Winner of the Kenzaburo Oe PrizeFar from her native country of Nigeria and now living as a single mother of two, Salimah works the night shift at a supermarket in a small Australia town. She is shy and barely speaks English, but pushes herself to sign up for an ESL class offered at the local university.At the group’s first meeting, Salimah meets Sayuri, who has come to Australia from Japan with her husband, a resident research associate at the local college. Sayuri has put her own education on hold to take care of her infant daughter, and she is plagued by worries about financial instability and her general precariousness.
When Sayuri faces a devastating loss, and one of Salimah’s boys leaves to live with his father, the two women look to one another for comfort and sustenance, as they slowly master their new language, in this “unexpectedly riveting” debut novel (Financial Times).
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
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Salimah's work began before daybreak, and around noon she went home. Once back, she tore off her clothes and stepped straight into the shower. This habit had begun on her first day of work, though the luxury of washing in all this hot water and so early in the day made her angry with herself.
Often, she cried as she showered. She twisted the two taps, the one with the blue circle and the one with the red circle, in a single movement, then stood stock-still under the water that spurted from the lotus-shaped shower head. At that moment when the cold and hot water blended to create the perfect temperature, the tears always came. She could feel their special warmth despite the hot water streaming over her.
Salimah's hair was so curly that a comb could barely get through it. It huddled almost timidly above her earlobes, and the water drops shattered off it at crazy angles. But her black skin was sleek and glossy as fine tanned leather; the suds slid smoothly down the slopes of her shoulders in delicate white stripes. Though her body had borne two children, it had none of the usual excess. The curves were clean as an egg's, with a tension that repulsed everything that might touch them. She was proud of her body, and as she washed and caressed it she wept hard. Every soap bubble held a sob, which echoed softly against the bathroom ceiling as it burst. Sob after sob resounded there, till at last their accumulated sounds came drifting back down with the pounding water to wrap her body like white feathers. There among the clouds of steam, Salimah's voice rose to a wail.
She had been employed on the spot at the job interview a few days earlier, and told to come back the next morning at 3 A.M. wearing the garment she was handed, together with her contract. Once home, she spread out the folded square of white cloth and found a capacious knee-length work coat that opened down the front. There were dull brown stains around the cuffs and in the stomach area. Next morning, she wore it to work, and as she laboured, the big brown stains became blotted out by fresh red ones in exactly the same places.
It was now some time since Salimah had fled to this country. Even when her husband had pointed to some place on a world map and told her that was where they were going, she didn't know what her own country looked like so she couldn't really tell whether this country was close to her own or far away on the other side of the ocean. All she understood was that the place seemed to be a large island.
It could only be called complete chance that had landed them in this new home without so much as a moment to pause and take it in. Back there, people had been battling and slaughtering each other; here, an unknown landscape stretched before her. Everyone she saw was going about their normal life in peace and speaking an unrecognizable language. Salimah and her family followed the government's directives for refugees. When they were told that they were being offered a safe place to live, they could only believe that it was indeed the best choice. Their priority had been to stay alive, after all. But if they had found themselves settled in some racial melting pot, she would not now be suffering so much from her different language and skin colour. Once the grind of this new daily life had set in, like the drudgery of assembly-line work, she became aware of an enormous weight that pressed heavily on her.
In the beginning, walking near the house or out shopping, she'd felt crippled by the entangling web of strange stares from those around her. At such times, she would pretend not to notice, and simply gaze back at the staring people before her. It was impossible, or anyway impossible for her, to avert her eyes. The children gaped as they darted about her. Middle-aged women smiled uncomfortably when she met their gaze. Again and again she told herself that there must be people here who would befriend her as warmly as the people in the immigration office had. But nonetheless the weight that oppressed her heart refused to lift.
And it was hard, too, to see how her two sons, always so frisky and high-spirited, were now drooping like withered ears of wheat. They couldn't adjust to school, and were frequently left stranded on their own by the other children. Some of the naughtier children picked on them until they cried. The primary school had gone out of its way to welcome the two, and the kindhearted teachers spent their time frantically trying to protect them, but it was like trying to protect two vulnerable little doves from a circling flock of crows.
And then there was the pressing problem of language. Since starting work she had picked up the bare minimum of words, but those were still very far from being much help in everyday life. She couldn't get hold of things she really needed. She couldn't protect her sons. And the people she came in contact with retreated as soon as they realised that she didn't understand what they said.
So she did everything in fear and trepidation, and the same was true for her husband and sons. Even the sudden loud cry of a passing bird made them glance up fearfully, as if a bomb might be whistling down on them. At times, Salimah felt almost as if each blade of grass in this land had a personal animosity towards her, though looking back later she was appalled at the egotism of this.
She told this to a woman friend from her own country during one of their breaks at work, and the woman gave a loud laugh, then fell silent. Salimah simply sat beside her and said nothing more, but when the work bell sounded her friend glanced round at her, and Salimah saw that she had wiped away a tear. From this moment on, Salimah vowed, whatever the situation she would make it her business to see nothing, hear nothing, remember nothing.
She was clueless about the most basic things. She had no relatives whose help she could call on. She couldn't hope for support from friends. And, worst of all, she couldn't communicate with others. As to what a newcomer like herself could hope for in the way of work, though she could look for it she couldn't really make choices. So, without considering further, she took a job cutting and packaging meat at the local supermarket.
When she first saw the huge slabs of meat, far bigger than herself, that were hanging from the ceiling, she almost cried aloud. The glittering fish skin and the smell of the weirdly shaped shellfish made her gag. But what was harder to bear even than the unpleasantness and stench of the food, harder even than the monotony of the work or the early morning shift, was the scarlet blood smeared everywhere over the stark white tiles of the work place's four walls. It clung there filthy, weary, listless. Whenever she saw it, she averted her eyes as from something horrible. In the desert country where she'd grown up, it was rare to see anything scar or stain the earth. Things left no trace. Perhaps this was why, there, she could somehow bear the sight even of people dying. Now, after a few days' work, she was filled with regret for the way she'd berated her husband, who had begun the same work six months earlier.
Why did you quit?
Okay then, you try it! Actually, you're so stupid you'll probably handle it just fine. Me, I'm not going back there.
A month into the job, Salimah stopped crying. She still came home feeling as if the reek of raw flesh and fish had penetrated deep under her skin, and she stripped off immediately and stood under the shower, but she no longer wept. Again and again she soaked the white work coat in bleach and washed it. But by the time she got home, the blood had caked and hardened into bizarre stains, and she threw herself into contortions scrubbing at the loathsome things with a stiff brush.
With a sidelong disdainful glance, her husband now walked out on her. Having fled here in desperation with his family, he turned around and left his wife and children with barely a shrug. No Come with me, no Wait for me — he just went. Left on her own to continue the assembly-line grind of living from day to day, Salimah chose nothing more than simply to live, as if she knew no other way than this.
As time went by, things grew less awkward and difficult for her. Life went more smoothly. Her wages rose a little. She was still far from mastering English, but she could now have minimal conversations as needed, and she had both more vocabulary and more skill in handling fish and meat than those around her. When she was first learning, a middle-aged woman, an old hand, had come over from another supermarket and shown her with impressive care how to deal with the slabs of beef and lamb lying on the table before her. Having done this, she handed Salimah a series of knives large and small, each time placing a guiding hand over Salimah's small one and stepping around behind her to encircle her slender body. The smell of her sweat mingled with the reek of flesh, so that Salimah had to choke down the bitter bile that rose in her throat.
Leg, thigh, neck, rump, shank, rib. Liver and frame. Nothing was thrown away. Meat on bones that were too big to handle easily, or cuts that couldn't be sold in the shop front, were allowed to be taken home, Salimah learned. How did people cook these bones and lumps of meat? she asked, and her instructor laughed in genuine amusement. No no, you give them to the dog, she replied. DOG! she repeated loudly and forcefully, to make sure Salimah understood. There are lots of farms around here, see, so most people go home to a hungry work dog or two. They're important workers, so they're fed well. What did you do back where you came from?
Salimah followed her memory back to picture herself working in the field or helping round the house. "Always I was seeing off someone who go to work. With us, not dogs but many children were hungry."
At Salimah's faltering reply, the woman's expression suddenly softened, and she wiped the bloody knife on the corner of the stainless-steel worktop.
"Now you're the one going off to work, aren't you, dear. So who sees you off at the door?"
Nobody saw Salimah off when she set out on foot at 3 A.M. Her sons were taken to school later by a friend who lived in the same public housing block. The arrangement was that Salimah would go to collect both sets of children when she came home each day.
"The moon, mist ..."
"Okay. Well, at least you're not alone then. That's good."
At her instructor's final words, Salimah suddenly relaxed. She slid her knife in through the red meat. No one had ever spoken to her so kindly before. Now she wanted to make this woman happy in return. She would soon show her how she could cut meat neatly, wasting nothing, just as this woman wanted.
Others who had also left their own country worked alongside her here, and all these women had taken up this battle with the knives after their husbands had, for one reason or another, thrown it in. The men had gone on to get other work of various kinds and learned how to earn their living, but the women were loath to give up work once they'd found it. You could put up with the place when you were used to it. You didn't need more than the absolute minimum of English to get by, and you could chatter away to friends in your own language. The only time they all fell quiet was when the supervisor appeared; everyone shut up as he walked along the aisles, waiting for him to be gone again. Beneath their feet stretched a hygienically tiled floor; the meat dangling from the ceiling and the big boxes of fish gently dripped blood. For the next several months, Salimah concentrated on the task of learning to transform these things with her knife, thoroughly and efficiently, to a point where their original form would be unimaginable.
In the hour when night met morning, Salimah hurried off to work, crunching the hoarfrost as she walked. The car park in front of the work place was already churned and muddy. Others behind her called her name, and they walked together into the concreted space. As she changed in the locker room, Salimah's mind was still on the milky mist and frost outside. That translucency. It cleansed her through and through. Looking around this work place, she registered all its colours as absolute, overpowering, finite. The white of the room, the colour of her own skin, and the colour of blood — these melted away into the predawn air. But here these three colours never mingled. On the contrary, they were as if filmed with oil, remote, resisting approach. Even the white gauze cap she wore felt awkwardly huge and puffed, as if shrinking away from contact with her curly hair, and when she glanced across to the others dressed just like herself, silently working at the meat and fish, and watched how the metallic-smelling blood oozed and blurred at their fingertips, she was seized by the illusion that they were slicing at their own fingers. In fact, they were wearing latex gloves, but these were so thin that they scarcely seemed to exist. Though the gloves were supposed to completely encase their hands, their fingertips still somehow became coated in a fine membrane of blood and sticky fluid. At the sight of it, Salimah felt a shock like a naked hand clutching her heart. She felt suddenly sick, and instantly she sought out her own frail, faint shadow, cast by the fluorescent lights, the only thing that never deserted her. She heard then a sound that only she could hear, a cry that rose from the long row of shadows cast by each of her companions as they worked.
These voiceless screams clung to the windowsills of the work place, seeking a way out. They beat against the windowpanes like little trapped birds, hushed but fierce. Whenever Salimah saw the sunrise outside, the one colour that was no different from her old home, she longed to free these shadows into that fresh bright orange.
How are you? I never dreamed that I would receive a telephone call from you. And your first words were "Are you writing?" I wanted to cry! Thank you so much for worrying over me like this. It makes me truly happy.
Time has gone fast, and it's now half a year since we moved here. I'd grown used to living in the city, and I wasn't at all looking forward to moving, but it was a question of my husband's work, so there was really no help for it. The idea of a town by the sea sounds romantic, but in reality, there's a raging wind off the sea (generally mixed with either rain or sleet), and if you leave the car outside, it gets all rusted up, and the only trees around are those thick-leaved eucalypts that grow on this part of the coast, which makes for dull scenery. In the summer tourist season, the population swells to double its size, and things are more cheerful, but for the rest of the year the only colour in the monotonous grey is the gaudy sightseeing boats left abandoned on the shore.
At present, we live in a flat we chose solely for its cheapness. Three flats downstairs and three upstairs, a two-storied building that looks like two bread loaves piled on top of each other. Downstairs lives a truckie (he delivers pet food to Queensland, and comes home once every three weeks), an Indian mother and child (the son is around twenty I'd say), and an old hairdresser who lives on his own (he leaves at exactly eight every morning and comes back at exactly six-thirty, and you can see through the curtains that his room is crammed full of posters of the Virgin Mary, religious medallions and so on). Upstairs is us, then next to us a vacant flat, and beyond it lives a young drummer (unemployed, I'd guess), who's a real problem for us. Our daughter gets woken by the noise of drumming in the mornings and cries terribly. She was born not long after we got here, and she's now over four months old. She keeps me so busy the days pass before I'm aware of it.
My husband is in and out of his university office and teaching all day, and at night he works on his thesis. Before he sits down to it, he spends some time lecturing me on his ideas — he says he needs to gather his thoughts by talking them through in his own language before writing them in English. For the last few weeks I've been immersed in Chomsky with him. He's mad about someone called Gardner, and he tells me he wants to do a study on the possibilities of individual variation in the field of applied linguistics. These nightly lectures have given me a lot more opportunity since I married to think about language. And this innocent country town environment actually suits him down to the ground. He's immersed in his work day and night.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Farewell, My Orange"
Copyright © 2013 Kei Iwaki.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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