NYRB Classics: Season of Migration to the North and Alone! Alone!
Last month, Spotlight Series did a tour featuring small publisher NYRB Classics. I’ve admired that press for awhile, so I eagerly jumped on board and decided to read one fiction and one nonfiction selection (as I did for the first Spotlight tour, and as I intend to do for the just-announced upcoming tour featuring Graywolf Press). Then, the blogging black hole that was my life in May interfered, and I had to bow out of official participation. But that didn’t stop me from reading my two choices, and it certainly won’t stop me from talking about them today! ;) Let’s start with the novel, shall we?
Oh my goodness. Originally published in Arabic in 1966, Season of Migration to the North already reads like a classic. It’s jam-packed with ideas for readers to unravel…progress, gender, colonisation, fate, intellectualism, ‘village idylls’…it felt like every page brought its own challenge for my brain to play with. At the same time, the book is page-turning; it’s structured as a story-within-a-story, which I love, and jumps back and forth in time and narrator with great panache. I honestly wanted to know what would happen in each of the two main stories. The two narrator’s voices were each spot-on, and really the style throughout was pitch perfect. Listen to the opening sentence:
It was, gentlemen, after a long absence-seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe-that I returned to my people.
Or this passage, which is so beautiful and true it would make a perfect literary tattoo:
I want to take my rightful share by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.
And the characters are unforgettable, both male and female. All of that wrapped into such a slim book: I’m tempted to tell you all to go get it, spend the afternoon reading it, and then come back here so we can have a long chat. Because I promise you: you’ll want to talk about it afterwards!
The part of the book I found the most challenging centered around women. Salih is Sudanese, and the ‘modern’ storyline occurs in a small village along the Nile. Our narrator grew up there, but he know lives in Khartoum and only visits the village on occasion. In a powerful scene, he’s party to a ribald conversation amongst some of the village elders: a handful of men and one outspoken woman (who’s definitely my favourite minor character of the book). I’ve had to return this to the library already (and I’m not desperately coveting a copy for my shelves), so I can’t share with you the scene directly, but it was neat to see a woman talking so frankly and amusingly about sex. One of the men fancies himself a ladies’ killer, so there’s a kind of banter back and forth, and then suddenly the topic of female genital mutilation arises. For those of you who don’t know, while the extremity of FGM varies from place to place, a young-ish girl (usually between 8 and 10) is held down while at the very least her clitoris is cut off (this is all usually conducted by the adult women). In some places, the inner labial lips are also removed, in others infibulation is practiced. This means that all external genitalia (the clitoris, the inner labial lips, and most of the outer labilial lips) are removed, and then what’s left of the outer lips are sewn together, leaving a hole about the size of a pencil through which urine and mentrual blood passes. I’m telling you this because in Sudan, FGM usually means infibulation. And here’s what’s interesting…in the conversation, the ladies’ man says it’s more fun to have sex with women from other places, where either FGM isn’t practiced or is ‘less extreme’ (I hate to even use that phrase, because how does one compare intensity levels for removing the clitoris and thus all means of orgasm or sexual pleasure?). The topic obviously wasn’t discussed with the horror most ‘Westerners’ would express, but it did feel like a bit of a condemnation. However, even in Nigeria and Egypt (two of the countries I know were mentioned), there is a cultural practice of removing the clitoris, so I still wasn’t sure what to think. You know? Late in the ‘modern’ story, something happens that seems to show Salih has a progressive side towards women’s rights and especially their independence to marry or not marry as they wish. That being said, the second storyline, told by ‘Mustafa,’ a stranger to the village, revolves around him using weak British women for sex and then leaving them so heart-broken they turn to suicide. While it’s easy to read this as a comment more on colonisation, I still felt uncomfortable seeing so many women reduced to objects or symbols. Since Mustafa was telling the story, though, I believe the objectification rested with him and his character, as opposed to Salih. This didn’t necessarily make reading it any more pleasant, but it did justify it, for me at least. Can you sense the murkiness I feel on this aspect of the book? My wrestling with it made my experience of the book less enjoyable, but it didn’t diminish the book’s worth in my eyes.
I didn’t feel a similar inner battle over the issues of colonisation raised in the book. Mustafa is the primary engine of this; he tells his story of being a smart, poor kid from Sudan who ends up going first to Cairo and then to London to become a ‘famous’ economics professor who simultaneously seems to spend most of his energy sleeping with white British women. He basically learns how to turn British prejudices about the ‘exotic’ to his advantage, and he talks about seducing girls with stories of imaginary animals running across the harsh, evocative landscape of his childhood. Throughout his narrative, he’s portrayed as lacking something vitally human, a kind of warmth towards his fellow species that leaves him all cold intellect…as a young boy, he doesn’t know how to connect with his schoolmates and doesn’t even seem bothered by his friendlessness. And once he’s an adult, while he must enjoy sex (why else seduce so many women?), he never feels any emotional attachment to the women, and I don’t think he even sees it as a way to connect so much as a way to use and dominate. None of the women he encounters are ever shown as real human beings, although the only one to resist him does have more complexity about her than the others. As I mentioned in the above paragraph, it’s all too easy to read this as a metaphor for colonisation. But even while Salih is exploring this, he never makes it a black-and-white issue…nuances and complexities are explored, and he leaves up to the reader to try to figure out what’s being said.
You know what? I’m simply finding it too difficult to try to get into these issues without the book in front of me. So for now, I’m going to throw in the towel. But I fully intend on rereading this, and I would LOVE to have a few people to talk about it with. And since I don’t have a book club in r/l, I’ll invite anyone who’s interested in reading it with others to leave a comment on this post. Then perhaps I can e-mail you all, and we can figure out a day to have an e-mail chat about it? I’d honestly be willing to reread it tomorrow, so I’m hoping there’s at least a bit of interest. :) Also, a few days ago I found this great list of recommended Arabic-in-English-translation lit ( thanks to stu) and 9 of the 14 contributors selected Season of the North as one of their top five. It was easily the most popular single book, so that might help give you the push to read it! Especially since that list is part of an Arabic Summer Reading Challenge that just asks participants to read one of the listed books to be entered at the end of summer in a drawing for a package of books. It’s a win-win-WIN situation! ;)
I’m already far over my intended word count, and I haven’t even discussed my nonfiction selection yet! I’ll try to be brief(er). Alone! Alone! is an essay collection: Dinnage has written many book reviews over the years, and this book collects her reviews of biographies of women. However, that’s not the way it’s marketed and until I read the introduction, I was under the impression that the essays had all been written specifically about women from various walks of life who experienced loneliness. I believe that my expectations had a lot to do with my initial disappointment…while Dinnage’s writing is lovely and precise and intellectual, I found the link to loneliness in many of the essays tenuous at best. The only real connection between the (white, mainly twentieth-century) women is that all were in some way well-known enough to have biographies written about them, which Dinnage then reviewed. Additionally, most of them had at least one trait that left them outside of mainstream society…either troubled sexuality, or an odd way of looking at the world, or a rebelliousness towards a ‘woman’s proper place’…you get the idea. If I had begun it knowing this, I think I would have simply sat back and loved the book, instead of constantly trying to seek out the loneliness and wondering why some of the essays were more about famous men than the women connected to them. And now that you know this, I’d highly recommend them! The wonderful thing about a collection of reviews of biographies is that, as a reader, you really get each person’s life distilled down, so it’s easy to decide which ones interest you the most. And since each essay is a review, you have a built-in recommended book for further information! For me, reading Dinnage was like tagging along as a university student when a favourite professor took a visiting speaker out to tea. By keeping my mouth shut and my ears open, I could learn a lot in the give-and-take between two intelligent people on a range of interesting subjects. If that appeals to you, I highly recommend giving Alone! Alone! a try.
All in all, both of my NYRB Classics books left me more thoughtful, and challenged me to truly engage while reading. The next time I’m in the mood for an intellectual read, you can bet I’ll be searching my library catalogue for more books by this press. And the physical books they publish are so lovely that, when I have more of a disposable income, I’d love to have more than a few gracing my permanent shelves.
Have you read any books published by NYRB? Would you recommend them?