So Distant From My Life, by Monique Ilboudo (translated by Yarri Kamara)
Originally published 2018
Setting: West Africa
[CWs: violence, death, homophobia]
I was very excited to read this one - so much so that this is one of the only times I have bought and read a book within the first few months of its publication- in this case, the English translation published in October 2022, which comes to us through fantastic not-for-profit independent publisher Tilted Axis Press.
In this novella set in the fictional West African city of Ouabany, Burkinabe author and activist Monique Ilboudo explores the reasons that force many to leave their homes in search of better lives abroad through the eyes of our young male narrator, Jeanphi.
'If you lay down a chicken and place a knife on its neck saying to it, for example: ‘Don’t move, I am going to the market and when I come back I am going to slit your throat,’ the chicken will not move until you come back from the market and kill it. Try it, you will see. I was not a chicken. I refused to remain lying down where chance had birthed me. I refused to be a collateral victim of International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs. I refused to silently suffer the carelessness of those in charge. I grabbed my destiny by its horns. I looked it straight in the eyes and I gave orders.'
After years of difficulty trying to carve out a life for himself in West Africa, dealing with addiction and difficulty securing employment, Jeanphi tries unsuccessfully several times to reach Europe in pursuit of a 'better life'. After several challenges he is finally able to succeed in doing so opportunistically and settles in France with an old, wealthy widower, but on the way must abandon his scruples and conceptions of sexuality, a choice which inevitably also impacts his family back in Ouabany. On his journey abroad he meets others from different parts of the world who have been driven to do the same, making the difficult choice to leave home, and a part of themselves, behind. In the end, Jeanphi returns home to try and uplift and support people in his own country through his new-found wealth, and encourage them to stay themselves and build a life rather than seeking one abroad, with unfortunately disastrous consequences.
The book criticises common perceptions of the driving forces of migration as well as the role of NGOs in Africa, that may often be motivated by well-meant intentions but consistently fail to fulfil their purpose, particularly when wider societal issues go unaddressed.
'Why are some people expatriates, while others migrate, emigrate or immigrate... In French, one expatriates oneself. This is a choice: an act of will, not of fire under your bottom. When I migrate, I do not have a choice. It is the winds of poverty or of war that push me out of my home. And then I ride the waves of struggles, driven by contrary winds, thrown against reefs of iron and laws that reject, never sure that I will arrive safely to port.'
I found the themes of the novella to be deeply interesting, but I also felt it suffered from its brevity slightly (it is only 123 pages in length) - I definitely would like to have seen some of Jeanphi's actions and reflections explored more deeply in places. However, this may have been intentional, as the title of the novella suggests, Jeanphi appears to put a distance between himself and the actions he has felt pushed to make. Despite leaving me wanting more detail at times, it was sharply written, raw with the despair of the migrant experience, and I am really hoping that Ilboudo will have further works translated.