In twenty closely linked stories, Bushmeat explores an expatriate family’s two year stay in 1960’s Nigeria then moves on to explore its effect on all their lives over the next fifty years.
The title story won top prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016, and New Welsh Rarebyte went on to publish it, together with the other stories in October 2017.
Extract from Milk
When Miss Boorman brought in the blue plastic crate, the children milled around it.
‘One at a time, please,’ shrilled the teacher.
Sarah went to the back of the queue hoping something might happen before her turn, like Miss Boorman dropping dead. She didn’t like milk. Here in England they kept it by the radiator. The thought of the thickened band of yellow and the way it clogged the straw made her go hot and cold.
When she arrived at the crate, there were two bottles left. She practically stopped breathing.
‘Lucky Miss Nigeria,’ said the teacher. She had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.
‘But I only want one,’ said Sarah.
Since she’d started at this school last month, she’d lived in dread of Miss Boorman speaking to her. She found out now that it was worse when she didn’t; when she pressed her orange lips together and looked at you over the top of her winged glasses.
Sarah took both bottles.’
Here’s what a few people have said about Bushmeat:
The competition judges
‘For Sarah’s family, memories of early Sixties Aba in Southeastern Nigeria are scorched onto their hearts. As people of that time and place are scattered like bleached bones, Aba acts as a centripetal force on their imaginations. Today’s city was a small town the like of which Tim Winton gnaws at from different angles in The Turning. Mandy Sutter’s approach is similarly innovative. Her themes are substitution, racism, and whether the spirit can ever survive transaction.’ Gwen Davies, Editor of New Welsh Review.
‘Triumphs, in its lean prose, humour and evocation of a family divided by sexism and racism in 1960s Nigeria. Stitches together the threads of memory to create a moving tapestry of lost life, building bridges of understanding across time and place…’ Travel writer Rory Maclean.
Several of the stories in Bushmeat were published individually and placed in competitions.
A shortened version of Seed won second place in an Ambit competition. Judge Alison Moore (author of the Booker shortlisted The Lighthouse) said, ‘Sutter’s writing is atmospheric, wonderfully unexpected, disquieting, touching and darkly humorous.’
Penelope Shuttle, who chose Munachi Bones for publication in Mslexia magazine, said, ‘Sutter depicts the sidelining and silencing of older ways of life in an African village. We discern, in a microcosm, what has happened and is happening in macrocosm in much of the developing world. The characters spring to life with immediacy, attesting to this writer’s accuracy of both ear and eye. The prose style is clean, full of impact, fast paced, balancing the story at the cusp of past and present. The evocation of village sounds and smell is wonderful – I love the market especially – and there is deep understanding both of human wisdom and un-wisdom.’
An Amazon reviewer
‘A world of colours, odours, sensations – of hyper-real, dislocated locations – of prejudices and intense communications. 1960s Nigeria in all its exotic colours, hopeful squalor and extravagant namings; townland England with all its fears, doubts, compromised limits and uncompromising prejudices. Like all of this writer’s work, expect the unexpected. Magnificently-understated laugh-out-loud moments that creep up behind you like the monkey on the cover and tap you on the funny-bone. Spear-sharp perception to cut you neatly to the quick. A centre of gravity – all the characters bearing more than their share. Not many books will make you think so much about the real human contrasts to be tasted in our lopsided world, and I don’t think any will do it with such heartfelt laughs or such aching humanity. In other words, bloody good. Bloody read it.’
Bush Meat, which won the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016, is a finely balanced collection of short stories that travels between Nigeria and England, from the 1960s to the present day. Each story stands alone; together they form a subtle family history that tracks some of the significant social and cultural shifts that have taken place over the past fifty years.
Mandy Sutter’s expats in Africa are not the stereotypical upper-class, or wannabe-upper-class, migrants of Empire, shored up by an aggressive sense of superiority; they are ‘ordinary’ people – teachers, engineers and manual workers, and the wives and children who sometimes accompany them. They are working people dislocated, full of uncertainty in a country they do not understand and no longer rule. ‘I don’t know what to do. The rules are different here.’ The men might occasionally come up with some of the old bluster – ‘The trouble with this country is the black man thinks he owns it’ – but this is the newly independent Nigeria of Chinua Achebe; the balance is shifting; these migrants are ‘just another mzungu passing through’. Their time there will have little impact on the country, but they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives, in memories and keepsakes and shattered selves who fail to make the readjustment to returning home to England, to working in offices and living in drab new-build boxes on suburban cul-de-sacs, leaving the colour and vibrancy of Africa behind them.
The stories centre on Sarah and her parents, Jim and Maureen, who move to Nigeria in the 1960s when Sarah is a child. Sutter is strong on generational and gender-based differences in attitude. While Sarah embraces her new world and accepts the servant Chidike and his pet monkey as friends, and regularly spends time in the home of her schoolfriend Omo, Jim holds to the fear of Otherness. Maureen bridges the gap, constantly questioning, ever uncertain. And yet, when they return to England, it is Jim who seeks to take Africa with him – a crate made of beautiful iroko wood, packed with carvings, tables, pots and trays that he cannot bear to part with. The stories towards the end of the collection, which portray Jim in later life, are especially moving.
British culture of the 1960s is brought to life here: Crossroads, Top of the Pops and Dixon of Dock Green, free school milk, beehives and winged spectacles, and green chenille tablecloths; children’s hands rapped with a ruler, board rubbers thrown at children’s heads, the absolute veto on any discussion of sex or death or things that matter. Things might be changing in Britain but, as expats in Africa, the men work; their wives spend their time sewing, mending, keeping house, instructing servants and looking after children; children mostly keep their heads down and their mouths shut and have a lot of secrets. It’s a world a million miles away and yet only yesterday. Sutter captures it in aspic.
Bush Meat is a sensitive, haunting collection that sets personal stories against a background of historical change. It is thoughtful and perceptive. And a real joy to read.
Suzy Ceulan Hughes
This review is from www.gwales.com and is used with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
What I think
The book occupies a special place in my heart. Its starting point was my own two years in Nigeria as a child and the many apocryphal family stories that were told and retold by my parents after we came back to the UK. As a seven year old child, I had my own memories and stories, nearly all of which my parents said couldn’t possibly be true. I wrote the stories in Bushmeat both to understand my parents by looking at things from their point of view and as a way to explore, independently, the atmospheres I remembered, the people I loved and the things that mattered most to me then and later.