Also not technically a short story, I guess, but a piece of narrative non-fiction. Still, it’s short, it’s telling a story, and it’s stone-cold brilliant, so I’m claiming it. Does a story have to be fiction? I think not, on balance – but possibly that’s a conversation for later. I read this piece this year, following on from a trip to the wonderful Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton, where I sat in on what can only be described as a masterclass on editing by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. I missed the reading in advance, but was so intrigued by this piece, which the class discussed at length, I tracked it down afterwards, and was blown away.
In a series of diary entries, Liberian author Hawa Jande Golakai describes her engagement with the 2014 Ebola crisis, which took root in Guinea, across the border, before spreading further afield. She considers the epidemic as an epidemic (she trained and worked as a medical immunologist), as a reminder of the laziness of western assumptions about Africa and Africanness (in this way it reminded me of Aida Edemariam’s brilliant book The Wife’s Tale, which talked about the West’s framing of and response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine – how little things have changed), and as a lens through which to view her own relationship with her country, her new and still fragile identity as a writer, her life. Ebola feels distant, and other, and then circles closer and closer, forcing her to look at it, and at the decisions she’s made.
I love reading writers considering their own lives as texts – Lorna Sage did it brilliantly in Bad Blood; Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands is a fantastic recent example – and this is exactly what Golakai is doing so deftly and thought-provokingly here. She shifts registers with ease, and maximum impact: describing text-flirting with a possible lover one minute; border closures and aid agencies the next. It’s a catalogue of the mundanity of catastrophe, the dailiness of fear, the cigarette-paper gap between fury and guilt – and it is brightly, beautifully, brilliantly written.
Commissioned for the anthology Safe House,ed. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Cassava Republic Press, 2016. Subsequently published in Granta 134: No Man’s Land, April 2016 and available online here