Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mella and the N’anga: An African Tale by Gail Nyoka

I read Mella and the N’anga: An African Tale by Gail Nyoka (Sumach Press) because it's one of the retellings we picked out for this year's Books and Breakfast at Sirens. People bring their breakfast and join a small, very informal discussion of books that they've read--or not--before the day's programming begins. This is where we fold in a variety of books that meet the conference's theme (retellings, this year) but that might not be well-known to attendees, or addressed in other programming, or that are controversial in some way, or that add to the diversity of what we're talking about for the weekend, or that are the books everyone's talking about. 
Despite adding one book for each session of Books and Breakfast this year, we still, as always, wrestled with why this one, and not that one, or why this topic and not the other, and, sometimes, with finding books to add to the list; we were trying to find global retellings, for example, but in some cultures, those original stories or retellings are not meant to be fantasy. Sometimes, I'd find glorious picture books, but wonder if representing something only in that format would send an unintended message if all the rest of the books were novels. Sometimes, I'd find a great retelling, but not in translation, or something nifty that is out of print and so expensive and hard to find that it's not a good fit for this list. And, of course, we're highlighting books by women authors and about women characters, and, and, and... There are just never enough spots on the roster. It's only a starting point.

Anyway, Mella and the N'anga was a book we added to the list as a retelling, even though I wouldn't try to shoehorn it into fantasy as a genre. Nyoka takes a tale from Zimbabwe, which I've seen credited to the Shona people, about the Nyangara, a great python--and here, Nyoka is also retelling a play of her own called Mella, Mella. Keeping an oral storytelling feeling in the prose, the story centers on the king's daughter, and brings women to the forefront of the tale. The magic here is a quest for Mella, a quest to find a way to heal her father, and it's also in the way that old traditions, here of women who hunt and sing and survive in the forest, come back from near death. There are some of the bones of the old tale here, but it's very much reimagined, extended, and refocused. 

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