Short Story Month, Day 27: "The Sex Lives of African Girls"
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Misha Rai.
When I came across Taiye Selasi’s short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in GRANTA’s The F Word issue, I found, in the beginning, that I couldn’t get past the title to the story. Those six words—the sex lives of African girls— had made me restless, instantly. My brain was agog with activity. My first thought (a writerly thought, read selfish) was, why hadn’t I come up with such a title? My second (again writerly, selfish), I needed to appropriate the idea and write about the sex lives of Indian girls. My third, fourth, fifth ad infinitum thoughts (for a while), as I plunged my nose between the pages of the journal chasing the often sought after olfactory high of ink and paper and glue, were that of wondering what was the sex life of an Indian girl like? I made notes on the page where the title (GRANTA devotes an entire page to the author’s name and title of the story) appears. I sent a semi-coherent, overly-exuberant email to various friends and colleagues asking them about their experiences and perceptions of women and sex in the India of today. Six words, from a writer I hadn’t heard of before, had got me thinking, drafting and asking questions.
As a writer what keeps me coming back to “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is Selasi’s use of the second person point-of-view narration or rather her choice to exercise restraint, in some parts of the story, and not (over) use the second person personal pronouns as the only vehicle to tell a story as other authors employing the same point-of-view have done often. In the first section of the story the word “you” appears only twice in the first two hundred words. In the fourth section it appears twice in the whole page. Selasi achieves this by having a clear narrator for the story, eleven-year-old Edem, and by weaving in dialogue amongst the other characters and creating scenes that do not necessarily focus solely on Edem. The burden of narration is placed beyond the “you.” Often when I read this story I find myself forgetting it is a second person point-of-view story. Selasi doesn’t try to get the reader to follow a set of rules or create a sense of intimacy or jolt the reader or make them feel guilty instead she carefully chooses moments that may be relatable—She doesn’t know your first name so keeps calling out, ‘Child!’ You’ve never thought yourself as this—‘child’—neither a child nor someone’s; you’ve always simply been you—and melds them with somewhat unrelatable moments—You’ve heard the Sad Story in pieces and whispers, from visitors from the village, whence the rumours began: that your mother got married and is living in Abuja with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother.
Another aspect I find fascinating, and a wonderful echo of oral storytelling, is Selasi’s use of repetition of phrases and sentences. The first section of the story ends with the words—Enter Uncle—exact words that appear again at the start of the last section tying in the beginning with the end. Selasi repeats phrases and whole sentences a lot—In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother—throughout the story at crucial moments. This works because each time a change has manifested in the story before she duplicates a phrase or sentence. Additionally, what I love about her writing is how whilst this repetition helps me keep track of the various sections of the story since “The Sex Lives of African Girls” unfolds non-linearly, Selasi jumps back in time and then jumps farther still and seems to be in no hurry to get back to the point at which the story started or to continually provide crumbs for the reader to keep that first section in mind. My joy is always trebled, if not more, to come across creative work that not only flouts the norms of conventional wisdom but also, hopefully, creates frontiers for other writers to push against, question and rework.
Swadesh Deepak, an Indian playwright, novelist and short story writer, once told me that a good story will always perpetuate another, even if the other is simply the telling of how that first story affected the reader. For me, as a reader, at its core “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is a story about the discovery of strength women find in themselves and the hope carried in the choices they can ultimately make even if the result of that choice takes place off the page. I think about the consequence of that choice for days. I write multiple stories about these women in my head. I find connections with them even though Selasi’s story is set in Ghana and Nigeria and I am from India and currently live in the United States. And whilst this story is not representative of every girl on the African continent and I don’t represent every woman on the Indian subcontinent, I, like most readers feel empathy and like some readers have insight. I know what it feels like to be constantly aware of the vulnerability of my female body, to have that body need protection, to realise that for most of my life I will have to make choices that should ideally protect me from sexual assault, to come to the realization that my best efforts may not be enough and to hope that I too will find unlikely allies in women who may scare me but also give me the courage to help them when their strength fails and keep moving on. Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls” has done more than just give me simple pleasure in reading it or talking about it, it has taken me down multiple roads of inquiry—imagined and real. I look forward to discovering what other gifts this story holds, as good stories always do, each time I re-read it.
Misha Rai is a PhD student in Fiction at Florida State University. Her fiction will appear in The Indiana Review. She is a former Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She is currently writing her debut novel.