Don’t Whisper Too Much (Bucknell University Press, 2019) by Frieda Ekotto, translated from the French by Corine Tachtiris, tells the story of three generations of women in a Fulani village in Northern Cameroon who pursue love on their own terms. Published together with the seven-story collection Portrait of a Young Artiste from Mbella, Ekotto employs various voices to explore themes including female sexuality, pleasure, and agency in post-colonial Africa. Collectively, these works are also considered to be the first works of African fiction to present love stories between women in a positive light.
The story of Siliki’s life is told and retold, each time taking on new moments of suspense, new entertaining turns, stirring and terrifying. The more she hears about this woman, the more Ada’s passion for her grows, provoking one sole desire: to gain admittance to her refuge. Her disgusting body attracts her like a flower attracts a bee. Her squalid story also piques Ada’s interest; she feels passionately about the so-called anomaly of this woman. The world of the unnamable holds great attraction for her. She feels peculiar and out of place in her Baba’s household. What the others find bad, Ada finds good; those are precisely the things she’s most passionate about. For example, loving their fellow people disgusts everyone around her. It’s simply unbearable to them.
A sharp pain grips my throat every time the circle gathers around the fire to delight once more in telling stories about Siliki. That creature represents the abject: a legless body. Ada tries so hard to be deaf in one ear that she’s now in the habit of only hearing the other speak. In the village, stories about Siliki are repeated in every form, and each night, new elements as yet unknown must be added. With Siliki stories, the young people in the village learn how to become good orators. They measure themselves against each other. The person who succeeds in eliciting the most laughter receives praise for days afterward. Siliki truly captures the village’s imagination.
One evening, Ada hears herself cry out like a wild beast, a sign that her disgust has attained its perfection; it is the moment when one loses oneself in rage and its abyss. That day, Ada decides to give her own version of the story of the old legless witch. No matter what, she must tell her own story, which includes the stories of all women without voices, condemned to muteness. Among the Fulani, women always listen to stories about other women without contesting them. The stories about the old witch Siliki are known to all of them, but no woman dares give her version of it. For Ada, the possibility of losing herself in humiliation flies away under a cloud of unhappy thoughts. Now she has access only to melancholy and the beauty of sunlit days. The disability that she has long brooded over sees her absurdity in extremis. But the fear in her heart is great, for the Siliki myth has predictable effects on the village and its inhabitants. No one ventures alone around the private domain of the one whom everyone in the village rejects because of her disability, her stench, her witchcraft, her solitude.
Frieda Ekotto is Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her early work involves an interdisciplinary exploration of the interactions among philosophy, law, literature and African cinema. Her most recent book is entitled What Color is Black? Race and Sex across the French Atlantic.
Corine Tachtiris translates literature primarily by contemporary women authors from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Czech Republic. She holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan. She teaches world literature and translation theory and practice.
Artwork by Hyujin Kim for Project Plume