Portraits of 21st Century Africa: Maimouna Jallow & Mara Menzies

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Spiegeltent, Charlotte Sq.

This was an event that Festival Director Nick Barley cared about enough to introduce and chair himself, which is, let’s face it, quite some recommendation. Nick told us about having seen these storytellers in Nigeria, and having been amazed by the reactions of the audience to one of Mara’s stories. He challenged us to outdo that audience in clapping, jumping out of our seats, shouting, and generally making an all-out whoop-de-doo. I’ll admit I cringed, I wanted to say “Nick, we’re Scots, we show our appreciation by rapt attention at best, and not throwing chairs at worst. That is unless we’ve aready had a wee swallae, ken.” This was the middle of the day, we were mainly middle-aged, mainly middle-class, and mainly sober. But, I have to admit, we did unlace our stays a wee bit. Hard not to, under the circumstances.

The Spiegeltent is not an easy venue. It is right next to the busiest of the roads that surround Charlotte Square Gardens, it is subject to the roar of traffic and, this afternoon, to the intermittent blare of emergency service sirens. Someone taking to the stage here has to be able to dazzle under pretty difficult circumstances. Neither Maimouna Jallow nor Mara Menzies had any difficulty dominating the stage, by appearing in personae. This was where a difficulty arose for me, with the question: can the ‘larger-than-life African woman’ now be taken as a stereotype? I suppose there is a danger of that. I felt that a way to plane the rough edges off that would have been if Maimouna and Mara could have operated from among us – as though we were a company around a fireside, or at a ceilidh in the traditional sense of the word, where people visit each other’s homes for the craic – rather than from the stage. Can this be done at the Book Festival? It’s certainly something to bear in mind. I would have felt a much greater connection with them, much less as though my bum was cemented to my chair and I was obliged to be a well-behaved audience member, no matter what Nick Barley said.

This whole entertainer/audience binary made me very much aware of cultural issues too. Neither Maimouna nor Mara was untouched by them either. The Festival blurb lists them as both being Kenyan; the ‘Biography’ section of Mara’s own web site lists her only as “one of Scotland’s best loved performance storytellers,” and Maimouna, though based in Nairobi, has Wolof and Spanish heritage, and both are aware that there is an extent to which they are showcasing traditional material from a step away from themselves. In an sense, they are collectors rather in the vein of Cecil Sharp, you could say. I was also aware of ‘liberal triggers’ in the material – why shouldn’t a woman inherit a house? if sex is unavoidable, why shouldn’t a woman use it as a kind of weapon? – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the audience.

But hey! What I really wanted to do was take my Postcolonial Studies hat off, give my cultural awareness a jubilee, forget about stereotypes, gender politics and such, and just kick back and enjoy being told stories. Was that a starter today? Well, yes. In skip-loads, actually. That should tell you how good these two women are. Both left me wanting more. If you should get the opportunity to see Maimouna’s stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives, then do so. Keep your eyes peeled for Mara too – as she is based in Edinburgh that shouldn’t be too difficult. I’ll not say anything more about the content of their material, but rather I’ll leave it as a very pleasant surprise for you when you get to experience it for yourselves.

I would like to thank both storytellers sincerely, and to add a special, extra thank you. They had missed their photo call back in the media area, so after the event I asked Nick Barley if I could have a mini photo-call of my own. He said yes, and both Maimouna and Mara graciously agreed too. As a result, I managed to get the exclusive shots that accompany this review. Off-the-scale privilege.

Paul Thompson

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