After the very soft launch of ‘NDOA spotlight’, I’m glad to announce that it’s officially back! *hold for applause*
NDOA spotlight will be a regular, ongoing series, where I’ll be discussing the contributions to the amazing New Daughters of Africa anthology. You can read more about this in my previous, introductory post. The piece I’m discussing today is the short story Courage Became Her Friend by Edwige-Renée Dro.
A bit about the author
Dro is an Ivorian writer, translator and literary activist.
Her bio says that she worked in England for more than 10 years before returning
to Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Whilst in the UK, she apparently
worked as a marketing assistant and community journalist; you can find her on Twitter. She’s bilingual, which
reveals itself in Courage… because the third-person narrative is
interspersed with French words. She is in the 1980s section of the book,
meaning that she’s somewhere in her 30’s, age-wise.
Courage Became Her Friend
Dro’s contribution is a vignette, a window into a day in the
life of Sandrine. Sandrine is a 32-year-old Ivorian woman, who is undocumented,
i.e. she doesn’t have papers yet. She’s
spent fourteen years – her entire adult life – living and working in London. Judging
by the references to buying phone cards, I’d place the time this story is set
in the noughties, or possibly early 2010s.
“The care home jobs, the live-in care jobs, the cleaning jobs – all cash in hand and none of them requiring immigration status checking.”
The first thing we learn about our protagonist is that she’s
exhausted. A phone call wakes her up from the small amount of sleep she’s having
after working back-to-back shifts. Sandrine is also miserable. In fourteen
years, she still hasn’t obtained papers, is still cleaning, and doesn’t seem to
sustain much else in her life outside of work. She’s in a relentless cycle where
she can’t go home, but she can’t create a more comfortable life for herself
because she doesn’t have the documents or financial stability necessary. So,
she’s been doing what a lot of people do in her position, which is rent rooms
from seedy private landlords, and work cleaning and care jobs.
“…her little savings had been sent back home, meaning that she had to stay here. Because if she couldn’t save, she couldn’t go.”
Sandrine’s sick father has been deteriorating for years, and
she can’t even visit him. Dro captures her palpable pain when writing about how
hearing his weak, tired voice at the crackly end of a phone line brings tears
to her eyes, because it doesn’t match the voice she remembers.
The prose isn’t warm or romantic – it lacks imagery, metaphors, etc. This captures the fact that there’s a real lack of beauty in her existence. We don’t get a dynamic or interesting London, and all we know about her home is that it’s a poorly heated room with a bed, purely functional. The small indulgence Sandrine carves out for herself – a penchant for Converse instead of more practical, uglier shoes captures a key theme: pride. Dro notes how back home, Sandrine used to be enchanted by the lifestyle of those living abroad who would keep up appearances, but in reality, were living harshly different lives in the UK.
Reading this made me think a lot about my parents’ generation, particularly because my mum is retiring this year! When I tell you she’s excited… It’s all she can talk about. She’s been chatting about all her travel plans (“I’m going to go to America, Canada and Australia! Oh, and Israel, for a pilgrimage!”) and was saying a while ago how she kind of never thought this day would come (“when you come here, all you think about is work, work, work…”), and how in so many ways they gave this country the best years of their lives – moving to the UK, rarely seeing family, loved ones dying whilst you’re abroad, having to start over with your education, doing jobs you might not like, raising kids with not a lot of money in homes that weren’t always the nicest… the list goes on.
“If anyone had told her that she would have needed courage to speak to her family, she would have called them mad. What was the need for courage there?”
Aimlessness hangs over the story. It feels like Sandrine is in a vacuum – she doesn’t really have a strongly defined goal except to save some money. As a result, she begins finding it increasingly difficult to get through each day, and to speak to her loved ones, because she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to see them again. She’s drowning in this cold, lonely world with no end in sight. The only thing getting her through day after bleak day is courage.
But even courageous people have their end. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the phone call confirming her father’s death. It seems she snaps and gives up in that moment. She decides she’s going home, regardless of what the future might hold, and the story ends with her fate unclear. But it does show her taking control, in a life which has been characterised by uncertainty and dissatisfaction, gifting the reader a shred of hope.