Tayeb Salih, 1928-2009

Tayeb Salih, the Sudan-born author best known for Season of Migration to the North, died on February 18, 2009. Like many readers, I came to Salih’s work through Season, and have remained enthralled ever since.

Season recounts the fractures and fissures of living here and (t)here, of men educated in one system, a colonial one, who live in its post-independent aftermath. It is a story of men whose homosocial and heterosexual relationships are framed within histories of their own making and unmaking, where passion is destructive, and dreams live in locked rooms, on shelves lined with many read books.

Season lived on my shelves for many years before I first read it. And I regret how long it took for me to realize its worth. It tells an ongoing story, my father’s and mine, about how we stretch across time and space, learn to occupy the world through foreign tongues, aware that in becoming so voiced, we lose and gain any sense of place we might once have owned.

It is about the ethics of becoming strangers to ourselves, even and especially when we fail. The brilliant character at the heart of the novel learns to choose what will let him survive, in one way or another. It is a difficult choice. One we are all compelled to make. To choose the possibilities that shut other doors, and let us live, if not flourish.

While the immediate context of the novel is post-independent Africa, its ethical burdens must surely haunt all of us, as we negotiate the kinds of intimacies that give life pleasure and meaning, knowing that the two are not commensurate, and that intimate choices are ethical ones, structured by the knowledges we possess and share and the ones we choose to withhold.

Season is a difficult book, with difficult lessons to teach. Its haunting, lyrical English, for those of us who read it in translation, is both rich but also comes with a sense of loss: what does it read like in Arabic?

This necessary loss and gain that accompanies translation speaks more broadly to Salih’s legacy to we who negotiate the modern world, split between our allegiances to here and (t)here, and we all have them; acquiring and losing fluencies, some of which we are aware, others hidden, lost until during a moment of need, we discover ourselves floundering; riven among the competing demands that give our lives structure and de-structure them.

In Salih, reading becomes both retreat and refuge, succor and agony, an ethical masochism that gestures to worlds out there, worlds still to come, worlds still to be built, and worlds that cannot be realized.

My debt, our debt, to him: incalculable, immeasurable.

Go well, learned brother.

Go well.

2 thoughts on “Tayeb Salih, 1928-2009

  1. Such a bummer. It made me realize that while Season is one of those books that can’t possibly be as good as it is, I’ve never read anything else by him (except the much anthologized handful of dates). I can read the rest of Wedding of Zein, I guess, but now I’m curious about Bandarshah (almost seems Juneteenthian in its ambition and unfinishedness, if the impression of a little bit of internet scavenging can be trusted).

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