Love and memory go hand in hand in Rebecca Walker’s debut novella, Adé: A Love Story, which is so intimate, so painstakingly composed that it feels as though it’s told in the weighty quiet of a late night conversation. Written in the style of a memoir, it follows Farida, a half-Jewish half-African-American student at Yale, as she leaves behind her collegiate life in New Haven for a backpacking journey through Eastern Africa.
After arriving in Egypt, Farida and her travel companion (a friend and former lover) Miriam take overnight buses and walk long stretches of highway in search of authenticity — “the real Africa.” Neither one of them necessarily knows what that means. They eventually land on the island of Lamu off of the coast of Kenya, where they encounter Swahili fishermen and eat coconut rice. One of these men is Adé, who sparks a conversation with Farida one evening at a party between bites of sweet spaghetti. It’s an immediate, fairy tale-like connection; a warm embrace of lust and trust. Despite their cultural differences — Adé comes from a family of conservative Muslims — he and Farida fall for each other deeply. “We breathed the same air. I had never been so close to anyone in my life,” Farida recounts. When Miriam decides to leave Lamu for new adventures, Farida elects to stay behind and explore the new life she’s discovered with Adé.
If Adé were indeed a fairy tale, the story would have ended there: a foreigner travels through Africa, unexpectedly falls into a wild, open-hearted love… and happily ever after. But we all know that real life, and the politics of that great continent, are much more complicated than that. For Farida and Adé to marry, Adé must travel to the States to receive approval from her parents. As they leave their bubble of safety on Lamu to secure a passport for him in Nairobi, Kenya’s corrupt government and complications from the impending Gulf War expose themselves at every turn. Things are not easy in the real Africa.
Walker’s prose aches with longing, and a knowingness that can only be told from a person looking back. The subject matter is close to Walker, known largely for her memoirs, as it mirrors similar experiences she had as a student at Yale. With her first brush with fiction she weaves a romantically tragic tale, one that is inevitably scuffed and burdened by forces outside her characters’ control. “I remember everything,” Farida writes to her lost love, wherever he may be.