In Jebel Marra, Michelle Green’s new collection of short stories by Comma Press, we experience Darfur through the eyes of the witnesses: traumatized, broken and defiantly human. We see the desert, refugee camps and mountains of Western Sudan through translators, aid workers, journalists, archaeologists, but most poignantly of all through the displaced, often female victims of the tragedy. Michelle’s terse paragraphs read like reportage, or the quick shutter of the photojournalists lens. What she captures are revealing portraits of lives torn apart. Of life ending, beginning and somehow enduring in the most testing of circumstances. This is Sudan as the horsemen of the apocalypse rides through, beating up a tattoo of war, pestilence, famine and death.
The prose is sinuous, sparse and laudably controlled. Here is a writer with stylistic reserve, whose sentences are always in service to the story. The narrative pace moves quickly, contributing to a staccato effect that seems to mirror the processes of trauma (a personal trauma—the author worked for an aid agency during the crisis—alluded to in the opening story Debrief):
When the man at the bar asks about what you’ve done, where you’ve been, forget silence and tact and blurt out something about kidnappings on the border of DRC, about child soldiers and Janjaweed. His face will be hungry, will be wanting more, asking what, how, thinking he really wants to know. Forget your role as buffer and say it, say that the kids are broken and rebuilt, made into killers, made to bite another child to…stop. Stop talking when his face changes, reaches for another topic, another set of eyes, the barmaid, the floor. How about a game then, eh? You’re crap at this. No sense of appropriate boundaries, no ability to read subtext.
There are times when the reader would perhaps prefer more stillness and reflection but then the shadows of the Janjaweed appear and the story moves on. This curious feeling of displacement works well, doesn’t allow one to settle, to gather thoughts or assimilate atrocities. However sometimes, in a bid to get these stories up and running, some of the orientation work the author needs to do is glossed over, and I found myself occasionally not knowing a narrator’s gender, or being forced to backtrack to find out where in the stories time/space I found myself. This is a minor technical fault that can have a major effect on the way a story is received.
A decision to incorporate a secondary setting of Croatia distracts from the Darfurian main stage, and occasionally confuses as the reader is intermittently bounced to the Balkans and back. This only adds to the frenetic pacing, the shutter whirring away, the postcards of a war torn world flashing upon the reader’s eye. Perhaps the author is stressing, with this ghostly shadowing of two humanitarian horrors, the ubiquity of war, the scars such conflicts leave not just on bullet marked buildings but in the psyche of people. And whilst this setting is artfully justified by the characters included the parallels often feel uneasy and occasionally laboured.
When dealing with such material the danger is always spoiling it by overwriting, by typing oneself into melodrama and excess. Here the author handles her material with aplomb, letting the terrible realities of the conflict speak for themselves, preferring understatement and suggestion to the exploitative detail. The author’s stylistic and formal decisions result in characters that tend towards evocative sketches rather than deeply realised people. They are gestural figures, glimpsed through hijabs, dust storms, and the smoke of war.
As a personal preference I would’ve liked to have seen a map of Darfur included to help familiarize myself with the region whilst reading the text. Cities, mountain and border towns are often referred to and with little first hand experience I resorted to google maps to get a sense of the geography.
Jebel Moya, one of the major stories included touches thematically on the influence of mineral resources and its inclusion in the collection seems necessary. Much of the conflict in Sudan apparently stems from inequality, poverty and behind the scenes political skulduggery, as China and the US play war games to divvy up the oil and gold and as various tribal, religious, ethnic and cultural factions try to lay claim to the land. Darfur in this sense, as the writer seems to suggest, is a vision of all our futures when the resources of the world have dwindled and when the rain no longer falls.
In this heart breaking collection, Michelle Green has written a humanizing series of stories that give the reader a vision of a complex and harrowing conflict. Robert Capa, the renowned war photographer, was famous for saying “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Here the narrative lens is, at times, so intimate with the subject that the experience is profoundly unsettling. What more can you ask of a literature that deals with the realities of war?
L. A. Billing