Books

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Ryan Michael Williams

In David and Nicole Ball’s translation, Waberi’s prose reads as both riotously funny and lyrically lush, offering big laughs as well as multifaceted subtleties of expression.


In the United States of Africa

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
ISBN: 9780803222625
Contributors: David Ball, Nicole Ball, Percival Everett
Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
Price: $19.95
Length: 134
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2009-03
Amazon

In the alternate world of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s novel In the United States of Africa, Eritrea is a major financial center, and the space race was won by Madagascar. Desperate Caucasian refugees flee impoverished and war-torn states like Switzerland and Spain in the hope of finding new homes and better lives on the wealthy and culturally dominant African continent. Writing in French, Waberi—born in Djibouti, but a longtime resident of France—satirizes commonly-held assumptions about the global political and economic order by imagining what things might be like if Africa were to swap places with the West.

Readers looking for an anti-Western polemic won’t find one here—Waberi’s inverted world is just as much of a mess as the real one, and suffers from similar kinds of conflict and exploitation. The Holocaust still happened, and the world’s poor still struggle desperately to get by. For Waberi, power is power, and he does not imagine for a moment that an African-dominated global political system would be any more equitable than one led by the West.

All the same, Waberi’s outlook is far from grim. Throughout In The United States of Africa, he expresses a strong belief in the common humanity of everyone on Earth, and finds great hope in the power of art and storytelling to bridge divisions between nations, races, and classes. For Waberi, war and poverty are primarily matters of cultural misunderstanding, and might be altogether defeated if the powerful and powerless were better able to communicate with each other about their lives and stories.

Embodying this somewhat naïve hope is Malaïka, a young artist born in France, but adopted by a doctor in well-off Africa. In the United States of Africa follows the story of Malaïka’s African childhood and art school education, and then traces her journey to the impoverished and dangerous city of Paris on a quest to find her birth mother.

A child of both worlds, Malaïka serves Waberi primarily as a conduit for expressing thematic ideas about the cultural and political divide between Africa and the West. Although his discussions of her art and Parisian adventures are often compelling, Malaïka all the same never fully comes to life on the page.

But despite the fact that neither plot nor characters seem especially important to Waberi, his considerable ability as a stylist helps keep his novel consistently engaging. In David and Nicole Ball’s translation, Waberi’s prose reads as both riotously funny and lyrically lush, offering big laughs as well as multifaceted subtleties of expression.

Waberi revels in the plentiful opportunities for humor that his premise affords him. He often makes a sly joke in passing out of one of his adroit and imaginative cultural reversals: in his world, there’s an Arafat Peace Prize, and Miriam Makeba was the star of King Kong. His prose itself often indulges in a Rushdie-like playfulness, in which lighthearted verbal adventurousness combines with sharp observation to form winning punchlines.

Unlike Rushdie, Waberi also imbues his wordplay with a rich and sometimes startling sensuality. He treats the sex lives of his characters with frank eroticism, and often employs sexual metaphors in order to express other kinds of desire. He compares the lure of an open road to a seduction: “with bamboos, banyans…and crape myrtles from the West Indies swelling up on either side, this road is a siren lying on a bed of greenery. A terrible enchantress full of grace and cunning.”

Even a monument in need of restoration becomes embodied and eroticized as Waberi describes how Malaïka “admired its shapes and proportions” and went about “feeling and caressing it all over.” In another passage, Waberi delves into the horrors of sexual slavery with a frank and bracing profanity that effectively captures not only its fundamental ugliness, but also the sexual and economic allure it holds for its patrons and pimps.

The novel’s sensuality helps brings home its most compelling theme: the idea that while each human being is a unique, embodied individual, all humans are unified by the shared prospect of death. Waberi sees both political and personal exploitation as egregious violations of individual rights, and contends that exploitation of this sort would be far less likely to occur if the violators would only recognize the individuality, physical vulnerability, and common humanity of their victims. He opposes “domination” and “negation,” calling instead for, “Emulsion, fusion…Skin against skin, bodies in harmony.”

Ultimately, Waberi’s argument is not that power ought to be redistributed to Africa from the West, but instead that exploitation and violence will continue to plague the world as long as people fail to recognize their own fears and desires in the lives of others.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image