This post originally appeared on Three Percent.
Abdourahman A. Waberi writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa, what many people in third world countries dream of—that they were born into the richest country in the world and had every advantage that Americans have. What is so captivating about this novel is its commitment to this idea, to realizing this dream in an imagined world,to re-imagining the context of race and politics. Immediately, the reader is struck by that concept—what would it be like if Africa were America and the United States and Europe were third world countries where the whiteness of your skin was a disadvantage, a mark of poverty and prejudice. To enrich this conceit, Waberi adds two characters,Yacuba and Maya. These two characters do not know each other or interact, but react to each others appearance according to their own backgrounds. Yacuba, a poor carpenter from the bowels of Europe,emigrates to Africa in search of a better life. Yacuba’s life does not improve; in fact, it hovers in the same misery and becomes even more miserable as he is opened up to the constant prejudices that he sees propagated against himself and his people daily in real life and in the media.
But most of the novel is told through the eyes of Maya,or at least, through the mind of Maya. Waberi chooses a removed second person, as if someone is telling Maya her history, her movements and her thoughts:
Ever since your mother’s illness,everything—your body and your mind, your dreams and your feelings—have been focused on death. You examine every sin, Maya, every word, every particle of darkness, every rumor you hear on the radio. Just yesterday, your were struck by a detail in a popular song written by our great lyric songwriter, the illustrious Robert Marley.
Maya,adopted when she was little by African doctor, is white and privileged.She never realized the color of her skin would be a problem until she went to school and other children made fun of her. Feeling out of place with the world she lives in, she goes in search of her mother. This leads her to the underbelly of France, ripe with the grit and grime of poverty and hopelessness. Maya (her real name is Malaika) encounters head on her prejudices but also the contrast of the color of her skin with her background.
Already the theater of your journey is set up in this corner of France. You have a solid advantage, Maya. As you very well know, you have the local color. As long as you don’t open your mouth, nobody can suspect your foreign status, the source of many privileges. You usually keep quiet or else you express yourself in elementary French, as correct as possible. You try to erase your accent, which sounds like it comes from far away, as it wasn’t easy to find a professor to teach you the rudiments of this language—your parents insisted you learn it, if only because of your personal history.
Subtle as this point is, it reverberates—imagine that your culture, your language, your customs were slowly and quickly dismissed because your country’s financial status didn’t have an impact on global economy. Who you are as an individual is wrapped up in the disregard of rich countries and their motivations. Waberi attempts to deliver this message with alternating turns of humor and emotion, leaving us to wonder what our roles are in all of this.
Equally impressive to the goal of this novel, is Waberi’s sense and use of language. He is lyrical and direct, both earthy and ethereal. In his language you sense the rugged landscape of his native Djibouti but also the fantastical lightness of its traditions. All this is served so well by the deft translation of David and Nicole Ball.
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 Best Translated Book Award longlist.