Review: In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi

Abdourahman Waberi’s Aux États-Unis d’Afrique was published in 2006, and the English translation, In the United States of Africa, came out in 2009. It’s a brief, lyrical and pointed satire that imagines our world in reverse: Africa is a region of stability and prosperity, united by a single government, with the desperate multitudes of the impoverished West begging for its aid.

In the United States of Africa is science fiction only in the loosest sense, in the way that Gulliver’s Travels is science fiction: it’s a social commentary that creates an imaginary world in order to critique the world we know. Waberi is not interested in exploring how technology might have developed differently in the United States of Africa, or in inventing new socio-political systems. His interest is in images: “the moon, polished by Malian and Liberian astronauts” (p. 4); a “shelter for destitute Caucasians, with their straight hair and infected lungs” (p. 5). It’s his exuberant prose, laced with just enough irony to sting, that gives these images the destabilizing force of the best science fiction.

At the center of the novel is Malaïka, called Maya: a white girl adopted by African parents and raised in comfort in Asmara. The book describes Maya’s life and her development as an artist, but it’s also addressed to her: “You were an angel, Maya,” declares the unnamed narrator, “both light and vigorous. You were as fresh as a newborn butterfly in the pure air” (p. 29). This creates a curious mirror effect: Maya is shown, but she is also told about her own image, so that she is present both as an actor and as the observer of her own story. Mirrors figure prominently in the novel: “[I]s the person you see every morning in the mirror—that double, that twin—so familiar? Or is she already taking up too much space?” the narrator asks (p. 38). Maya’s mirror-twin is a sinister, threatening figure, but its disappearance later in the novel is even more disturbing: “You are…absent from your own dreams. You really are invisible, there’s no doubt about it. It happens at night, when you take your clothes off before going to bed: you look at yourself in the mirror and you can’t see a thing” (p. 82).

Maya’s alienation is caused by her status as a privileged young woman who nevertheless bears the white skin of “the wretched of the earth” (p. 15). To find herself, she sets out to seek her birth mother in the decaying slums of Paris. “You put on a calm face as you drag two suitcases stuffed with clothes to fight the cold, medicine against the thousand microbes they have in Europe, not forgetting small presents for the people you’ll have to deal with. You were told many times never to leave empty handed” (p. 95).

Maya’s journey provides plenty of opportunities for Waberi to frame Europe in the terms commonly used to describe Africa. 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. The insistent address of the narrative voice, the repeated youyou are seeing this, you are doing this—underscores the urgent call for self-examination that lies at the heart of the book.

Often, science fiction imagines the future; In the United States of Africa re-imagines the present. Yet it also gestures toward a future in which Maya will find peace, a peace that the reader is called to seek as well. In that future, the narrator declares, “the world will refuse to turn into mud.” This future must grow from the quiet reflection of the present, but it is far less static, less dependent on the image in the mirror. “You will convert the blue sky to palpable works, you will wave azure handkerchiefs in farewell” (p. 123).

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