Your Name Shall Be Tanga

When publishers who, over the years, have expanded our knowledge of literature beyond the narrow confines of Europe and North America are praised, one which is often forgotten is the Heinemann African Writer series (and its companion Caribbean Writers series). This may be because much of what they published was originally written in English, or because it lay beneath often unsophisticated covers, but the fact remains that they bought the most famous African writers – Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Woly Soyinka – to a wider audience, and brought many other important writers to the attention of the West, including some, like Ayi Kwie Armah, who remain trapped in expensive, out-of-print editions. Some of their work was, however, translated, including Mariam Ba’s So Long a Letter, which remains a key text by an African woman writer. Calixthe Beyala was another writer who benefitted from the series as Heinemann published three of her novels in translation during the 1990s, including Your Name Shall Be Tanga in 1996, making her eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Beyala had a busy 1996, winning Acadmie Franaise’s Grand Prix du Roman while at the same time being accused of plagiarising Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Already a controversial figure in her home country of Cameroon due to her ‘pornographic’ writing and feminism, and currently embroiled in a dispute with a journalist who has been imprisoned on a charge of defaming her, it’s probably best to focus on the novel in question. Your Name Shall Be Tanga, which was originally published in French in 1988, and translated by Marjolijn de Jager in 1996, tells the story of two women placed together in the same prison cell. Anna-Claude is a French teacher who has come to Africa in a kind of madness, in search of the imaginary husband she believes is waiting for her. When some of her students disappear she protests and is arrested as a ‘subversive.’ When a young Cameroonian girl is put in the cell with her, she asks her to share her story:

“Give me your story. I am your deliverance. You have to assassinate the silence that you drag behind you like a dead skin.”

The novel’s title is explained when the girl decides that she will tell Anna-Claude the story of her life:

“Give me your hand; from now on you shall be me. You shall be seventeen seasons old, you shall be black, your name shall be Tanga.”

Tanga’s story is one of unrelenting abuse. It begins with her father who, already regularly unfaithful to her mother, “would later rip me apart in the budding of my twelfth year.” Her mother pretends ignorance, even when she falls pregnant, “coughed discreetly into her skirts when she saw me give birth to the child her man had sired.” From there it is a short step to child prostitution:

“I brought my body to the crossroads of other lives. I put it underneath the light. A man approached me. I smiled. I followed. I undid my clothes. I placed my body on the bed, underneath his muscles.”

The novel is not without hope but, as Tanga lies dying in a prison cell, we know these hopes are futile. When she meets Hassan she refutes the suggestion she is a whore – “I refuse the costume which he wants to put on my back” – in the hope of something better:

“I’ve decided to live, I’ve nothing to do with mother old one any longer. She pasted so much sludge onto my both that all the tidewaters couldn’t wash it away…”

When Tanga suggests marriage, however, she never sees Hassan again – she may not want to be a whore but that is all men can see in her; it is as much a prison as the one she now finds herself in.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a very bleak novel which portrays life for most of its character as hopeless, particularly for women. This is illustrated by Tanga’s younger sister who is ready to follow in her footsteps – “Aren’t I pretty?” she asks her. When Tanga tells her she should learn how to read instead, she accuses her of being jealous. But male characters suffer too. Take Footwreck, for example, whom Tanga attempts to ‘adopt’. Neglected as a child, rats have eaten his feet – also demonstrating (as with Tanga’s mother) that woman are not simply victims. When Tanga angers the butcher, it looks like he is going to rape her, but instead he cries. When Tanga tells him “a real man, never lets a tear drop,” he replies:

“You can’t become a man without having first been a child, you understand?”

The novel’s desolation is made bearable by the liveliness of its language, though this can at times seem overwritten. Take, for example, “Our eyes meet – they rub against each other. They go on and on and resound in me.” If the first sentence has a certain exaggerated charm, the second ironically goes on and on, and ‘resound’ feels like it has little to do with ‘rubbing’ Later in the same paragraph another metaphor is attempted: “our eyes that are there like a curtain hung between two half-open doors.” At times there is a joy in this unrestrained imagery, but at other times it is clumsy and distracting.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a horrific portrait of poverty in Cameroon, and the callous exploitation of children. It is written with (a sometimes overwhelming) linguistic power and certainly deserves its place on the long list.

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6 Responses to “Your Name Shall Be Tanga”

  1. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series) […]

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Does sound very bleak Grant – not sure I’m up to that at the moment…

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Fascinating background on Beyala, a writer I haven’t come across before. (What was the outcome of the plagiarism accusation, do you know?) As for the book, it sounds very arresting, although probably too harrowing for my tastes right now…

    • 1streading Says:

      From what I’ve been able to find out, she doesn’t seem to have been prosecuted. The argument was that the African oral tradition encouraged borrowing I think…

  4. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series) […]

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