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New African Fiction: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

New African Fiction: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

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New African Fiction: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

339 pagine
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May 1, 2015


Published three times per year by Indiana University Press for the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, Transition is a unique forum for the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world. Since its founding in Uganda in 1961, the magazine has kept apace of the rapid transformation of the African Diaspora and has remained a leading forum of intellectual debate. In issue 117, Transition presents new short fiction from writers with Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Liberia—and the diaspora—in their veins. Also in this issue are: selections from Transition's online forum, "I Can't Breathe," a venue for discussing the recent murders by police of unarmed black Americans; selections of poetry; and an interview with the architect and curator of the opening exhibit at Harvard University's new Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.

May 1, 2015

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New African Fiction - IU Press Journals


To Be Where We Are

Tope Folarin

JUST A FEW weeks ago I was thinking about the first time I read an issue of Transition.

A sepia-toned memory began to play in my mind: I have been at Bates College for only a week or so, and the school still seems so foreign to me that I sometimes wonder how I will escape if, no, when the urge strikes. I’m walking out of my first class of the day when my English professor hands me a magazine. Read this, she says.

I am actually a senior at Morehouse College. I’ve just returned from a summer working in DC, but I don’t have enough money to continue my education. I am effectively homeless, but my best friend has offered me a place on his couch. On my first night there, I notice a magazine on the floor. I pick it up, begin to read.

No, I’m a second year graduate student at Oxford, and I have fallen in love with literature. Or, more accurately, I have finally admitted to myself that I have always been in love with literature. I’m playing around on the internet one afternoon when I come across the archives of a magazine called Transition. I’ve never heard of it before. I click on a link.

After inhabiting each of these memories, drifting for a time in each one in order to determine which could possibly be real, I realized that each of these memories was real and wasn’t, that—without really knowing it—I had imagined that a publication like Transition existed before I ever encountered it. And once I discovered Transition, its very presence proved to be so significant to me that the magazine insinuated itself into a few of those especially anxious moments in my life when I was frantically searching for a coherent definition of self.

It’s about 2:00 am now. 2015 is only a few days old. I am thirty-three. And I have to admit it—I’m incredibly tired. A few hours ago I finished up a long day at the office, and another long day awaits me, just a few hours away. But what occurs to me now, as I sit here at my desk, is that made up memories can be just as meaningful as those that aren’t.

So here’s another: It’s almost 2:00 am. I’ve just crawled into bed after a night of studying. I’m incredibly tired, but before I fall asleep I decide to spend a few minutes reading a magazine that a girl I like gave me a couple weeks ago. She’s pretty, and I want to impress her, so I figure I’ll read a paragraph or two so I have something to talk about when I next see her. I pull the magazine from my desk. It’s quite slim. It has thin pages. It feels good in my hands. I begin to flip through. In the opening pages I encounter a few names I am familiar with. Wole Soyinka. James Ngugi. Chinua Achebe. And I encounter many more names that are new to me, names that, soon enough, will be almost as familiar to me as my own.

By the time I discovered Transition—whenever that was—I already knew that I would have to find myself in transition. Not in one place or another. But in the process of moving.

Of course I read more than a few paragraphs. I read one article, and then the next, and the one after that, and as I read I find that I am less interested in the content of each article—not because the content is uninteresting, because it is, very much so—but in the layout of the magazine. Each distinct story seamlessly follows the next, a treatise on Mobutu Sese Seko after a piece about the Négritude movement after a profile of heavy-metal-loving youths in Botswana, implying a kind of African disaporic continuity—or coherence—that I have yet to witness or experience in the light of day. And the more I read, the more I begin to understand why I find this layout, the inevitability of it, so compelling: in this magazine, for the first time in my life, I sense a validation, even an endorsement, of my story. My father is Yoruba and my mother is Igbo; I was born in the U.S. and my family moved so often when I was growing up that I spent much of my childhood trying to forget and remember names. I have no idea how the various parts of my life are supposed to fit together. But this magazine—is it a general interest magazine? An academic journal? Something in between?—its very structure reminds me that I am part of something larger than myself. It is also telling me that I can be whole.

I thumb back to the front of the magazine. I want to know who came up with this. His name was Rajat Neogy. He was from Uganda. I close my eyes, try to imagine what he was like.

It is 2:00 am. Rajat is lying in bed, sleepless, thinking about his place in the world. Perhaps he is exhausted after a long day at a job he only finds intermittently fulfilling. Perhaps he has no idea what he should do with his life. He closes his eyes, and his imagination begins to fashion something new into existence. A magazine. For a moment he sees everything: this magazine will outlast him. It will not have a fixed identity. It won’t be here, and it won’t be there. It will always be on its way somewhere. It will always be in transition. Transition. He decides this is a good name, the only appropriate name.

Transition. By the time I discovered Transition—whenever that was—I already knew that I would have to find myself in transition. Not in one place or another. But in the process of moving. This was my only option as a child. And this is where I have become most comfortable as an adult.

Tomas Tranströmer, the great poet who won the Nobel Prize in 2011, whose poems first appeared in English in Transition (Issue 9, 1963), once wrote a few lines that I recite to myself in times of distress and great joy:

Task: to be where I am.

Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd

role: I am still the place

where creation works on itself.

This is in many ways a typical Tranströmer stanza. A profound sentiment sheathed in prosaic language. Its message seems instantly accessible, but if you pause for just a few moments and allow the language to rumble inside you, a deeper meaning blooms. In this case, it is the utterly fantastic, life-affirming possibility that creation is still happening, and not just in some abstract inconceivable corner of the universe. No, Tranströmer says, wherever we are, creation is happening inside of us.

And this is what I have always felt, even before I had the language to express myself.

And this is what Transition was saying to me when I first encountered it, whenever that was.

At the beginning of 2012, I sent a story I’d recently written to Transition. It was published a few months later, and soon afterward I learned that my story, ‘Miracle,’ had been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. And then a real-life miracle—I won.

Wherever we are, creation is happening inside of us.

Since then, I have had the great fortune of traveling around the world to speak about my work. Abeokuta. Berlin. Boston. Cape Town. Hay-on-Wye. Houston. London. Minneapolis. New York City. Port Harcourt. My time on the road has altered me in ways I have yet to fully comprehend. But one thing remains unchanged—wherever I am, I am surrounded by people who do not know what to make of me.

One reason I know this to be true is because of the way they ask me the question. Every writer with an African-sounding name has heard it at least a thousand times—What is African fiction?—yet whenever this question is lobbed in my direction it sounds like an accusation. A few months ago I finally came to understand that—at least in my case—this question is actually a clever disguise for another question; a question that is sometimes posed, but oftentimes isn’t, a question that eventually announces itself even if my interlocutor is too shy or courteous or apathetic to ask it:

Whatever African fiction is, or isn’t, how can you be writing it?

At first I could not help but agree. Indeed, how can I write African fiction? I’ve spent the bulk of my life in America. I speak no African language. I’ve probably eaten more Chinese fried rice than jollof rice in my life.

Recently, though, inspired by a mischief that takes hold of me each time the first question is asked, I have taken to answering the second instead. I nod, flash my most literary smile, and say Because I am.

A period of bewildered silence always follows. And sometimes I wonder: do they think I misheard the question? Or that I’m simply daft? Or that I’m some kind of pithy genius, a six-and-a-half-foot tall fortune cookie, a long-legged Yoda?

But this response—because I am—is the only one that will do. I am writing African fiction because I am. Because I exist. Because thirty-five years ago my parents fell in love and traveled to the U.S. and had me. Because my parents offered me their memories before I had many of my own. Because my consciousness was formed in a milieu in which Nigeria was the shining center of the world. Because I have carried a version of Nigeria around inside of me for as long as I can remember, even if the Nigeria within me bears little resemblance to the Nigeria that my parents left in the 1970s, or the Nigeria my cousins inhabit today.

And yes, I am also writing American fiction. And African-American fiction. I am writing fiction that has yet to be named.

In other words, I am still the place where creation is working on itself.

The same applies to each of the stories you are about to read. Creation is working in each of them.

As I was reading each of the wonderful stories in this issue, I found myself thinking of them as a collective—nine chapters in a compelling text. These stories are about the formation of diaspora, I thought to myself. Indeed, one story features a protagonist who dreams of America, and another features a character who has just arrived in America, and yet another is about slaves in early America. But what of the other stories? They refused to conform. Another theme scrolled into view: these stories are actually about the lingering effects of colonialism. I thought about the story in which a character in a refugee camp proclaims to anyone who will listen that help is on the way. And the story about a village that is trapped between warring factions. And the story about rumors and insurgents set in Nigeria.

This response—because I am—is the only one that will do. I am writing African fiction because I am.

But what about that funny story bursting with nostalgia and episodes of preadolescent lust? And the seemingly futuristic story about the dancer from New York City who has leased her talents to someone else? And the story about the life-hardened police officer who has grown weary of his surroundings? Where do they fit?

Eventually I decided that no theme was expansive enough to comfortably contain all of these narratives. What I needed to do was find a theme that applied to most of the stories. Then I’d squeeze the rest of them in. I’d get away with it; I knew I would.

My pursuit of a theme had become more important to me than the stories.

I should have known better. In a way, this has happened to me my entire life. I have always been the story that is eclipsed by a theme, especially if the theme is African, or African-American, or Nigerian, or Nigerian-American, or Yoruba, or Igbo, or even, inevitably, Black. I’ve been squeezed into countless themes my entire life. And everyone has gotten away with it.

What does it mean if I say to you that creation is working on itself inside me? Well, it means that I am made up of the stuff of the universe, like everyone else. Stardust and starlight and words and images and America and Nigeria and Africa and who knows what else. It also means that these familiar components have assumed new forms within me, that to spend some time with me is to glimpse possibilities that have yet to manifest themselves in our shared reality. Of course the same applies to you.

So, too, with these stories. I went back and re-read them. And, just as I suspected, I had missed many things within each of them. I had enjoyed them, and they moved me, but I did not recognize creation working on itself in each one.

So I will refrain from summarizing these stories, or categorizing them. But I will offer a suggestion. Read each of these stories as slowly as you can. Savor them. You will notice connections between them, of course, and that’s entirely fine. That should happen. Just try to remember that each story is not just a part of a whole, but is also whole in itself.


Louis-Armand Garreau

translated from French and introduced by Sarah Jessica Johnson


LITTLE ENOUGH IS known about Louis-Armand Garreau. His fictions tell us that he was an anti-slavery Frenchman and intimate examiner of antebellum Louisiana. His patchy biography reveals a man whose political writings necessitated a life of on and off exile from France. By the 1830s, Louisiana was a known and fairly stable haven for French and francophone refugees of many backgrounds; political outcasts were common contributors to the multilingual literary world of the newly American state. Garreau’s short story, Bras-Coupé, translated here for the first time into English, is a graphic and nuanced depiction of plantation slavery in New Orleans, capturing the multi-ethnic, multilingual, immigrant-saturated city and its environs.

Published in France in 1856, Bras-Coupé retells a popular local legend based on actual events of the 1830s: Then, a slave named Squire escaped from a plantation and lost an arm in the process. He continued to evade the police in a standoff that lasted years. Quickly dubbed le Bras-Coupé or The Severed Arm, Squire and his supposed encampment of outlaw negroes near the city resisted capture for enough time to reanimate intense local fears of slave revolt. Additionally—and importantly for this literary history—the continuous newspaper reporting of the prolonged stalemate built up a legend that would go on to be retold by late-nineteenth century authors George Washington Cable and Lafcadio Hearn. The former would feature Bras-Coupé’s story in two chapters of his magnum opus The Grandissimes: A Tale of Creole Life (1880), while the latter would respond to Cable in his newspaper column with a report meant to set the historical record straight, titled The Original Bras Coupe (1880).

Garreau sets his own Bras-Coupé story in 1836 and publishes it in 1856 in his Parisian feuilletons paper, Les Cinq Centimes Illustrés. The story was written in France between two of Garreau’s sojourns in Louisiana and presents a complicated picture of slavery at a time which, as Bryan Wagner has pointed out, witnessed the uncomfortable collaboration of the peculiar institution with the police state and municipal law. Bras-Coupé asks the reader to question their own conception of a fugitive, someone running from the law, and also their assumptions about antebellum freedom and state persecutions. Cleverly, the story resonates with mid-nineteenth century French politics, without naming them.

This short work of fiction extends the literary life of Bras-Coupé, whose story captured the attention and imagination of nineteenth-century New Orleans. More broadly, Garreau’s Bras-Coupé expands the rich literary tradition of maimed fugitive slaves. From Three-Fingered Jack in Jamaica to Makandal of Haiti, Bras-Coupé joins the ranks of these legendary historical figures whose revolutionary actions have already been fictionalized in classic works, from Obi; or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800) by William Earle, to El Reino de este Mundo (1949) by Alejo Carpentier. Like these other figures, Bras-Coupé’s missing appendage seems to heighten his threat to society while also embodying the truth that all Slavery is maiming.

Moreover, the story is an example of a large archive of mostly ignored Louisiana writing in French. Garreau is exceptional in this archive as a Frenchman, but he tells an American story, the likes of which were written by many French-speaking US citizens of Louisiana. Much of the hard work of finding and editing these stories is currently done by the unrelenting scholars of Centenary College’s French department in Shreveport, Louisiana. Their collections are published under their press, Éditions Tintamarre, and include novels, short fiction, folk tales and poetry.

If nationality is not determined by language, we can read Garreau’s story and other such works as American literature. Of course, the question of what to do with these pieces in the academy, of which departments to shuffle them between, cannot be answered quickly. As a scholar of American literature with an interest in the ever multilingual South, I am left with a sentiment I cannot shake: if we are ever to study these American stories, they must be translated. It is a question of audience and inclusion that returns me to the paradox that characterizes Garreau’s literary career. In 1856, his Bras-Coupé could only be published in France (imagine the rail on which he would have been run out of New Orleans). Yet ironically, Louisiana was where he found refuge from persecutions he faced in France for his writing. In the United States he witnessed a darker, more quotidian suppression and violence than what he knew in France, and so he sought to write about it where he could. Garreau’s work on Louisiana reminds us that American literature can and does appear in archives outside of our geographic and linguistic expectations.

Decision to Leave; Magnolia Plantation on the Cane River, Louisiana. ©2013 Jeanine Michna-Bales.


In 1836, on the edge of the Bayou Saint-Jean, the canal that connects New Orleans with Lake Pontchartrain, there was a small wooden structure in which an old Irishman and his wife had established a tavern and a grocery.

This Irishman, named Hinclay, did a good deal of business with the negroes of the neighboring plantations, to whom he sold—at great profit (and in secret)—tafia, whiskey, brandy, as well as (in the light of day) ham, oil, fruit, seeds, and so on.

One Sunday, the Hinclay store was crowded with its usual black clientele. All the daylong, the picaillon and escalin coins of the slaves poured onto the grocer’s counter. But the day’s profit had not left the grocer in a more accommodating mood; for, that night, having surprised a negress at the very moment she was snatching two or three bananas from a bunch hanging from the door, the old Irishman took her by the arm and shoved her into the store. There he overwhelmed her with insults, pummeled her with blows, and tried to make her pay the sum of all the month’s petty thefts of which he claimed to be victim.

This negress belonged to Monsieur D—, of whom we have spoken in another account. She was called Elsie. A young woman in her twenties, she was in the late stages of pregnancy. The unhappy woman cried and begged the grocer to let her go, promising to send him all the money he wanted the next day.

Hinclay finally allowed her to leave, giving her twenty-four hours to pay him twenty dollars (his estimate of losses for that month), while threatening to go and complain to Monsieur D— if the sum was not accounted for in the allotted time.

It would be difficult to imagine the screams and pleas of the unfortunate slave.

Elsie left; but less than an hour later, her husband, another slave of Monsieur D—, entered the tavern. He was a man of thirty, six English feet tall, bull-necked with an enormous head, a back slightly bowed, and gifted with terrific strength. He was regarded as the best slave on the plantation. Moreover, he came from the state of Virginia, and it is from there that one typically acquires the slaves most highly valued in Louisiana. Active, industrious, suited to all forms of work, with a gentle nature, they rarely give themselves over to the vices through which other slaves often seek deplorable distractions. They are, on the other hand, of an incorrigible

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