February 9, 2017 at The Other Place, Gulou, Beijing
DE: I’d like to begin by asking you a little about the events behind this story.
PW: This particular story was inspired by some the interviews I did in border villages in Sri Lanka. So, border villages were areas that were not under the control of one particular entity. They would change hands between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government because they were in the frontiers of the northern and eastern province. Life in these villages was quite peculiar, because for many there’s a lot of uncertainty, there are constant attacks and shelling. A lot of these villages have seen a lot of violence. If there is some shelling or if there is some guerilla warfare in the vicinity you have to take what you have and run to the jungle. You could be cooking, you take your rice pot, you just take your reed mat for the night, some kerosene oil and just go. The most obviously valuable thing they had was gold. You’d always keep it somewhere close, tied to your clothes so you could just run with it. This story was about a woman who was away from her home, who was washing clothes when there was an attack and she had to run away with a stranger for she had left her baby at home and she’s worried about her baby. We don’t know whether she meets her baby again. I met a real woman like this and in her situation she did not find her child because she had left her child with her mother and she couldn’t find out what happened to them.
DE: So in your mind, what’s the difference between writing as a fiction writer and writing as a journalist? What changes?
PW: Writing as a journalist limits you in certain ways because you really have to stick to the facts. Also, if you look at journalism in Sri Lanka, especially in the last stages of the war (2006 onwards) there was a lot of censorship, so we couldn’t write a lot of the things that we saw, especially the people’s stories. And because of that for many journalists, fiction was the only way to get out what they what they had seen. Because when you’re a journalist, also, you are part of the trauma. You talk to people who have been traumatized but it also has an influence on you. It impacts you. Kind of like washing your dirty laundry, you want to get it out of your system and when you can’t put it in your actual news story you want to put it out in some other way so I think that’s what fiction meant to me.
DE: At the very beginning of this story you have these cracks in the dam wall caused by mortars and you also have cracks in this woman’s stomach where she’s maybe had a C-section. Is that correlation purposeful?
PW: When I was writing it, I didn’t plan it out. It wasn’t a conscious connection. But all I can say is, as someone who has not just spoken to people who have experienced violence but also having seen it and undergone it myself, we do have a physical reaction to the kind of things that we see and experience. So in a way I think you can say this woman, the pain that she feels in her sutures on her stomach, this correlated to what’s happening in her village. Water plays a very important role in villages in Sri Lanka. They say historically, a village was built around the dam or reservoir and the temple. And a lot of people they think that our conflict was a religious conflict or an ethnic conflict, but really a lot of it was about access to resources; access to water. And so because of that I think that this particular image of the woman having a physical reaction to the dam being attacked in her village is a kind of metaphor of what happened to us as a people. We all are still kind of…not suffering, but rather we’re still in a way subconsciously reacting to the things we’ve seen and experienced.
DE: I was also curious about a small detail in this story where the woman folds jasmine buds into the diapers. Is this a common practice in Sri Lanka?
PW: It’s something I saw with my own mother. Because, at least back in the days when my sister was small we didn’t have disposable diapers, so you would have a piece of cotton cloth and you’d tie it on the baby and once the baby soils it you wash it, then you boil it in hot water, dry it, put it in cold water with jasmine flowers so that it doesn’t smell of poop anymore. So yea, I think mothers go to that level of detail to make their babies feel good.
DE: I found the man in this story kind of enigmatic because on the one hand he’s helping the woman but I also wondered if he might be threatening because they’re left together and she’s in a very vulnerable position with him.
PW: What I wanted to show there was the kind of slightly peculiar kind of culture I found when I was traveling in these border villages. Because Sri Lanka is a conservative society and there is a certain kind of distance—physical distance—between men and women. Even in my case, even my friends wouldn’t necessarily touch me or come to close to me physically (although we are good friends). But when I went to these villages, what I saw was there’s a more physical intimacy. A greater deal of physical intimacy and physical closeness. What some of these villages told me, was that because when you have to run, not just go away with your family members, you go with your neighbors or somebody from another village or a stranger. And when you go into a forest, you don’t know when you’re going to come back. It could be a day. It could be a couple of days. And because there’s this uncertainty in their lives it warps the kinds of traditions and taboos that are there in normal times and it creates this space for looser relationships. And sometimes you know, you come back and sometimes you’re pregnant by another man but it’s okay, your husband still takes you back because…it’s a different subculture that existed in that area because life is so uncertain. Much more uncertain than in another area that wasn’t at the forefront, the frontlines of the conflict.
DE: Do you think that was temporary? Or has it had a more permanent effect on the culture of that area?
PW: I think it’s had a more permanent effect on the culture of that area because I also went as recently as 2014, which was five years after the war officially came to an end. And it still is a bit “looser” to use that word, because you can’t necessarily backtrack. You can’t just go back to being “Oh no, we’re like so traditional.” So I think it’s had a more permanent impact.
DE: There’s a kind of a repetition in the writing. I wonder if you could talk about the choices you made as a writer for that?
PW: Because most of the story is set in flashbacks, but the actual action that is happening is that they’re running. So I have to keep reminding the reader that this man and woman, they’re running. And then tell their backstories in between. It’s a very short piece. The only thing that happens is two people running. And you don’t know who they are, why they’re running, what they’re running for. So all those things are set in flashbacks while they continue to run. So because of that, that action is repeated. Just to kind of remind the reader ok, we’re still just running.
DE: Finally, I’m guessing many of our readers aren’t that familiar with Sri Lankan literature. Would you mind to recommend some writers?
PW: I think the best known is the one who wrote The English Patient (a lot of people don’t know he’s Sri Lankan). Michael Ondaatje is one of the few writers who’ve made it big on the international stage because he won the Man Booker. And there’s another Tamil writer (Sri Lankan-Canadian) Shyam Selvadurai, I would recommend some of his books too. He’s a gay writer. He talks about the experience of being gay in Sri Lanka. Plus his family had to flee the conflict, so he talks about that. For a funnier, light-hearted read, there’s Ashok Ferrey who writes Colpetty People. Colpettey is like your Sanlitun. And it’s a very snarky look at people who live in one of the most upmarket neighborhoods in Colombo. But it also captures the multi-cultural essence of a city that has been a melting pot since the time of the old maritime Silk Road. One of my favorite pieces is one that talks about how one family hides another during the ethnic riots.
When they heard the mortars had cracked the dam wall, They ran. Just clutching the half-cooked pots of rice and their tattered mats.
She felt a pang; a searing pulse from where her stomach was cut; where the stitches were put.
Into the ashened orange hews of the evening sun, that lay heavy on the dry, thorny bushes. Only the frangipani flowers were in bloom, at this time, when the rains were scarce and the earth was parched.
Elephants were also out in search of water; following wild buffalo tracks. The newborns carefully tucked in between the legs of the strong matriarchs.
She held her breasts; their contents threatening to spill out; pink udders of a cow, pulsing with milk; They hurt as they ran.
Before she started running, she was at the well, bashing soiled nappies against a smooth granite stone. She had left a few wild jasmine buds to soak in the tin-bucket. She wanted to hide their scent, in the creases of those pieces white cotton fabric. A few seconds before she was pulled by the elbows and dragged over the mossy pebbles surrounding the mouth of the well, she had been smiling to herself.
But now she was running..
He saw her, squatting by the well. As he grabbed her by the elbow, the woman gave out an animal cry and struggled to break free and run back toward the village. But, there was nothing left there. Everyone would have fled, already alerted by the sound of falling shell fire. So he pulled her along. She in her confusion, let herself be dragged.
Until their frenzied fear evaporated. Until, they couldn’t run anymore..
The villagers found the few caves, long abandoned by wondering monks. The sounds of the rounds of ammunition had slowly died down.
Her feverish eyes searched the crowed, for an old wrinkled face. Her ears were pricked for the cry of a hungry baby. But, the air was still. No one even dared to breathe. Her eyes darted left and right but they couldn’t pierce the suffocating darkness of a moonless night. She simply slumped against the rock face, her legs extended, her loose blouse, open, waiting for her baby to suckle at her breast; to relieve her of the burden of milk she carried. But all she could feel was the brittle hand, of the stranger, who dragged her away to safety, away from a fate of being hacked by a machete.
She didn’t resist when he reached out – to place a piece of cloth, torn from the rim of his sarong, where the milky wetness was spreading through her cotton blouse, in concentric circles.
When they heard the mortars had cracked the
dam wall, They ran. Just clutching the half-cooked pots of rice and their
She felt a pang; a searing pulse from where
her stomach was cut; where the stitches were put.
Into the ashened orange hews of the evening
sun, that lay heavy on the dry, thorny bushes. Only the frangipani flowers were
in bloom, at this time, when the rains were scarce and the earth was parched.
Elephants were also out in search of water;
following wild buffalo tracks. The newborns carefully tucked in between the
legs of the strong matriarchs.
She held her breasts; their contents
threatening to spill out; pink udders of a cow, pulsing with milk; They hurt as
Before she started running, she was at the
well, bashing soiled nappies against a smooth granite stone. She had left a few
wild jasmine buds to soak in the tin-bucket. She wanted to hide their scent, in
the creases of those pieces white cotton fabric. A few seconds before she was
pulled by the elbows and dragged over the mossy pebbles surrounding the mouth
of the well, she had been smiling to herself.
But now she was running..
He saw her, squatting by the well. As he
grabbed her by the elbow, the woman gave out an animal cry and struggled to
break free and run back toward the village. But, there was nothing left there.
Everyone would have fled, already alerted by the sound of falling shell fire.
So he pulled her along. She in her confusion, let herself be dragged.
Until their frenzied fear evaporated.
Until, they couldn’t run anymore..
The villagers found the few caves, long abandoned
by wondering monks. The sounds of the rounds of ammunition had slowly died
Her feverish eyes searched the crowed, for an
old wrinkled face. Her ears were pricked for the cry of a hungry baby. But, the
air was still. No one even dared to breathe. Her eyes darted left and right but
they couldn’t pierce the suffocating darkness of a moonless night.
She simply slumped against the rock face,
her legs extended, her loose blouse, open, waiting for her baby to suckle at
her breast; to relieve her of the burden of milk she carried.
But all she could feel was the brittle
hand, of the stranger, who dragged her away to safety, away from a fate of
being hacked by a machete.
She didn’t resist when he reached out – to place
a piece of cloth, torn from the rim of his sarong, where the milky wetness was
spreading through her cotton blouse, in concentric circles.
Poornima Weerasekara is a news editor at finance magazine Caixin. She has also worked as a journalist in Sri Lanka, India and San Francisco. Loves Yoga, traveling solo, long train rides and cooking. She also translates poetry from her native Sinhalese.
This week, rather than focusing on a poet or fiction writer, I’ll examine a collective writing project rooted in both protest and civic engagement. Earlier this month, a group of expats from the USA gathered at the Beijing Bookworm to write postcards to their elected officials. This is not something Americans normally sit around doing while they’re abroad. Or to put it another way, these are not normal times. Roughly one month into the new presidency, popular opposition to the Trump agenda has not died down. To document the state of resistance in this far-flung corner of the world, I chatted with Erin Campeau, who organized the postcard writing event.
DE: Can you talk a bit about the postcard project in general? What’s it about? Who’s behind it?
EC: The postcard project is a call-to-action and is an extension of the Women’s March on Washington, which took place across the globe on January 21, 2017. The March saw unprecedented numbers of people take to the streets in order to send a clear message to the Trump administration - to let them know that we (women of all races, nationalities, sexual orientations, abilities, and economic backgrounds) refuse to be silent. It also has the ongoing goal of unifying communities and fostering feelings of empowerment, and it is inclusive of people along the entire gender spectrum who support the same ideals. The organizers of the March have set 10 actions for the first 100 days of the new administration - action 1 was writing postcards to senators, and action 2 was forming a community huddle and coming up with inclusive, nonviolent actions that we can start taking today. The event was meant to combine both actions and give progressive U.S. Americans in Beijing a place to connect with and support one another while planning “next steps” collectively. A lot of the people who came are members of Democrats Abroad, and others were hearing about the group for the first time.
DE: The card states, “I’m concerned about” and gives the writer a single line. I think a lot of us could go on for pages and pages we’re so overwhelmed with concerns. What’s the strategy here?
EC: It’s definitely true that there was limited space on the postcards, but I think that was intentional and served a purpose. After reading various political guides, including “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”, it has been suggested that communication with congresswomen and congressmen be concrete and concise. That said, there was room on the back of postcards for additional thoughts, though I think everyone mostly stuck to one page. The benefit of using one of the Women’s March postcards is that they have become a recognizable symbol for multiple issues. Each postcard started with “I’m part of the #WomensMarch movement”, which, considering the historic nature of the March, makes a statement in itself. By identifying ourselves as part of the movement, we were symbolically supporting various issues including, but definitely not limited to, women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, refugee rights, religious freedom rights, an end to rape culture, racial equality for all, and environmental justice. My hope was that this was implied at the very start of our letters. That, and I’m certain that many of us have supplemented our letters with phone calls about other issues.
DE: If you don’t mind my asking, what were the concerns you wrote about?
EC: Both of my senators are liberal, so my postcards were meant to be thankful and encouraging. I thanked one of my senators for her continued fight for women’s reproductive freedom, and I thanked the other for his opposition to Trump’s recent travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Many of the writers had similar messages of gratitude - this was not just about stating the changes we’d like see but also about thanking the politicians who are standing for progressive values. My representative is a Republican, and I wanted to voice my support, as his constituent, for Planned Parenthood. I have many, many more concerns, but I stuck with two and let the Women’s March symbol speak for me as well.
DE: Have you been involved with this kind of thing before, or is this something new?
EC: This isn’t my first time participating in a community project like this, but in recent years I have felt quite removed from U.S. politics. I participated in an anti-racism march in Spain, for example, but it was more of a celebration of diversity in the community and was not addressed to any policymakers in the States. I became more steadily involved in Democrats Abroad this past September as my focus started to shift homeward. Given what is going on at home, I definitely feel a need and desire to start contributing more.
DE: Do you ever feel disconnected from events back home? How do you deal with it?
EC: Yes, I do, and particularly since the election, finding ways to fight off feelings of isolation and idleness has been really important. It’s easy to start feeling like there is nothing you can contribute when you live so far away, and that can feel really defeating. Democrats Abroad has been an amazing space for staying active and feeling like part of a community that cares and is involved with things happening at home. And that’s the thing - the postcard writing event was completely a collaboration. I realistically did very little to bring it together, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Ada from Democrats Abroad or all the people who created and consistently maintain the social space necessary for participation. I am so grateful for the group and its members - I cannot reiterate that enough. We have a WeChat group that is really active and is always full of ideas for taking action from home, and we also get together at least once monthly to share ideas and encourage one another.
DE: There’s something very red, white and blue about writing a letter to your representative. Like it’s the kind of thing you’d see in a 1950’s educational video about civic duty, but not something people actually do. I’d certainly never done it before. I wonder if the silver lining to this whole Trump debacle could be a re-birth of civic engagement. Many people are aware and active in a way they weren’t before. What do you think? What is your level of hope versus despair?
EC: It does feel very 1950’s, and there is something symbolic about gathering in a room with paper and pens and writing down our voices. I completely agree with you that many people seem to have been kind of jolted into action. I know that I, too, feel a greater sense of urgency. There is certainly a lot to fight for right now, and despair is a very real sentiment that is being felt by populations across the globe. Real lives are at risk - real people with faces and stories and dreams. So I don’t mean to undermine the reality of their situations or the speed with which we do really need to act, but I do agree that there is room for hope. Like you, I see people mobilizing and refusing to be complacent, and to say that it is inspiring would be an understatement. If you dig beneath the rubble that is dominating the news, you’ll find stories of communities really finding each other and really standing up for one another. Those moments needs to be recognized so that they can be celebrated and replicated. People seem to be digging very deep to really consider how they can contribute. And contributions don’t have to be heroic - every little thing helps.
DE: Do you worry about burnout? I mean there’s just so much to be angry about all the time.
EC: Activist burnout is a real thing, and it is something that really needs to be considered and recognized as a threat to long-term positive action so that it can be avoided. I recently saw a quote on the Women’s March on Washington official Facebook page by the poet/artist/speaker Cleo Wade, which stated “And if a life of resistance and everyday activism is your new normal…remember to take care of yourself. The best of you is needed.” It’s definitely easy to carry with you a certain constant level of angst these days, but we also need to listen to and respect what we are able to give in each moment so that our efforts can be sustained. Self-care needs to also be made a priority. Being a part of a group really helps in this regard because you feel encouraged but also like your actions are collectively amplified, and that can help prevent burnout simply because it is so energizing in and of itself.
Erin Campeau is from the United States but has spent the greater part of the last 10 years either working, traveling, or studying abroad. She completed her master's in International Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies - an undertaking that was inspired by her time outside of the U.S. She now lives in Beijing, where she is an active member of Democrats Abroad.
My colleague Mike says Kane is the best barber in all of Dakar because he really knows how to cut white hair and he speaks English. I need a haircut so I decide to go. Ngor is one of Dakar’s nineteen boroughs and the westernmost point of continental Africa. Those category 4 and 5 hurricanes that rage through the West Indies and East Coast in August and September first pass directly through Ngor when they are mere puddle-making rain showers.
It’s mid-morning on a Saturday and, instead of a taxi I take a Ndiaga Ndiaye local bus from downtown where I live. The drive north along the rocky coast is pleasant. The beach breeze brings life to the sultry, crammed bus. Palm trees line the sidewalk, and below the cliffs, the ocean is calm, but then endless. It’s vast and terrifying, but soothing too. It keeps me guessing every time. When we reach the first roundabout in Ngor, the driver says in Wolof he won’t go any further. Too many people today, and I have to get gas before Yoff and Parcelles, he says.
A few passengers suck their teeth and complain. Ngor is too big, one man says. You have to take us to the next stop, but the driver doesn’t respond. He just looks at the road, as if he’s void of all thought, and waits for us to get off. The raggedy bus idles and fumes, like it’s upset at its dents and rusted frame, like they’re old-age wrinkles never to be smoothed out. The street is busy, but not with cars; it’s a sea of faces and movement. I disembark with a few others and walk, unnoticed. Toubabs like myself don’t make heads turn in Ngor.
Kane’s place isn’t difficult to find. It’s past the second roundabout on the left, just like Mike said. On the exterior wall in an urban graffiti style, an electric razor, decked out by Senegal’s tricolor pan-African flag with the centered green star, soars through the spray-painted sky-blue cemented wall. In the background, there’s a beach with a few pirogues and the faint shape of a deep green mosque. Superfly is stenciled, in all caps, on the glassed double doors.
When I approach the shop a tall man is standing outside with a chew-stick in his mouth. It’s a werek—the local toothbrush of choice; it’s about the actual length of a toothbrush and it comes from the branches of the gum tree. The man rocks a high flattop, not quite as high as Kid’s from Kid ‘n’ Play and greets me with what’s up bro and a fist bump. “I knew you was coming,” he says in English.
“Michael was coming yesterday. He tell me he tell you. I’m Kane. This is my shop – it’s Superfly.”
Pointing to the wall, I say I like the artwork.
“Thanks, bro,” Kane says. “Maybe we go inside now?”
I nod yes.
Kane drops his werek on the sandy street and leads me inside his shop. He brushes off the three barber chairs with a towel and tells me to sit down. “You are welcome,” he says.
“Jërëjëf,” I say. Thank you.
Kane covers me with a black hair cape and buttons it tight at my neck. “You like hip-hop?”
“Waaw, waaw,” I say. Yes, yes.
“Oh—yow dégg nga Wolof?” You understand Wolof?
“Bu baax?” Kane says. Very well?
“Waaw, waaw, bu baax, bu baax.” I lie. I can get by, but I’m nowhere near bu baax, bu baax. Our conversation weaves between English and Wolof.
“I think you’re not like the others,” Kane says. He blasts 2Pac on a twelve-disc CD changer. The speakers are scratchy, and the remote control is broken. The system is on shuffle. Kane says in the shop he only plays hip-hop and mbalax, the national pop-dance music. “Unless, of course, they don’t know hip-hop or mbalax.”
I’m pretty sure Mike doesn’t know either hip-hop or mbalax. “Baax na,” I say. That’s cool.
“But I don’t know about the new hip-hop shit,” Kane says.
“Waaw, I hear you.”
“The niggas today don’t rap like the old school niggas. I think it’s the money, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“They only rap for money now. Money and girls. It’s not like before.”
For a few minutes we fall into it ain’t like what it used to be. Our main frustration is with hip-hop’s recent splurge on Auto-Tune and one-hit wonders like Dem Franchise Boyz and Soulja Boy. We both agree that Kanye’s Graduation album is his best and that Eminem is surely talented, but nowhere near top-ten-rappers-of-all-time status.
Kane takes his time cutting my hair. He measures each snip and clip, like he’s a chemist.
“Who’s your favorite rapper,” I say.
“Waaw, of all time.”
“That’s too difficult. Xaam nga Big L?” You know Big L.
“Of course,” I say. “Big L from Harlem.”
“That man is too phat.” Kane’s American slang is a little awkward and dated, like he’s still wandering around in 1998. “But the B-I-G, this man is a close second,” he says.
He means Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G. “No doubt,” I say. “Ready to Die is a classic album. ”
Kane asks me how I found hip-hop—as if it couldn’t have been mine.
I think for a minute. “It was basketball,” I say. “My b-ball friends all listened to hip-hop, so they got me on it, too.”
“But I think white people in America don’t like hip-hop?”
“Some do, some don’t. It’s probably the same here, waaw?”
“Deedit,” Kane says. No. “Everybody in Senegal like hip-hop.”
“Waaw, waaw. It’s a part of our country. We have to like it.”
I tell Kane that hip-hop is a part of America, but America is a free country so Americans can like what they want. I don’t do so well explaining that.
“Senegal is also free,” Kane says. “We are democracy.” He says music is like the soul and since all music comes from Allah you have to respect it. “You don’t have to listen all the time, but you have to like it. Music’s like sharing. You have to say thank you.”
Kane asks if I know Senegalese hip-hop. I say I don’t and then he schools me on it. He names artists I’ve never heard of and gives me a mix-tape.
“On this one,” he says, “Daara J is the best. You must like them.”
Outside there’s a boy staring in the shop. He looks at me a little surprised, like I’m a toubab, but then he also looks to Kane like he’s waiting for something. Kane motions for the boy to enter. The boy shuffles his feet in and then leaves his dusty sandals at the door. Kane gives him some coins and tells him to buy mint and sugar and make attaya. The boy takes the money, nods and, before he leaves, he takes a tray and three small glasses that sit by the door.
As the boy exits, I can see Ngor is still fluid with movement, and then another customer enters. Kane greets the man as if they are related. The music blasts, but it doesn’t bother them. I can pick out a few words and phrases. They are friends from childhood, but the other man doesn’t live in Dakar anymore. Kane introduces me, and the man challenges my Wolof. “Nga def? Noo tuud,” he says. How are you? What’s your name.
I don’t hesitate. “Yékini,” I say, referring to a star in the Senegalese wrestling world.
They laugh, but Kane says that actually in Ngor everyone pulls for Balla Gaye. “Yékini is Serer, Balla Gaye is Wolof.”
We exchange a few more words, and the man is impressed enough with my Wolof. Kane tells him to come back in a few hours. He says no problem and then shakes my hand one more time. “Bë beneen yoon,” he says to me. Until another time.
“Insha’Allah,” I say. God willing, and then the man says the same. I’m Christian, but in Dakar everything is insha’Allah.
Kane switches the song, and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” comes on. I see him boxing in the air as he comes back to my chair; he jabs and uppercuts. “You know hip-hop comes from Senegal,” he says.
I ask him for clarification.
“Sama xarit,” he says, my friend. “You know, these niggas are like our géwél. How you say in English?”
“Griot.” From ancient times: historian, storyteller, singer, drummer, poet, full of wit and knowledge.
“Waaw, waaw, the griot,” Kane says.
In the Wolof tradition, griots are born into the role. “Griots rap?” I say.
“Yes, but not like Jay-Z or Nas or LL. They keep our history.”
I’m not convinced. Hip-hop comes from the Boogie Down Bronx, right? I think. From rent parties. From Kool Herc. From gospel and blues and jazz and oppression. From voiceless voices. My thin, blonde hair falls to the black hair cape and then to the white linoleum floor, and I listen.
“I’m telling you, those niggas in New York only started rapping because they are descendants to our people. You know? Senegal—we are the first, the what, the mother’s land,” Kane says.
“Waaw, waaw, the mother’s land.”
I ask Kane if he lives in Ngor. He says he lives in Medina, in the heart of Dakar, just by the Grand Mosque, with his wife, Aminata, and their infant son, Malik. Kane says he chose Ngor because building his shop here was much cheaper and Ngor offers less competition.
“Here, everyone knows me,” he says. “One day I’ll open a nicer shop and then maybe a barber school.” Kane’s wife is stunning. Pictures of her and their son accompany the normal barbershop paraphernalia on his barber’s counter. They have been married for two years.
“Will you have more children?”
“Insha’Allah. I’ll have many children,” he says. “I must. And when I’m a big man, I’ll take another wife.”
I ask if he’ll also have many wives.
“Only one more. If I find one I love I will take her. But it’s for Aminata. She wants me to take the second wife,” he says.
“It is my right as a Muslim,” Kane says with resolution. “She trusts me. Her father has four wives.”
“He’s a big man?”
“Bu baax, bu baax.”
Aminata is also an entrepreneur. She has her own clothing line. For now she makes on demand, but she hopes to rent space for a boutique once Malik is a bit older. Kane says Aminata made all the wardrobes for their wedding.
The boy returns and knocks at the door. He’s carrying the tray, a metallic teapot and three small, glass cups. Kane motions for the boy to come in.
“You drink the attaya?” Kane says.
“Every cup?” Kane says. “Maybe the first is too strong?”
The Senegalese tea ceremony revolves around the flavor and the pouring. In equal parts, water, sugar, gunpowder green tea and mint leaves are brought to a boil. The server then pours the concoction back and forth between glasses to produce a rich and thick foam. The first glass is always bitter, while the last tastes mostly of warm, sugary water.
“I drink it all, sama xarit,” I say. My haircut is still not done, but it’s close. Michael is right—Kane must be the best barber in all of Dakar.
The boy takes his time pouring the tea from glass to glass, varying the height and pace of the pour, without spilling any. When he is finished, each glass has a frothy top, like it had been turned all morning. He hands a glass to Kane and then one to me.
“Sama xarit, did you hear the story about the man and his penis?” Kane says.
I’ve had my fair share of barbershop talk, but this is new territory. “Deedit,” I say. “I didn’t hear this one. What about this man?” The attaya is more bitter than a hoppy beer on a hot day.
“You know, African men have too much pride. Too much. The pride is like the A-kill’s heel.”
“Like the what?”
“The A-kill’s heel. You know, A-kill.”
“Waaw, waaw. A-kill. In the movie with the white boy from that fight movie.”
“The one where it’s like a group, all the men, who fight for fun, not sport. They get too bloody. I think one even die.”
“You mean the movie Fight Club?”
“Waaw, waaw, that one.” Kane says. He takes his time sipping the tea. “Those white people are crazy. Why hurt someone when you don’t need.”
I ask Kane again about A-kill, and he says A-kill is the main character in Fight Club. I ask him if he means Brad Pitt.
“That’s him!” Kane says. “You look him too much. That man is A-kill in the other movie.”
I try to take as much time as Kane with the first glass of tea. “Are you talking about Achilles in the movie Troy?”
“Waaw, oh, you know my English.”
“No, no, no. Baax na,” I say. It’s good. “Yow dégg nga English bu baax bu baxx.”
“Just learning, you know. What I say is, African men have too much pride. It’s the A-kill’s heel. Especially these men in the village.”
“In the village?”
“Waaw. Let me tell you the story. This man in the village he ask a very beautiful village girl to marry. She said no many times, but one day, she finally said yes. But, you know, this man was too poor. He only made a small farm.”
Kane finishes his first glass of tea and puts it back on the tray. As if on queue, the boy begins to pour Kane’s second glass.
“Even though he was poor, everyone in the village was too happy for this couple. The man was working hard and the woman was too nice. So, people in the village helped to preparing for the big party. But then, this man was nervous for his wife. He was a quiet boy and never even had a girlfriend. He wanted to be sure he made her happy. You know, banneex.” Pleasure.
“Pleasure her,” I say.
Kane smiles and pounds his right fist into the palm of his other hand. “Waaw, bannex.”
“I know what you mean.” I gulp down the rest of my first glass and put it back on the tray.
“So, this man, he go to a woman witch doctor who is having the special powers. The village was too afraid of her. It was rumor she can have power to do anything. But this village boy, he go her one night. He knew he had to make ready to marry. He went her and ask to make his sàmba bigger.”
“Waaw, waaw, his penis. So, she say, how big you want it, and the man say, I want it big. Then the witch woman give him a stick, and she ask again, how long you want it. The man say about this long.” Kane moves his hands about 15 inches apart.
“Sama xarit, no, no no. No way.”
“Maybe like this.” Kane makes the circumference of a West African carpet viper.
We both laugh, and I say, Kane, there’s no way.
“Yes. This village nigga ask for this size.” Kane shows me the size again with his hands.
“Okay, okay. So, what happened next?”
“That man waited and waited and then the time for the big party comes. It was time for him and his wife for to be together, so the village cried and cheered, and then the man and his wife go to their hut.”
“So! It worked too much! The wife couldn’t take the man. He was too big. She cried every time he tried to make sex with her. It hurt too much.”
“Never. So, the man went back to the witch doctor woman. He is too angry and he say her, why did you do this to me? She say, ku bey sa banneex, goob saw naqar.” He who cultivates his pleasure harvests deep sorrow.
“Did she change him back?” I say.
“What? No, you can’t change people back. People only change once.”
“Only once,” Kane says. “Now, she can’t, it’s too late. You know, we have a saying in my language. It says, ndoxum kese bu forox.” Clean water is not sour.
“I don’t get it.” The boy finishes pouring our second glasses of attaya and sets them on the tray. This time I take my glass first. Its minty with a taste of sugar.
“This man, his pride was too much. He became sour with pride and jealous.”
“You mean jealousy,” I say.
“No, nothing. I just said jealousy. Pride and jealousy.”
“Yeah, man, that what I say. Jealous.” Kane takes a sip of his tea and makes a slow, clicking sound with his tongue and mouth, as if he is savoring the taste.
“The man and his penis,” I say and shake my head.
“Yeah, my man. This village nigga was too shell-fish. How you say? Shell-fish?”
“Selfish. The man was too selfish,” I say.
“That’s it. Shell-fish.”
“Kane, where does pride come from?”
“That’s easy,” Kane says. He downs the second glass, more quickly than I do, and then he picks up the electric razor again. “It comes from ragal.” Fear. “Can I finish now?”
“Waaw, waaw,” I say and then down my second glass.
As Kane finishes my haircut, we finish the final, and sweetest, glass of the attaya ritual. I pay Kane and ask him if I can tip the boy for the tea.
“No, no, it’s okay,” he says. “This boy, I take care of him. He’s from the street. He watches my shop and stays here during the night. Maybe one day he will cut the hair also.”
Kane and I exchange cell phone numbers. I tell him I’ll be back in a month or so. I exit the shop, but instead of going to the main road to flag a taxi back downtown, I roam through Ngor.
Men walk with work on their mind: carrying tools, pushing wheelbarrows, driving donkey carriages piled with metal construction poles and steel wire rods, shaving mahogany logs into planks for pirogues, weaving fishing nets, lugging gear to and from the shores. Children study the Koran from wooden tablets lined with Arabic, and between chores they play soccer in the streets with makeshift balls. Elders listen to the radio and debate the day’s politics with fervor. Women hover over steaming metal pots. They serve ndambe—a bean and spaghetti dish—on baguettes. Or ceebu jen—fish stew over rice. The men beach their pirogues and then women clean and sell the new catch. The sun falls below the sea and boys and girls dance to clapping hands and sabar drumbeats. In late evening, the Imam calls all to pray one last time before the day ends. Sand smears the roads and foot pathways. The winds are calm, and salt tickles the air.
DE: In Everything is Insha'Allah, you're explaining Senegalese politics, society, customs, language, music at the same time that you're writing fiction. Do you see your role as being part educator or cultural ambassador as well as just a storyteller?
BP: At the time of writing Everything I was living and teaching in Senegal and really immersed in Senegalese day-to-day life. I went through a phase then that I read, pretty much exclusively, only lit connected to or set in Africa. Camara Laye, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina, there’s a long list of incredible African writers…I only wanted to read African lit. Senegal is so visceral, it was easy to create characters and stories to explore. I think at the time I did feel like I needed—or wanted—to be some kind of cultural ambassador through fiction writing for all those unaware about “the real Africa.” But, as I’ve continued on this—very personal—journey to understand what writing is all about, I pretty much shun that idea now. Who am I to think my words are worthy of anything like that? I’ll let others take on that task. Today, my writing starts with a character that comes from somewhere—not sure from where, call it maybe the atoms of creativity—but I’m trying to fathom and follow him or her. No agenda, no cultural teaching involved…Today, I’m humbly (and hardly) a storyteller.
DE: What stands out about Africa (maybe some stereotype or misconception) that people generally get wrong?
BP: How much time/space do I have to answer? That’s a long list…but I’m not sure if it’s about getting Africa right or wrong. I mean I’m from North Carolina and I get “stuff” wrong about folks there all the time. Africa is many, many things. I think it’s more about exposure, understanding, empathy…What’s a shame is that many people—outside of Africa and the diaspora—have no idea about the previously noted writers. I guarantee if people gave time and energy to the literature—and not just Hollywood and cable TV—they’d understand “about Africa” much more.
DE: Tell us a little about Wolof. How widely is it spoken? Is it a hard language to learn?
BP: Wolof is the language of the Wolof people who live throughout Senegal and The Gambia. There are many ethnic groups in Senegal; Wolof is the largest. While French is the official language of Senegal, I’d wager Wolof is the actual official language, the heart of Senegalese speech and thought and expression. In Dakar, the capital city where I lived for four years, Wolof was the language in the home, on the street, at the market, at the barbershop, in the mosque, in the pirogues out on the sea fishing for tuna or diving for mussels, on the soccer pitch or basketball court. Each year I’d hear English more and more out and about, but I observed Wolof to be the pulse of the people in Dakar. In other regions that’s not necessarily the case, like in the far east close to Mali and Mauritania and in the south (below The Gambia) where other tongues rule. Like I noted earlier, Senegal is visceral and there’s music everywhere in Dakar—actual instrumental music and the music of movement…I’ve never experienced a place quite like it. Wolof is a part of that. It fits. Or maybe it all started with the language, with Wolof. It’s simple in structure, but there are layers and layers of complexity to the nuances. When I moved there I jumped right in. My wife speaks French, so I was really interested in learning Wolof. I took lessons and had many Wolof-speaking friends. I also play the djembe and that was another entry point to the music and language of Senegal. I learned about the Sabar—the drum and dance style of the region. I was conversational with Wolof…most of the time. Senegalese are a proud people, proud of their languages. For me, Chinese is way more difficult to get a hold of.
DE: How about this ubiquitous phrase Insha'Allah (God willing). Are the Senegalese a quite fatalistic people?
BP: Very ubiquitous. Insha’Allah could be used on the street with a stranger or passerby in conversation, in the church or in the mosque, at the market buying mangoes or papaya, in the barbershop, in a taxi, discussing the weather, or about next month’s rent money. However, there is a rhythm to using it that one may not really get until you are there, hear it, feel it, use it. I don’t think the Senegalese are fatalistic people at all. Fatalism seems to entail, at its core, a sort of fear or even concession, an Old Testament type of faith. In Senegal, I observed—in both Christians and Muslims—a deep, proud reverence. There’s a difference.
DE: Some of the stories are also written from a Senegalese perspective. Did you dive right into it, or was there a process you had to go through before you felt you could do it authentically?
BP: Not sure I do or did it authentically. The greats master that…Have you read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room? That’s the epitome of authenticity in fiction. While I loved writing Everything I sort of cringe when I look at it now. I want the most/best out of every page, paragraph, sentence, and word, and I know those stories need more work. I am proud, however, that I did dive in to the unique voices and characters. “Maryam” is my most favorite story I’ve ever written…but it still needs a lot of work. One of my strengths is exploring diverse voices…I just want to be more effective at it.
DE: There's also a journalistic quality to stories like "Stranger In The Village" or "Kashgar". They're told in first person and the narrator seems like he could very well be you. Is this creative non-fiction?
BP: “Kashgar, 2013” ( http://www.elsewherelit.org/bradford-philen ) is definitely creative non-fiction. It’s a sort of travel log/journal of my few days there with Abdul a tour guide from the region. It’s interesting though how creative non-fiction can bleed into fiction. Should it? I don’t know, but I imagine there are boundaries that each essayist creates for his/her work. With “Stranger in the Village” I actually named that story after an essay with the same name by James Baldwin. Look it up…you have to read it. In it, Baldwin observes his experiences as the first black man to set foot in a tiny Swiss village. I wanted to take a similar approach with “Stranger”—a white boy steps foot in a vibrant and thriving African village. I really enjoyed writing “Stranger” and while there are elements of creative non-fiction there, it’s definitely fiction. There’s a Mike and a Kane and a barbershop and an Ngor village, but most of what happens to the protagonist is made up…or loosely, very, very loosely based on some of my experiences as a young-ish white male expat in Dakar. I do really enjoy creative non-fiction—and as I travel so much I do a bit of travel writing on the side, but it’s mostly for my own personal writing and journaling. Fiction is where I’m most comfortable for now.
DE: Working on anything new?
BP: Always. I’m working on a crime/suspense novel set in late 1950s in rural North Carolina. There’s a murder and a murderer amidst a racially charged, but changing community…Definitely a work in progress and a LOT of work to be done with it. It may be one of those that I write (I’m on my second draft of it—completely different from the first draft) and sit on it for a while. I’m working on short fiction at the moment too. Short story writing is probably my favorite prose to write. I just finished a story about a young boy who knows how to “make” fruit from a dead plant he found on the street…it needs work. I’m also working on a story about an expat in Phuket who becomes a famous Muay Thai boxer…I try to work on one new story at a time while slowly chipping away at the novel.
Bradford Philen lives with his wife and son in Beijing. He teaches high school English and is the author of one novel--AUTUMN FALLS--and one short story collection--EVERYTHING IS INSHA'ALLAH. His work has also appeared in a variety of publications, such as Faerie Magazine, Elsewhere Lit, Whiskey Paper, and Lunch Ticket. He's currently an MFA candidate with the University of Alaska Anchorage.