AiW Guest: Megan Brune (South Africa)
AiW note: we’ve been holding a series of critical conversations around the work of the Caine Prize, now the AKO Caine Prize, each year since we first joined its “blogathon carnival” back in 2013.
Today, we’re sharing the second of our annual guest reviews of the 5 stories shortlisted for the award in 2022. We’ll also be running Q&As with authors and others working with this year’s Prize, all to be featured in the run-up to the winner announcement on Monday 18th July. You can read up on these, and browse through all our AKO Caine Prize content, at this link.
AiW Guest Megan Brune, a second-year Humanities student at the University of Stellenbosch, discusses Hannah Giorgis’ shortlisted story, “A Double-Edged Inheritance”, for us today.
As with Billie McTernan’s “The Labadi Sunshine Bar”, reviewed for us yesterday by Nnaemeka Ezema, Giorgis’ story was first published in one of Akashic Books’ Noir collections (Accra and Addis Ababa, respectively), published in the UK by Cassava Republic Press, and making up 2 of the three shortlisted stories that first featured in the Noir series.
NB: Although we avoid it where we can, our reviews may contain spoilers! If you haven’t already, you can head them off by reading the story in full, available via the shortlisted stories page on the AKO Caine Prize website, or direct here.
“A double-edged inheritance” by Hannah Giorgis was originally published in 2020 in the short story collection Addis Ababa Noir, edited by acclaimed writer Maaza Mengiste (Akashic Books / Cassava Republic Press). Culturally rich and brilliantly crafted, Giorgis’ story gives voice to Addis through those across three generations of a family of women – Meskerem, her mother Tigist, and their common mother figure, Tigist’s aunt Almaz – evoking a time in Ethiopia that was heavily dominated by patriarchal figures. While Giorgis brings forward the challenges that women faced during the rule of The Derg (a military Junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1987), she also unveils the agency of women, even under oppression.
The strength of these three female characters drive the story. The eldest, Great-Aunt Almaz, a literature professor at her niece’s university in Addis, is the glue that binds them. Almaz shares a fiercely protective mother-daughter bond with both Tigist, her niece, and her great-niece, Meskerem, and the entire story rests on these relationships, which immerse the reader in their shared histories and culture from the start.
Almaz is, by far, the strongest character in this short story where there is little to no positive portrayal of men. The “double edge” of the title also involves the paternal line — Meskerem’s absent father, Robel, and his late father, Girma, both generals in the Ethiopian army. The need for control violently exerted by Girma and the lack of accountability portrayed by Robel make these two the story’s deeply unsympathetic antagonists, their actions symbolic of the autocratic rule of the Ethiopian military Junta.
By contrast, Almaz always provides unconditional filial support throughout both Meskerem and Tigist’s lives, even though there is great distance that is forced between them. The story begins with a heart-breaking phone call informing Meskerem “that the aunt who had named her—the great-aunt who shared her birthday— had died” (29). Although the narrative is set off by this news “from back home” and the reader is not yet aware of Almaz’s significance, from the first paragraphs, we are made aware that the story’s main themes are love and loss, and that its place is Ethiopia.
Giorgis introduces language-switching, between Amharic and English, in italicised words and phrases throughout, calling for readers who are not familiar to do some research in order to understand their context and the significance. Despite this emphasis and the historical arc, nothing feels forced. The telling is gradual and convincing, such that the language of narration allows the reader to experience the feelings of the characters. The themes are seamlessly integrated, tying the looser threads together to allow the narrative and plot to come full circle. The constant push and pull of love and loss is particularly well handled in the storytelling: the gut-wrenching feeling of a first heartbreak is paralleled with the feeling of grieving a family member, such that the reader is able to effortlessly relate to the story and to the themes it presents, as well as to the specifics of place, history and its politics.
It is worth mentioning that “A Double-edged Inheritance” jumps from place to place and character to character, as well as across generations and language; “she” or “her” are used in such a way to refer to all three central women — Tigist, Meskerem, and Almaz — to the point where, on the first read, it was sometimes difficult to piece together who I was with in the narrative present; there were also times where things were said indirectly or inexplicitly. This, however, is also a strength, especially on a second read where one is able to truly enjoy and value the narrative style, its gentle unfolding of events, the understanding it gives of the characters and their viewpoints, and the build-up to the climax.
Which is worth the wait. Giorgis’ skill merges the different characters and their connected stories into a gripping tale of love, loss and tragedy, with the full picture vividly painted in the last few pages and sustained right up until the closing line. Although heart-breaking, this is a significant read. “A Double-Edged Inheritance” is an important addition to literature retelling the double-edges of Ethiopia’s troubled past.
Megan Brune a nineteen-year-old South African student. She matriculated in 2020 after a very turbulent year wherein covid-19 disrupted her final year of school. Currently, she is a second year BA (Humanities) student at Stellenbosch University. Once she finishes her undergraduate studies, she hopes to continue with post-graduate studies in English at Stellenbosch. Her High School English teacher ignited in her a passion for both English and literature and she hopes to continue honing her skills throughout her degrees.
Images and text below c. of the AKO Caine Prize website…
Hannah Giorgis is a staff writer at The Atlantic. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, she lives in Brooklyn by way of Southern California. Her criticism and reporting have appeared in publications including the New York Times magazine, The Guardian, and Pitchfork. Hannah’s short stories have appeared in the Addis Ababa Noir anthology, the Lifted Brow literary journal, and SPOOK magazine. She was the recipient of the 2018 Yoojin Grace Wuertz Writers of Immigration and Diaspora fellowship at the Jack Jones Literary Arts retreat and the 2021 Writer-in-Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Most recently, Hannah co-wrote Ida B. The Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, a dedication to the pioneering American journalist and advocate, with Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.
Hannah’s short story, ‘A Double-Edged Inheritance’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘A Double-Edged Inheritance’ here.
Please follow this link to read more from our AKO Caine Prize series.
The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.
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