home in Ziploc bags. In cut-up bits”. The aroma brings its “sweet smell” and Harriet’s full circle to a time and space so present yet also now irretrievably apart and “gone”. 

The scrupulous accounts of the sensory and of perceptions that take Harriet beyond the fixed knowledge of her own worldview challenges the reader to progressively construct a negotiated space between the living and the dead, as Harriet struggles to renegotiate the brutal realities of her mother’s death with the loss of her Kaaka. Tushabe’s story provokes us to these spaces of tension, magnificently curling its multiple separations, its realities and beliefs, cultural imaginaries and consciousnesses, engaging us in the juxtaposition of hope and despair.


BESTERBester Makombe  is a scholar and writer currently conducting research in Conspiracy Theories and Post-colonial Theories. He teaches literature at Children of the Nations in Malawi.

Every day this week, we are publishing our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read the stories in full at the AKO Caine Prize website.

W. thanks to Brittle Paper’s post about the virtual events with the shortlisted authors this year, catch Iryn in conversation with Canadian novelist Trevor Herriot about ‘A Separation’ later today (16th July):IrynTushabe_PennyUniBooksEvent1607And look out for the other reviews, chats and blog-alonga-readathons of the Caine Prize this year – a couple of them are at the Twitter links below. Let us know if there are any we can share and your fave to win – we’d love to hear from you…

And… just a reminder, especially if you’re a “from then to now” type of reader… this year’s AiW review set comes after a long engagement with the Caine Prize stories, and as part of our discussions about prize culture at Africa in Words: Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 kicked us off, reflecting this critical angle in the context of other forms of “prizing” African literature.
You can read previous years’ shortlist reviews, interviews with the writers, and other coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our discussions of the Anthologies.

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