Thursday, 31 December 2015
Telling South Sudan’s Tales in a Language Not Its Own By ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
“I love the Arabic language. I am like writers who write in a language other than their own; I am no different" Stella Gaitano
WHEN dozens of people packed a hall in this capital city to celebrate the publication this year of the latest collection of short stories by Stella Gaitano, a South Sudanese commentator called her “our ambassador to the Arab world.” The audience included writers from Sudan, and when the book went on sale a few months later in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, the author received a glowing reception there as well.
“This is what Stella used to do back in college, bring people together,” said Omar Ushari, a former university colleague of Ms. Gaitano and a moderator of the Khartoum event.
In a relatively short time, Ms. Gaitano, 33, has built a distinguished reputation as a writer who brings to life the experiences of the South Sudanese, who have endured war and displacement as their fragile new country formed and then threatened to disintegrate. More than that, though, she does it in Arabic, a language of the country they broke away from.
“I love the Arabic language,” she said. “I am like writers who write in a language other than their own; I am no different.”
South Sudan became independent
from Sudan in 2011, after
that followed years of conflict with the north. Scores of indigenous languages are spoken here, but the lingua franca is Juba Arabic, a pidgin language. The elite who have studied abroad or with local missionaries generally also speak English, while Arabic is spoken by university-educated people who lived in the north, like Ms. Gaitano.
Her parents, members of the Latuka tribe, fled the town of Torit, in what is now
, in the late 1960s, as the flames of the first Sudanese civil war blazed. They took refuge in Khartoum, where Ms. Gaitano was born.
She learned several languages there, speaking Latuka at home, Juba Arabic with South Sudanese of other tribes and Sudanese Arabic in the larger Sudanese society. She learned classical Arabic in school, and studied pharmacology in college — in English.
“We were a creative generation that was forced to deal with several boundaries,” she said. “So we created gates into each cultural circle.”
She grew up in El-Haj Youssef, a poor neighborhood on the perimeter of Khartoum, as the third of seven children. Her interest in the stories of her grandmother, mother and other female relatives from the south kindled her imagination.
“The south, for me, was an imaginary place,” she said. “It was represented to me in the stories of those who went there and came back to Khartoum.”
HER early love of reading, which included the works of the Sudanese novelist
and Arabic translations of works by
Gabriel García Márquez
, inspired her to write.
“Writing is the legitimate child of reading,” she said.
At the University of Khartoum, she came into contact with writers, intellectuals and activists, and she began developing her literary niche. “I started writing about myself, my family and my people,” she said.
One afternoon, inspired by her grandmother, she wrote one of her first short stories, “A Lake the Size of a Papaya Fruit,” in just 30 minutes. “It was like a revelation,” she said.
It is the story of a girl and her grandmother in southern Sudan who are left to fend for themselves after the girl’s mother dies in labor, her father is killed by a wild buffalo and her grandfather is executed by the British colonial authorities. The story won a Sudanese literary prize in 2003.
“It was important for me that northern Sudanese realize that there was life, values and a people who held a different culture, who needed space to be recognized and respected,” Ms. Gaitano said.
In “Wilted Flowers,” Ms. Gaitano addressed the challenges faced by people who had fled murderous conflicts in southern Sudan, Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, and were living in shantytowns near Khartoum.
Struggling mothers, drunken fathers and pregnant teenagers living in poverty far from their homelands with little or no government assistance became the characters and setting of the story “Everything Here Boils.”
“I was trying to shed a light on these matters, and send a warning that ignoring people this way would make them feel that this is not their country,” she said. “But the message was understood too late.”
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese exiles returned to the newly independent country with high hopes, but the paradise many thought they would find was chimerical.
“When we came to the south, we found ourselves discussing the same issues that we did in the north: racism, tribalism, corruption, nepotism and political failure,” Ms. Gaitano said.
In her latest story collection, “Homecoming,” Ms. Gaitano reflects on the hopes and disappointments of returning families.
The story “Escape From the Regular” centers on families reunited after independence; the clashes between local people and those from the diaspora; and the irony and power of a commonly used phrase that became both a lament and an excuse: “Don’t you know we were freedom fighters?”
“South Sudanese saw themselves in the mirror,” Ms. Gaitano said. “They did not think that their own brothers, who look like them, could do the same things that others did to them.”
Her husband, who works at the University of Khartoum, and their two children are Sudanese, but like others from the south, Ms. Gaitano lost her Sudanese citizenship with independence. She spends as much time with them as she can. She lives in Juba, and works as a pharmacist, even as her literary career continues to bloom.
CHOL DENG YONG, a professor of Arabic at Upper Nile University in
, describes Ms. Gaitano’s work as “narrational,” with “an economic use of words” that combines “classical Arabic, colloquial Sudanese Arabic and Juba Arabic.”
Ms. Gaitano said that some of her South Sudanese colleagues, many of whom write in English, have criticized her privately for writing in Arabic, a language they deem a “colonial tool.” English is an official language in South Sudan but Arabic is not, and its cultural future here is uncertain, making some among the Arabic-educated intelligentsia uneasy.
Victor Lugala, a South Sudanese writer who writes in English, offered some insights: “Stella may be the last generation of South Sudanese to write in Arabic,” he said. “Her publishers could promote her work better if her works are translated into English.”
He went on to compare Ms. Gaitano’s association with a language with that of the Kenyan author
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
. “Since Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, he has had the burden of translating his own works into English,” Mr. Lugala said.
And regional publishers are starting to notice her.
“Without doubt, having read Stella’s short story ‘
I Kill Myself and Rejoice
,’ ” said Lucas
Wafula, an editor for the East Africa Education Publishers, “she will gain great readership once readers get to interact with the themes in her stories.”
Ms. Gaitano said that she was working on improving her English writing and that her works were being translated. Yet she also hopes that Arabic will retain a place in her country.
“Language for me is the soul of the text,” she said. “I love the Arabic language, and I adore writing in it. It is the linguistic mold that I want to fill my personal stories and culture in, distinguished from that of Arabs.”
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