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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

In the United States of Africa

In the United States of Africa - Abdourahman A. Waberi, Percival Everett, David Ball, Nicole Ball I love this book and I feel it's somehow not making it's way to the readers who would appreciate it - which is a shame. When I ordered it based on the synopsis, I was expecting something like a cross between Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables. I was excited to see how an African author would imagine an African utopia and how his destitute Europe would accord with the one we know from history.

It was quickly brought home to me that wasn't what I would be getting. If I can drop a few names: Jeanette Winterson, Italo Calvino, ... if you like that rather post-modern, poetic, not too long kind of stuff, full of cultural allusion and games with texts you may well like this. The 'west'/Africa reversal isn't meant to feel natural, neither are the characters and their actions. I enjoy reading that kind of literature so it got five stars from me.

As examples: one of the nice things about the book is the endless stream of allusions to figures from African or African Diaspora history and culture(with token white people),though not everyone is in their original role. Several African-American literati seem to have become DJs, for example!?! But if he's missing, say, an African first man on the moon, he just makes one up. He takes bits of the Western discourse on Africa and cheerfully copies it over to his imaginary Africa without worrying too much about making it look seamless. It felt a bit like watching a puppet show (stylised, funny, with much use of found materials) in which the puppet master himself plays a prominent and quite humorous role. It's a feeling intensified by the fact that the book is not so much written in the second person as it consists of the author-narrator addressing his heroine in the imperative.

The other thing I think worth knowing with regard to the translation is that his 'west'-transposed-to-Africa is very French. As a representation of France, French discourse on Africa, French peoples' views of themselves, even down to the circumstances of Malaika's life (the central character), it's a fair and reasonably accurate portrayal. English-speakers in Britain and the US will be more justified in not recognizing themselves or their cultures - which complicates the reversal.