OUT OF AFRICA
Hot Press Interview,
Siobhan Long 1998
Mark Twain reckoned that on our deathbeds, we'd only regret the things we never did not the things we did. If there's even a ounce of truth in that little nugget of wisdom then Gaye Shortland is unlikely to be writhing in agony when she shuffles off this mortal coil. In fact, she'll probably exit stage left thrashing and screaming to a soundtrack that's a cross between Michael Jackson and Iggy Pop. Because Gaye Shortland is the ultimate architect of her own destiny.
Not one for lounging around awaiting the next opportunity, she positively thrives on quests of her own making, paths of her own creation. Gaye Shortland's one of the few people who honour that bedraggled cliché that life is a journey, not a destination.
A product of the best of what life had to offer her in Ireland (a childhood lived in Bantry and Bandon, college years in UCC), she hit the high road for Africa, having been in thrall of exotic men with brown eyes ever since her father brought home a Spanish sailor for tea when she was a whippersnapper of only eight years of age. Nothing could erase that memory from her skull. No amount of studious application or academic lure could sully her path. Gaye determined to find her own way amid the Tuareg nomads of Niger, and from there embarked on a journey that was to keep her away from Ireland for almost two decades.
Since her return, with her three children, (the issue of two spirit-shockingly handsome Tuareg tribesmen), Gaye Shortland has continued to tread a path that's far from well worn. Cutting her literary teeth on the backs of two hilarious novels which centred on a deceased gay Corkman who's partial to the odd illicit substance, (Mind That, Tis My Brother and Turtles All The Way Down), she's finally let her experiences of life in Africa percolate back up to the top, to a place where she can reach them and finally hang them out to dry.
Her third and latest novel, Polygamy, is a technicolour account of life and love in a hot country. Using the central character of Katherine Rutherford as the pivot for this most autobiographical account of erotic love, emotional turmoil and cultural chasms, (on a scale quite inconceivable to most of us who have grown used to the ethnic homogeneity of Ireland), Shortland leaves the reader dumbstruck, so striking are her images, so vivid her characters.
The cover of Polygamy sums it up beautifully. A Tuareg woman in black gazes directly at the camera, her right breast uncovered in a pose that's at once erotic, yet blissfully unselfconscious. There's not a hint of the salacious provocation that such a pose might suggest if it were struck on the page of a magazine. This is cultural difference between the eyes. The indomitable Tuareg sense of self far outweighs any hint of sleaze which we might try to ascribe to it.
Gaye Shortland took that photograph, and dozens more, a fabulous record of her life among a race not much given to tabloid humour or page three titillation. And now she's opening her album for anyone with an eye for the sublime, and an ear for a good story. In between novels, she somehow finds time to work for Poolbeg, editing books, nurturing writers, much as she was herself, not so long ago, by her mentor, the late Kate Cruise O’Brien.
"I love what I do with Poolbeg," she smiles, with a gentle upturn on beg that signals her return to her native Cork, as soon as she left the Dark Continent. Having taught English literature in UCC, Leeds and in Nigeria, an onerous task at the best of times, she avers, she's found a niche for herself that's as much a surprise as it is a delight.
"I'm amazed to say that I really enjoy it," she laughs. Shortland can barely conceal her own amazement that she's managed to publish her third novel, in between copy editing, proof reading and conjuring up artwork for the Poolbeg authors on her roster.
"You know, I used to be waiting and waiting to find the space in my life to write," she declares, "and it gradually dawned on me that it just wasn't there! So now I write when I've reached the eleventh hour, when it's time to say 'oh my God', lock myself up in the room, forget everything, let the house fall to bits, and get on with it." Polygamy is a story that had to be told, a story of a life less ordinary. It demanded a certain unfamiliar discipline in that Shortland was forced to dredge through her entire memory bank in search of the real, as well as the imagined. "It was really pure memory work," she recalls. "I had to dredge up and convey as faithfully as I could those memories from way back. It wasn't an easy task."
The dredging process was one that involved more than a hint of exorcism: of past lives, past loves and a world from which she and her three children, Maryam, Adam and Rali are at a huge remove now. "Yes, there was certainly an element of exorcism about it alright," she nods, "because I went through a period with my kids where I put away all the African pieces we had and felt, well, I just had to get on with it." When Gaye finally returned to Ireland with her children, her husband Kani accompanied her, but he ultimately returned to Nigeria after a year or so, dejected by the prospect of starting a new life with little more than the dole queue and the guaranteed daily deluge of rain to look forward to. It wasn't an easy experience for Shortland, finding herself a single mother, and there were wounds that took some healing before they could be even glanced at once again, never mind re-opened.
"When the boys' father left, I just felt that we couldn't afford to dwell on it," she recounts, with a glance that bespeaks more of heartache than of blithe delight at her new-found circumstances back in Cork. "I didn't want to keep reminding the kids either. Besides which, there was the simple struggle for survival, being on social welfare and all that. It was the grimmest day to day struggle. It was a simple survival choice."
Her children too, needed time to marry their early life experiences among a nomadic tribe with the about-turn their lives had taken on returning to Ireland. Gaye recalls the jagged edges of the culture shock all too vividly.
"Well, for starters, Maryam, my daughter, stopped speaking Hausa to me," she explains, referring to just one of the languages spoken by the Tuareg. "Before she came back to Ireland, she spoke five languages, now she speaks only one and that's English. So that's a lot to lose, isn't it? And she could swim like a fish, and she could ride, and do this, that and the other. In fact she was quite spectacular in terms of what she could do physically even at a very young age. But gradually over the years, all the kids have swung around, and we can talk more easily about it all. Adam took lots of African artefacts that we brought back to his school, and I did a little talk for them on what life was like. And things like that show how much we've moved from the early days when I just wanted to settle back in to life here, and forget about it all."
Shortland's experiences in Africa were cut painfully short by both economic hardship and the threat of impending national catastrophe in the form of political collapse. And even now, her departure is something that pains her, despite the sweet taste of literary success that she's currently enjoying. "It was a huge decision to leave", she admits, "and one that I wouldn't have made if things hadn't been so bad economically in that part of the world. I had been working in the university and was simply told goodbye, we don't want you any more. After that I managed a restaurant that was attached to the American Embassy, but it was terrible because I was only getting a local salary which was just tiny, and not enough to keep food in all of our mouths".
And it wasn't just the fate of her immediate family, of husband Kani, and three children that worried her.
In most parts of Africa, Shortland explains, its the custom to take care of not just yourself, but all your relatives too. I was taking care of masses of people right from the start of my time in Africa, and of course, as a European, I was seen to have a bottomless pit of money at my disposal! The concept of the salary isn't understood. You're rich, that's it. Even with people I was quite intimate with, it was quite difficult to convince them that I didn't have masses of money tucked away somewhere. Now if I had had loads of money it really wouldn't have mattered, but I didn't and that was always a problem.
Shortland describes in Polygamy an entire social system at odds with anything she could possibly have dreamt of, having been reared in Cork. Tuareg culture has far less gender boundaries, far less privacy, and encourages far more natural and casual physical contact between members of the same sex. For example, it is not unusual for men to lounge around, one's head resting on the other's lap. Braiding of hair is seen as an act of companionship, and extended families share the one abode. I wondered whether Gaye found this a gross intrusion into her personal relationships with Tuareg men, or whether her sexual relationships with the Tuaregs were vastly different to those she had with Irish/ Europeans, by virtue of the cultural chasms that separated them?
She laughs heartily at the suggestion.
"I didn't have any sexual relationships here in Ireland to compare them with, to be honest!" she proclaims, just a tad sheepishly. "I ran out of here as fast as I could. It was really claustrophobic at that time, and I just thought, God, let me out of here, I'm going to smother. Some people went to England or America too, obviously. It had a lot to do with Ireland being so insular. Theres a world out there, and I just had to see it."
The startling lack of sexual hang-ups among the Tuareg, was a pleasant discovery though, Shortland admits.
"Everybody sits together in these tents, you're always in physical contact, and the ease of sexual relations was great too. Here, if you go into a sexual thing with a man, you don't know what youre going to encounter, that's brought from religion, from school, from God knows where. But they (the Tuaregs) aren't bringing anything from anywhere in terms of hang-ups, and I think that's what I liked, you know. It was very direct, it was terrific."
Shortland's Katherine has been accused of eccentric pragmatism, or so claimed Sharon Barnes in a review of Polygamy in Image magazine. Whatever about the pragmatism, she is certainly a very sexual being whose existence seemed to be driven by the nature and temperature of her relationships with men.
Would Shortland see herself as a highly-charged sexual being, as she suggests in the novel? Katherine is, after all, virtually obsessed by her desire for Khassim, the Tuareg nomad who seduces her utterly. "Yes I was, and no, I'm not anymore!" she grins enigmatically. "You know, when I resurrected that Khassim in my mind, I did come to realise just how crazy the whole relationship had made me. I was at the end of my tether, in a crazy mental state. And yet, I still felt, what a tragedy it was that I didn't stick it out, because he was actually worth it."
Ultimately though, logic triumphed over passion, with Gaye making the practical decision to marry the father of her children, so that she would be in a position to stay in Nigeria in the event of a mass evacuation of ex-patriots.
"When you ask me about myself, I think I'm a peculiar mix of pragmatism and flightiness, I suppose," she suggests. "But you know, the biggest problem I ultimately encountered when I lived in Africa was their totally different attitude to time. They work on a completely different mind-set and time scale. Me looking at the calendar and going up the walls waiting for him was crazy, when he's looking at the moon or the seasons. The same goes for Africans who have been educated formally. Their concept of time and of the centrality of patience is just so alien to us. And I could never live with that really."
One thing thats abundantly evident from the closing pages of Polygamy is that there are further chapters to be told. But Shortland is reticent about committing herself to a date for a sequel. "I didn't want to provide a pat ending for Katherine," she explains, "so there's a big question mark hanging over her future at the end of the book. It was very tricky, and writing it was so painful for me, but I know that there's a big question mark hanging over her future at the end of the book."
And choosing a title like Polygamy? Aside from illustrating one of the central governors of relationships in Africa, did Shortland want to convey any particular moral stance on the issue of a man being entitled to multiple wives?
Gaye takes a deep breath and pauses before answering. "I use it to illustrate the difference (or is it?!) between most African men and our (Irish) men, and of course, the Tuaregs whom I lived with, who were not polygamous either. This tells us something extraordinary about how they view their women, because to my knowledge, there isn't any other African group, which is monogamous. Mind you, the turnover's terrific, the divorce rates high! But really, I was thinking of jealousy, of the whole nature of sexual love. It raises so many ideas really. "