Edem Awumey's Mina Among the Shadows (Mawenzi House, translated from French by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott) is the newest offering from the Quebec-based author whose books have attracted accolades and prize nominations around the world.
The novel kicks off with a mysterious disappearance. The titular Mina, a fiery revolutionary, model, and lover, has gone missing and her one-time partner and collaborator, Kerim, returns home to a city on Africa's Western coast to search for her.
As Kerim questions old friends, he finds a city changed from what he knew, descended into orthodoxy and repression. His contacts, once progressives who questioned the oppressive government forces just as Kerim and Mina did, can no longer be trusted.
Has Mina been arrested, murdered, turned, or something else all together? A meditation on love, resistance, art, and courage, Mina Among the Shadows is one of Awumey's most exciting novels yet, and we're thrilled to present a free, exclusive excerpt for you today, courtesy of Mawenzi House.
Today's posting marks the kick off of a special week of excerpts from new and upcoming books, so stay tuned to Open Book to find your new favourites this week!
Excerpt from Mina Among the Shadows by Edem Awuney:
June, the same birds are crossing the sky and the same broken bodies are walking the streets of the Port, and it’s been a month since I’ve had any news from Mina. She gradually stopped calling or writing, going from long emails describing her many projects and the situation in the country to a single short paragraph and then just a few sentences, and the messages became fewer and fewer, until a final laconic message: “Hi, how are you doing? Things aren’t going very well here. Tedium, heaviness, fear. I’m afraid.”
Mina, my capricious model, the one I always end up coming back to, Mina posing, dancing her solitary farandole in front of the lens of my antique Nikon. A month now since that last message she sent me in my Montreal spring. I found her silence unbearable, and I bombarded her with messages and calls, in vain. It was as if Mina had vanished in a gradual erasure of her voice, her breath, her words. Words were all we possessed, bits of dreams, a few moments of madness too, and the cannons of an army of the Republic aimed at angry rioters in the streets of the Port overheated by the meanest of suns.
Mina had said in one of our telephone conversations, “The problem today is the prophets and the girls.” “Explain,” I asked, and she told me about the churches and other shacks of faith that had proliferated in the country in recent years, from which, she assured me, the faithful poor emerged crushed by sermons of servitude. She told me of temples, churches and mosques. “There are more and more girls behind heavy black veils, they’re like extras on a quickly thrown together movie set,” she said, “a movie set with austerely costumed actresses playing characters in a huge comedy. During your last visit, you must have noticed the beginning of the change?” “No,” I answered, “I didn’t observe anything. And perhaps those young ladies you’re talking about chose to wear the veil? Don’t worry about it, Mina.” And she had replied curtly, her harsh words like a slap in the face, “With the poverty around us, you don’t have a choice!”
But because I was convinced that the girls who were dear to her heart had the right to look the way they wished, I repeated that I didn’t see what the problem was. And I continued, “I’ll come back to the country if you want us to celebrate a different kind of mass. What would you say to picking up our fabulous game of love where we left off, with my hand on....” She replied, “You’ll never change!” and hung up.
I arrived before dawn. I took up residence again in my old room in my parents’ house in the north end of the Port. The Port is the name we’d given our city, the biggest one in a wretched country that stretched from the seething waters of the Atlantic to the savannah in the north on the edge of the Sahel. Staring at the walls of that room that has always been mine, I tried to imagine Mina filled with fear. Mina in turmoil, in a fire, on a pyre being consumed by flames, her proud martyr’s face melting, while the crowd, whipped up by prophet-inquisitors, thrilled to the spectacle. I was planning to go out early before the morning crowds, the laughter and bickering of schoolchildren dragging their feet on the sidewalks, the car horns assaulting your eardrums, and my mother’s eternal solicitude after those few hours of rest. My mother the jailer, who would soon be knocking on my door, murmuring, “Did you sleep well, Son? You must be hungry?” And faced with my apathetic pout, she would say, “I see you’re thinking about your wild girl. Didn’t you tell me nobody knows what she’s gotten mixed up in? For all we know, she’s hiding in a Celestial Church convent or behind a veil. Anyway, what difference does it make? Don’t you want something to eat?” That’s how she would issue her first provocation of the day, and close the door behind her, before shouting to the young cousin who’s been taking care of her for the past few years, “What do you have for us this morning, Julia? Watch out for the flies. You know I hate it when they land on the food.”
The first news of the day was being carried from the street to the courtyards. There were rumours of a murder, attributed to what people called the Shadow. A stabbing committed in the south end of the Port. The victim’s head, limbs and torso had been scattered to the four winds. A punishment of the gods, according to the men and women gathered under the roofs of the sheds.
The Sea Air
The first rays of the sun were shining on the streets of the Port, the kids without family or food who slept on pieces of cardboard in front of the stores on the edge of the Grand Marché were on a war footing, the first market women were streaming into the streets, while the porters were hurrying to the bus station, from which you could see the frothy waves of the Atlantic. Other people were going farther, toward the wharfs of the old port. I took a few random photos. Mina had said, “There’s a kind of tension in the city, people are becoming less and less recognizable. The girls especially, who acted as models for you, those faces smiling into the wind on the roadside, thrusting their breasts toward the lens of your Nikon. You’ll see, some of them will run away from you. These things bother me. I’ve never been a devout Muslim like my parents.”
After going to take a whiff of the sea air, I headed back toward the market. A motorcycle taxi stopped beside me, and the driver said “You seem lost, friend, what are you looking for? I know this bloody city like the back of my hand, I’ll take you wherever you want.” I declined his invitation and continued walking toward the old neighbourhoods by the sea. I passed the German and French cultural centres, the places where Mina, Azad, Solange, Beno, and I had gone on the stage during the time of what we had called the Théâtre des Mouches, the theatre of the flies, the troupe we formed in the winter of 1997. Twenty years have passed since then.
I finally sat down on the wooden bench of a millet porridge vendor who officiated at the altar of her huge terracotta pot beside the avenue already crowded with people, amid the noise and music of a carnival of the poor in their morning struggle to get by however they could. The woman served me her thick hot millet, smiling with the yellow and black remains of her teeth. I left her the change. “God bless you, my son,” she said, her eyes filled with gratitude, and she began her monologue, her hands clutching a dirty Jerusalem Bible she had pulled out from under a stool.
She preached, “May the Lord, He alone, his Only Son, save us in this country where everything is rickety, the times as well as the people. Do you pray, my son? Do you see this Bible? Our pastor says it’s the only book that counts. He’s a very inspired man. God bless him. Have you ever gone to his church, my son? Would you be interested in meeting him?” “I have an appointment,” I replied. “Stop running, my child,” she continued, undaunted. “Sit at the foot of His cross, share your quest with Him.” She stopped for a moment, and waved the fan she was holding in her plump fist, chasing away the big blue flies buzzing and swarming around her gourds, which were strewn on the ochre dust of the ground, with the sweeping gestures of a warrior beheading an enemy. I interrupted her, “May I take your picture?”
After I took the porridge vendor’s photograph (she had carefully arranged the few hairs clinging to her skull, a sparse relic of past splendour), she started up again as I was about to continue on my way. “Tell me, do you have a sister? If so, tell her to be careful.” And she told me this story, another one that was holding the city spellbound, circulating on all the street corners. For several weeks young girls had been disappearing, they would leave for the college or the market, and they wouldn’t arrive home. It was said that some of them had been found, at least what was left of them, their genitals and breasts cut off and taken for who knew what purpose, it was a market that brought in a lot of money, people whispered in the shadows of the houses, there were greedy merchants trafficking in girls. And in the streets, there were people quietly asking, “How much do the organs of those unfortunate girls cost?” Rumour had it that the removed parts were used in rituals, black masses of the devil that were supposed to give their possessors wealth and power.
I imagined Mina a victim of those cutters of breasts. She would never again come back to me with words of rage and pleasure, I would never again rest my hand in the hollow of her hips as broad as a night of ecstasy. Mina alone in the night at the seaside, her back against the metal of the old wharf as is her habit. She’s dreaming of the next challenge, the next project to throw herself into with the energy of a madwoman. The beach is deserted, shadows carrying long knives fall upon her, the grace of her body broken into little pieces in their hands. The voice of the porridge vendor bounced off my skin, my pensive immobility facing the street, “Pray, my son, read Christ’s words of comfort. I see in your eyes that you have read books other than the one about His exploits in Jericho and on the Jordan, I don’t know what is in the other books, in His there is light and salvation.” I thanked her and finally managed to get away, swallowed up in the already hot air, the clouds of flies hovering around the gourds thrown after me to chase my undesirable self out of the city or (preferably) to push me toward the dark alleys where Mina might be hiding.
This excerpt is taken from Mina Among the Shadows (Mina parmi les ombres, published in French by Les éditions du boréal) by Edem Awumey, copyright © 2018 by Edem Awumey; English translation © 2020 by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott. Published by Mawenzi House. Reprinted with permission.
Edem Awumey was born in Lomé, Togo. He is the author of four previous novels. Descent into Night, the English translation of Explication de la nuit, won the prestigious Governor-General’s Award for Translation in 2018. The other novels are Port-Melo (2006), which won the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire; Les pieds sales (2009), which was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in France; and Rose déluge (2011). The English translation of Les pieds sales, Dirty Feet (2011), was selected for the Dublin Impac Award. Edem Awumey lives in Gatineau, Quebec.