This collection of 12 short stories by the veteran Ghanian author Ama Ata Aidoo, reflects concerns with the displacement of people, particularly women, who move between two cultures: their African homeland and that of the developed world. Her work has inspired younger African authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who regards Aidoo as a mentor and role model.
Aidoo writes ‘between the lines’ in many of her stories. Often the narrative is fragmented, carried by a mixture of her protagonists’ inner thoughts, dialogue and sometimes by what we might call the cultural super ego, that is, the received mores of the larger culture in which the action takes place. This reflects the oral tradition of storytelling in African culture and can make for difficult reading for those raised in the European tradition of a fixed narrative. Endings are often left open to the conjecture of the reader.
‘No Nuts’ is a grieving woman’s memories of her close friend who has died after a complicated pregnancy. As she recounts tales of her friend’s life to a supportive listener, she repeatedly breaks down in tears, pulls herself together and continues. The reader is drawn deep inside the narrator’s grief, which is as much the story as are the recollections. The author skillfully recreates the conflict between inner and outer self at moments of bereavement; the need to speak and the difficulty of expressing grief.
In ‘Rain’, Affiye, a young African woman, goes to study in France where she meets a German man, Matty. The two form an almost instant bond, but any possibility of a relationship between them is extinguished by family pressures on both sides. Matty recognises the racism inherent in European languages that complicate and frustrate his profound attraction to Affiye. Language is problematic throughout;, “everything came to them loaded with implications. Everything. The sun, the moon, clothes, music and all other art forms” in addition to “those sinister stories that had been read to him when he was a baby, as well as those he had discovered for himself”. Even though the couple can speak in English together, they share very little knowledge of each other’s culture and they seem separated by this as much as by their families’ disapproval.
Aidoo writes from a woman’s perspective. She does this to give a voice to the often unheard and unseen lives of women in Africa. Her chief protagonists are women and the reader is invited to share her characters’ inner lives as much as the outer narrative. In this, she could be seen as ‘writing back’ to celebrated African male authors such as Chinua Achebe, who tended to focus on the challenges to cultural notions of masculinity and power that colonialism brought.
The story which provides the book’s title, Diplomatic Pounds, is a wry observation of the Diplomatic Service and African people within that world. The narrative is taken up by the wife of an African Ambassador, who is concerned about her daughter Cecille’s eating disorder and her obsession with weight. Cecille believes that in order to fulfil the family’s diplomatic function, she must embrace the cuisines of every nation represented at the Embassy. Her mother seems to be equally obsessed with how others will ‘weigh up’ the family and is desperate to hide, or mask, her daughter’s problems. The story addresses cultural stereotypes and the pressures to conform to a Western notion of normality that is plainly eating this family up.
Diplomatic Pounds always focuses on human relationships rather than big events. Aidoo adheres to postmodern concerns, where grand narrative is replaced by microcosmic interpersonal dynamic. But there is humour and a cultural self-deprecation in this collection too. This is a book which shows the complexity of African women’s lives through the degrees of success that her characters achieve in negotiating the demands of cultural expectations.