Mhangami explores living life on The Edge

by Jacob Katumusiime

Reeling over a perturbed stream of consciousness, guided by a sharp-eyed omniscient narrator, Barbara Mhangami’s ‘The Edge’ rolls you along the secretive life of an African writerly family living in .  The Edge is a short story that like a lens, focuses on an African couple faced by childlessness and infidelity. Rati has been married to Thato for ten childless years. The plight of failing to flower doesn’t however seem to bother Thato. He relentlessly provides emotional support to his wife, Rati who feels insecure over the apparent childlessness.

‘Thato had not abandoned their union despite the pressures from home for a child, and without the smallest sign of a possible pregnancy.’

Mhangami’s story not only mirrors society but also the life of a writer. In my roaming about literary spaces, the question of writers’ lives crops up. How do they live their lives? Writers know a lot about others yet less seems to be known about them. And so Mhangami unzips some writers’ lives. Some live life like Thato; Confine yourself to a couch, observe life, pick inspiration and write. When life refuses to be written, when nothing comes; chill and drink up. Some live it like Rati; getting out more to get inspiration, join book clubs to sharpen one another like iron sharpens iron.

Only in literary book clubs, and a few other literary spaces, can controversial subjects like LGBT be comfortably discussed. Mhangami’s ‘The Edge’, like binoculars, brings the conversation closer. In a book club that Rati attends, they are discussing a queer text.  And whereas the origin of the LGBT practices are still contentious given that most people believe it to be Un-African, the story suggests that the practices have both Western and African origins even though they might be predominantly Western.

‘The writing is accessible and I like the insights into Dominican culture, Manana quipped, taking a sip from her glass. It doesn’t seem much different from many African cultures, especially the heterosexual relationships.’

This is further illustrated through Rati’s own sexual desire for fellow women. It is at this book club that Rati meets Xoliwe, a solicitor and she lusts for her.

‘Rati looked up surreptitiously to find Xoliwe still looking at her. The heat of her arousal was so intense she gasped. This had not happened to her in years and never with a woman.’

The revelation raises another question: Are LGBT practices an inborn impulse or not? Because according to the passage it had never occurred to Rati that she would ever find herself attracted to a woman.

The LGBT story has not been an easy one to tell, especially for the African writer. You can easily see through Mhangami’s unconventional punctuation that hers is a bold step of defiance. The continued use of ‘naked’ direct speech (without quotation marks) is a spirit of protesting silence. For Rati though, the silence is doppelganger- the silence about her unhappy marriage, the silence about her lesbianism.

Before long, Thato finds out Rati’s secret relationship with Xoliwe. Thato’s reaction is the last straw that breaks the back of Rati’s emotional strength.

‘Rati reached out to touch his leg and Thato stepped out of her reach. He spat and a frothy white spot landed on her cheek. Rati snapped and she began to scratch, excoriating her arms with her fingernails.’

She contemplates and concludes on ending her life by the Waterloo Bridge. Lost in the reverie of finding peace in Mbuya, her dead grandmother, Rati is miraculously rescued and rushed to an infirmary. While trying to regain her consciousness, Rati hears the word Pregnancy. Rati is pregnant.

What is Mhangami suggesting? That Rati’s relationship with Xoliwe was a blessing in disguise? Prior to Rati’s relationship with Xoliwe, she had failed to heed to Dr. Silverman’s plea for her to simply forget that she was trying to get pregnant. It’s the relationship that made her relax and not think about a child anymore.

‘Their time together was spent in exploration and experience, playing at the border between pleasure and pain. She forgot about spoiled eggs and sepulcher-like uteruses.’

Whatever Mhangami’s thoughts and convictions were in penning down the story, she cautiously treads over her subject, well knowing her African roots and (mis)conceptions. The emphatic code-switched commentaries the narrator makes at the end of certain paragraphs not only tells us about the power of an African oral narrator but also about the weight the words carry. The words dhuku, egusi, jollof, sadza, kpomo, kenke, chin-chin, atyeke make enigmatic conclusions about the subject, increase the tension in the story and evoke sympathy over the unfortunate situations unfolding.

Editor’s note: Read The Edge here