On November 1st at the Department of English Creative Writing Fund’s African Writer’s Symposium Dinaw Mengestu read an excerpt from his acclaimed novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. After reading sections there was a brief interview with Professor Paula Morris, in which they discussed the genesis of the book, Mengestu’s previous non-fiction work, the role of space in the novel, the reason it was set in Washington D.C., and David Eggers. Following a theme of the day, the issue of getting an ‘African’ book published was raised. Mengestu said he was lucky to find a publisher who would support the novel from the start.
After the interview a brief question and answer period was held. Questions included, what was the inspiration for “the little girl.” “She was pulled into the store and stuck around; she is the child….between African and American Identity.” And, why are there two titles for the book? “Children of the Revolution was to aggressive for Americans, to communist. The second title is from Dante and it was very easy to settle on after a search.”
Dinaw Mengestu currently resides in Paris, France and he is teaching classes at Tulane University as the author in residence during the 2008 fall semester.
The topics discussed at the end-of-symposium forum grew out of two issues: the problem of finding a publication venue for African literature, and the difficulty of traversing the language barrier to English. Interestingly, the two topics were more related than they appeared at first. As Niyi Osundare put it, “Where does one begin to eat this elephant?” The “West versus Africa” problem is not unique; many times, authors are asked to change their manuscripts to better appeal to a target audience. The effect of many such changes is to “erase home,” as Osundare phrased it. The issue then rose of being transnational, a word introduced into the discussion by Dinaw Mengestu and redefined many times throughout. To be transnational is to have “one foot in Africa, and one foot in many other parts of the world,” according to Mengestu. Mohammed Naseehu Ali and Osundare agreed, but Sefi Atta was opposed to the idea of transnationalism. “I have never felt a transnational identity,” she argued. “Always Nigerian.” But because she grew up speaking English and not her native Yoruba, Atta is often forced to justify her Nigerianness, even to others of her own country, and she admitted that it’s difficult for her to write about characters who speak Yoruba. The other writers suggested that transnationalism doesn’t have to be either-or, and Atta acknowledged that the English spoken in her Nigerian home differed immensely from the “proper English” she was currently speaking. Osundare, with characteristic elegance, described it as a gradient of “American Englishes, ” with which Naseehu Ali agreed. Even when African authors write in English, said Naseehu Ali, new things are added to the language. Syntax is changed; African voices use English differently.
Here, Professor Gaurav Desai wondered, “Is there a voice that African writers are supposed to have?” He suggested that perhaps there can be a compromise between cultures, instead of writers merely having to embrace the idea of transnationalism. Osundare countered, “At what point does compromise become erasure?” There must be a balance between the amount of culture included in an African writer’s voice, and its accessibility to non-African writers, in order for a work to succeed. Writing a work in English makes it more widely accessible to readers, but causes it to lose something of itself: its root in musical native language, which Osundare incorporates into his poetry. But because African literature has been published and read in the West, it has already contributed elements of its culture to the English tradition. And though Atta is not fluent in her native language, language itself does not have to be the defining factor of allegiance to Africa. So what is? “Culture,” answered Naseehu Ali. To be an African writer is to write about culture, and try to capture it with words. Language is an integral part of culture, but is not pivotal to feeling and being African; Atta can be Nigerian without speaking Yoruba, just as Mengestu can be Ethiopian without speaking the language his parents spoke.