In the United States of Africa
As Percival Everett states in his introduction, Djibouti author Abdourahman Waberi’s first novel to be translated into English is particularly interesting for the way in usurps not just our expectations, but much of what we have come to believe constitutes a novel:
This is where In the United States of Africa Waberi has inverted the globe and has managed as well to turn over the writing. By this act of inversion he has allowed us to see the absurdity of any kind of oriented globe. This novel holds a mirror up to the planet and questions the direction of spin, whether gravity is a pulling or pushing force, whether upside-down writing is even writing at all. (From the Introduction)
Although it gets much more complex as the novel advances, the primary reversal—exchanging the industrial-financial history and prejudices of Africa and the rest of the world—is a simple conceit to cotton onto and one that Waberi has a lot of fun with. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Yacuba, a “flea-ridden Germanic or Alemanic carpenter” who has fled AIDS-ridden, poverty-stricken Europe in hopes of a better life in the much wealthier and cleaner United States of Africa. Through Yacuba we’re introduced to a world where Quebec is at war with the American Midwest, where the “white trash” of Europe speak an undecipherable “white pidgin dialect,” and where the African media fans the flames of intolerance:
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 rate, 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.” Isn’t form, after all, the very flesh of thought, to paraphrase the great Sahelian writer Naguib Wolegorzee? Thus, a popular daily in Ndjamena, Bilad el Sudan, periodically goest back to its favorite headline: “Back Across the Mediterranean, Clodhoppers!” From Tripoli, El Ard, owned by the magnate Hannibal Cabral, shouts “Go Johnny, Go!” Which the Lagos Herald echoes with an ultimatum: “White Trash, Back Home!” More laconic is the Messager des Seychelles in two English words: “Apocalypse Now!”
This concept—Africa is the center of the world, not the U.S.!—is fun to play with, and great for exposing societies most awful prejudices (the letter at the end of Part One from an exile trying to reach the shores of “fat, well-fed Africa” is a good example), but is probably too thin to carry a whole novel.
Which is fine, because Waberi doesn’t rest here. Instead of focusing on the plight of a dirty European, the protagonist of his novel is Maya, an adopted white girl who seeks out her birth mother. So, in a series of intricate reversals, we have a white character set inside a world dominated by blacks, who ventures into the dark heart of France to claw through the grime to find her real mother (and to face some of her prejudices as a privileged African) instead of taking care of the mother who is ill.
In and of itself, the story is compelling enough, and Waberi’s impressionistic writing quite captivating. (And by extension, David and Nicole Ball’s translation is both readable and textured, and gracefully swings between Waberi’s more outrageous and comic bits, to his more poetic and serious sections.) But there is something strange, almost off-putting about the way the story is related that seems to go back to Everett’s initial observation about Waberi’s inversion and his questioning “whether upside-down writing is even writing at all.”
It’s almost as if In the United States of Africa is written as an inversion of many accepted novelistic conceits. In contrast to a conventional novel that might introduce a unique world through the eyes of the protagonist, Waberi intersperses objectively narrated chapters about the history of Africa’s dominance over the despicable Caucasians with more obfuscated chapters about Maya’s life and her dying mother told in the second person, a technique that, in Waberi’s prose, makes Maya feel more foreign, more removed from the reader. The narrative arc seems to loop rather than follow a traditional triangle of rising and falling action. (Even the titles of the four parts hint at something circular, or at least nicely paired: “A Voyage to Asmara, the Federal Capital,” “A Voyage to the Heart of the Studio,” “A Voyage to Paris, France,” and “Return to Asmara.”)
In the United States of Africa is not a simple book. It’s not a fun-filled romp in an imagined world turned on its head. It is a very accomplished novel though, one that definitely deserves to be part of the “French Voices” series, and that the University of Nebraska should be admired for bringing out.