Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, is set to come out next month from Comma Press:
Jaquette won a PEN/Heim grant to translate this tender, generous, and fragile collection of short stories. Mamoun has also written two novels, and was chosen as an International Prize for Arabic Fiction nadwa participant in 2010. She was also selected for an AFAC-sponsored writing workshop with celebrated novelist Jabbour Douaihy, and her work has previously appeared in translation in The Book of Khartoum and Banthology. This collection, rebuilt in English by Jaquette, is full of the music of love, of hunger, and of the fragile skin that stands between life and death. The stories are powered less by revelation or twist than by a moment-by-moment struggle against the fragility of existence.
They are also laced with music: both by specific performers (Hafiz Abdelrahman, Mostafa SidAhmed, Othman Hussein) and music that’s only half-remembered: “We didn’t understand anything they were saying or singing because they spoke and sang in Amharic, but even so, we delighted in the melodies, music, dancing, and joyous atmosphere.”
1 – Thirteen Months of Sunrise
In this story, the Sudanese narrator, Rania, strikes up a friendship with an Ethiopian, Kidane Kiros, in an internet cafe where she is working. It’s a story where Sudanese Arabic, English, and Amharic intertwine and violate cultural borders. At one point, Kidane asks Rania to help him “buy some Sudanese music, so we went to Studio Adeel and Zein. I picked out a cassette tape featuring some of the greatest Sudanese singers for him, as well as one of the flautist Hafiz Abdelrahman called Everlasting Days.” There is no great tragic love story in “Thirteen Months of Sunrise,” no family standing in the way of these two characters, no rise to a crisis point in the plot. Instead, it’s communion and loss, intertwined.
For this story, the nostalgia of Hafiz Abdelrahman on flute would fit well, but also Abdel Aziz El Mubarak’s “Ahla Eyyoun,” about love and wandering:
This story stands at the fluttering intersections between life and death, holiday and mourning, familial appreciation and familial disappointment. More than that, it is about their simultaneity, how they are all happening at once. From Rasha’s beautiful, but also sad debut album, Sudaniyat:
There is a brief love story buried in “Edges”: “I lived a lifetime in the space and time between when I lifted my hand – it moved through the air, reached its apex, began its descent – and when it settled in his palm. I experienced a whole lifetime, parallel to my own, in those moments.” But that’s the love story. The rest is about the self and a second self (a muse, a djinn), rescuing each other with the madness of creativity.
This song, ostensibly about love and rivalry, but more about singer Hiba Elgizouli and her dreams:
A Week of Love
A condensed seven-day love story with the beautifully understated opening lines: “We met up as people do. He didn’t make an impression.” It ends in a liminal space, between forward and back, possession and letting go.
In the Muck of the Soul
Here, the story takes the language of movie-making with quick cuts, panning in and out, as it shows scenes of a mother trying to get support for her son’s kidney transplant. The story is always in two places at once, interested in both her grief and in the camera that’s capturing her grief. In the “muck of the soul” and how we see and experience that muck, to muck around in it.
This one is a story of frustrated injustice and closed doors. So, for the main character, a different ending:
A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle
This story traces the line(s) between madness and sanity, the included and excluded. It follows how we relate to each other, and how this reflects on us. In the end, the protagonist — who is sane, but attached to a madwoman — finds, “My heart felt ragged when I saw her at night at the base of the mosque’s east wall, a black mass gathered in the dark.” And yet this act of caring does not make her reach out, and while she has affection for her from a distance, she is still afraid.
Cities and Other Cities
A tender and satiric bus journey. At first, this woman and the fly buzzing her aren’t getting on: “The fly, meanwhile, tried to ruin a Mostafa SidAhmed song for me, which was playing on the bus speakers and usually helped to calm my nerves. My initial frustration turned to steely irritation, and I became convinced that flies were the most annoying of all God’s creatures.” Later, after a near-death experience for one of them, their relationship changes.
A short scene about hunger and parenting, and — again — how little stands between lifes and deaths.
In this story, where hunger also eats away at the boundaries between things, the differences between “animal” and “human” dissipates. Indeed, the boundary that seems the hardest to violate is not between life and death, real and surreal, animal and human, but between the wealthy and those who are not. It is easier to talk to animals — and to solicit their help in a time of need — than to get help from one’s fellow humans who have more than they need.