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.
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