The United States of AFRICA

But contrary to the saying “Happiness is in your own backyard,” so popular and so untrue, it wasn’t—not over there, anyway. Pg.57

The United States of Africa is a deeply satiric that imagines an alternative history in which African states occupy the role of Western nations today and Western nations find themselves in the so-called ‘third world’ space, strained by its constant problems; immigration, diseases, foreign aid tinged with ulterior motives, and more.

In the world imagined between the short chapters that present themselves as news reports from different areas of the world, AIDS first appeared in Greece and ravishes the Caucasian ethnic groups: Norwegian, Belgian, Hungarian, British, Swedish, etc. A refugee fleeing ethnic violence in Zurich is treated by Gambian nurses in Banjul with the same aura of fascination, exoticism one would approach a wild animal, reminiscent of the way North African refuges arriving on Western shores are approached today.

Waberi uses actual text sources, real people and real ideologies to weave a masterful narrative. Wole Soyinka, Achebe and Wa Thiongo become globally revered heroes. And ‘birdbrained’ kids demonstrate outside of McDiops and Sarr Mbock, chanting “End African domination” and decrying the restaurants genetically modified foods which the rag pickers of Vancouver and Convicts of Melbourne are grateful to gulp down.

Despite this world being one that could have very well, in different circumstances, occurred, what emerges out of Waberi’s re-imagination is a world exactly like the one we currently occupy. Full of politics and chasms of inequality, where the rich run over the poor and create laws that protect themselves. It’s still a world dictated by skin color and origin, one where labels and stereotypes attach themselves to people with a vise-like grip determined to strip them of their humanity. And governing African bodies meet frequently to determine what to do about the world resources when they, like western nations today, have implicit roles in depleting those resources and cheating the people who directly need them out of it. Waberi seems to suggest that even if the world were different, even if African nations collectively won a series of attacks that forever altered the course of their histories, the world would possibly remain the same.

Yet amidst this furor emerges Malaika, a young girl adopted by an African doctor on a humanitarian mission to France. Now grown up as an artist, Malaika travels to the land of her birth in hopes of finding her mother—and herself. And through her journey and her art, Waberi gives us glimpses into ways of bridging the divides that trouble our worlds.

Deeply hilarious yet biting and derisive, The United States of Africa is a glimpse both into an alternate past and an alternate future. Brilliant and short yet written with an elegant simplicity that belies great depth, it’s a novel aimed for the critical thiner in all of us.

The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi. Translated by David and Nicole Ball

Bison Books| 2009| ISBN: 9780803222625

Americanah | Guest Review by Somto Ibe

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” – Pg 222

One of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Adiche has-dare I saybecome a maestro of sorts in the art of storytelling. Her work, in my opinion, reveals the importance of effective communication; the right mixture of simplicity, depth and finesse that is required to capture the attention of her diverse audience. You can therefore imagine my fascination when I learnt she was publishing a new book titled Americanah. With such a funky name, I couldn’t wait to read what she had put together this time.

Americanah is a complicated love story set in Nigeria and America, focused on the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze. Adventurous Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to further her education in America expecting, like many, to arrive in a land flowing with milk and honeyfiguratively speaking of coursebut encounters a host of sometimes amusing, yet often poignant surprises in the country.

One of such surprises is that skin colour may determine one’s experiences in America. This issue of race and skin colour leads Ifemelu to start a blog titled ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.’ In one of her insightful blog posts she writes,

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.

Adichie also tackles issues from growth in relationships to hair politics. Ifemelu’s values and opinions change as she moves from her relationship with Obinze a fellow Nigerian, to a white boyfriend, an African-American and finally back to Obinze (a rather interesting cycle with connotations worth contemplating).

Adichie’s focus on two West Africans does not limit the novel’s reach. After hearing my commentaries and uncontrollable fits of laughter while reading the novel, my Indian roommate asked to read it. Whenever she found something in the book to identify with, she would inform me and I must say, we bonded strongly over this book. She even ended up concluding that the values of our respective societies might be quite the same.

Americanah is a well written book that will make you think, lead you through an adventurous journey, and incite an array of emotions in you.

Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Knopf | 2013| ISBN: 978-0-307-27108-2

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Somto Ibe was born in the ancient city of Ibadan, in Nigeria, and lives in Canada. She’s studying to be a chemical engineer and likes a good read of any sort but preferrably historical fiction.

Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.

ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?

ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.

ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)

ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.

ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?

ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.

Continue reading “Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author”

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.

Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.

Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.

Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97

A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.  A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

Interlink Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-1-56656-892-0

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.