Nepenthe

Maaza Mengiste’s short story describes traumatic experiences of flight with many mythological allusions.

One day we will find a language for this. A way to fit it all in the mouth then swallow into the folds of history. There will no longer be the torn photograph, the rusted spoon, the broken cigarettes, the woman’s body floating in a sinking boat. That child, face down in the sand, will disappear. Remembering itself, the sea will no longer speak for the sky. Blue will simply turn back to blue. There will be no metaphors, only movement and land and documents and a tongue held still between dulled teeth. I don’t want to die in a language I cannot understand: this is Borges descending heavily into the dark stairwell, a library tucked inside his throat. 11Probably an allusion to the Argentine writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who imagined the world as a library in his 1941 novel “The Library of Babel” (La Biblioteca de Babel). Most of the books in this library are incomprehensible to the inhabitants of this world. Maybe we know too much. That is the problem that plagued Medea. 22Probably an allusion to the female figure of Greek mythology, whose complex stories of constant flight, abandonment, exile and involvement in crimes, which she too commits by her magic power, have been widely received and incorporated into art and literature. When Cassandra crossed the placid sea, 33Probably an allusion to the female figure in Greek mythology, who had divining powers and foresaw disastrous events, but whose predictions were not believed. she knew it was Iphigenia who glanced up, past the waves, and smiled. 44Probably an allusion to the female figure in Greek mythology who prevented the Agamemnon’s fleet from continuing its journey by causing a calm wind; and in another version of her story as Artemis’ priestess on Tauris is forced to sacrifice strangers.  Kidus Giorgis slayed the dragon but we can still burn in fire. 55Probaby an allusion to the Christian saint St. George, who, according to a legend, killed a dragon and thus averted evil from a country and brought many of its inhabitants to Christian faith and baptism. In Ethiopia, where he is particularly worshipped, he is called Kidus Giorgis. My grandmother warned me. She said, our dreams will bury us then weep. I call out to her now, she who is also named Maaza, she who stands at the shore’s edge, muted by time. Who asks to be here, I say. We are split, she says. You have two throats. Beware.

    Footnotes

  • 1Probably an allusion to the Argentine writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who imagined the world as a library in his 1941 novel “The Library of Babel” (La Biblioteca de Babel). Most of the books in this library are incomprehensible to the inhabitants of this world.
  • 2Probably an allusion to the female figure of Greek mythology, whose complex stories of constant flight, abandonment, exile and involvement in crimes, which she too commits by her magic power, have been widely received and incorporated into art and literature.
  • 3Probably an allusion to the female figure in Greek mythology, who had divining powers and foresaw disastrous events, but whose predictions were not believed.
  • 4Probably an allusion to the female figure in Greek mythology who prevented the Agamemnon’s fleet from continuing its journey by causing a calm wind; and in another version of her story as Artemis’ priestess on Tauris is forced to sacrifice strangers.
  • 5Probaby an allusion to the Christian saint St. George, who, according to a legend, killed a dragon and thus averted evil from a country and brought many of its inhabitants to Christian faith and baptism. In Ethiopia, where he is particularly worshipped, he is called Kidus Giorgis.

In this short story, the Ethiopian-born author Maaza Mengiste, who now lives in New York City (USA), uses many references to Greek and Christian mythology and more recent literature to address the experiences of fear, danger and loss on the flight and the wish to be able to process painful experiences in words.

Nepenthe, the title of the short story, refers in the Greek Odyssey, written between 1200 and 700 B.C., to a medicine which Helen had received from an Egyptian queen. The medicine, mixed with wine, is supposed to eliminate suffering, dispel fear and make people forget all illness. The word means “against sorrow” (ne = not, penthos = sorrow, suffering). For the other literary-mythological allusions, the footnotes offer possbible explanations.

Mengiste, Maaza, 2019: Nepenthe, in: Bhakti Shringarpure (ed. et al.): Mediterranean. Migrant Crossing. Storrs, CT: Warscapes Magazine. p. 22.

Reposted from Mediterranean. Migrant Crossings with the kind permission of Bhakti Shringarpure, founder and editor in chief of Warscapes.

For a review of Mediterranean. Migrant Crossing see here.

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