In Abdourahman Waberi’s novel, In the United States of Africa, the Djibouti-born and US-based writer hypothesizes a world where Africa is the wealthiest continent, with Europe and North America struggling with poverty and conflict. This upending of the current world order reminds this U.S. reader of just how much of his life is the product of historical chance, as the narrator observes that
Today even more than yesterday, our African lands attract all kinds of people crushed by poverty: trollops with their feet powdered by the dust of exodus; opponents of their regimes with a ruined conscience; mangy kids with pulmonary diseases; bony, shriveled old people. People thrown into the ordeal of wandering the stony paths of exile. People facing their own filth, all cracked inside, a crown of nettles in place of a brain.
Or, when a character dares to visit the dangerous land of France, she sees — outside her hotel — “little blonde girls in want of customers offer up their thighs of orphaned sirens to the caresses of the wind.” In another chapter, from the perspective of the Europeans
Us, wanting and desiring, and begging to drink, eat, be nourished, live, urinate, defecate, belch, and even bathe in the blood of the industrial slaughterhouses of fat Africa, devoted to fitness and facelifts.
Besides this weighty content, the Waberi winks at us from time to time with familiar names, adapted to their African parallels: McDiops for fast food, Sarr Mbock’s for coffee, Hadji Daas for ice cream, and Haile Wade for movie productions.
This is all good. What I wished for was more plot, more action. The book is written as a series of letters, mostly to a young woman, Maya, born in France but adopted by Africans and rescued from her life of poverty. But not much actually happens, besides a visit to her hometown to find her birth mother towards the very end. So despite being just 123 pages, the limited movement made it more of an effort for me to get through. But I’m glad I read it. The translators from the French, David and Nicole Ball, employ a rich vocabulary that had me scurrying delightedly to my dictionary every few pages.
A few passages that stood out to me:
On travel writers: “You’re neither a tourist nor an ethnologist, still less one of those so-called travel writers who traipse all over the planet in search of utopias, heavenly oases, and stories to steal.”
On sculpture: “Of all the plastic arts, sculpture is the one that goes furthest in the imitation of divine creation. At the beginning was the emotion embodied in the clay.”
On uselessness: “As useless as the king in an incomplete deck of cards”
What other reviewers had to say:
M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review: “Waberi’s ‘United States of Africa’ makes for a marvelous and highly entertaining — and thought-provoking — backdrop, but the narrative itself is less sure-footed… If not an entirely successful work of fiction, the short In the United States of Africa is nevertheless well worth reading.”
Sofia Samatar, Islam and Science Fiction: “There’s a certain amount of glee in this reversal of stereotypes, but the novel is more than just an extended joke. It is, itself, a mirror. In its pages, a reader of any background will see herself or himself reflected in the body of the other.”
Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Journal of the African Literature Association: “Abourahman’s…masterpiece is undoubtedly In the United States of Africa.
Ryan Michael Williams, PopMatters: “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.”
The African Book Review: “Brilliant and short yet written with an elegant simplicity that belies great depth, it’s a novel aimed for the critical thinker in all of us.”
Publishers Weekly: “Waberi manages to convince of the power of art and love to heal very real rifts.”
Three Percent: “This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.”
This is book #13 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.