Written by Samanta Schweblin | Translated by Megan McDowell There are many ways to approach…
I admittedly went into reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise with high expectations; I haven’t been this excited for a collection since the Iraq +100 (also, coincidently, by Comma Press) and I’ll start this off by saying that it absolutely did not disappoint. This collection of short stories by the author, journalist, and activist Rania Mamoun is one of the first ever translations of a Sudanese female author into English – calling into question just how much world literature exists out there, especially by women, that we in the Anglophone world have never had access to. This translation trend that is bringing more and more lesser-known world lit into the spotlight is so exciting and must continue.
Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a captivating collection of short stories that burst with vibrancy. Here is a colourful cast of characters that simply exist in their world – they do not begin or end; they merely are. As a reader, you feel privileged to have shared a day, or maybe just a moment, with them, utterly convinced by the notion that they’re carrying on their daily life in Sudan long after you’ve closed the book. Mamoun plays with a variety of literary styles throughout and expertly blends scenes that are grounded in reality with surrealist episodes that never once feel out of place – reflecting the always off-kilter daily lives we all live.
Themes of colonialism, war, immigration, urban alienation, love, loss, and grief abound in these tales. Every story is a snapshot of something that makes life unique and special – not just life in Sudan but life as a citizen of Earth. Sudan is one of the largest and most diverse states in Africa and Mamoum effortlessly paints a picture of the various communities and individuals that live together, often passing like ships in the night but inevitably sharing their commonalities while learning from one other.
“When you’re homesick, you yearn for anything familiar: people, language, signs, anything. We feel differently towards these things than we do when we’re rested in our own country’s embrace.”
Honesty and Majesty
Written in beautiful prose, Thirteen Months of Sunrise lures you in with its simplicity while painting vivid poetic scenes throughout: “Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood.” This is a testament not only to the author but to the fantastic translation of Elisabeth Jaquette, not once are you brought out of the text; quite often it is much the opposite, with each story flowing seamlessly into the next.
Although dealing with human emotion at its core, it’s laced with cultural nuances – tiny lessons that leave the reader enriched. We’re gifted with remarkable facts like the existence of thirteenth months in the Ethiopian calendar, something which not only educates us a little but also provides an explanation for the captivating, enigmatic, and honestly beautiful title: Thirteen Months of Sunrise. We’re also offered the feeling of peace one experiences as a Muslim when hearing the call to prayer outside your window: “We moved house next to the mosque, where the call to prayer was so loud it beat in our hearts and shook our bodies”.
While gentle and poetic at times, Mamoum never deigns to gloss over the honest and savage truths of life spent in a politically turbulent country which suffers a class divide that leaves many struggling to survive.
“People say that their cats eat their dead kittens as their way of showing love.
I don’t believe that,’ says the eldest. It just shows they’re hungry.
Mum, are you gonna eat us when you get hungry? Asks the boy of four, and she smiles, tells him no, hugs him, and sadly considers his need to ask.”
The lines between human and animal are often blurred in these stories; the characters are often able to relate more to flies, dogs, and cats than to the people around them. This is never better exemplified than in Stray Steps when a beggar girl collapses from hunger at the side of the road only to be rescued by the local dogs who are more willing to help those in need than the humans nearby.
Thirteen Months of Sunrise will have you witnessing everything from fleeting love, bonded by shared knowledge and culture, to death and those things left unsaid. Like these stories, life, and that of those around you, is fleeting and must be cherished.
As a side note, a lesson in Sudanese music wasn’t something I was expecting when diving into this collection. However, as you can see in this wonderful post from Arab Lit, the stories are laced with references to contemporary and classic artists – just one of the cultural treats Mamoun’s collection leaves you with to ponder later.
Anyone looking for a short read that will leave them feeling like they’ve truly experienced the life of another, or wishes to immerse themselves in a culture and voice that really should be more explored, then Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a perfect choice.
If you’re considering writing your own short stories, take this writing class from author Yiyun Li and a 30-day free trial from Skillshare.