Review by Laura Windley
Dreamlike and richly evocative tales of human—and nonhuman— connection in modern-day Sudan.
What is it that links us all despite our many boundaries and differences? It’s a question that Sudanese author Rania Mamoun asks throughout this translation of her evocative debut collection, where she paints a vivid, sometimes wry, picture of contemporary Sudan that is intense, often surprising, and packed with emotional truth.
The ten stories in Thirteen Months of Sunrise highlight the universality of human experience and feeling, of connections and empathies forged, and boundaries dissolved, of the flow in life, progress and process; of grief, memory and experiences shared, within families and love relationships, between friends. A number of the tales highlight their narrators’ search for similarities, compassion and common ground between the self and the other, whoever— or whatever— that ‘other’ may turn out to be. A student from a culture you’ve hitherto only viewed through the lens of your own. A woman living on your local streets, but who doesn’t seem to be begging and who carries round a mysterious object. A fly that buzzes around and bugs you on a hot bus journey back to a home city you have not seen in a long time, where you are jittery, and conscious of the strangers who surround you.
Mamoun’s protagonists are ordinary Sudanese citizens and mostly, with a couple of exceptions, women. Either the author herself as narrator, relaying her own feelings or acting as the observer of others, or mothers, daughters, friends, war-widows, usually impacted by circumstances they cannot control, in a society where widowhood can leave you suddenly destitute or on the streets, and where basics like medical care or food cannot be taken for granted. Characters fight for survival in their own ways; through faith and positivity, through the kindnesses of others, sometimes surprisingly, even through blurring the lines between external and internal realities. The challenges that surround them are often systemic, governmental failures, the aftermath of wars, societal beliefs, but there are also those that we recognise as universal and inevitable across cultures; bereavement, betrayal, the push-pull of romantic relationships, the dashing of hopes, memories of loss and love and friendships. And despite the overall life-affirmingness of the collection, it would be untrue to say the stories are all uplifting or have happy endings. Sometimes the system is what it is; a heavy grey mass flattening everything in its path; faith, hope, the vibrant indomitability of the human spirit. In these stories, it is our, the readers’, compassion and empathy that is invoked, wherever in the world we may reside.
The story that begins the collection is one of memories of a friendship between the author and a young Ethiopian man, displaced by conflict from his homeland, which develops when he happens to visit the print shop where she works, the depth of their eventual bond, she realises, arising because, despite their cultural and language differences— they have to communicate in English in the absence of a common tongue— ‘what makes our bond so strong, I thought; we were nursed from the same source.’ In other stories, such as ‘In The Muck of The Soul’ and ‘Stray Steps’, generosity, empathy and help can come from unexpected sources, while the sense of shared experiences or sheer curiosity builds connections in ‘Cities & Other Cities’ and ‘A Woman Asleep On Her Bundle.’
One of the pleasures of Thirteen Months of Sunrise is the richness of the imagery and the sense of being pulled into the depth and intensity of emotion, of experiencing it alongside the narrator, even if the emotion is negative. The breath-stopping pain of grief and regret in ‘Passing’, for instance, the story of the narrator’s much-loved father dying, a daughter’s regrets at the wishes she was not able to fulfil, where the emotions and memories wash over her suddenly like a wave, seeping into everything; her skin, the room. ‘The cracks in the walls are stained with the scent of you.’ Many of us will recognise the gut-wrenching emotions in this story; both of bereavement and the sense that there are some things in life that, however much we wish it isn’t so, are immutable and can never be changed.
In other tales, the emotion shared belongs to a different kind of life experience. Mamoun relishes the intensity of feeling in love affairs, for instance, the sense of being ‘taken completely’ by the current of love, of engulfment by it, wisely or not. She conveys, too, the agonies of being let down by fate or indifference, of utter desperation, often the results of failures of the official channels in a dog-eat-dog system.
Stylistically, she uses elements of magical realism, making the collection both poetic and vivid. Many of the stories have this dreamlike quality, almost stream of consciousness. They weave seamlessly between present and past, threading together moments in time, and external and internal realities. There are some more experimental structures. In ‘The Muck of The Soul’, the story is told directly as if from a film script. In ‘A Week of Love’, the push and pull of an entire relationship is compressed into a very short week-long diary. The dreamlike quality, however is present in most of the stories. Often the same images and tropes reappear, interwoven throughout, which serves to link the tales. Meanwhile, boundaries are dissolved, the skin between reality and unreality porous and thin, with external reality and daydream, objective and subjective seeming to merge. This is a universe where images of friends and family can appear, ghost-like, in a window, to join in a conversation, the happinesses of a past life can be encapsulated visually in a tear, or a writer’s curious inner companion— possibly an angel of sorts— can manifest as a tangible external reality; a sister, a guardian, a friend.
I found, too, that the stories would often be punctuated with the unexpected, perhaps a line or an aside here and there that would jolt me from the world I thought I was getting to know. “Wait. What?” I’d think, curiosity piqued, having to reread, and I enjoyed the way Mamoun has deliberately allowed many of these small mysteries to linger and drift by leaving many of those questions as unanswered as the one about what’s really in the bundle carried by the woman on the street. All the stories in the collection have stayed with me in one way or another. If I had to choose, the weaker spot for me, due to what felt to me like an element of contrivance, was ‘Edges’ (or perhaps it is the case that I tend not to find writers writing about being a writer particularly interesting), although the story’s title and style does encapsulate the collection’s themes and tropes perfectly. From the others, though, it would be hard to pick a favourite; the emotional heft of ‘Passing’; the vivid character observation in ‘A Woman Asleep On Her Bundle’, the sense of cheering for the underdog in ‘Doors’, and ‘In The Muck of The Soul’, the surprising, satisfying finale of ‘Stray Steps’. Given that I came to this collection with an extremely limited knowledge of the Sudan, whether its history or its culture, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a reminder that in such divided times, we can still choose to notice that we are all indeed ‘nursed from the same source’ and that the greatest experiences and truths in life are most often those shared by us all.
Laura Windley is a short story lover and writer from London. She was runner-up in the Bristol Short Story Prize, has been short and longlisted in other competitions such as Fish and the London Short Story Prize, and has been published in print and online. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and is currently putting together a short fiction collection. She tweets, somewhat sporadically, at @laura_windley.
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