Next week’s story is Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin. You can also read it here.

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Rated Explicit

This week Rammy joined us for an unexpectedly lively discussion. It was an odd episode where we spent half the time debating the actual content of the story. Anais and Gerald came into the conversation sure of summary and ready to record. Then it was immediately clear that Rammy and Maya read the same story so differently that it was almost like discussing two different stories.

Don’t forget, to rate the story! For the history of our goofy system, see Anais’ post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” If you want to design a Bradberry, we’d love to see it.

Listeners gave last week’s story “The Empty Family” by Colm Tóibín 5 Bradberries.

So tell us, on a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Start of the Affair“? More importantly, was James black or white? Tell us in the comments below or via voicemail, and we will give the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin. You can also read it here.

5 comments on The Start of the Affair – Nuruddin Farah – Literary Roadhouse Ep 27

  1. Richard says:

    I didn’t care much for this story. If one strips away homosexuality and race (more about race in a minute), this is a story about a seduction. James is working his way ("not too fast, my man") under the watchful eyes of others in his life (employees, dentist) to have sex with Ahmed. There’s an unbroken path that James follows, from allowing scraps at the restaurant to bringing him in the big house. He gets closer and closer, touching, holding hands and finally climbing into bed. If this were male-female story, it would be quite unremarkable no matter who was pursuing whom.

    So to the extent this rises above that old trope, it is either because of the male/male aspect or race. As to the former, James is no aesthete, Farah is no Thomas Mann, and this ain’t "Death in Venice." I can’t spot anything that James appreciates about Ahmed or wants from him except sex.

    And that ending to the story just flattened out, like the author ran out of gas.

    Now to the race issue. I found the discussion fascinating, if perhaps a wee bit stretched out. I lean toward the Anais/Gerald camp, largely because I agree with their fundamental point: if James were not white, the author had a greater duty to explain that point than if he were not. In addition to the characteristics pointed out in the podcast (name, professional status, paunch (sorry, Gerald)), there were a couple of other things that argue for his whiteness. First, there is no emotion expressed with respect to the fight against apartheid. He is way too clinical about it. I find it much harder to accept that a black South African could be so blase about the injustice, the political prisoners.

    Second, he married a Portuguese woman who shared his apartment in Claremont, a suburb of Capetown. The government agressively enforced apartheid there (I learned this from Wikipedia) and forced non-whites (including "Coloureds") out of the suburb in the 1960s. Doing the math, I have to figure old James was shacking up with a white woman in an all white suburb back in college, and if he wasn’t white, he would have a lot more to talk about than her being skinny.

    And James’ Mom would have had more to say about Martha than her lack of child bearing ability.

    Even if one layers in both race and sex, and geopolitical ramifications/colonial oppression, I still don’t think it’s that interesting a story. Nicely written though. I give it a 2.5.

    I enjoyed the spirited discussion, and look forward to next week.

  2. Todd Williams says:

    I thought this story was about mutual exploitation andor the compromises people generally make for relationships. While the podcast went overboard in describing James’ predatory behaviour it seemed to minimize Ahmed’s "me no speaky the english" bullshit routine whenever he wanted or was getting a favour out of James.

    I assumed James was white for the entire story and it never even occurred to me it might be otherwise; but if the primary takeaway from the story is his predatory nature, then I don’t see how his colour matters. A black pedophile stalker is just as bad as a white one, no? By the end, James and Ahmed are technically a couple and I don’t think it’s altogether correct to say that the latter is a helpless victim. Certainly at some level, using money to get sex is the same as using sex to get money?

    Personally I think the bit about the pre-teen boy (which was a thought not a deed, remember) biases the reader too much against James, making him seem more evil than he really is. It is established early that James uses gifts and generosity to win people over and keep them near; perhaps this is something he needs to do as an (apparently disgusting) overweight older male who certainly can’t rely on looks to find partners. There is a very subtle line between generosity and manipulation that I found interesting.
    Is everything that James does for Ahmed negated because of his motive (which after nearly TWO years has not been fulfilled)? Does the fact that they end up like an old married couple mean that they have transcended ulterior motives and actually love one another? In Aretha Franklin’s immortal words: “Who’s zooming who?”

    By the end and the "not now dear" punchline, the whole story seemed almost like a parody of traditional marriage (before feminism) with its economic and emotional tradeoffs. Any larger socio-economic message is either lost on me or too obvious and tired (white exploit black buys wife…blah blah).

    3.5 Bradberries for me.

    1. Gerald says:

      Hi Todd
      I think it was fairly clear that Ahmed was exploiting James at the end, seemingly holding out on a full sexual encounter whilst enjoying the benefits that James’ money was able to buy.
      I suspect the initial bias against James was deliberate, to show how how this can be swapped from culprit to victim. I don’t think it can be a parody of a ‘traditional’ marriage, or is it is, it is a version of a traditional marriage I’m not aware of. I think the financial status of the two ‘partners’ means that the partnership is always going to be off-kilter.
      Thanks for your review, Todd – fascinating and thought-provoking, as always 🙂

    2. Maya Goode says:

      Thing is, you comment is exactly why I think race is important in this story. While in "real life" it’s just as bad. On paper, one is a very old and tired cliche and one is something un-expected and, for me, more interesting. I also think Ahmed is read differently both ways. Gosh, so interesting. Totally one of those stories that makes me wish I could have a sit down with the author. I left the story totally sure of what I read and after the podcast, as clear as mud.

    3. I can see the parody of traditional marriage angle. One party having all the financial power and the other claiming subversive power is as traditional as it gets. But to me this reading of it is a part of the larger point, not the biggest theme. Why go through the trouble to introduce Ahmed’s warlord father back story, the Somali preteen backstory, and Yacine pretending to be the restaurant owner if there isn’t some greater commentary about power, predation, and subversive tactics to survive with dignity?

      Also, for me the vilification of James was too intentional to ignore. The reasoning for not taking advantage of the young thing was too precisely worded to yield the villain effect. His reasoning isn’t moral. There is an episode of This American Life (Act Two: ) that showcases a group of young adult men who are sexually attracted to children and refuse to act on it. They formed a community online to try and find healthy moral outlets, build romantic relationships with peers, and encourage each other to deal with their common struggle. It’s a sympathetic case where the men do not seem evil at all. Farah didn’t do that with James. He went for broke on immoral and opportunistic plotting.

      Great comment as always. And you’re right about the line between manipulation and generosity being blurred. By the end of it, James’s generosity no longer seemed exploitative, but genuinely tender. That shift is interesting. People aren’t only their worst act, after all. The complexity there is nice.

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