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Kanchana Ugbabe’s Soulmates delivers the “insider-outsider” perspective it promises, through the stories of different women in Nigeria.
I approached Kanchana Ugbabe’s Soulmates, a collection of short stories set in Nigeria and written by an author with Indian roots, with expectations derived from the blurb on the back cover. It mentioned “cross-cultural” stories, “derived from the experiences of both an insider and an outsider” and I immediately pictured an African version of The Interpreter Of Maladies and other such ‘diaspora writing.’
Soulmates both conformed to and defied my expectations. It defies the now familiar diaspora writing of loveless arranged marriages, longing for mangoes and rejection by children growing up in an alien culture. The protagonists in most of the stories are not Indian women marooned in foreign lands. If anything, the women in all the stories, whether Indian, European, Nigerian or from other African countries suffer the same trials – philandering or uninterested husbands, competing “co-wives” and a search for some meaning or novelty to their tired lives. At the end of the collection, if there is a feeling of monotony in having the same experience repeated in different lives, there is also a sense of how similiar our lives really are, behind the façade of culture and skin colour.
At the same time, Soulmates conformed to its promise of “outsider” stories, with the women in many of the stories hovering on the fringe, never quite fitting in to relationships, families and cultures. In fact, many of the narrators are so acutely conscious of this outsider status and so self-aware that they are not entirely credible. The unnamed narrator of Testimonies, for instance, is completely above the sham of the biblical society meetings she attends – and yet, we are never shown what compels her to join these dutifully. One gets the feeling that an omniscient narrator would have been a better choice to tell some of the stories than the first person favoured by Ugbabe. It is almost as if these women have become outsiders to their own lives – curiously divorced from their own circumstances and without any real feeling for the predicaments they find themselves in.
Nevertheless, Soulmates makes for reasonably interesting reading with the occasional memorable phrase. In Jaded Appetites, a wife describes her indifferent husband with, “Love for him was a benign presence like allowing the dog to lie in the kitchen and not kicking it.” An opportunistic lover is a “hyena in club-gear”.
Ugbabe is often at her best in detailing the meanness of human nature, especially when it is unthinking.
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