REVIEW: Stella Gitano’s ‘Withered Flowers’

Stella Gitanoʹs “Withered Flowers” is a powerful short story collection that showcases work from the very beginnings of an impressive and unusual literary career. The stories, now translated by Anthony Calderbank, centre on the lives of Sudanʹs marginalized and are elevated by bold, fearless imagery:

The downside to this startling and beautiful collection is that, since it was published in South Sudan, it’s difficult to obtain. However, Gitano, Calderbank, and the publisher have given permission for the opening story to appear in ArabLit Quarterly, set for publication next month.

From a review that appears in Qantara:

This is Gitanoʹs second collection to arrive in English. Both were published where Gitano now lives: in Juba, South Sudan. Although Gitano is South Sudanese, she began writing as a student at the University of Khartoum. Her parents fled north in the late 1960s, during the countryʹs civil war and the author was born in Khartoum in ʹ79. She stayed there for university and also began her career there, moving south after the 2012 partition.

The stories in Withered Flowers were written between 1998 and 2002, when Gitano was still a student. At the time, she was navigating between three Arabics (Sudanese, Juba and classical) while conducting her studies in English. This early work demonstrates vibrant wordplay, fearless empathy and a deep understanding of storycraft. The author attributes the latter to the women in her family, to whom she dedicates the collection.

The translated collection is organised back-to-front, an echo of the Arabic original. The last work in the collection, “An Island the Size of a Papaya Fruit”, was one of the authorʹs first. The story centres on a grandmother, whom the narrator describes as brutally ugly and overwhelmingly strong, something like a fairy-tale troll. Yet the young narrator, who clearly loves her grandmother, also shades the portrait with tender love and vulnerable detail. The grandmother has sagging breasts that make “a sound like applesauce” as they slap against her stomach.

The grandmother retells a story about her husband, who was executed by the English. The grandfather, she says, unknowingly carried his own execution order to the authorities and in her telling, the anecdote is comic, tragic and unsettling. The story won the author a Professor Ali El-Mek Award.

Keep reading the review on Qantara. 

Sign up to support ArabLit Quarterly.