An Unproductive Woman - Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

*** Fascinating but disappointing

I’m always attracted to books set in distant places and whose protagonists live cultures very different from mine. These are stories that open you mind, which teach you to see what is different and to respect it, even if it appears alien and contrary to the way we see, to what we consider to be right. And, being a women, I like the stories of this kind told from the point of view of a woman, which often lead me to note that, although the differences, however, there are points in common, which are universal.
With these expectations, I ventured into the reading of “An unproductive Woman”. From the title you can imagine what it is about. It is the story of a woman who cannot have children, but at the same time it is much more complex than that.
It is set in Senegal, in a Muslim context, with a figure of a woman seen as the mother of children, and in situations of polygamy in which often the husband is much older than his wives.
It’s already a difficult subject to deal with for a western woman, but it has its own charm. It’s interesting to learn the way of thinking of those women for whom it is normal to marry a man much older than them, for whom the presence of other wives is something that can happen, though they do not like so much the idea, but they tend to adapt anyway. It’s interesting to see this type of family dynamics and all the problems of jealousy, quarrels, and fights that can be observed.
I must specify that we are not faced with situations that involve abuse. The women told in this novel are women free to do what they want. The only limits they have are those dictated by their own mentality.
The book is very well written, the evocative style of the author takes you inside the head of these women and their men.
Yet I was not satisfied.
The plot was complex enough and had interesting ideas. Adam after having lived a long time in America where he had a wife and a son, he returned to Senegal for “duty”, because his family, who knows nothing of this wife and this son, wants him to take a wife in his country.
And he does so. And then he spends the rest of his life in regret of having lost his son. Yes, you read that right, just his son, not because he has abandoned his family.
The reason of his repentance is only that his new young wife, Asabe, does not seem to be able to give him any child, let alone a son. Otherwise it seems obvious that he would never regret it.
While Adam struggles to find a wife capable of this, a series of misfortunes, deaths, births of daughters, diseases and so on would prevent him from achieving this dream. Here the irony of fate, or karma, or his own God is punishing him for his behaviour. And this is perhaps the most balanced aspect of the story.
In the meantime Asabe, who knows nothing of his past, continues to love him and suffers his wish that she cannot fulfil. While the lost child as an adult discovers that his father was looking for him.
This has the potential of a great drama and, instead, will deflate in a vapid doing good-ism which is really hard to swallow.
There is no true repentance where it should be, and there is forgiveness where seems quite impossible that there is.
Honestly I do not know if the story could be realistic. Being western, it doesn’t seem so to me, but if I try to open my mind to other cultures I give it the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe the suspension of disbelief might have endured.
But this does not prevent the existence of two really disappointing aspects.
The first is the attempt to present a controversial situation and then to bend it to the conformism of the environment in which it develops. In all this, where is the growth of the characters? There is not. They are all static, firm on their convictions, or worse, they tend instead to regress. The reconciliation is disarmingly predictable.
In real life I suppose that it can happen, that people let it go for a quiet life, forgive, go ahead. But this is fiction. If the conflict in fiction does not lead to a growth and an unexpected resolution, the facts are twofold: it does not work leaving the reader puzzled or simply bored because it does not offer anything new.
The other aspect that I just cannot accept is this image of the woman whose only thoughts are to have children, take care of them, her husband, their feelings, gossip, jealousy ... etc ... and only these things. Despite the novel enters the detail in all these aspects, even telling the daily lives of these women, never once a slightest interest in any other subject manages to shine in them. Aside from perhaps Asabe, that we see sometimes tending the garden (but it seems more like a contour), is it possible they don’t have other interests in life? And, mind you, I’m not talking about a family living in conditions of poverty in which women cannot afford “frivolousness” (obviously it isn’t really frivolousness, since the interests of a person define their essence), anything but that. Adam is an entrepreneur. His wives have everything they need. I understand that they traditionally deal with “women” matters, okay, but other than that ... nothing. Or they are just plain boring women (all?) or, as I think, the author decided to show characters whose continuing concern is to get the attention of a coward and selfish man. It almost seems that hers is a provocation against the Western world in which she lives.
Nothing will convince me that such a thing could be realistic. And unfortunately, although I can appreciate her intent, I’m disappointed, because, in a nutshell, I don’t buy it.

An Unproductive Woman on