Tuesday, August 16, 2016

WITMonth Day 16 | Segu by Maryse Condé | Review

I picked up Maryse Condé's Segu (translated by Barbara Bray) at the library book fair a year ago, a tattered copy with about three annotations at the beginning and little elsewhere. (There was also a bookstore business card stub as a bookmark.) This wasn't an example of a novel I picked up because the content interested me very much, rather it was one of a handful of books by women in translation I collected that day and hoped would fit into my project more broadly.

I was thus pleasantly surprised by how much I appreciated Segu. I use the word "appreciated" for a reason - it's not that I especially loved the book, but I felt that it gave me a lot in return for what I took. It's a messy sort of family saga, with too many characters and narrative threads to keep track of at times (and the character list, unfortunately, doesn't do such a good job of filling in the gaps), but it also takes advantage of each and every character to tell its bigger story.

Segu is the story of Dousika Traore's family: his wives, his sons, his nephews. Each narrative thread tries to represent a sliver of African history, from the rise of Islam to the slave trade to Christian/European colonialism to tribal social changes. Some plot threads are thus more purely historical than others, which may also feel timely in their concerns (religious extremism, religious wars, white supremacy, etc.). It makes for interesting reading, even when the story gets a bit muddled.

The thing that ultimately frustrated me most about Segu was its treatment of women. While in many regards the narrative tries to build the women up (through the idolizing eyes of the sons, husbands, and lovers), they are nonetheless always framed as mothers or wives. The women rarely present the story from their perspective, and even when they do it feels specifically crafted around the men's narratives. It made me wish that there was another version of Segu, one that followed the women. Not just as mothers and wives, but as women with their own agency and struggles. Stories about the women raped by our main characters. Stories about the women who give birth to and raise these men. Stories about women who hear the call of the imams and are drawn to a new religion. Stories about women who continue to practice their ancient traditions and fight the new order in their own subtle ways. It is of course unfair to ask of a novel to transform itself into a very different story, but that was the strongest feeling I walked away with.

But not the only one, by any means. Segu's density is offset by how very interesting most of its aspects are, and by how simply readable it is. It's the sort of novel that just... continues. As much as there are moments that might drag the narrative down a bit, there are no truly dull patches (since the story skips around between its characters a little too freely...) and it's the sort of book that you really can immerse yourself within. And you should, because it's interesting and different and fascinatingly full.

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