Friday, November 11, 2011

Book 81, Djibouti: "In the United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi

And it’s my last book from East Africa! Was originally gonna do Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti, which would’ve been terribly informative about the contemporary culture and politics of the coastal nation; the book I’ve chosen is by an actual Djiboutian and tells me nothing at all.

You see, it’s set in an alternate reality where Africa, rather than the USA/European Union, is the dominant world power; where the West and Japan are lands of starving wartorn barbarians while fatcat consumerist Africans gorge themselves on Hadji Das ice cream and Haile Wade movies.

Plus, barely any of the tale takes place in Djibouti itself – the heroine’s an orphaned white girl called Malaika (née Marianne), adopted by an Eritrean doctor, growing up in the wealthy metropolis of Asmara. Shades of Hannah Pool, huh? There’s even a chapter where Malaika flies to backward, fly-infested France in search of her birth mother.

No idea why some critics call the book “hopeful”, because it's basically a dystopia: even with black and white roles reversed, the world is as exploitative and evil as ever. There's no glowing future presented, not even a sense of homecoming - instead, Malaika retches into the filthy waters of the Seine and absolves her guilt over the whole thing by stuffing her broken-toothed guide into a globalization-doctrine-themed university.

But, as said critics note, it's rare find such humour and satire in African lit. Waberi (and many Francophone African writers) eschew the realist, information-imparting agenda that Anglophone readers adore because they want to learn something about that distant impoverished region. Instead, he's grabbing every chance to show off his erudition, creating a vast mindscape of this new cultural world where there are bustling stock markets on Lumumba Street, where Robert Marley is revered as an established lyric poet, where human rights activists receive the Arafat Peace Prize and writers receive the Sisulu Award and Miriam Makeba is mauled by a giant gorilla in the movie King Kong. (There's a Maryse Condé Bookstore, too!)

Mind you, this isn't all about the workable alternate history: there's no rough what-if timeline presented as in Orson Scott Card's The Redemption of Christopher Columbus or Wong Hoy Cheong's Re:Looking. There's some reference to the imperial powers of Makonnen (an Ethiopian Emperor, surely) and the voyage of Mansa Musa, not to mention the devastation of the Nazi holocaust in Europe. But a clear timeline? Not there; it's all about the concept.

And you know what? It's fun. Waberi's playing such crazy mental gymnastics that he forces you to join in: you realise how hard it is to remember that Malaika is white and her well-to-do parents are black and that her impoverished wrinkled birth mother Célestine is white etc; it's hard to picture grungy France and Helvetian refugees wandering the streets of Tadjoura; we've a double-take when we think about the politics of penniless Eastern European waifs becoming sought-after prostitutes in Alexandria, partly because it's imaginable even in our world.

Of course all this subversion comes from Waberi's anger about the clichés of Africanness; save-the-world aid programs and starving children and wars. But how self-aware is he about the problematics of this reversal? But this is a pretty good way to round off the continent for the time being: a manic howl, twisting its received images into knots.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
Some of them cut and run, wander around, get exhausted, and then brusquely give up, until they are sucked into the void. Prostitutes of every sex, Monte Carlians or Vaticanians but others too, wash up on the Djerba beaches and the cobalt-blue bay of Algiers. These poor devils are looking for the bread, rice, or flour distributed by Afghan, Haitian, Laotian, or Sahelian aid organizations. Ever since our world has been what it is, little French, Spanish, Batavian, or Luxembourgian schoolchildren, hit hard by kwashiorkor, leprosy, glaucoma, and poliomyelitis, survive only with food surpluses from Vietnamese, North Korean, or Ethiopian farmers.
These warlike tribes with their barbaric customs and deceitful, uncontrollable moves keep raiding the scorched lands of the Auvergne, Tuscany or Flanders, when they're not shedding the blood of their atavistic enemies - Teutons, Gascons or backward Iberians - for the slightest little thing, for rifles or trifles because they recognize a prisoner or because they don't. They're all waiting for a peace that has yet to come.

Next book: Nujood Ali's I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, from Yemen.

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