Jebel Marra, a collection of short stories by Michelle Green, is embedded in a context that is ripe with literary promise, but tricky: the 2004 civil war in Darfur, Sudan. (The author herself is a former aid worker in the area, and she has fictionalised much of what she and others observed, during that time). For most Western readers, Darfur will be beyond a mere ‘unknown quantity’ – the imaginative disconnect will be wider, more difficult to breech than say for a story set in Thailand or India. Wartime Sudan is about as ‘foreign’ as one can get.
But these stories, this esoterica, travels well – the author has spun her tales creatively, and with much flair, allowing them to connect with the uninitiated. How? Principally, by creating characters that are rounded, and thus empathetic. Whether antagonist, protagonist or (deliberately) unknown, Green has sketched out 360 degree human beings: the refugee being interviewed by a journalist, knowing that he is only after crisp facts, and yet her wanting to tell how her Auntie used to be a wedding singer, and that since the bombs fell, she is struggling to remember lines from her biggest hits. The government soldier preparing for battle, and looking out yonder to history, to purpose, to righteousness, and concomitantly blurring out the carnage right in front of him.
Given the context, and the reader likely having little native perspective, the creation of characters that one can believe in, and emotionally invest in, is a real accomplishment. There is also some excellent writing, like the following description of coming-to, after being knocked-out and kidnapped:
“The first thing to return is smell. I still can’t seem to open my eyes or focus on any of the muffled swirling sounds around me, but clear as anything, that smell. Two layers of acidic tang, like a nightclub toilet. Piss and cigarette smoke. I let it bring me back, follow it through a fog of sensation to the next detail: pain.”
Perhaps some of the shorts are less successful that others – one or two meander a little too long, or otherwise lose focus, like a gear slipping when travelling at speed. Overall, though, Jebel Marra is an original and intelligent collection. Moreover the arrangement – with each story a slice of life from some actor, in the same place, around the same time, and experiencing the same mess – works wonderfully well.
But the real payload is in being confronted with foreign-tongued characters from far-off lands, who are as complex – and as recognisable – as oneself.
Any Cop?: Jebel Marra blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction in a way that is clever and unsettling. If you’re prepared to leave your comfort-zone, this really is for you.