Even those Westerners who have ‘lived in Africa on and off for most of [their] lives,’ like Ginny Bailey’s character Louis are ‘wary of talking politics’: ‘somebody would inevitably mention the legacy of colonialism and borders drawn by rulers with no respect for tribal allegiances. They would lay the blame for Africa’s ills at the feet of the former colonial powers, or the modern equivalent, the multinationals. They’d talk about the lack of nationhood in Africa and they might go on to bring in the curse of oil and the stifling effect of protectionism and subsidies in the West.’ Louis is wary of mentioning all of this, but the oppressor’s guilt he feels in every freckle on his white skin means that, like many of us, he falls prey to ‘a kind of egotism in thinking everything was his responsibility.’
Fortunately for the reader, this passage is atypical of Africa Junction. Ginny Bailey, who edits both Riptide – a journal that champions the short story – and the Africa Research Bulletin, treats us to a realistic portrayal of ordinary lives in Dakar and Timbuktu, Cardiff and Exeter, Ethiopia and Mali. Stretching across continents and lives, Africa Junction draws on all of Bailey’s background in short stories. Episodic and fragmentary, most chapters of this highly ambitious debut would stand alone as short fiction. The attention to detail inherent in this structure and the constant flickering between the familiarities of the UK and the dry deserts and sweltering cities of West Africa accentuates the descriptions of each and gives powerful resonance to the nuances of difference that dictate our lives.
It is a cliché to protest that the things that our common humanity is a stronger force than those things that separate us – material wealth, for example – but where fiction can sometimes be more powerful than all the facts in the world is by demonstrating rather than telling us of this truth. Africa Junction never shies away from darkness: its panoramic story – thirty years elapse between its first and last episodes – takes in child slavery, sexual exploitation, living with the threat of AIDS and civil war. It also touches on life experiences that we might feel are closer to home: the difficulties of growing up, failed relationships, the perils of online dating. Yet never do we feel there is a judgment being made; we never get the feeling that one set of hardships is more trivial than another.
That is because of Adele, the central character through whom Bailey weaves all of the various threads of the story together. Adele is a French teacher and single mother living in Exeter, but through the novel’s mosaic we learn of her youth in Cardiff and her childhood in Senegal. Africa Junction traces Adele’s quest to find her childhood friend Ellena – a kind of twin - whose memory haunts her to this day. It is an adventure story as well as a heartfelt meditation on how we can rebuild broken lives.When Adele reaches the point where she is finally ready to move on, when she realizes that the past doesn’t always have to drag you down, that guilt and fear don’t get you anywhere near as far as love and hope and kindness, you get the feeling Bailey might be talking about Africa too.