Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, is a tiny but rather marvelous short story collection that demonstrates the strength of Sudanese literature and leaves me wanting for some more. It’s not like the English-speaking world has had too many books coming from Sudan, right? In fact, this is said to be the first English translation of a full collection by a Sudanese female author.
The first half of the collection navigates the private sphere of strong emotions – there’s longing, despair, and betrayal – yet Mamoun’s beautiful, figurative language has a humane, life-affirming effect. She writes extremely succinctly – “A Week of Love”, at mere two pages, is a prime example – and this economy of language, combined with rich imagery, brings about a very poetic quality to the text. Mamoun can also be very sensual and tactile, like in “Passing”, where the narrator’s longing for her father is depicted as an overwhelming sensation filling all space and her body:
Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’
Toward the end of the collection the focus shifts slowly from the inner to the outer. In “A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle”, the private female interior is contrasted against the public sphere of the city, as citizens speculate about an allegedly mad woman carrying a bundle with her, stroking it tenderly. Similarly, “Cities and Other Cities” is set in the confines of a bus where the narrator, surrounded by strangers, is worried about killing a fly and smearing public property. In the semi-surreal final story, “Stray Steps”, the private and the public collide: “In that moment I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy”.
While the collection stands on its own as a very enjoyable piece of fiction, it also broadened my geographical horizon: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea all feature in the titular story, sending me off into the wonders of Wikipedia for a good while in order to learn at least some basics of the eastern coast of Africa, an area of which I know embarrassingly little about. As Nigerian and Kenian authors are increasingly popular in the Western world thanks to the advantage of a common tongue, the literatures of Arabic-speaking nations are only slowly surfacing in the Western literary radar, although still in the periphery. Recommended, and it’s very much readable in one sitting.