Safia Elhillo’s The January Children depicts a generation born in Sudan under British occupation. Here, where children were assigned age by height, all having January 1 as a birthday. The narrator’s grandfather was one of them.
Even though she traverses different geographies such as Cairo, Nairobi, Geneva and Maryland, Sudan remains the backdrop of this memoir-like recounting of her life. Sudan is represented as extremely beautiful through the nostalgic memories of her parents’ generation as well as a space that has fallen victim to the violence within it. For instance, the author describes Sudan as “crackling around the edges,” “a signed bit of paper” and with freshly-wounded soldiers. At the same time, the narrator’s mother says she “came from a Sudan that had gardens and magnolia flowers”.
Although the book explores love and family, these usually tender themes are unable to dissociate themselves from violence. For instance, on the day the narrator’s’ parents meet, her father wants to ask her mother if he could “sing something sometime into the gap in her teeth but the first police arrive rip lanterns from trees and fire a shot.”
The narrator also suffers a lot of racism. She talks about how the established standards of beauty cause her to suffer discrimination because of her distinctly African features such as her dark skin, thick hair and large body.
Some of this prejudice has been made familiar even within the Kenyan context, for instance, people warned her mother to keep her out of the sun so she does not grow darker. Some examples of racism she gives, however, are more brutal.
She says “once in Geneva I was one of three African girls at school, two of which were said to stink I was never told which two.”
Within the intimacy of their homes around the world, a prominent consequence of the Sudanese families’ displacement is loneliness. Men are absent from the narrator’s household because of the violent deaths described or because they are “lost or upstairs sleeping or gone to America to look for work gone to England to Saudi Arabia to the Emirates to look for work.”
This contributes to some social alienation. For instance, a classmate Umeima spread a rumour that the narrator wore tight jeans because she did not have a father but her friend Basma assures the narrator that “if both parents had let Umeima leave the house with that ugly T-shirt on then I was better off with just the one.”
Although the narrator expresses the difficulty she feels speaking every language she knows, specifically English and Arabic, Ms Elhillo’s poetry grows rich because of this tension. Direct translation leads the author to call patience “length of mind” and the beautiful language is evident throughout the book.
The absence of language is also significant. Ms Elhillo explores silence as a political tool for controlling the public. In particular, she highlights the policing of language and of art by banning music and murdering a singer and a violinist. “Back home we are plagued by a politeness so dense even the doctors cannot call things what they are,” she says.