Being a novel by a Japan-born author who writes about a Nigerian woman living in Australia, Iwaki Kei’s Farewell, My Orange certainly has an interesting premise, and not the least because the absence of Europe and Northern America is itself something you don’t, after all, see that often in novels in English. (Stories of, say, immigration tend to have either of them as the destination.) But the English language is at the center of this book, as Salimah, arrived from Nigeria, and Sayuri, from Japan, attend an English class in Australia, and navigate their new reality on a new continent. The language barrier does not prevent them from slowly forming a friendship, and there is something very heartwarming in the story that is hard to pinpoint exactly.
Yet I’m not saying that this is necessarily the typical sort of a “feel-good” or “uplit” novel. It contains, for instance, quite a lot of serious commentary on living as a foreigner in a new place, and it ends with a fantastic, slightly metatextual trick (which I shall not spoil in this review – just wait for it), which raises questions of cultural appropriation. There’s plenty of coping with loss, too. But the novel’s title itself signals a theme of universality, referring to the way that – excuse my Shakespeare – “the self-same sun that shines upon his court / Hides not his visage from our cottage but / Looks on alike.” Orange prevails through the novel as a color of comfort for Salimah, for whom one of the only pleasures in her new situation is the fact that the sun sets similarly no matter where you are:
Watching the sun slowly rising into the ultramarine sky, its orange tinge spreading, the trapped, despairing feeling that had been haunting her suddenly lifted. […] The orange seemed almost to drip fresh and sweet from deep within the slightly oval disc of the sun, to comfort her.
Interspersed with the narrative of Salimah and Sayuri we find an email exchange between a student and a teacher, seemingly unrelated to the main narrative, but which by the end makes much more sense in terms of the whole.
A slight tangent, but, as a northern European, I couldn’t help paying closer attention when Salimah ruminates on some of the female students from her class. I found the perspective simultaneously interesting, sad, and funny:
The nymphs had come to Australia as tourists, and they were due to go home again come summer. Those northern European countries looked after their citizens well, and they had an affluent air about them. Their happy future seemed to become tiny particles that imbued their golden hair; it was as if transparent light poured from their bodies, thought Salimah as she looked at them. The delicate wings of light at their backs seemed to unfold, and they were fairies flitting from flower to flower. Just to see them made Salimah’s heart swell gently. And then, too, their English was so good.
Farewell, My Orange is an unexpected gem of a book, one that is easy to recommend to just about anybody. It won the Ōe Kenzaburō Prize in Japan in 2014, but the English translation, from the pen of Meredith McKinney, has not received the attention it arguably deserves. Here’s to hoping that it will get a nudge from the Man Booker International Prize in a few months.