Saturday, April 20, 2019

Essential Encounters

Essential Encounters, by Therese Kuoh-Moukoury

I have read hardly anything for my Around the World project lately, even though I have something like 15 books sitting here waiting to be read.  (I am thinking of making my 20 Books of Summer list completely out of African novels, doesn't that sound good?  I absolutely could, but in that case I'd have to put that one I just chose back on the pile, which doesn't seem like that great a plan....hm.)  So I picked this one up to get me back in the groove.  This is a Cameroonian novel, written in 1959 but not published until 10 years later, and it is "the first novel by a woman of sub-Saharan francophone Africa."  In fact it was pretty influential so I thought it would make a good selection.

Flo tells her life story entirely in the present tense, so that everything is happening right now.  As a young woman, she enters a cosmopolitan social circle that includes both black and white, and becomes best friends with Doris, who is French.  They are inseparable and study in France together, but Flo is a dreamy romantic, while Doris has career goals and scorns romance.

Flo eventually meets Joel, a budding doctor, and falls deeply in love.  They marry and all is well, for a time, but Flo loses the baby she wanted so much and cannot seem to conceive again.  This doesn't bother Joel, but Flo feels her womanhood is at stake.  Then she realized that Joel is losing interest in her, and so she hatches a plan.  She'll bring Joel and Doris together, and then at least she'll have a sort of sister-wife, as in the old polygamous days.

The novel is focused on how old Cameroonian mores are changing into an entirely new system, and the two are completely incompatible.  Flo's attempts at bringing back old practices only backfire, but there are not a lot of good options for her in the new system either; Doris just tells her that she should have tried harder to hold on to her husband, as if she hadn't.

What we don't see in this story is much about racial issues.  Kuoh-Moukoury didn't want to go over that ground; she wanted to focus entirely on intimate personal relationships.  It's also an amazingly short novel, less than 100 pages, and every sentence counts.  It doesn't feel rushed or too short, and yet a tremendous amount is packed into those few pages.

This would be a very good selection for somebody wanting to get into African literature; it's not a difficult read, and it touches on so many important themes.  It would make a very good companion read to Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter.






As a side note, I keep thinking the title is a series title about important authors.  It sounds like an academic series, doesn't it?  "Essential Encounters: Buchi Emecheta"  "Essential Encounters: Chinua Achebe"   Essential Encounters: Therese Kuoh-Moukoury"  I keep looking for the novel's actual title elsewhere on the cover.  But no, the title was originally in French and it's about interpersonal relationships, and was probably not supposed to sound like an academic series of author profiles.

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