By Joshua Tyovenda
Maluleke’s Writivism 2019 shortlisted short story, Tale, does not continue the way it starts. Its opening sentences, “My mother’s debt blossoms on my face . . . A blue-black that grows between my parents. A spurned love that makes its way into my blood and out here . . .” courts a relationship with poetry, one would immediately settle down expecting a good dish of poetic prose.
This is not the case.
The story rather unfolds like a tearjerker told by a young girl at a support group with tears hiding behind her lids anxiously waiting for the right moment to out: My name is Tale, I am sixteen years old now, it may begin. “Tale,” we are told, is not as easy to pronounce as the English word synonymous to “story.” It takes three whole paragraphs to tell us about the four-letter name. Not an easy name either.
Tale lives in Harrison Lake—a name she doesn’t understand as there is actually no lake where she lives. Harrison Lake from all indications is a low class settlement, where “a neglected sewerage pipe floods a street for weeks, lifting the litter with it,” where, there is so much sound but no lyrics, there is such discord that one cannot perceive what one wants to. It is this discordant atmosphere that Tale relates to her experience. She says, “I am disfigured in the same way. I do not stop growing. I eat and eat and eat but I cannot get full or fill the cold thing inside me.”
Sighs should go round our young girls support group mates now; then nods, nudging her to go on. They know it is difficult but she has to tell it.
Maluleke’s language is precise, her sentences short and straight, accounting for several full stops. Her skill in this sense is profound, even though plots stretch in some places, the reader never gets the feeling that she is verbose. A swath of the story that shows this is the scene where Tale is being whipped by her mother.
At home, Tale is tortured by whips and occasional slaps, and emotionally too, by her mother she calls Mama. Mama is angry at the vestige of Tale’s father (we don’t get to know if he was once Mama’s husband) that she sees in Tale. Unfortunately for Mama, there is a mark on Tale’s face that brings back memories of the girl’s father—a spiteful birthmark that seals the right side of her face. For Mama, this is a mark of wickedness which she intends to erase either by exorcism or by scrubbing. Mama feels that Tale needs cleansing, and save for Nkuku, Tale could have died in the process as well.
More sighs, the tears in our young girl’s eyes have found an escape route from behind her lids, they form in her eyes, ready to drop. One group member passes her a handkerchief, she dabs the tears from her eyes, getting ready to continue her story.
The story seems to be evasive in fully introducing characters: Tale’s father whose existence perches on the entire story seems to be concealed in a way that by the end of the story, you’re left throwing guesses: Did he die? Is he a metaphor for the devil? Or did he just up with his bags one day and wave the family goodbye? Again, who exactly is Nkuku?
The torment which Tale goes through makes her develop resistance. She fights back in her little way, she spits in Mama’s tea each time she makes it. Eventually, when Mama slips and falls in the kitchen, hitting her face in the process, one would expect the child in Tale to offer some form of help, or at least feign grief. She doesn’t. As the blood from Mama’s head spreads like a flower, Tale looks at herself in the glass of the oven—the only semblance of a mirror in the house.
The room at this point goes silent. Deeper silence. Then the claps come. They clap, not because they are exactly proud or comfortable with what she has done, they clap for the young girl’s courage. Now extended to the writer.
The reader, after reading, applauds Vuyelwa Maluleke not exactly for a flawless story but for daring to tell a story that is oft untold■
Joshua Tyovenda is a solitary intellectual and writer currently studying for a degree at Benue State University, Makurdi. He loves soccer and is a great fan of Lionel Messi. He loves things on pages and takes God very seriously. You can catch him up on Facebook at [Tyovenda Joshua].
Praxis Magazine is in partnership with Writivism this year (2019) and brings you reviews of the Writivism shortlisted works of fiction and the Koffi Addo Prize for Nonfiction. Up next is Carl