All month Saba had failed almost every test she’d faced, and though she’d seized one last chance to see if this trip had changed her, had taught her at least a little of how to live in this culture, she’d only ended up proving her relatives right: she wasn’t even equipped to go for a walk on her own. What she thought would be our romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn’t belong here.
Some stories succeed because they touch on very deep and sombre themes. Some succeed because the writing gives goosebumps. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a plot that teases the reader along a path of delayed gratification that’s worth it. And sometimes a story works just because it’s charming, and heartfelt, and says something old in a unique way. I think the latter is the case here.
Saba is visiting Ethiopia to connect with the country her family left when she was too young to form a memory, to meet those they left behind. It isn’t going terribly well. The initial scene in the story has her trying to cross a street in downtown Addis Ababa. I lived in Boston, where driving is a contact sport and extra points are given for hitting pedestrians, for 20 years; I’m guessing even Boston would be no training for Addis Ababa. A local man tells Saba about a guy who tried to cross the street, gave up, and now lives on the median strip. “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he tells her. She ends up taking a cab, and bemoans her failure.
The suitcase of the story is the second central image. Apparently it’s expensive to ship items between the US and Ethiopia, and their arrival is iffy. So her trip serves a dual purpose: mail carrier. But not just any mail.
At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items at the second that for the trip there was full of gifts from America – new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine – to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase.…[It] offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there. Everyone wanted a piece; everyone fought to stake a claim to their own space.… An empty suitcase opened up a rare direct link between two worlds, so Saba understood why relatives and friends wanted to fill her bag with carefully wrapped food things, gifts, sundry items, making space, taking space, moving and shifting the bulging contents of the bag.
The tension of the story builds around the suitcase being so stuffed with Ethiopian love for the trip back, it’s overweight. It’s kind of a false tension; Saba could pay the overage fee, even though her relatives don’t want that. But it’s more interesting to ignore that logical flaw and go with it. That means decisions must be weighed about which of the gifts from Ethiopia to America are to be weeded out: chickpeas; loaves of bread; doro wat (a kind of spicy chicken stew); gunfo (a porridge particularly traditional for post-partum women); spices (corrorima, grains of paradise, berbere). Each relative pleads his or her case, explaining why their gift must reach loved ones on the other side. Each gift has a special resonance of meaning. And Saba must decide.
The structure of the story mimics the plot. Just as the US and Ethiopia are at the ends of a transit of goods via the suitcase, so Saba’s street crossing and her final decision are attached by a transit of sorts. Will she make it across the now metaphorical street, or will she, too, end up living on the median strip, between cultures?
It may be a flawed story (and what story isn’t), but it’s charming nonetheless, and that makes it work.