Read African Writers: In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman Waberi

united states of africadjiboutiIn 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.
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A simpler way to communicate learning results

I have a new paper with Fei Yuan on how to communicate learning results more accessibly than in standard deviations. Here’s the paper. Here’s a summary blog post.

Here are the abstract and title of the paper:

Equivalent Years of Schooling: A Metric to Communicate Learning Gains in Concrete Terms

Abstract: In the past decade, hundreds of impact evaluation studies have measured the learning outcomes of education interventions in developing countries. The impact magnitudes are often reported in terms of “standard deviations,” making them difficult to communicate to policy makers beyond education specialists. This paper proposes two approaches to demonstrate the effectiveness of learning interventions, one in “equivalent years of schooling” and another in the net present value of potential increased lifetime earnings. The results show that in a sample of low- and middle-income countries, one standard deviation gain in literacy skill is associated with between 4.7 and 6.8 additional years of schooling, depending on the estimation method. In other words, over the course of a business-as-usual school year, students learn between 0.15 and 0.21 standard deviation of literacy ability. Using that metric to translate the impact of interventions, a median structured pedagogy intervention increases learning by the equivalent of between 0.6 and 0.9 year of business-as-usual schooling. The results further show that even modest gains in standard deviations of learning — if sustained over time — may have sizeable impacts on individual earnings and poverty reduction, and that conversion into a non-education metric should help policy makers and non-specialists better understand the potential benefits of increased learning.

Read African Writers — The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib, by Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

Sea-MigrationssomaliaAsha Lul Mohamud Yusuf writes powerful, evocative poetry. She fled civil conflict in Somalia in 1990 and emigrated to the UK. In her brief collection (just 17 poems) — The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib, with the original Somali poems on the left and the English translations on the right, Yusuf traverses despair about Somalia’s ongoing conflicts, the importance of journalists, love, and — repeatedly — frustration with Somalia’s leaders and longing prayers for better representatives. Like much good poetry, much of what she writes both applies to Somalia’s challenges and transcends them. When she writes, in “The Writer’s Rights,” that

Journalists were jailed…
Injustice is infectious,
your children are not safe,
your elders are not safe,
they will wipe out your women.

I was reminded of German pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a socialist…”

In “Thirst,” when she writes of

This man we selected
to…serve as our ruler
turns out to be shoddy
with a squirming brain
and a slumbering conscience
who can’t refrain from causing shame.

I couldn’t help but think of other countries who have turned to boorish, embarrassing leaders in recent years. And, much more locally, when she writes in “The Scab” that “I’m not prepared to give you a poem which is a half-empty milk-vessel full of unsealable holes,” I remembered how I feel when people ask for early versions of my own writing.

Of course, translations — especially poetry translations — are an art of their own. Clare Pollard, a skilled poet in her own right, has translated these, with input from Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’. Her introductory essay on the translation process is fascinating in its own right, as is Sarah Maguire opening essay on how Yusuf fits into Somalia’s rich poetic tradition. Don’t miss the glossary at the end, either!

You can listen to both the original Somali and the English translation of one of the poems — “Disorientation” — read by Yusuf and Pollard here.

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:

Maria Castro Domínguez, Mslexia: “Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf´s poetry collection The Sea-Migrations Tahriib is an exhilirating exploration of Somalia, its culture, its nature, its politics and its people; all conjured by Asha´s shining language creatively translated with an update style by another brilliant poet, Clare Pollard,  which brings it much closer to the reader. The original poems and their translation sit side by side allowing us to capture form, space and sound –so essential to poetic meaning- all at once. Both poets make magic together.”

Momtaza Mehri, Poetry London: “The Sea-Migrations is a narratively fertile collection that confronts the silences of national traumas. In these poems, grief announces itself. Yusuf, however, is never exploitative or gratuitous in her depiction of the violence of refugee life. Her verses are imbued with an unswerving responsibility to honour the suffering of her people… The Sea-Migrations is a compelling addition to the growing canon of diasporic Somali voices as well as a powerful reminder that exile is something generations of refugees carry with them, whether they want to or not.” (There’s a lot of useful analysis in this review.)

Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Times: “Sometimes a book reminds us of poetry’s real electric force in the world.  Yusuf is a brilliant young Somali poet living in exile in London, who takes ‘history’s point/to ink a beautiful literature.’… Translated into lapel-grabbing alliterative verse by Clare Pollard, these piercingly direct poems throw open a window onto a war-torn country and its wretchedly displaced people.”

Carol Rumens, The Guardian: “Performance poetry often dies on the page. But the work of Somalian poet Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is an exception, strengthened by a highly craft-conscious, perhaps troubadour-like, oral culture. Though the rhetoric is impassioned and the diction down-to-earth, there are no simplistic politics lectures in her dual-language, Somali-English collection.”

Read African Writers: The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra

attackalgeriaDr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon. He is an Arab and a naturalized Israeli citizen. He and his wife live a happy, secular life. One day, he finds out that his wife has blown herself and a fast food restaurant filled with schoolchildren up in a suicide bomb attack. In Yasmin Khadra’s The Attack, Dr. Jaafari seeks answers both within himself and from members of Arab community in Israel. In the process, Khadra — originally from Algeria — shines a light on the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict. I found this book illuminating and often engaging. The pacing slowed in the middle, and occasionally I wished for a little less thinking and a little more action. But ultimately, the insights and an occasionally lovely turn of phrase — I “stare unwaveringly at the opalescent streaks gently lifting the horizon’s coattails” at sunrise — won me over. I enjoyed John Cullen’s English translation and Stefan Rudnicki’s narration of the audiobook.

Here are some passages that stood out to me:
  • On violence: “The only battle I believe in is the battle the surgeon fights, which consists in recreating life in the place where death has chosen to conduct its manoeuvres.”
  • On the motivations of terrorists: “I think even the most seasoned terrorists really have no idea what has happened to them. And it can happen to anyone. Something clicks somewhere in their subconscious, and they’re off. Their motives aren’t all equally solid, but generally, whatever it is, it comes over them like that… Either it falls on your head like a roof tile or it attaches itself to your insides like a tapeworm. Afterward, you no longer see the world the same way. You’ve got only one thing on your mind: the thing that has taken you over, body and soul.”
  • On God: “I couldn’t bring myself to accept the notion that God could incite his subjects to take up arms against one another and reduce the exercise of faith to an absurd and frightening question of power relationships.”
  • On dreams: “He who dreams too much forgets to live.”
Here are some other reviews:
  • The Complete Review: “The final truth, and all the consequences are fairly well handled, and the novel packs a decent punch by the end.” (The Complete Review also excerpts a number of other reviews.)
  • James Buchan, The Guardian: “With the exception of Dr Yehuda, Moulessehoul’s Jews are louts. His Arabs strike heroic poses. There is none of that peculiarity of place, person and history that you find in an Israeli Arab writer such as the late Emile Habiby.”
  • Janet Maslin, New York Times: “painfully acute observations of Arab-Israeli strife…  This book is also gripping and dynamic in ways that rivet the reader even when the thinking is didactic and the prose takes a purplish turn.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Khadra…turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this moving novel unlikely to satisfy partisans on either side of the issue.”
  • The New Yorker: “Khadra’s writing has a tendency toward cliché, but the book’s dark vision of the conflict is powerful.”
This is book #11 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: La Bastarda, by Trifonia Melibea Obono

bastardaequatorial guinea“Don’t forget that your mother is dead, your father is a scoundrel, and you’re a bastarda.” Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda is the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English. If that weren’t enough to get you to read it, how about knowing that it’s been banned in the author’s home country? And if you want more, how about that it’s good?! (And short, coming in at just over one hundred pages.)

Okomo’s mother died in childbirth, and she’s never met her father. This places her on the outskirts on her ethnic group, the Fang. Over the course of the book, she encounters other people at the margins, particularly the local, outcast gay community. When one character asks how she, as a lesbian, fits into Fang culture, an uncle tells her, “There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist.” Okomo’s journey takes her far beyond the borders of her village and explores what it means to carve out a place for yourself as an orphan and as a gay person in one African society. The prose is simple, appropriate to the adolescent narrator, and Lawrence Schimel’s translation into English is clear. Historian Abosede George has a nice afterword, putting the book into context.

You can read more about the book here, and you can read about the author here. You can read an excerpt here, but come on, the book is just 100 pages: Go ahead and read it already.

This is book #10 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Here are some notable passages:
  • On early marriage: “Dina is on the brink of old age—she is eighteen years old and has no husband!”
  • On the universal truth of parties: “That’s when I discovered the worst part of parties: cleaning up.”
  • On non-sexual intimacy: “We spent some time in silence, letting our bodies talk.”
  • How not to open a letter asking your daughter for money: “Daughter, Your marriage is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your whole life.”
  • On a traditional healer: “After bankrupting her, the curandera sent her to the hospital.”
  • On youth: “Your opinion doesn’t count; your elders are always right.”
  • On the metal ceiling: In that makeshift town, I discovered that the better-paying jobs were all held by men. Women were limited to cleaning and cooking. And also: prostitution.”
Here is what other people thought of the book:
  • Publishers Weekly: “Slim yet undeniably potent… Obono’s voice is assured and vital, and her tale of queer rebellion in Fang society is an exceptional take on the coming-of-age novel.”
  • Karina Szczurek, Africa in Words: “Obono’s writing itself is an act of inspiration and should be celebrated as such. Her narrator tells the story in a fresh, mesmerising voice. Its haunting quality adds to the irresistibility of this slim book and its considerable impact.”
  • Silvia Cruz Lapeña, Altair: “Escuchar la voz de una ecuatoguineana lesbiana es el principal valor de La bastarda porque entre los suyos, los fang, entorno del que procede la autora, ni siquiera hay una palabra para referirse a ellas… Otra de las fuerzas de esta novela radica en que se carga en pocas páginas la imagen de mujer sumisa que se da de las africanas.”

Read African Writers: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami

hopemoroccoWe open on an inflatable boat, making the dangerous crossing from Morocco to Spain. Dozens of migrants are aboard, but we are introduced to just four: Murad, a college graduate who majored in English, Faten, who flunked out of school; Aziz, a married man; and Halima, who has brought her two children. The boat capsizes and the passengers must swim to shore.

Laila Lalami’s collection — Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits — then flashes back, with a chapter on what led each of these four to make the perilous journey; and then forward, with a chapter on what happened to each after the attempted migration. Some made it safely to Spain; some got sent back to Morocco. But in whichever locale, Lalami draws engaging, sympathetic characters and humanizes their motivations for migrating. Most central is the desire to work: “He knew, in his heart, that if only he could get a job, he would make it, he would be successful.” The fantasy isn’t just for money, but for purpose: “Aziz imagined that maybe one day he would be like them, have a car and a place to go to, instead of sitting idle at a coffee shop while his wife was at work.” I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Highly recommended, particularly in this time when refugees and migrants are at the center of many nation’s policy debates.

Here are some lines that I enjoyed:
  • On patience: “Halima wondered whether all the Lord ever wanted from His people was patience. Hadn’t she suffered long enough? She was sure that the Lord also wanted His people to be happy, but she couldn’t come up with a stock expression as a retort, the way her mother always did.”
  • On having a child veer toward fundamentalism: “What if he lost her to this … this blindness that she thought was sight?”
  • On economics: “What happened to your plans to study economics? … Look, you’ll be of more help [to your country] as an economist than as a schoolteacher.”
  • On the uncertain returns to adult literacy classes: “So far, the only use she had gotten out of the classes was that she could now read the rolling credits at the end of the soap operas she watched every night.”
  • On loving Western culture: “We’re so blinded by our love for the West that we’re willing to give them our brightest instead of keeping them here where we need them.”
  • On money: “That was the thing with money. It gave you choices.”

Here are some other reviews:

  • Joey Rubin, Bookslut: “Hope is not a tale of desperate immigration, nor of destructive encroachment. It is a tale of human potential; a story about the desire for improvement, and the difficulties inherent in the pursuit of such a dream — whether that dream be American, Moroccan, or just plain human.  However, we are lucky in this case it is Moroccan; it is a landscape Lalami knows quite well.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Less a novel than a set of finely detailed portraits, this book gives outsiders a glimpse of some of Moroccan society’s strata and the desperation that underlies many ordinary lives.“
  • Kirkus Reviews: “As her characters debate hot-button issues—How much Western culture is too much? Should women wear headscarves?—their individual points of view are presented so evenhandedly that readers are left to wonder which of these opinions are actually held by the Moroccan-born writer, who now lives in Oregon.”
  • Alan Cheuse, NPR: “This all works because the force of the subject matter carries the day.”
This is book #9 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.