This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)
for miniature republic
The Djibouti writer Abdourahman Waberi’s name will be familiar to BTBA followers for his novel Transit, short-listed in 2013. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper is Waberi’s first collection of poetry and there is a palpable sense of urgency to these lean poems. Size, of course, is not a reliable indicator of impact or import. Waberi sees his small native land as part of the cradle of mankind, of homo erectus, to be exact. Here, humans first stood, first put one foot in front of the other, joining gesture, movement and breath into a kind of freedom. And it is that instant, that conjunction, that inspires Waberi to imagine man making “that first gesture in the bed of [his] pages.”
Writing poems, for Waberi, is “a matter of strictest necessity.” He sows these “modest pebbles” in readers’ paths, not to guide them—Waberi is suggestive, not prescriptive—but as markers to use in charting their own way to a meaningful life free from the tides of economic, financial, ecological, and spiritual excess that are washing over the world. “Another path of life is possible, apparent in the creases and folds of this collection.”
These spare poems are laconic but evocative, conjuring up desert landscapes, a nomadic tribe, or his small country’s struggles with civil war and extremism. He sees the wind as a calligrapher, covering the dunes with words.
brush in hand the wind sketches
landscapes of words
sculpted mountain slopes
This is a landscape that has witnessed much suffering, great and small. The Somali bullet,
. . . bloom of a new genus
all transports of joy
all shedding of tears in the name of love
drawn from the bittersweet milk of peace
is countered by a lame herdsman who laments
with my skinny legs
I’ve crossed vast desert sands
with my short strides
I’ve kept up with my camels’ pace
so why should I care
if my shrew of a wife slanders my name!
Unsparing in their frankness, Waberi’s poems are also finely attuned to the beauties and joys in a harsh landscape of “tortured geology” and happy simplicity. Waberi enjoins us to “let nomadic words live” for they, as much as any others, can open up new worlds and lead us to “the tree of knowledge [which] has wings to surpass the horizon.”
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball, and published by Indiana University Press.
Since I love The United States of Africa, I chose to write up this one.
1. This is the most political book on the longlist. (Of the ones I read at least.) The frame story of Transit takes in the Paris airport in the early 2000s, as two immigrants from Djibouti are entering the country. One, Bashir, is a recently discharged soldier, the other, Harbi, has been arrested as a political suspect. In a series of flashbacks, the reader learns about a shitton of horrors about life in Djibouti and the never-ending series of conflicts taking place between the government and the rebels. David and Nicole Ball’s introduction puts this into context:
Transit is as fresh and relevant today as when it first appeared in France in 2003. This is a terrible—and wonderful—thing to say.
Terrible, because its picture of an impoverished country ravaged by war and repression is still the reality of life in Djibouti, that little country squeezed between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea at the edge of the Horn of Africa. The drought that devastated these countries was not the only cause of the famine that reached catastrophic proportions in 2011; it merely aggravated the conditions we see through the eyes of the characters of Transit, even if those characters were created nearly a decade ago. Terrible, too, because its portrayal of their desperate attempt to flee the country is still relevant today—and not only in Djibouti.
2. Because, Djibouti. Such a fun word to say. And a place that most people couldn’t find on a map. But it’s home to one of the most interesting contemporary authors in Waberi, whose other books—The United States of Africa and Passage of Tears—are also worth reading.
3. African literature is some of the most underrepresented in English. How many translations of Sub-Saharan African writers do you think were published in English last year? Three. That’s it. Three. There were more books from Iceland—a country of 300,000 people—published in English last year than this. That’s fucked. If we’re going to view literature in translation as a way of learning about the rest of the world, we need to translate—and promote—more books from places like Africa.
4. Indiana University Press deserves some props. Honestly, I had no idea that Indiana University Press published fiction before finding out about this book. Nor did I have any idea that Dominic Thomas was editing a “Global African Voices” series for them that includes not just Waberi, but Alain Mabanckou, another personal favorite. And since the Hoosiers shit the bed in the tournament this year—wrecking my bracket in the process—I think the school needs this win as a salve for their self-esteem.
5. Bashir’s voices must’ve been incredibly hard to capture. Just check this out:
I’m in Paris, warya—pretty good, huh? OK it’s not really Paris yet but Roissy. That the name of the airoport. This airoport got two names, Roissy and Charles de Gaulle. In Djibouti it got just one name, Ambouli, an I swear on the head of my departed family, it’s much-much tinier. OK, this trip here, everything went all right. I gobbled the good food of Air France. Went direct to the war film before I fell into heavy sleep. I was stocked, no I mean scotched—taped—in the last row of the Boeing 747 where the cops tie the deportees up tight when the plane goes back to Africa. That’s true, that the way they do it.
David and Nicole deserve the award for the deft way in which they handled this throughout the book.
For all those reasons, Transit deserves to win.
The January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders is now available, and has a number of really interesting pieces. This issue’s theme is “The Work Force,” which is elaborated on in the little intro to the issue:
Whether loathed or loved, work provides both livelihood and identity; and in times of economic depression and shrinking labor markets, jobs assume even greater importance, determining both personal and political stability. Whether reinventing themselves in a new economy or sticking it out in an old one, the characters here demonstrate the variety of the international work force.
Here’s a list of the pieces that most caught my eye:
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—“report to the occupational reclassification department,” which wouldn’t reclassify many people. (I’m writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we’re talking about businesses—their holy name, “business“— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else’s general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
(Translated from the French by Alison Dundy and by Emmanuelle Ertel)
The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.
Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.
(Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee)
The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.
Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.
I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.
So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.
(Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball)
At nine a.m. the few people standing around on the subway platform are watching the news on the screens provided by the Barcelona Channel. The trains comply scrupulously with the minimum-service laws. They are running half-empty and many seats are unoccupied, which would be unthinkable at this time of day any other day, when occupancy approaches that of sardines in a can.
In front of the Goya Theater, at the top of Joaquín Costa, there are fewer whores than usual. Perhaps in keeping with the minimum-service notice. The overwhelming majority of shops are closed: from supermarkets to cosmetics stores, including bakeries and auto-repair shops. On Sepúlveda a charcuterie uses the old ploy of keeping the metal gates half-open, so that if a client shows up they can serve him, but if a picketer shows up they appear to be closed. In contrast, the local bar is open, which even the strikers are grateful for. “You’re very brave,” one of them says to the owner of the establishment, as he drinks his beer. “It’s not about bravery. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” On the sidewalks lie piles of uncollected garbage in enormous black bags, some of them split open. A beggar pisses on one of them, and when he’s finished he lies back down on his piece of cardboard.
(Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman)
As always, it’s worth checking out the whole issue . . . including the so-so review of Zone.
Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. She’s going to be helping out this week with a couple other posts so that we can be sure to cover all 25 books before 2/16’s announcement of the finalists . . .
Abdourahman A. Waberi writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa, what many people in third world countries dream of—that they were born into the richest country in the world and had every advantage that Americans have. What is so captivating about this novel is its commitment to this idea, to realizing this dream in an imagined world, to reimagining the context of race and politics. Immediately, the reader is struck by that concept—what would it be like if Africa were America and the United States and Europe were third world countries where the whiteness of your skin was a disadvantage, a mark of poverty and prejudice. To enrich this conceit, Waberi adds two characters, Yacuba and Maya. These two characters do not know each other or interact, but react to each other’s appearance according to their own backgrounds. Yacuba, a poor carpenter from the bowels of Europe, emigrates to Africa in search of a better life. Yacuba’s life does not improve; in fact, it hovers in the same misery and becomes even more miserable as he is opened up to the constant prejudices that he sees propagated against himself and his people daily in real life and in the media.
But most of the novel is told through the eyes of Maya, or at least, through the mind of Maya. Waberi chooses a removed second person, as if someone is telling Maya her history, her movements and her thoughts:
Ever since your mother’s illness, everything—your body and your mind, your dreams and your feelings—have been focused on death. You examine every sin, Maya, every word, every particle of darkness, every rumor you hear on the radio. Just yesterday, your were struck by a detail in a popular song written by our great lyric songwriter, the illustrious Robert Marley.
Maya, adopted when she was little by African doctor, is white and privileged. She never realized the color of her skin would be a problem until she went to school and other children made fun of her. Feeling out of place with the world she lives in, she goes in search of her mother. This leads her to the underbelly of France, ripe with the grit and grime of poverty and hopelessness. Maya (her real name is Malaika) encounters head on her prejudices but also the contrast of the color of her skin with her background.
Already the theater of your journey is set up in this corner of France. You have a solid advantage, Maya. As you very well know, you have the local color. As long as you don’t open your mouth, nobody can suspect your foreign status, the source of many privileges. You usually keep quiet or else you express yourself in elementary French, as correct as possible. You try to erase your accent, which sounds like it comes from far away, as it wasn’t easy to find a professor to teach you the rudiments of this language—your parents insisted you learn it, if only because of your personal history.
Subtle as this point is, it reverberates—imagine that your culture, your language, your customs were slowly and quickly dismissed because your country’s financial status didn’t have an impact on global economy. Who you are as an individual is wrapped up in the disregard of rich countries and their motivations. Waberi attempts to deliver this message with alternating turns of humor and emotion, leaving us to wonder what our roles are in all of this.
Equally impressive to the goal of this novel, is Waberi’s sense and use of language. He is lyrical and direct, both earthy and ethereal. In his language you sense the rugged landscape of his native Djibouti but also the fantastical lightness of its traditions. All this is served so well by the deft translation of David and Nicole Ball.
This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.
The new issue of Bookforum is now available online, and, as always, has some interesting pieces about some interesting works of international literature, including:
Of course, there are many more good articles in this new issue worth checking out, all of which are available here.
(And just to note—links from the titles above go to Harvard Book Store’s online ordering system. Unfortunately a few of the titles aren’t currently in stock, but I’m sure they can get the book pretty quickly . . .)
Our latest review is of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa.
It’s a pretty interesting and strange book. Here’s the opening of my review:
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!” [click here for the rest.]
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