A woman like me and a man like him

Gabriela Babnik’s Dry Season is, among other things, a story about interracial sex. In its opening pages, before it does anything else, the novel asks that its readers come to terms with the following scene: a black African man and a white European woman, together, alone, on a hotel-room bed. The woman is a tourist. The man is local. They are in the city of Ouagadougou (‘Ouaga’ for short) in Burkina Faso in West Africa, in the present historical moment. This is their first meeting.
       Dry Season occasionally uses variants of the well-worn phrase referring to Africa: ‘this’ (or ‘the’) continent. It does so knowingly, either to interrogate stereotypes related to supposed uniformities of Africa as a whole and its inhabitants, or to brush them aside. ‘Not that I did not know how such things are done on this continent’, says Ana, the female protagonist and narrator, early on in the story, referring to the absence of public displays of intimacy from Burkina’s city streets. Later, she writes: ‘[T]he fact that only representatives of the light-skinned race can allow themselves the luxury of a supermarket in Africa is, after all, hardly in dispute’. And, later still:  ‘I’m not saying that Africa, with its primal nature and other such nonsense, has done this to me’ - as she contemplates the sensation that she has just stepped off the map and into chaos. The most fraught among such stereotypes are to do with a combination of gender and race.
       The two lovers in the Ouaga hotel room are complexly positioned in relation to each other. The man, Ismail, is much younger than the woman. He knows the city well and he is used to living in its streets as a beggar and a petty criminal. Sixty-two-year Ana is a middle-class artist from Central Europe who has only recently stepped off the plane. She is unsure how to navigate the city streets and needs 27-year-old Ismail, in part, to serve as her guide. Yet, in the wake of colonialism, in Africa as in Europe, the colour of their bodies and the manner in which such bodies come into intimate contact has the capacity to override all other kinds of difference. In the early 21st century, love-making across the boundaries of race still carries the potential to evoke deeply-entrenched hierarchies and tensions related to social prestige, power and desire. The opening pages of Dry Season signal the novel’s quiet determination to enter this fraught cultural terrain and to reconfigure it artistically.

Things need to be put somewhere

The terrain was, famously, charted by the Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon. His classic 1952 study Black Skin, White Masks deals extensively with how the possible conjunctions of hetero-sex and race played out in the colonial era. In the chapter titled ‘The Man of Colour and the White Woman’, Fanon draws on his reading of a work of fiction to formulate an argument on the relationship between race, desire and social power. He writes about Jean Vaneuse, the black hero of a 1947 novel Un homme pareil aux autres by René Maran. In the novel, Fanon explains, Vaneuse prevaricates at the point of marrying his long-time love - a white Frenchwoman. Having left his black Antillean mother at the point of being sent to boarding school in France, Vaneuse suffers from what Fanon terms, in psychoanalytical vocabulary, abandonment neurosis. He wants to be repeatedly assured he is worthy of being loved (as a French man and an equal) by a woman whose body symbolically represents the cultural superiority of Europe over its colonies. Simultaneously, he anticipates being denied love - as a black body which cannot run away from its blackness. ‘Does she really love me? Does she look at me objectively?’, writes Fanon, ventriloquizing the deeply ambivalent standpoint of Maran’s fictional hero. That hero’s anxiety and ambivalence embodies, for Fanon, the difficulties of cross-racial intimacy in colonial contexts.
       The postcolonial era has not eradicated the kind of global social treatment of black bodies Fanon writes about. It is, therefore, perhaps not accidental that abandonment looms large in Dry Season. Ismail is abandoned by mother figures, both symbolically and literally, on several occasions in the novel. Yet this partial resonance only serves to accentuate the differences between Babnik’s novel and Fanon’s account of Maran’s, and points to the subtlety and courage with which Dry Season handles issues of sex and race. In this novel, it is not only Ismail who is traumatised by maternal abandonment. Anna is abandoned, too, immediately after birth, when she is left in an orphanage by her unnamed biological mother. She is adopted into a stilted and repressed family environment and it is as partly in order to escape the suffocating memories of her family life that she takes a trip to Burkina Faso. Furthermore: while Ismail resembles Jean Vaneuse by being a black man from a former colony, Ana is European, but not French. Although to Ouaga passers-by she may look like any other tubabu – a ‘white lady’ – she is from Slovenia, a small, newly-independent, peripheral European country, created in the early 1990s after the break-down of socialist Yugoslavia.
       Following his first encounter with Ana at the hotel, Ismail boasts about it to a mate in quasi-Fanonian symbolic terms – by throwing a pair of Ana’s lace panties on a table as a sign of conquest and racialized male achievement. Because of ‘how far’ he had managed to get with a white woman, the balance of power between him and his street-gang senior Malik shifts: Ismail ‘had almost become his equal’. Yet, in private moments, Ismail and Ana share a sense of uncertainty and loss that brings them closer together than the many differences between them might seem to allow. As the novel’s narrators, they share with readers their private histories. As she looks at Ismail, Ana remembers her absent son. After meeting Ana, Ismail recounts the painful death of his own mother. Part of this novel’s achievement lies in how it takes its two protagonists outside of generalised identity categories and insists (via literary means) on their irreducible human singularity and their unexpected compatibility.
       Readers should saviour the slowness with which this novel unfolds: Babnik’s characters resemble no-one as they move across the Ouaga cityscape. They inhabit, together and separately, material spaces whose ephemeral and provisional qualities make them unique: rented rooms, pavements, street corners, supermarket aisles and the like. Dry Season details, time and time again, the precise assemblages of objects and images that bring Ana and Ismail together and set them apart. The freckles at the top of Ana’s back (the likes of which Ismail has not seen before); her yellow bag; dresses made of found objects she hangs from the ceiling of her Slovenian studio; Ismail’s struggle with an antiquated typewriter which has him ‘hunting for letters’; the metal buckle of a belt that hits Ana’s body as her lover throws her a pair of trousers; the white dog that appears to them separately at key moments in the story; the crippled beggar that grasps Ana’s leg as she sits on a roadside kerb – all are integral parts of how Ana and Ismail relate to each other and to their surroundings. Those details also shape characters’ internal lives, shared with readers via parallel narration. As they recount their pasts, it becomes obvious that Ana’s and Ismail’s histories resonate with subtle similarities. Cross-echoing references to specific sets of material circumstance – dwellings, nature, body parts and movements (people encircling each other, colliding with each other, approaching each other from behind) - overlap and entangle, as two distant lives begin to spill into each other.
       Dry Season is composed of four long chapters, each divided into a series of short narrative fragments. Sometimes, as the novel progresses and a reader turns to the next brief episode, it is difficult to tell initially which of the two protagonists is narrating it. To say that age, race and gender cease to matter for Dry Season’s characters would be a simplification. ‘I am not from Paris, Ismael’ – Ana tells her lover in a late chapter, with mounting sadness and exasperation at the difficulty of forming a lasting closeness. ‘I am from a fucked-up town where people will judge you even more than they judge me here.’ Yet, by the novel’s end, they are arguably not what matters most. Babnik’s luminous prose exposes the arbitrariness of identity categories. ‘Things need to be put somewhere even if they go over the edge in actual life’, says Ana, speaking about her art. Her words are an apt metaphor of the subtle dislocations of conventional meanings performed by Dry Season.

A house with high ceilings

       The novel’s supple, poetic language turns the city of Ouagadougou into much more than mere setting. In Gabriela Babnik’s rendering, ‘Ouaga’ becomes an ‘acting place’ – a quasi-agent in its own right, which influences and refracts the characters’ narrative trajectories. Bound up with Ana’s attempt to take possession of her own life, for example, is her decision to prolong her stay in Burkina and rent a grand yet dilapidated house ‘with high ceilings’ which used to belong to a politician. She draws local children into helping her hot-wire it; the dodgy, unsafe wiring later literally stuns her into temporary stillness and submission. On another occasion, after an altercation in the city streets, Ismail disappears from her sight by jumping onto a moving tro tro (a form of public transport), leaving her lost and vulnerable in unfamiliar surroundings. In doing so, he fleetingly enacts a familiar African literary trope: the capacity of modern cities to cause people to disappear from the lives of others, as if swallowing them. For Ana, Ouaga is the location of possible new beginnings, accompanied by unexpected risk and unforeseen beauty. ‘
       Ismail’s own narrative traces another established fictional trajectory: the story of an African villager coming into town. In this respect, his story resonates in particular with the celebrated 2005 novel Graceland by Nigeria’s Chris Abani. For Ismail, as for Abani’s hero Elvis, coming from a provincial location to a big city’s streets means coming to terms with the fact that violence and death are all around him. Ismail’s mother is killed by a passing lorry; later, he is sexually violated as he sleeps alone under a bridge. His account of his own coming to adulthood in the city streets is punctuated by gruesome, quasi-surreal scenes such as this:

I was standing there, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the road, with an empty tomato tin around my neck, looking around confused, and a moment later was thinking about sitting on the ground, burying my face in my shirt, and pretending I did not exist when, not far away, there was a bang. Instinctively, I shut my eyes but even in the darkness I saw blood jetting in every direction from the body of an extraordinarily fat man.

Swiller, a harmless lunatic living in the street, has just been accidentally killed by a construction trailer. As he enters the tutelage of the street-smart albino Malik, Ismail’s life seems separated from Ana’s middle-class European upbringing by an insurmountable gulf. Yet she, too, has endured unexpected encounters with pain and death. ‘So I learned the story of Mama’s brother’s crime only in bits and pieces’ – Ana writes as she recalls a series of traumatic episodes from her youth. Ana’s and Ismail’s coming together in an African city street begins, for both of them, the process of overcoming trauma and taking possession of language via the medium of writing.
       As a boy, alongside other Ouaga street kids, Ismail invents stories about how he ended up in the street. Later, he starts to work on a manuscript addressed to Ana, which comes into her possession after they have been separated. She, too, undergoes a similar process: ‘When I was young’ – she writes – ‘we didn’t divide life into public and private, as though living in some novel.’ She becomes an author – that is to say, she comes to inhabit a narrative stream that details her own private/public life (in a novel called Dry Season that Babnik’s readers have in front of them) only after coming to Burkina and meeting Ismael in a city street.  Despite the dryness of the season, for these two characters – the novel’s two narrators – the material city of Ouagadougou acquires meaning primarily as a river of words.
       This literary version of an African megalopolis is interwoven with other locations and other cities. One of them Cotonou in the neighbouring Benin, where Ismael goes on a risky and illegal venture. Another is Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana – possibly the un-named town from which Ana has escaped. If Chris Abani’s Graceland is the subtle intertext of Ismail’s parts of the story, then Ana is the literary descendant of Sonja Porle, Gabriela Babnik’s precursor when it comes to writing about Africa.

What I’m doing now – writing

The Slovenian author Sonja Porle first travelled to West Africa in the early 1980s – at the time Slovenia was still part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a founding member state of the non-aligned movement, led by the controversially charismatic figure that was Marshall Tito. Gabriela Babnik has acknowledged Porle as a key literary inspiration, and more: having read Porle’s travelogues as a young woman inspired Babnik to go to Africa herself. ‘If she could do it, then so could I’ – Babnik has told the author of this introduction. In Porle’s 1998 memoir Black Angel, my Guardian, a young female narrator whose voice resembles Ana’s in its wry wit and understated self-awareness, details her stay with a Ouagadougou family and her subsequent hitch-hiking trip to Ghana.
       Black Angel replaces colonial-era stereotypes with their benevolent inversions originating in the era of decolonisation. Porle’s Africans are all-too-often resilient in the face of adversity; they are always full of laughter and ever ready for a song or a dance. They are –Black Angel tells its readers - unable to communicate bad news directly, but able to fix any piece of broken machinery with ingenuity and flair. Laudably, such well-meaning homogenisation is not in evidence in Dry Season. But Porle did lay down the foundations of another, more distinct cultural/textual trait that continues to resonate in Babnik’s writing. Her narrator’s movement across Burkina’s capital city charts the contours of an alternative, distinctly European yet also distinctly non-Western, conception of gendered whiteness, open to the idea of equitable interaction with difference.
       In Black Angel (published in 1998, less than a decade after the break-up of Yugoslavia), Porle’s narrator criss-crosses Ouagadougou with a dose of foreigner’s caution and uncertainty, but without of anxiety. The final chapters of Black Angel represent its female Slovenian protagonist chatting, in the middle of the night, to a group of black men at the Burkina/Ghana border about the politics of their respective countries with an air of cultural solidarity that the text takes entirely for granted
       Dry Season emanates from a different political moment. The messianic socialist projects of Tito and Burkina’s Thomas Sankara are by now long gone. (The novel outlines events related to Burkina’s post-Sankara political landscape in a certain amount of detail in its late chapters.) Ismail and Ana are aware of the social strain these projects entailed: the Sankara regime espoused quasi-socialist ideals that were, in many ways, utopian and emancipatory; yet, during his time, beggar children such as Ismael were collected and sent into camps – a practice which would have made it impossible for Ismail and his mother to escape a difficult life in a village. Ana, similarly, refers curtly to ‘the period of salvationist Yugoslav communism’, in opposition to which the independent state of Slovenia has emerged. Yet traces of betrayed aspirations towards global equality, unity and progress that these failed state projects arguably engendered survive, and remain discernible in the pages of Dry Season. Such traces are visible in the unconstrained freedom (reminiscent of Porle) with which Ana relates to Ouagadougou’s inhabitants, and in the two protagonists’ readiness to open themselves up to each other. They can also be glimpsed in the multiplicity of the world’s cultural texts the novel evokes.
       Ismail’s and Ana’s intertwined narratives are awash with references to a wide range of texts and performances: the names of Miles Davis, Langston Hughes, Bach, Chagall, Millais and others signpost the characters’ trajectories in ways that are richly suggestive without being hierarchical. The separate, passing references they each make to Lorca’s poems, for example, may help to alert readers that Ismail is not destined to remain the street kid he is at the novel’s outset. Elsewhere, he mentions listening to popular radio narratives about characters who dream of an ideal marriage, which may prompt readers to draw a parallel with Ana’s past. While living in the streets, Ismail spends the money he earns by begging on watching movies – Burkinabe, Indian, Mexican, and a particularly memorable Macedonian one, among others. The wide variety of these texts’ cultural provenances underscores the multilingualism that underpins the stylistic conceit Dry Season. Originally published in Slovenian and written in part in Burkina Faso, the novel is about characters who speak to each other (presumably) in French, and to others (variously) in French, Slovenian and/or Bambara. As narrators, Ana and Ismail write in un-specified language or languages, which could be the same or different, and which, for this reader, began to function, as the novel progressed, as deliberately indeterminate inter-languages that spoke directly to each other. When Ana writes: ‘What I’m doing now – writing, I mean – is also probably about finding meaning’, it is not at all clear in which actual language she is doing this. Yet the statement echoes similar sentiments, expressed by Ismael elsewhere in the text, in an un-named, un-specified language of his own.

A bird with yellow feathers

       In as much as it relates the lives of characters who are distinctly nationally situated and whose lives are in part determined by the political and social shifts of Burkina and Slovenia, Dry Season may be read as a commentary on nations and national politics in the world’s economic peripheries. But the novel also, perhaps more significantly, about thinking and feeling beyond nation-states. Dry Season speaks powerfully to the notion of assuming ethical responsibility for strangers. In such a reading, the cosmopolitan sentiment this novel brings about is to do, first and foremost, with the solidarity of the marginalised and the oppressed: those people and groups who have been on the receiving end of others’ grand designs.  For Ismael and Ana, that solidarity encompasses non-human lives: motifs animals (especially dogs), and spirits (especially the ghosts of dead children) recur repeatedly throughout this book. The book’s insistence on the need for empathy with those who are different does not imply a naïve belief in complete identification. As she recalls her distant and oppressive Slovenian husband, Ana describes a moment when he ‘was clearly beginning to understand, even if he would not admit it to himself, that there were worlds inside me he could never enter’. Ana and Ismael come from separate and distant geographic and cultural worlds. And yet, after their first encounter, Ismail ‘felt more than understood that a bird with yellow feathers was growing inside’ him. Positioned gracefully and precariously somewhere between a picaresque adventure narrative and a postmodernist romance, Dry Season has the capacity to intimate the possibility of creating brand-new worlds to its readers.


Ranka Primorac, University of Southampton, UK