Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun – translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Jaquette

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This slim collection of short stories published by Comma Press is probably the first ever collection of short stories by a Sudanese woman to be translated into English. That ‘probably’ is telling: here is a literary culture so marginalised in the west that no one can say with complete certainty whether any similar books have ever been published. Rania Mamoun has published two novels in Arabic and several of her short stories have already been translated into English and appeared in anthologies. She is a newspaper and television journalist and an activist.

Whenever I read the word ‘activist’ my heart sinks and I brace myself for dull exposition and preachy polemic, but thankfully Mamoun has little interest in using literature to explain her country to outsiders. Don’t come to this collection expecting to learn much about Sudan. The stories feature ever-present poverty and inequality but tell outsiders little about why Sudan is such a country of extremes. There is nothing here about the legacy of colonialism, religious tensions or civil war. It’s possible that this is a deliberate strategy on Mamoun’s part, to avoid censorship or other repercussions from the authorities. That’s not to suggest the stories are apolitical, rather that they focus on the everyday lives and struggles of city dwellers and the interior worlds of the characters, not on the broader context. The only story that includes such details is the first one, ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise,’ which describes a friendship between a Sudanese woman and an Ethiopian man, dwelling on the differences and similarities between the languages, food, clothing and music of the two countries.

The stories are slices of life, not driven by twists, big reveals, or characters learning something profound about themselves. The themes include love, death, madness, extreme poverty, religion and urban alienation. In ‘A Woman Asleep on her Bundle,’ a young woman develops a fascination with an elderly homeless woman who sleeps outside the mosque. The young woman observes the older woman’s daily habits, speculates about her life and listens to rumours about her. Finally her curiosity develops into a kind of impotent, inexpressible love. She writes ‘I felt bad for her; I felt helpless. I longed for her, and thought about helping her or inviting her to come home with me, but I always feared how she might respond.’ These stories are atmospheric, intimate and dignified portraits of people struggling on the edges. They are compassionate but not over earnest, rooted in a specific culture but describing universally recognisable themes and emotions.

Mamoun is a lyrical writer of stylish restraint and great versatility, and playfully inventive with form. The shortest story, ‘A Week of Love,’ recalls Hemingway’s six-word story in its brevity; ‘The Muck of the Soul’ is not exactly a screenplay, but gives instructions for camera angles, movements and fades; other stories have surreal or magical elements, swerve unexpectedly between points of view, or maintain a perfect balance between tragedy and comedy.

I particularly enjoyed the mysterious, beautiful, poetic ‘Edges,’ in which a woman writer recalls a failed romance. When her lover says ‘give me your hand’ she says ‘I had lived a whole 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.’ When the relationship ends she feels ‘I’d become as hollow as a reed, or flute, unable to hold a note.’ The true romance in her life, however, is with someone only she can see: a muse, imaginary friend or jinn. Their relationship is ‘A thrumming deep in my veins, which seeps out between words and the pauses between them, like plumes of smoke so hard to grasp.’ Mamoun’s stories are like those plumes of smoke, leaving things floating open-ended and unspoken.

Two stories in particular focus on battles with uncaring or inadequate bureaucracy. They contrast unexpected gestures of generosity with selfish indifference. In ‘In the Muck of the Soul’ a widow tries to get medical treatment for her desperately ill son. A doctor offers to pay for half the treatment, but the charity, which provides her only hope for the rest of money, only offer the illiterate mother Kafkaesque waiting and form-filling. In ‘Doors,’ doors are both portals to a better life and barriers against change. The protagonist struggles to arrive on time and decently dressed for the new job that he hopes will save his family. His bathroom door is ‘nothing more than a sheet of zinc with partially patched holes, but it mostly concealed whoever was behind it.’ His front door is shorter on one side than the other and opens after a terrible struggle ‘with a screech heard by half the neighbourhood.’ The doors of the bus snag his clean white shirt. In the face of these trials he puts his faith in god and tries not ‘to give this trivial, inconsequential thing the pleasure of spoiling his good mood.’ The well-drawn characters, elegant, restrained language and accretion of small details combine to huge emotional effect in this story. Much of its power comes from the contrast between the comically difficult daily commute and the devastating consequences of being late for work.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ is very short and you can easily read the whole thing in an afternoon, which is in fact what I did. Music weaves throughout the stories, and I found a wonderfully atmospheric playlist to accompany the book on the website Arab Literature, which you can access here:

https://arablit.org/2019/04/20/literary-playlist-rania-mamouns-thirteen-months-of-sunrise/

Thirteen Months of Sunrise is published by Comma Press and is available here.

Rania Mamoun

Born in 1979, Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist, and activist. She has published two novels in Arabic – Green Flash (2006) and Son of the Sun(2013) – as well as a short story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise, which will be published in English by Comma Press in 2018. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Book of Khartoum (Comma Press, 2016), the first ever anthology of Sudanese short fiction in translation. She has also worked as culture page editor of Al-Thaqafi magazine, a columnist for Ad-Adwaa newspaper and presenter of the ‘Silicon Valley’ cultural programme on Sudanese TV.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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