In the United States of Africa
Abdourahman A Waberi
Translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball
Review by Laila Lalami
Most African fiction to which English-language readers are exposed seems to be exclusively concerned with the question of “what is?” The plight of child soldiers, the Aids pandemic, life under apartheid, the clash between traditions and modernity – these subjects make up the bulk of what English-language publishers translate. One plausible explanation for this is that too many British and American publishers view African literature through the prism of ethnology. And since their primary understanding of Africa comes from headlines about the continent’s troubles, it makes sense that novels exploring these subjects would attract their attention. Perhaps this is why writers such as the Congolese Wilfried N’Sondé or the Moroccan Fouad Laroui, whose work often addresses broad themes of love, friendship and betrayal, have never been translated into English.
Fortunately, the University of Nebraska Press has broken with this trend. It recently published In The United States of Africa, by the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, a novel that seems entirely concerned with the question of “what if?” What if Africa were the world’s locus of power? What if Europe and America were the third world? How would one perceive, think and speak about each continent? Which races and ethnicities would be described with specific and nuanced expressions – and which with vague and essentialist phrases?
In the novel’s opening section, Waberi introduces us to this alternate universe. He depicts Europe and America as continents where the rates of infant mortality and Aids infection are high, the people have been “subjected to ethnic and linguistic warfare for centuries”, the customs are “barbaric”, the mores are “deceitful and uncontrollable”, the languages are “dialects” or “white pidgins” that “God alone could decipher”, the names are “impossible”, and the art is “primitive”. The countries of Africa, by contrast, have unified under a single federal government with the Eritrean city of Asmara as its capital. There are no pandemics; the free-market economy benefits from a gas and oil boom; and Malian and Liberian astronauts fly missions to the moon. Most importantly, values of “solidarity, conviviality, and morality” prevail from north to south and east to west on this, “the first continent”.
Driven by war or famine, European refugees and immigrants wash up on “the cobalt-blue bay of Algiers”. The African government has been trying to stem the flow of arrivals without success. Specialists from the “Kenyatta School of European and American Studies” declare that Africa cannot accommodate all of the world’s poor, a position that is also widely held by mainstream newspapers. Waberi narrates this state of affairs in the first-person plural:
“Surely you are aware that our media have been digging up their most scornful, odious stereotypes again, which go back at least as far as Methusuleiman! Like, the new migrants propagate their soaring birth rates, their centuries-old soot, their lack of ambition, their ancestral machismo, their reactionary religions like Protestantism, Judaism, or Catholicism, their endemic diseases. In short, they are introducing the Third World right up the anus of the United States of Africa. The least scrupulous of our newspapers have abandoned all restraint for decades and fan the flames of fear of what has been called – hastily, to be sure – the ‘White Peril’.”
The effect is wonderfully satirical, especially because this alternate reality is rendered in the same dispassionate, commanding tone one is accustomed to getting in real life from so-called experts on Africa and the solutions to its woes. The fact that “we” are telling the story makes us feel complicit in it: there is no doubting the reality; we are the ones narrating it; we are the ones piously bemoaning our government’s harsh treatment of immigrants. It is one thing to admit that discourse is shaped by power; it is another (and far more disconcerting) to be forcefully immersed in a reversed discourse at every level for the length of an entire novel.
In alternating chapters, this time narrated in the second-person, Waberi tells the story of his protagonist, Malaika, a young French woman who was born in Normandy but adopted at a very young age by Docteur Papa, an Eritrean aid worker. Malaika – or Maya, as she is also called – lives a very sheltered life. She is raised in “the best of all possible families”, spends her time reading her father’s books or listening to her mother’s music, and travels with her parents throughout the continent. The only note of discord in this idyllic world occurs when Maya starts school and is confronted by the racism of her black classmates. “Foreign-face,” “Milk-face” and “Curd-face” are just a few of the epithets they sling at her.
Understandably, Maya retreats into her books and, later, her art. A budding sculptor, she moves to Ghana to attend the Accra Art School. Upon graduation, she returns home to find that her adoptive mother has fallen ill and that her father is in the throes of a deep depression. Again, she turns to her art, working on new pieces that quickly earn her wide critical acclaim. Soon after the death of her mother, she decides to travel to her homeland to find her biological mother. Maya doesn’t speak French, but brings along a tattered dictionary, with the assumption that it should suffice for her needs. After struggling with it for a few hours, she thinks:
“That’s enough for today. Is it really necessary to learn this damn language, mother tongue or not? A language without writing or permanent knowledge. A language deprived of glosses, analyses, manifestoes, councils, or seminars. A language without journals and, of course, without an Academy or a Pantheon. No wonder the least of our nurses can set up as an ethnopsychiatrist and contact forest spirits while juggling with their totems; that the lowliest academic can pass as an expert linguist in Indo-European languages. But enough already! You’ll have no problem finding a former immigrant to help you out. Titus will be happy to find an ex-garbage man from Bujumbura or an old mason who had a position in Bafoussam and still has a little stump of our international language in the back of his throat […] You can do without your mother’s dialect.”
That such reductionist views about the French language come from a character who is herself French only deepens the irony. If the French language were to be detached from its apparatus of power, as it has been for Maya, what stops her from thinking of it as nothing more than “a dialect”? The only way to look at language, culture or race, Waberi implies, is to start by questioning everything you have always assumed. The work that goes into such questioning is neither natural nor easy; one strength of this novel is that, rather than preaching at us to examine our mental habits, it simply has us do so in the natural course of engaging a novel.
Like Candide, Maya is an innocent youngster who will, in time, become disillusioned by the world around her. And like Voltaire, Waberi seems more concerned with ideas and themes rather than character and plot. Although Maya’s journey provides the novel its central dramatic thrust, it is difficult to become absorbed in it because it is periodically interrupted by the first-person plural chapters that describe the novel’s alternate universe. This narrative method has its advantages, however. It places Maya in a world that she cannot fully inhabit, a world that, in effect, “we” determine while she remains an Other, a “you” in her own story. The juxtaposition of these two perspectives – one that strongly includes the reader and one that strongly excludes the main character – reinforces the idea of a dominant African paradigm that Maya, as a European, has little chance of affecting.
In The United States of Africa is Waberi’s ninth book. A novelist, poet, essayist and short story writer, he was born in Djibouti in 1965, then moved to France in 1985 to study English language and literature at the University of Caen, in Normandy. He has lived in that city ever since, though he occasionally lectures abroad. His first book, a collection of short stories titled Le Pays Sans Ombre (The Land Without Shadows), was published in France in 1994 to wide critical acclaim and won him several prizes. Over the next 15 years, it was followed by two story collections, two essay collections, a collection of poetry, and two novels, Balbala and Transit.
Waberi is in a unique position among the young African writers of his generation. Unlike the Sudanese Leila Aboulela, the Senegalese Fatou Diome, the Cameroonian Patrice Nganang, or the Congolese Alain Mabanckou, all born after their countries’ independence, Waberi has lived in both the colonial and the postcolonial ages. Indeed, the small nation of Djibouti won self-rule from France in 1977, when Waberi was 12 years old. This experience seems to have given him a deep sensitivity to questions of culture and power.
In Le Pays Sans Ombre, for instance, he wrote about a country struggling to find its bearings in an age where the balance of power has shifted, though not enough to give its people a chance for real change. The Land Without Shadows was finally published in the United States four years ago, in a translation by Jeanne Garane. The collection’s characters include apathetic older men who spend their long afternoons chewing khat and drinking Coca-Cola, and energetic younger ones who attend the lycee but have nowhere to go afterwards, since the country does not yet have a university, much less any jobs to offer them. A sense of hopelessness permeates the book – the characters are unable to be agents of change in their own lives. Waberi’s narrative style varies greatly, from folktales to social criticism, from short vignettes to postmodern mysteries. There are abundant and eclectic literary quotations, which are included in the text either as subtle allusions or explicitly, as epigraphs.
Fifteen years separate The Land Without Shadows from In The United States of Africa. Their recent and proximate availability in English presents the reader with an interesting contrast and with some insight into Waberi’s growth. His concerns as a writer, his versatility, and his conciseness have remained unchanged, but his style has matured considerably. For instance, his prose is more fluid and his tone seems much more assured. In David and Nicole Ball’s lovely translation, his word choices remain as evocative in English as they were in the original French.
The world Waberi creates in his new novel may be entirely driven by the question of “what if”, but it has the natural and wonderful effect of making the reader re-examine what is. Waberi’s keen powers of empathy, his sharp wisdom and his beautiful prose make him one of the most exciting and original African writers working today.
Laila Lalami is the author, most recently, of Secret Son, a novel. She lives in Los Angeles.