Friday, June 12, 2009

Novel novel

Biting satire from a new novel by Abdourahman Waberi.

The United States of Africa, by the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi is a novel that seems entirely concerned with the question of “what if?” What if Africa were the world’s locus of power? What if Europe and America were the third world? How would one perceive, think and speak about each continent? Which races and ethnicities would be described with specific and nuanced expressions – and which with vague and essentialist phrases?
In the novel’s opening section, Waberi introduces us to this alternate universe. He depicts Europe and America as continents where the rates of infant mortality and Aids infection are high, the people have been “subjected to ethnic and linguistic warfare for centuries”, the customs are “barbaric”, the mores are “deceitful and uncontrollable”, the languages are “dialects” or “white pidgins” that “God alone could decipher”, the names are “impossible”, and the art is “primitive”. The countries of Africa, by contrast, have unified under a single federal government with the Eritrean city of Asmara as its capital. There are no pandemics; the free-market economy benefits from a gas and oil boom; and Malian and Liberian astronauts fly missions to the moon. Most importantly, values of “solidarity, conviviality, and morality” prevail from north to south and east to west on this, “the first continent”. Driven by war or famine, European refugees and immigrants wash up on “the cobalt-blue bay of Algiers”. The African government has been trying to stem the flow of arrivals without success. Specialists from the “Kenyatta School of European and American Studies” declare that Africa cannot accommodate all of the world’s poor, a position that is also widely held by mainstream newspapers. Waberi narrates this state of affairs in the first-person plural:
“Surely you are aware that our media have been digging up their most scornful, odious stereotypes again, which go back at least as far as Methusuleiman! Like, the new migrants propagate their soaring birth rates, their centuries-old soot, their lack of ambition, their ancestral machismo, their reactionary religions like Protestantism, Judaism, or Catholicism, their endemic diseases. In short, they are introducing the Third World right up the anus of the United States of Africa. The least scrupulous of our newspapers have abandoned all restraint for decades and fan the flames of fear of what has been called – hastily, to be sure – the ‘White Peril’.” (via)

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