Children to fill the entire earth

Sudanese author Stella Gaitano
Stella Gaitano's trademark sensory intensity loses nothing in translation (image: private)

Stella Gaitano's debut novel "Edo's Souls", set between Sudan and South Sudan, stages an epic battle between the forces of Motherhood and Death

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

Now available in Sawad Hussain's excellent English translation, Edo's Souls follows Gaitano's two striking short-story collections and is filled with the same sensory intensity as her short works, from the dizzying force of pregnancy nausea to the "chicken-entrail" scent of one character's breastmilk.

This multi-generational novel is so filled with babies that the book's trees reek of breastmilk, the air is filled with babble, and the adult characters must be careful not to tread on tiny limbs. The first we meet are the short-lived infants of our titular character, Edo, who makes her home in a remote South Sudanese village.

When the novel opens in the 1960s, Edo is haunted by all the tiny bodies she has buried near her home. After losing the battle with Death time and again, Edo loses hope of ever keeping an infant alive. 

By the time her single robust daughter arrives, Edo is too wary to hope. She names the child Eghino, "the one who defecates a lot", to shield the baby from Death's gaze. Even so, the grief-mad Edo leaves her baby for the village to raise, not willing to risk her heart. Eghino is raised by the whole village, with tens of mothers and hundreds of siblings. 

It is a happy childhood. She is even re-claimed by her mother – who lives alone and spies on her through the cracks in her house – when she falls and breaks several bones. "In a flash", the narrative tells us, Edo "gathered her wits, and became suddenly aware of every little thing; just as misfortune can make minds go, they can bring them back, too".

The rejuvenated Edo takes charge of her daughter's care, encasing Eghino in mud until her bones knit back together. As this happens, the two develop a camaraderie. 

Soon after, Christian missionaries arrive, and Eghino takes a new name: Lucy. Edo, too, takes a second name, linking it to her first, "like a needle and thread". Later, Marie-Edo explains she has not become a Christian out of belief, or not exactly. She has become a Christian so that, after her own death, she can go up to heaven and demand God give her answers "about my children that He fed to Death".

Cover of Stella Gaitano's "Edo's Souls", translated into English by Sawad Hussain and published by Dedalus Ltd
"Edo's Souls" is a compelling, multi-generational epic that sees the three main characters trapped in a nation gripped by the terrors of civil war, forcing each one to confront their past selves, and to resolve what is most important to them – love, family, or country (image: Dedalus Books)

Reclaiming Edo's babies

When Lucy hits puberty, her fertility-crazed mother chants a prayer over her belly, telling her daughter, "I'll forgive Him if He makes you bear all your siblings who died". Marie-Edo goes on: "Let no child of yours ever die, and may you never feel the pain of motherhood; may you bring forth enough children to fill the entire Earth, let there be so many you'll be shooing them away like flies."

After that, Marie-Edo announces that she will die, practically stepping into her coffin and pulling the lid shut behind her. Teenaged Lucy takes the charge seriously and becomes pregnant with her first child on the very night of her mother's funeral. 

But mothering, the narrative tells us, is not only about fertility. When Lucy and her new husband Marco travel north to Khartoum in search of work, the truck they're travelling in breaks down. Luckily, the newlyweds are behind some bushes when gunmen arrive to kill everyone else who was on board save for a single baby. Although Marco doesn't want to take this squalling infant with them, Lucy insists. 

The child does not survive. But the idea of motherhood is stubborn, and Lucy is like a weed that cannot be conquered. When they arrive in Khartoum to live with Marco's friend Peter and his wife Theresa, everything is strange and new, but Lucy knows how to take care of others. Motherhood overflows from her body, giving life not only to her own children, but to everyone and everything around her. She has so much breastmilk that she uses it to water a tree in the courtyard, until Peter orders her to stop. Although he is commanding, Lucy points out that the tree has flourished, and she manages to have her way in this, as in most everything else. 

The rise of Death

For a while, Motherhood reigns. And yet, by the late 1970s in Khartoum, Death is closing in all around our characters, with a series of attempted coups and a tightening of Gaafar Nimeiry's authoritarian rule. We don't understand much about national politics, since the characters themselves often aren't sure what is happening. We see events – including discrimination against South Sudanese and the country's growing militarisation – through a series of personal lenses.

This is not only Lucy and Edo's novel: once Lucy is settled in Khartoum, the narrative lifts up and spreads out. Successive chapters take the perspective of Marco as he searches for work; Peter as he grapples with his adoptive Muslim family; and Peter's his sister, Jalaa, who is an activist attorney ambivalent about motherhood. Some of these sections move too quickly, understandably racing over the horrors taking place in and around Khartoum. These include Marco's arrest and torture; the arrest and torture of Jalaa's lover; Peter and Theresa fleeing the country; and war in the streets.

The novel slows down again for one of the final scenes, in which a fighter comes to hide in a tree in the family's courtyard. Lucy discovers him when she sneaks out to the latrines, where a heavy drop of the man's blood falls on her. They silently face off until Lucy backs away, telling no one about his presence. 

The novel ends in the mid-1980s, when one of Lucy and Marco's daughters hits puberty. Although the girl is irritated by her mother's effusive reaction, Lucy is triumphant, and her forceful joy is an insistence that life persists. Yet we also know that a long war has begun between Sudan and South Sudan. Thus, between Motherhood and Death, neither wins and neither loses; there is a standoff until another day.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

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