Far from My Father
This piece was submitted by Véronique Tadjo as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Véronique Tadjo’s events: Writing Gender, Writers Workshop: Liberty in All Its Forms, Édouard Glissant: Everything Scatter, Scatter, Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices, In and Out of Africa
How I had wished to be the sum of all your loves.
They went to the funeral home to change the date when they would pick up the body and, since they were there, also placed an additional order for artificial flower arrangements. They sold very quickly and the place sometimes ran out of stock. It paid to plan ahead.
There were several sizes available, with prices ranging from 53,000 to 150,000 francs. They made up a list of everyone who would need one. Since her sister wasn’t there, Nina chose an arrangement of blue, pink, and white flowers. She wrote both of their names in the order book, along with the words to be printed on the ribbon (all in capital letters, so it’d be easy to read): “TO OUR BELOVED FATHER.”
When she had finished, it suddenly hit her that she hadn’t ordered anything for Koffi. She quickly chased this thought from her head.
A deposit was paid. Unfortunately, they lost out on the Cadillac they had reserved. It was already taken for another funeral that day. The car proposed in exchange was less prestigious, but cheaper. Her great-uncle pointed out that, once the hearse was decorated with flowers and ribbons, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
From there, they headed to the stonecutter to choose the marble for the grave. Very quickly they agreed on a local stone in shades of pink. As for the photo to decorate the headstone, given the impressive differences in price, they also opted to have it done locally.
In the car on the way back, her great-uncle went on happily about how well everything had gone so far. The political situation was relatively calm.
“As long as a strike or protest doesn’t ruin everything!” he added, as if trying to conjure away bad luck.
“It’s true. These days, you just never know what to expect,” added Aunt Affoué, bitterly.
“That’s why I decided to send one of my sons to London. We enrolled him in a business school. His sister has a job there, too.”
“You are so lucky! I wanted Carole to go to France, but she wasn’t able to get a visa. Now she’s in Togo.”
“That’s not so bad. On the plus side, she’s not so far from you and, as soon as the crisis is past, you can easily bring her back.”
“Oh, you know how young people are today, they have other ambitions. She says she’s not really happy in Lomé.” Then, turning to Nina, she continued, “Say, after the funeral, you must help your cousin get to France. If you sponsor her, I’m sure it’ll work . . .”
Nina could already see herself as her cousin’s keeper in Paris. Her aunt was dreaming if she was counting on her.
“OK, I’ll think about it . . . ,” she replied as she watched the buildings parading by.
“My younger son is just the same!” exclaimed her great-uncle. “But I’m keeping him in Abidjan. Every day I tell him that he needs to be patient. Things will get better, peace will return. Their generation is in too much of a hurry.”
The temperature was rising, growing ever more oppressive. Squeezed tightly into the car, they were all dripping with sweat, despite the wide-open windows. Seated between her two aunts, Nina’s skin was stuck to their forearms. She wanted so badly to be out of this traffic jam that was stretching down the boulevard, forcing them to crawl along at a snail’s pace.
As soon as they got back to the house, Nina took a nice cool shower, turned on the air conditioner, and stretched out on her bed. She heard the telephone ring in the living room.
The days seemed longer now that the date for the burial had been pushed back. The pace of everything had slowed down. The number of people showing up in the evening to offer their condolences had fallen. Even some people close to the family were no longer coming by.
The little dog wandered around the house more freely. Still she continued to follow Nina everywhere, sometimes even into the bathroom. It seemed like she needed comforting.
“What did you see and hear while I was gone, hmm?” Nina whispered as she stroked her soft fur.
Someone knocked at the door.
Don’t answer, just stay still, she thought.
But the knocks came again, with more insistence.
She opened the door.
A young girl and boy whose faces weren’t quite unfamiliar stood there in front of her.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Would you have a free moment now?” the girl asked politely. “We would like to speak with you.”
Nina wasn’t sure she wanted to give them her time.
“Is it important?”
“Yes, kind of important.”
Nina hesitated, then let her intuition guide her: it would be a mistake to ask them to come back later.
“OK . . . , let’s go into the study.”
They all sat down.
“I’m listening,” said Nina, in an excessively solemn voice, as she tried to figure out just what this could be about. A money problem?
“I’m Cécile,” said the young girl. Then, turning toward the boy who was looking around anxiously, she said loudly, “This is Roland . . . OK, we came to tell you that I’m your sister and he’s your brother.”
Nina stared at them.
Keep calm, she thought.
Most of all, pay close attention to what’s coming.
She took a deep breath.
“This is some sort of joke, right?”
“No, it’s the truth. You can ask your aunties if you’d like. They know us. Everybody knows the doctor was our father.”
Nina’s blood ran cold.
“And how is that I don’t know anything about this?”
Cécile was clearly embarrassed.
“Because no one wanted to tell you. If you were home when we came to visit Papa, he didn’t want us to stick around. He warned us that he would be very angry if we tried to talk to you or to your big sister.”
Nina tried to pull her thoughts together.
For the moment, there was nothing to do.
“Very well,” she continued, steeling her voice. “I have heard what you had to tell me. If what you say is true, we’ll see . . . Wait, how old are you?”
This time the young girl replied with a little more confidence, probably reassured that her revelation hadn’t resulted in a screaming match.
“Me, I’m eighteen and Roland is fifteen.”
Nina didn’t feel she needed to ask any more questions. She had heard enough.
“Fine, we’ll talk more about all of this after the funeral. In the meantime, can you get me copies of your birth certificates?”
As they reached the door, the boy, who hadn’t yet opened his mouth, suddenly turned back.
“Don’t tell the aunties that we’re the ones who told you. If you do, we’ll be in big trouble.”
In any event, Nina was too stunned by the news to be able to share it with anyone. Her mind was reeling under the weight of it all.
She went on sorting through things, as she had been doing, but her gestures had grown mechanical. She kept her distance from the rest of the household and ate dinner as if nothing had happened at all.
The next day, at breakfast, she took the time to read the newspaper cover to cover. Then she made a few phone calls before asking to speak with her aunts.
“Cécile and Roland came to see me yesterday afternoon. It seems that they are my sister and brother. Were you aware of this?”
Aunt Affoué stifled a cry.
“They told you that themselves?”
Nina brushed it off with a wave of her hand.
“Never mind that. Is what they said true?”
The two women exchanged glances. Aunt Affoué took the lead.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, my daughter, but it is in fact quite true.”
A snicker escaped from Nina’s mouth.
“So, you knew and you hid it from me? Bravo. You really pulled it off!”
“They never should have approached you like this,” Aunt Aya interjected, sounding quite scandalized. “Especially not now. We would have told you ourselves when the right moment came.”
“Really, is that so? What infuriates me is to know that this situation has been going on for years and that you chose to keep quiet about it!”
“Put yourself in our place. Your father had to deal with his problems himself. Could you see us going behind his back to tell your mother? He would never have forgiven us.”
Suddenly Nina understood.
She had been kept out of it all, cut off from what was really going on around her. It had been so easy, her father had never taught her to speak his language. Was it on purpose?
“A wall built all around us, doors barricaded, windows barred shut and, inside, total isolation,” she thought bitterly. She was furious with herself for not having reacted in time, for not having struggled against this feeling of alienation that had progressively eaten away at her spirit.
And now, worst of all, her aunts hadn’t hesitated to let Cécile and Roland hang around when she was there, as if it was nothing. They had been right in front of her and she had never really noticed them.
Everybody knew. Except her.
Still, Nina didn’t back down.
“What lame excuses!” she retorted. “He was your brother and you failed to make him see reason. Yet you knew full well this would have very serious consequences. What’s going to happen now? You can’t just drop this responsibility on me! The whole family will need to find an acceptable solution. This isn’t just my problem, not mine alone!”
Her aunts looked crestfallen.
“Understood. We’ll call a family meeting, but after the funeral. For the moment, do as you see fit . . .”
“Did they ask you for money?” Aunt Aya cut in.
“No, they didn’t broach that topic.”
“That’s good,” she said, reassured. “But be careful, especially during the burial. You’ll have to be on guard. If they get close to the coffin and touch it as it’s being lowered into the ground, that means they plan on causing trouble for you. Watch out. Don’t let them get too close to you.”
Nina was actually more worried about another possibility.
“All right, now, tell me the truth. Are there any other children?”
Aunt Aya was about to answer, but her sister motioned for her to keep quiet.
“It seems there is a young man of about thirty. His name is Amon. He lives in Montreal. He’s married and has a young daughter. Personally, I’ve never met him. We never hear anything about him. He’s been living in Canada for a long time now. I think he works in computers. I don’t even know if he’s aware of the death.”
Nina felt like she was in the middle of some bad comedy. She’d gotten to the point where it just couldn’t get any worse.
“Are you absolutely sure there’s no one else? You do understand, I’m having trouble believing you now . . .”
“Really, that’s all we know,” they both insisted.
“In that case, we have to let Amon know right away. Someone in the family must know how to reach him.”
So, this was it. Her father had left them stranded in a bad place.
His lie was enormous, outrageous.
Like a tree whose roots were destructive tentacles, killing every living thing all around, it had sucked Nina’s heart dry and weakened the very foundations of the family.
He must have thought his actions would remain hidden away forever.
Or had he just thought that after his death, it would be up to the living to sort out his problems?
Every other weekend, Dr. Kouadio would take his family back to the village.
As soon as Nina and her sister went out for a walk, a crowd of kids would swarm behind them, singing “Bôfouè, bôfouè!” Even with their poor knowledge of the language, they knew the kids were calling them “Whites.” As a result, they avoided going out alone. Later they learned that this word was used as well for anyone who dressed like a European or spoke with a foreign accent. Small consolation, the damage had already been done.
A fight with a friend.
“Yeah, but you’re not a real African!”
Nina thought: Does being métisse mean having skin the right color or the wrong one? Walking on a tightrope. Falsification of identity. The mirror cracks. Party pooper?
“Your family tree, please!”
She murmured, All my life, I’ve danced around things, negotiated, pretended. I went with the flow, sought approval, waited to be recognized, hoped to be invited in. All my life, I’ve tried to prove my good will, I’ve done everything I could to be heard. I reshaped my own desires, changed course, added new tricks to my bag. I stripped myself bare, bent over backward, put honey on my tongue, weighed my words carefully before speaking. In the end, I missed it all.
A lie by one, two, three . . . even more.
To be plural, singular. On both sides, doubly so.
There and back, and in reverse. There is no straight path.
Just what do you want from me? What must I do to convince you?
I am tired of all these ups and downs. This has been going on too long.
“And yet, I see that you are in the same situation, and that all the borders have grown blurry. Now I see that my doubts are yours as well.”
“When I look at you, we recognize each other.”
This piece is excerpted from Far from My Father by Véronique Tadjo, translated by Amy Baram Reid, CARAF/UVA Press (2014). Translation copyright 2014 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Originally published in French as Loin de mon père, Actes Sud (2010).