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New in French: Léonora Miano’s “La Saison de l’Ombre”

By Mathilde Billaud-Walker

La Saison de l’ombre is set during the height of the slave trade, in the sub-Saharan village of Mulongo. It is the moving story of the villagers’ struggle to cope with the shocking kidnapping of twelve tribe members during a mysterious fire. The novel begins as the survivors rebuild the village and wonder how the ten young men and two village elders disappeared in the conflagration. In the midst of all this activity, the mothers of the missing boys have been gathered in a house on the outskirts of the village. One night they hear the voices of their lost sons in their dreams. A strange mist surrounds the building, alerting the clan that something is amiss.

This magical phenomenon forces the Mulongo people to break the village rules and search for the truth about the fire and the disappearances. Eyabe, one of the sequestered mothers, decides to join in the search. She leaves the village (an act strictly forbidden to women) to look for the “land of water,” where she knows she will find her son. Meanwhile, the gentle, courageous village leader Mukano takes his personal guards with him on a mission to find his brothers without the approval of his “council.” The novel follows the diverse adventures of the protagonists as they struggle with the dramatic effects of slavery, which the reader already surmises, is the reason behind the mysterious disappearances.

Like many of the Bantu tribes of the eighteenth century, the Mulango people have their own gods, beliefs and lifestyle. They encounter the kidnappings and the fire and their unknown causes with anxiety and fear and perform rites to protect themselves against bad spirits, but some of them—the strongest and the most intuitive ones—quickly realize that the truth is to be found elsewhere. The Mulongo people live in a remote village, far from the ocean, and know only their close neighbors, the Bwele clan, who they enjoy a trade relationship with. Over the course of the book, the different characters slowly discover that it is these wealthier—so-called friendly—neighbors, who are responsible for the fire and the kidnappings. The Bwele, it turns out, have been trading the Mulongo with the coastal people and with European traders in exchange for gifts.  For the protagonists and the narrators of the story there are no words for human trafficking, no “White men,” only “strangers with hen feet”–a poetic adaptation of the Cameroonian dwala word “Mukala,” which refers to the large pants that European wore at that time. The raids destroy their peaceful lives, forcing the survivors like Eyabe to retreat to the marshes.

With La Saison de l’ombre Léonara Miano continues her project of documenting the 400-year experience of sub-Saharans during the dark times of the slave trade. In her previous book, Les Aubes Ecarlates, the second volume of the trilogy Suite Africaine, a child soldier is haunted by ghosts of the past, slaves who didn’t survive the trip to America. In her writing, Miano demonstrates how an oppressed people resisted, perished, and confronted the loss of their world. She shows how every human being is like the enigmatic young boy Bana, who accompanies Eyabe in her quest—“a multitude.” So she reveals a hidden, invisible part of sub-Saharan history, and uncovers a trace of its ancestors.

By combining facts and her imagination, Miano gives voice to the forgotten. She strives to correct the depiction of sub-Saharans as people with no name, no personal thoughts, no beliefs, abstract figures represented as “little black sticks” in the background of a painting about the slave trade.  She shows readers that the slaves were real and connected to people who missed them and mourned for them. Her goal is to awaken the pain, and to reveal the incalculable personal suffering caused by the Western slave trade in Africa.

Léonora Miano is a Cameroonian author who lives in Paris. Her debut novel L'Intérieur de la nuit (Dark heart of the night) was translated and published by University of Nebraska Press in 2005. She received the prix Femina in France for La Saison de l’Ombre (published by Grasset in 2013).

Published Feb 6, 2014   Copyright 2014 Mathilde Billaud-Walker

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