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Aya Dane: Painting the future while reflecting on the past Open in fullscreen

Ramona Wadi

Aya Dane: Painting the future while reflecting on the past

Aya Dane is award-winning author Mhani Alaoui's second novel

Date of publication: 30 January, 2019

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Book Club: Mhani Alaoui's skilful prose portrays pain, dissociation and alienation as reliant upon each other in her latest novel Aya Dane, reviews Ramona Wadi.
Mhani Alaoui lays bare the cliché of "forgotten memories" in her latest novel, Aya Dane (Interlink Books, 2018). Likewise, the perceptions of nostalgia and identity as imagined by an outsider also contribute to shifting memory into an isolated place. An implosion takes place which, for Aya Dane, starts unravelling when she received a letter from an art collector asking her to present him with one art work "that captures your essence".

A spectrum of emotions unfolds throughout the book as Aya Dane, a Moroccan artist who lives alone in the attic of a Victorian house in the US, reveals the trauma of displacement and how she contains it through exclusion. In her interactions, there is a measure of detachment and lingering suspicion over motives, bringing to light her own family history's unwarranted entanglement with violence and its psychological repercussions.

The family weaves a story of protection, while Aya isolates herself into her own thoughts without a sense of belonging. Her brother's violence towards her is one of the turning points which prompt her family to agree to Aya's adoption by a wealthy expat who promises to open doors for her future as an artist abroad.

While opportunities for Aya materialise, she further learns from her benefactor to seal herself against pain. "One must not play with doorways, must not open and peek inside, for it's the edifice that's shaken. That's why I build walls, not doors. I build walls around me that have no doorway."

One must not play with doorways, must not open and peek inside, for it's the edifice that's shaken. That's why I build walls, not doors. I build walls around me that have no doorway

The metaphorical walls are evoked later in the novel, yet throughout the book Aya exhibits a tenacity to disclose or retain information to the point that her voice, although strong, is fraught with contradictions. Her outer success is also the manifestation of the trauma which a displaced person endures and whose identity fails to find an anchor.

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Aya's recollections are vivid. Indeed the author allows both the artist's memory and her paintings to almost compete with each other for inscribed and visual attention. Her past and the painting she is preparing for Ari, the art collector, intertwine to the point that the reader is compelled to visualise the artistic interpretation, or expression, taking shape on the canvas, as Aya's life is revealed from a distance which closes upon her character at an accelerated pace.

Slivers of Aya's past manifest themselves into her present – her brother seeks a meeting and is unable to convince her to return home, thus showing she has partly fulfilled her father's wish, "Make sure she forgets where she is from."

Memory, however, proves stronger than an assertion. As Aya's painting takes shape, her past escapes its boundaries and her mind gives way to interpretation. Away from her homeland, Aya is able to construct reasons for her displacement, exposing her vulnerability and self-imposed isolation.

Yet despite the book's consistency in revealing Aya's earlier years in retrospect, the reader is left with a growing ambivalence. Alaoui only reveals slivers of detail which build up to a twist towards the end. It is only then that one realises that Aya's story as narrated through her memories has also set the stage for mistrust and imagination to create a world in which characters harbour ulterior motives to break down her barriers, or to take from her what she identifies as her own.

David, who Aya identifies as her partner, and Ari, the art collector, are the two characters who provoke her into an internal soliloquy of protection against what she perceives as their intent to obliterate her inner self from her.

As much as the book is about the identity of the displaced, it is also an open-ended question of what constitutes identity. Which identity should be believed?

Alaoui's skilful prose portrays pain, dissociation and alienation as reliant upon each other. As much as the book is about the identity of the displaced, it is also an open-ended question of what constitutes identity. Which identity should be believed?

The one imparted by Aya Dane, or the version that is revealed later and causes the reader to question how much of the protagonist was portrayed or concealed?

Displacement and abandonment, even annihilation are evoked when the novel focuses on Aya's painting. The painting, we are told, is asserting itself to the point that the artist relinquishes "her will". The artistic journey is likened to the trajectories of migrants as the space where home and elsewhere collides during the perilous journey at sea. "A pilgrim who finds sanctuary, a migrant whose journey ends."

The metaphor of ending is one that entails questioning. Upon Ari's acceptance of the painting, Aya is acquainted with loss – the loss of identity after having discovered it within her memory as a displaced person whose speciality was the barring of people from her inner self.

Alaoui's conclusion to the novel is an invitation to question beyond perceptions. Aya's identities merge, to the point that each one is believable, thus prompting a new cycle of reflection with each revelation.

The artistic journey is likened to the trajectories of migrants as the space where home and elsewhere collides during the perilous journey at sea

Memory is not fragile, but it hosts many frail moments. It is little wonder that Aya identifies with Frida Kahlo's art and, in particular the painting The Two Fridas. The artist is able to look within and create elsewhere, yet the psyche of the displaced carries a burden which cannot be soothed.

If this link is severed, Aya seems to confirm, her inner self has very little to hold on to.

Order your copy of Aya Dane here.


Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law. 

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent


 

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