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.
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.
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