Stella Gaitano’s Eddo’s Souls is a Sudanese and South Sudanese generational novel that takes us on a journey through space and time, constellations of belief, and political regimes:
By Lemya Shammat
Eddo’s Souls by Stella Gaitano, (Dedalus, June 2021), originally published in South Sudan and set to be translated from Arabic by Sawad Hussain, won one English PEN’s translation awards, and it’s set to be the first novel from South Sudan ever to be published in the UK.
The novel explores themes of identity, love, and neglect. It also revisits recurring themes of departure, motherhood, loss, and grief.
Eddo’s Souls, which tries to unlock and hold to light the darkest corners of inhumanity and discrimination, is distinguished by its deft characterizations, brisk-footed and rhythmic pacing, distinct voice, tonal shifts, and its engaging, densely layered style. It shows rather than tells its histories through intricately plotted scenes, subtle details, intimate lyrical narratives, and relatable characters that effortlessly get under the reader’s skin.
The novel’s major characters are united by the misery of their unequal, disadvantaged backgrounds. Secondary characters also fight their own battles, both winning and losing as they revolve around a complex orbit of identity, politics, and love that both enriches their humanity and matures it.
She describes Eddo—whose name means an object that descends from heaven, or one that enjoys a strong link to highness—as an unlucky mother who has repeatedly been afflicted by the infant deaths of her children. This explains her deep-seated grief and a despair that pushes her into a secret spiritual adventure of love with the village lunatic, which results in a forbidden fruit named Lucy. The girl survives, seemingly because her mother cast a spell on her before her death, so as to lavish her only daughter with the ability to live and give birth to as many children as possible, to experience the rewards of motherhood, brimful with love and care.
Peter, another intriguing figure, is a child of a single mother who was forced to leave him in the custody of a merchant from the north, since his father disappeared under mysterious circumstances after a long and hurtful argument and clashes with the southerner’s family, which opposed his relationship with their daughter. This reveals the injustice southerners suffer that in turn drives them to consider northerners as slave traders, murderers, exploiters of resources, and deformed Arabized creatures. Consequently Peter, who represents the middle strata of the citizens of South Sudan, left the south with his mother’s close confidante, who raised him as a son and kept searching with him for his real father, who was detained against the background of massacres committed against the northern merchants and workers who happened to be in the south when a civil unrest erupted in 1955. Peter continues to endure the burden of the contradiction between his distinct northern looks and his Christian name, stubbornly resisting the pressure to change his name and religion.
There’s also Marco: Lucy’s husband, who decides to escape to Khartoum from the hazards of war. He feels a great responsibility towards her, aware that her mother watches him closely from her grave. He profoundly loves Lucy and believes in her innate weirdness, especially while making love. He effortlessly merges into the city and accepts his wife with all her innocence and recklessness that the city fails to change.
Gaitano’s settings also reflect the historical, political, and social changes that Sudanese went through in the period from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, and its impact on the individual, as a period that witnessed immense political changes that negatively affected the historical, political, economic and social trajectory of Sudan. These further fueled conflicts and divisiveness and consequently civil strife based on marginalization and unbalanced development, which therefore contributed to the outbreak of wars and the huge rupture of the social fabric.
The novel begins across a rural context, in a small impoverished village full of mystery, rituals, and superstition, and it ends in a jam-packed city with all its complications.
The writer has said that she follows two techniques. There is a narrator at the beginning of the novel, who voices the conscience described as “very close to the inner selves of the characters.” This continues for three chapters before the book shifts to a polyphonic approach, where each narrator expresses a personal vision, while interacting with others throughout the novel. “I deliberately want everyone to be a hero,” she said, and thus the characters evolve while making errors and enduring consequences.
The novel chiefly depicts the situation of Sudanese women, particularly women from the villages scattered across the far corners of south, who suffer a wretchedness unfathomable when compared with women in other parts of the country. A woman there is a survivor; who lives the horrible and dehumanizing circumcision in her childhood, then a cocktail of disease and neglect. In her adolescence, she bears the pain and panic of early marriage, while in her motherhood, she might barely escape the death that lurks in an unsafe maternity. She suffers all these unendurable dilemmas in the same society that raises and educates males to establish their special and privileged being and presence.
The novel ends at a difficult turning point in Sudanese history. But the plot leaves things open, the fates of the characters unresolved and open to different possibilities. Unlike many of the other characters, Lucy spends her life content and appreciative, surrounded by the noise and buzz of her children and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Eddo spirit, being an exceptionally strong soul, has fragmented into the souls of her grandchildren and decedents. In such a way, she continues to watch over them, and her soul remains to help her folk to cross peacefully to the realm of the afterlife. It stays hovering around, communicating, and appearing in the dreams of a chosen few.
Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.