In over 40 years – before and after independence – the South Sudanese short story was unable to answer the critical questions of reality. Real life and all its details and manifestations remained an inspiration for all those who had chosen the short story as their realm for creative production.
Many factors limited the widespread spread of South Sudanese short story writers; wars, migration, displacement and the lack of coverage by the media- whether deliberate or not. That was until the Addis Ababa Accord was signed to stop the civil war plaguing the country between 1955 and 1972. The years of political stability and peace that followed (all the way to 1983) resulted in a huge cultural boost, one that led to the emergence of important names in the realm of short story writing in South Sudan. These names were accompanied by creative contributions that are still influentially memorable, despite the 40 or so years since they had emerged. As a result, some distinctive writings appeared such as “The Storm’s Return” by journalist Jacob J. Akol, “Nabori’s Marriage” by story-writer and politician Agnes Lukudu, “The Younger Aunt’s Return” by Michael Keniston, and other stories by Professor Ta’ban Lo Liyong – who lately poured all his attention into narration and poetry. It’s impossible to mention all this and forget the unique and ingrained experience of Mr. Jonathan Miyan, who utilized folklore to chronicle the most famous of short stories; “The Trial of the Fish”. The story was later made into a timeless play directed by Mr. ElSammany Lual. The same story had also been broadcast by the German Köln radio station mid-seventies. Another noteworthy title is “The Plot” also by Agnes Lukudu who became the first female governor of Bahr ElJabal province. Finally, “Whales” by journalist and deputy Minister of Culture, Atim Yak Atim.
These stories were characterized by their unique way techniques of narrating social life, and the deeply rooted folklore in the societies to which the writers belonged. Unfortunately, all of the above-mentioned – with the exception of Lo Liyong – discontinued producing collections available to readers. Their works remained distributed among publications. After the war broke out in 1983, most of these writers were concerned with the public life, and some chose the paths of politics, media, academia and other fields. That was until the time that followed 2002, when the then University of Khartoum Pharmacy student, Stella Gaitano published “Wilted Flowers” and Arthur Gabriel Yaak published “It Doesn’t Matter, You’re from There”.
Stella Gaitano recently published a new book titled “The Return”, crowning herself as the first woman to produce a short story collection in Arabic in the Republic of South Sudan; which obtained its independence in 2011. If my memory isn’t failing me, Gaitano could also be considered the first woman to have a short story collection in the entire country. That, of course, if we consider the folk stories collection compiled by one of the respectable Joseph Lagu’s daughters, and published through a London-based publishing house.
This study will attempt to present the new collection using an analytic approach based on comparisons between the published collection and critical questions surrounding reality, in an attempt to deduce what was stated in the innermost layers of the collection, published by “Rafeeqi” printing press. The entire collection of 77 pages includes 8 stories, most of which were published for the first time – all but the text of “Papaya-sized lake” which was published in the “Wilted Flowers” written by “Morning Star” (the meaning of her name) and printed by Azza printing press, one of the most famous establishments in Khartoum. “The Return” includes the short stories “The Incense of Occupation”, “Mother, I am Frightened”, “Half a Perfect Corpse”, “I Kill Myself and Disappear”, “Papaya-sized Lake”, “The Escape from The Paycheck”, “The Return” and “Kosti”; respectively.
The general features of this collection prove that Gaitano has acquired depths in writing and storytelling. If you probe into the manner of narration used in her stories, you’d notice her optimistic side. Those sides had pushed her, in most of the stories in the collection, to display the events in a spectacular way in contrast to real life. The events continue to intervene more frequently in the descriptive way of the stories, urging the narration to create a brilliant image that embarks into the core of the narration terrain. It wasn’t haphazard; Stella wasn’t just trying to draw letters on the walls of precariousness in the depths of everyday life in the home geographically known as “South Sudan”. She didn’t want to just mess around- she insisted to direct all those details that are part of the present-day crisis. Stella used the customary techniques of “Wilted Flowers” in “The Return”; however, there’s a refined precision in weaving the stories with an amalgamation of all the facts of the tormenting reality. The specifics weren’t completely hopeless, either. All that while the characters’ stances clashed all at once, to embody one of the most popular predicaments that talked about the current situation, portraying it as a creative notion that cannot emerge from comparison; but from approximation of truths that are distant in contradicting circumstances.
In the collection, Gaitano stuck to controlling the narration with all the specifics of tension, anxiety, astonishment, compassion, and anticipation. The reader can only imagine how the events might progress, or how the characters might evolve, but by the end she moves the characters and events in a direction completely opposite to all the reader’s expectations. That was very prominent in “The Incense of Occupations”, in which she was able to kill the characters that she’d previously built in an unexpected accident, and a realistic occurrence that had a major effect on much of the social and political life. Gaitano didn’t specify a certain time, but the mentioned tragedy was enough to hint at the period when the plane that flew the leader of Sudan’s People Liberation Movement –Dr. John Garang – crashed. All that perfectly adjoined with the location, Al-Inghaz bridge, where the characters transcend to other worlds after their dead bodies float on the River Nile. The narration technique here rebels against the views that distract the reader from the story’s details, and with an intentional consciousness the reader realizes the situation and deals with it through analyzing the characters’ worlds and removing them, at the last moment, to different worlds. From there on the speculation would transform the fate of these characters into a different and unexpected reality.
The characters had come from various geographical locations; Abbakar who was sweating and oily, reeking of Benzene and Gasoline. Hajja Amna, who has never once gone on a pilgrimage and smells of Kissra and Kawal. Then there’s Nafuni who sends salted dried fish from the south. And Tiya, the short, buff redcap who rarely ever stops singing about his beloved Zannuba. Sameera, whose face has become a vicious battle between her dark complexion and cheap, spoiled bleaching creams. Daniel, with the majestic tribal markings upon his forehead, then Ramadan Afande, and the poor Dervish, and Rambo, the conductor in the fragile bus. All the events of the story happened in that tattered vehicle, with its driver’s face showing through the window. All those characters were immensely grieved.
“When they’d heard about the leader’s death, they said his plane had crashed on a mountain during a thunderstorm. The ancient bus had embraced them gently, as if it were trying to comfort them. They were enveloped by a harsh silence and anger boiling over inside them. Each and every one of them was listening to the sound of their beloved leader echoing in the void.”1
The text of “The Incense of Occupations” brings back the unforgettable past of those who’d witnessed how the painful tragedy was after the death of the leader, without mentioning the details that took over the media when the disappearance of the plane was announced. You can only imagine all the scenes that are missing from reality. The reality which a crash ended, saving the characters from the political turmoil that followed the leader’s death, after they’d gone deep into their dreams without restraints.
“The bus started to sway with its passengers, right and left, while they were oblivious to the driver’s heart that has stopped a few seconds ago, all thanks to a stroke. And the bus, it drove on – on its own – until it went over the bridge into the silent calm water. Silent but for their mass drowning noises.” 2
Death here is an existential fact that you have to live with, but for the story writer it’s an opportunity for her characters to escape the psychological and economical reality after the death of the beloved leader. That leader who was supposed to give them back their rights, and turn their hopes into reality. And that is how Gaitano ends her text that has excelled in blending various, spectacular occurrences with mastered narrative techniques.
Gaitano offers through her stories; “The Return”, “Escape from the Paycheck” and “Kosti”, an analysis of the everyday worlds that her characters live through, in a realistic spirit without giving up on the controversy of knowledge and awareness of the meanings that are most comfortable for the assembly of the true events, reigniting it over and over by tracking its origins. In “Escape from the Paycheck” for example, Gaintano speaks out in anger about the corruption that has paralyzed the public institutions in the country with tragic details, but with an unexpected ending. It follows a character that has come from a first world country escaping the paycheck he receives for almost no work done – as he hasn’t applied with neither his academic certificates nor professional experience – to find out that the ministry he was assigned to work at is filled with employees that are basically his family, his own people. He sees the corrupted spreading their venom among everyone and in the governmental institutions that were recently established after the independence. It’s a tragedy one cannot conceal.
Here, one can notice the contradictions between the past revolt slogans and today’s governors. The narration in this story was so precise and brimful of all the events, so the reader would know that the writer can perfectly duplicate all the details from real life situations. The narration starts with the view of the pathetic airport, to the main character receiving the paycheck, and until he returns to a substitute homeland. In between the two occurrences there lies an emotion-packed storytelling method in a time-space matrix with the past embedded in its depth, when the rebels fought for democracy, transparency and the now as a different era, in a time of corruption and favoritism. The narrative rhythm then switches to the reality and specifics where the occurrences differ and condense, varying with the amount of characters’ actions at the time in the voice of the narrator and the voices of other characters, exposing a social scene that the narrator was in no psychological state befitting enough to face. In the voice of the narrator, Stella wrote “my father gifted me a fancy car. One of my uncles came to me with a squad of guards and presented me a job. When I thanked him and attempted to go get my certificates, he firmly stopped me; ‘what certificates? we are your certificates, and your father’s name is more powerful than all of the names of the colleges you studied at!’ Then he smiled a sarcastic yellow smile, and added, patting his chest with his palm, all five fat fingers choked with golden rings: ‘don’t you know we’re combatants?! Just come over tomorrow and receive your job.” 3
That’s how the prevalent features of discontent and anger are drawn. The political variables that happened – and continue to happen – made it possible for corruption and favoritism to spread. It’s a painful and livid expression of the stories of regression from the slogans and goals that were raised for over 20 years of struggle. And for the first time, Gaitano brings forward political stances that were unclear in her numerous previous writings.
The questions regarding the political current situation don’t just cease at that for Gaitano. No, it extends to “The Return”, the story that carried nothing but tragic questions that haven’t been raised until the Ugandan neighbor – in the geography of the land and the neighborhood – was mentioned. The story contains questions about the return of those who had packed up and left when the rebels of yesterday proclaimed war. Some had left the country completely and returned to the countries they used to live in. Others returned to Khartoum; or that’s how the narrator confronts herself through the main character in the text, when her Ugandan neighbor answers her; “Angelo returned to East Africa, Peter returned to the bush, and of course you’re off to Khartoum”.
Then in another paragraph:
“And he went on telling me enthusiastically that he will switch from the career of cleaning feet to that of selling snacks- chapati with hot fried eggs. Suddenly, I felt angry and peeved as I thought of how this Ugandan was more attached to my country than I am.” 4
The characters remained susceptible for approximation within a group of various perspectives, depending on the critique approaches; the structural, the psychological or the ones based upon sociological criticism, or depending on all approaches together for achieving a bigger, more complicated and detailed picture. Or maybe to offer a better chance, not only for a better vision of reality; but for dissecting it with the criticism scalpel for the intention of opening up a window that’ll let in light and a new hope. The character – first and foremost – is the main component, the center of any narrative. The character in this situation plays a structural and functional role, equivalent to all other structures: time, place and events.
Roland Barthes defines the character as “a synthetic resultant that can be composed of a group of themes which can be repeated to create a simple combination or a complicated combination, when it includes harmonious or contrasting signs, and this complication or multitude is what defines the character’s personality”.
Dr. Izz Eldin Ismael says: “the characters in the story are two types: a type we can refer to as the ‘the ripe character’ which is the complete character that shows in the story – it appears in the story without having any change happen to its composition while the change happens to its relationship with other characters only. It always acts with the same traits. The other type we call ‘the growing character’ and that is the character that’s created throughout the story, so it continues developing from one situation to the other, showing a different conduct in each situation, exposing to us to a new side of it.”
The language used in the texts of this collection displays contrast and variation. For example, we find in most of the stories a mixture between fluent Arabic and the local dialect. With that, the text rebels against belonging to the global literature adding a touch of specificity and local flavor , in a truly successful attempt to carry over the local speech into a space much wider than the space it would’ve been limited to.
In conclusion, the paper sees that “The Return” collection – presents a familiar and everyday inspiration, all while maintaining and keeping the narrative adventures from falling into the trap of acclamation and naivety. The collection carved Stella Gaitano’s name on the literary list of writers concerned with the real life issues of the people. The name, however, isn’t carved in stone, but on a water surface. How can it not when the imaginative work has included the vocabulary of what once was, and still is, one of the greatest literary adventures.
1- The Incense of Occupations, page 23.
2- The Incense of Occupations, page 25.
3- Escape from the Paycheck, page 64.
4- The Return, page 59.
Dr Izz Eldin Ismael – About the Character in Short Stories.
Khalifa BabaHouari – Construction of the character in the short story (critical study)