Short Fiction: Prize-winning ‘Broca’s Area’

Last year, Sudanese short-story writer Mohammed Hassan Al-Nahat won the Mohammed Saeed Nawed Short Story Award — a prize given to writers from countries in the horn of Africa — for “باحة بروكا” (“Broca’s Area”). Here, the winning story:

By Mohammed Hassan Al-Nahat 

Translated by Nassir A-Sayeid A-Nour and France Meyer

In front of me, I set a ream of white paper, a copper inkwell, and a feather I had snatched from my neighbor’s duck. I lit a candle and stuck it in the middle of the table. I rested my chin on my fingertips, planted my elbows on the edge of the table, and leaned in. I was completely naked. Droplets of sweat ran from the base of my neck down to my buttocks, where I would stop feeling them before others resumed the same journey from the neck down. I held my breath and waited for the Revelation.

Ten minutes, half an hour, an hour, nothing happened. A stinky smell rose from my body, my ass grew tired of my sweat and my weight. I blew out the candle in despair, turned on the fan and threw myself on the bed, exhausted. 

I woke up in distress with a heavy head and stiff limbs. I glanced at my papers, hoping they had been filled. But of course they hadn’t—the time for miracles has passed. I staggered to the bathroom and peed standing up, watching the yellowish stream of urine with a meaningless attention. I got under the shower, eyes closed, and listened to the water as it splashed and fought my dirty body. Archimedes too was naked when touched by the Revelation, but alas I didn’t have the luxury of a bathtub.

It was almost 10:00 p.m. when I phoned my widowed neighbour, a hand on my flaccid penis. She answered in a whisper, she was sorry, she had guests. I cursed her with the crudest words. She hung up on me. I needed to let off steam; some idea might jump to mind. I walked around the house and finished my dinner, forcing myself to swallow it while imagining my hungry blood cells rushing from every part of my body to pile up in my stomach, only to find a cold piece of cheese and dry bread. I choked with laughter.

The next afternoon, I sat in my favorite corner of the coffee shop, right at the back, where I could watch the world go by for hours; the people, the waiter’s movements, how he handled customers’ orders; the ringing of the brass bracelets on his wrist, the clank of his many rings hitting the table as he put down plates. Despite his thick beard, and without any tangible evidence, I suspected he was gay. I gulped a glass of water down into my empty stomach, then cracked my back, sensing the pain in its lower region. The night before had been stressful—I hadn’t slept at all, and I had worked all night in vain. I had lots of unused cans of paint, so I had piled them up against a wall and, using an old brush, started painting at random. The mixed strands of colours clashed on the wall, and the place filled with the intoxicating smell of paint. Then I stood still in front of the mural, holding paper and pen. I let my eyes wander over the colors, hoping that an idea might pop out of my head. As if I, who had painted this, was part of a surrealist artwork that could be praised by critics and sold for a high price at auction in Europe. 

I felt the thoughts elude me, distracted by the overlapping colours, so I decided to paint the wall a single shade. White, red, and blue jostled in front of me. I chose a dark green, hoping that all the jungles of Africa would appear before me, with monkeys’ wrangles, reckless gazelles, lazy lions, and dancing tribespeople. But the green only revealed an unfortunate mosquito stuck to the viscous paint, so I stayed there watching it die.

In the coffee shop, the number of clients increased, elderly people who had missed the train of creativity, creative young men whose writings could not find a way into the minds of critics, replete with classics. Others who put the word penis every other word, those in search of a haven or a public, bohemians with a nasty smell that filled the nose, and indeed me, the novelist whose three novels had no more effect than a stone thrown in a river. My back pain increased. I cursed Dan Brown for his stupid advice. The day before—as recommended in an article I’d read—I did a headstand against the door. My ears had deafened and my face filled with blood. The stupid guy alleged that such a position brought on ideas, but it only made me dizzy. I fell flat on my back, humiliated like no man in his forties should be.

I avoided looking at Abderraouf my colleague, but full of his usual nosiness, he came and stuck himself to my table. We hugged each other with false enthusiasm and started to chat. As an intellectual, when talking to your counterpart, you must puff up your chest, stare into the distance at nothing, keep silent for a moment like a wise Chinese man, and then use a few collocations such as assimilation, identification, Africanism, and Anglo-Saxonism. 

Like someone who just happens to see a funny thing on Facebook, I asked him, as I stuffed my phone into my pocket: Have you ever run out of inspiration? 

He took a long look at me and replied: Of course not! As you know, inspiration never dries up, and I publish two books a year. Are you suffering from writer’s block?

I leaned back on the bench as if avoiding a stray arrow: No… never! But a young man asked me for a cure for this disease. 

He clasped his hands and said: Hemingway and Roth both said that the only way to get rid of writer’s block was to keep on writing. 

True, I answered, silencing my anger at him and at that Hemingway. 

We continued to talk until Abderraouf saw a young poetess enter the coffeeshop. He immediately interrupted our conversation, grabbed my soft drink and rushed toward her. 

I ordered a drink from the many-rings waiter, drew out my pen, and began fighting the white paper while sipping coffee. The waiter would bring another cup as soon as mine was empty. Once I read that le grand écrivainVoltaire drank forty cups of coffee while writing. Today I would smash this record and end my writer’s block. At cup ten, the waiter said to me, with a sceptical look: Sir, are you sure you’d like another one? 

At cup fifteen, I felt numbness in my limbs that quickly spread to my entire body. The wretched table started to spin before me, my stomach contracted, and I lost control of my throat, spilling out the contents of my stomach, a yellow bile stained with black coffee, all over the table and my shirt. Each bout of vomiting was followed by an embarrassing explosion of gas. It was as if my soul were hovering on the ceiling, watching the tragedy of my body. People rallied around me to help; I saw a young drunk man pull out his phone to tweet the incident, or record it as an idea for a short story focused on my abysmal state. Eventually, I caught my breath and my heart went back to beating regularly. They suggested that I go to the hospital or home, but I chose to stay where I was to pick myself up. Little by little, people’s gazes shifted away from me and I was left alone at my table with an empty mind and white paper.  

Then things took a dangerous turn when a giant entered the coffee shop, barely passing through the door, his head a few inches from the ceiling. He was accompanied by an old woman with a loud voice and a husky, manly laugh. They ignored every one’s gazes, only to stop at my table. The woman sat the giant man on two seats that could barely hold his weight, pulled up a chair facing me, ran her left hand up and down her man’s thigh and, with the right one, lit a cigarette.  

I cleared my throat: Who are you? 

I am Bint Majzoub and this is Esteban. She spoke in a ringing voice. 

I stared at them, stupidly. Bint Majzoub was a woman of medium height with a dark skin as black as velvet, who although close to seventy, still retained traces of beauty. Meanwhile Esteban was the tallest man one could meet,with a strong build and a kind, childish face. He wore baggy sailcloth pants and a fine linen shirt. His hands were large, soft and pink, and his features Latin American, like his name, Esteban.

Bint Majzoub called to the waiter in a flirting voice, ordered milk for the giant man and tea for her. She winked at him as she indecently smacked his ass, a blow he received with an un-macho joy. 

Esteban gulped his cup in one shot, while Bint Majzoub sipped her tea with a loud noise.

Who are you? What do you want? 

Aren’t you a writer? Don’t you know us? I’m Bint Majzoub from the novel Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. And this is Esteban from The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel García Márquez. 

I gaped, dumbfounded, and pinched my thigh under the table to make sure I was not dreaming.

Hey man, don’t look so stupidly surprised. I swear on my marriage that what I say is true. Like you, I was jailed between two book covers, but with a trick I broke free from the claws of ink and paper. I travelled the world and encountered many men until I met my sweetheart, Esteban. He made me forget my eight husbands and my reckless adventures. He’s got something in him stronger than a stake and more powerful than, etc. 

She was, as I had read and imagined her, a licentious loquacious bothersome woman. While Esteban kept gazing placidly at his hands. 

I interrupted her. What do you want from me? 

While wandering, I passed you and pitied you, my dear. You are locked up in the weak story of an obscure writer. You’re a character like us, brainchild of a writer. Unfortunately, your writer is a unknown young man, and no one will read your story. Get out of this prison. Outside, the world is vast; you’ll find what will make you happy, just like I found my sweetheart. 

She dragged away her silent man, to whom Márquez had not given a tongue, and off they went, leaving me in a complete mess.

I staggered toward the mirror and saw a bald head with an angry face looking at me with dull eyes—big and ugly eyes. I had never liked my face. And who said that I liked wearing that multicoloured shirt, like a tourist on the Pacific coast? I brazenly grabbed the pen that was stuck to my collar and threw it far away, swearing at the man who had created me, a failure who had thought no better than to give me a Hitler moustache.  That dog who made me fuck the widow’s flabby repulsive body so many times. He made me with no family and of course with no kids, alone with my writer’s block, circling around myself in a miserable closed world, between my house and the cultural coffee shop. And then came Abderraouf to snatch my soft drink and rush away, hoping to catch that girl. I smashed the mirror with my fist; not a drop of blood was spilled. I left the coffee shop like a hurricane, pinning everyone to their chairs, these idiots who didn’t know that they were all secondary characters in a bad story. No shackles after this; I’d leave these pages in search of other worlds. I might become a Pharaoh King or a Tibetan monk or even a French teenager; I’d satisfy all my whims and scoop up all the joys of life, and when I got sick of it; I’d fly over the clouds and I’d save an unlucky soul suffering from writer’s block, igniting in his brain an idea that would save him from madness and the shame of a headstand. 

Mohammed Hassan Al-Nahat (b. 1990) is a Sudanese short story writer and physician. He has been awarded several prestigious prizes for short stories, including the prestigious Al-Tayib Saleh and Naguib Mahfouz short-story awards. His works have gained critical praise, and most recently he received the Eritrea-based Mohammed Saeed Nawed Short Story Award — for countries in the horn of Africa for his short story ““باحة بروكا” (“Broca’s Area”), which translated and praise by translator Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour as, “Precisely depicts and illustrates, diachronically, the developing events within a powerful visionary narrative using a poetic language inspired by human suffering and the contradictions of daily life.”

Nassir A-Sayeid A-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.