Alright, hands up. Who read the title as In the United States of America first time round? I know I did. It’s only a few letters’ difference, but, as I discovered with this book, that’s all a talented writer needs to turn the world on its head.
Djiboutian-French author Abdourahman A. Waberi reverses reality in this French Voices Award-winning novel. Africa is the world superpower, and while its Silicon valley and cultural hubs boom it must find a solution to the ills of the ‘coconut-skinned’ Caucasians, ‘who are not people like you and me’ and who immigrate to the continent in their droves escaping war, famine and disease in holocaust-ravaged Europe and the badlands of North America.
Switching between the experience of one such refugee and the story of an adopted white girl, Malaika, who, having grown up in the first-world Eritrean capital Asmara, sets out to salve her conscience and ‘desire to conjugate near and far’ by travelling to look for her birth-mother in the Paris slums, the novel challenges you to look at the world afresh, highlighting the flaws and inconsistencies in even the most innocent-seeming preconceptions.
There’s a lot of scope for comedy. I couldn’t stop laughing as I read about ‘the pagans of the Baltic islands (who practised cannibalism)’ , ‘the clownsuit called Switzerland… subjected to ethnic and linguistic warfare for centuries’ and the ‘Arafat Peace Prize’. The extract from the phrasebook that Malaika takes with her to France, with its footnotes lamenting the illogic and inelegance of the French language, is priceless. Even the introduction of the unfortunate Swiss refugee on the first page made me smile at its cultural arrogance – all too familiar the other way around:
‘Let’s call him Yacuba, first to protect his identity and second because he has an impossible family name’.
The humour is of course only the outriding breeze of a gale of indignation and righteous anger about the skewed perspective that the ‘developed’ world has on its neighbours. Rehearsing commonplace arguments and platitudes in reverse, the narrative voice highlights the cruelty hidden in complacency and self-satisfaction, mining government speak, journalese and interior monologues to reveal the hypocrisy that runs through our dealings with the world.
Often, Waberi achieves his effects by tweaking existing texts and using facts in reverse. His description of the United States of Africa as ‘so insular and so intoxicated with itself [that] hardly 14 per cent of its citizens have a passport’, for example, echoes familiar statements about another USA and packs extra punch by being close to the truth – although for quite other reasons.
This mingling of fact and fiction made me glad that I had not stuck to my intention of reading French texts in their original language. I would definitely have struggled with this one.
As it was, I found my lack of knowledge of African geography and culture meant that there were plenty of references (alongside the hundreds of nods to European and North American culture and politics) that passed me by. I’m not generally a fan of reading extraneous information in footnotes, believing that books should be accessible on some level to anyone who picks them up as they are, but I did feel that I would have benefited from more world knowledge with this one.
What I did get, though, was fascinating and challenging. And I felt somewhat vindicated in my efforts by the ‘solution’ that blinkered, partial Malaika fumbles her way towards at the end, while recognising the patronising, Afrocentric terms in which it is couched (and in which such statements are commonly framed the other way about):
‘translate… all the great literature of the world into French, English, German, Flemish or Italian. And you must insist that the children of Europe discover not only the Bible and the Torah, but the jewels of all civilizations, near as well as far. If narratives can bloom again, if languages, words, and stories can circulate again, if people can learn to identify with characters from beyond their borders, it will assuredly be a first step towards peace.’
I can’t argue with that.
In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi (translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball). Publisher (this edition): University of Nebraska Press (2009)