“Crossings: Migrant Experiences and a New Frontier in African Literatures”
May 29, 2021
Good evening to you all. I would like to start by thanking the following:
Our outgoing president, Ghirmai Negash, who has done an outstanding job as president of our association during this difficult period for all of us.
Our outgoing past-president and conference organizer, Beth Willey. She has done what even some of us on the EC are not fully aware of, especially her work with the other members of the organizing committee who I would also like to thank.
Special thanks to: our webmaster, Matt Brown and our James McCorkle, our Headquarters Director.
Thanks also to Akin Adesokan, the excellent moderator of the ALA Lectures Series.
Thanks to our Secretary, Anne Carlson, who has been serving the ALA for so long that I can’t imagine the association without her.
Thanks to all former presidents and officers of the association; those still with us and those who have joined the ranks of our ancestors.
I thank the outgoing Treasurer, Tunde Akinyemi, the moneyman and outgoing councilor, Oumar Chérif Diop, for his dedicated work during his term.
Special thanks to the small tech army of hosts making sure things worked for us during our panels and more.
Those who will stay on the EC, and those who are about to join us, thank you and welcome, respectively. One has to be on the EC to fully appreciate the dedication and intelligence of your councilors. I count myself lucky to be president at this particular time, simply because I know I can count entirely on them to guide me throughout my term.
I welcome and thank the incoming vice president, Gaurav Desai. I have known Gaurav for a long time, and I have only respect for him. I look forward to starting this new journey with him.
Thank you, members of the association all over the globe. Thank you to all our friends, individuals and institutions alike. Our writers, artists, filmmakers, critics. Without you, there is no African literature association.
We pay special homage to all our brothers and sisters who have passed on since 2019, and prior!
In addition to shoring up the achievements of my predecessors, including the ALA Lecture Series initiated by the soon to be Past-President, I propose to dedicate my term as president to two objectives.
- A review of our association and its day-to-day functioning as an institution. This means we will need to revisit the instrument of our governance, our Handbook. As our 32nd president, Eustace Palmer and the first editor of JALA, Abioseh Porter, said at the end of their revision of the Handbook in 2007, “[t]his document should evolve as we follow our motto, Nkyin kyin (changing oneself; playing many roles),” we cannot shy away from this all important task. Since the last major overhaul of the Handbook in 2015-16 by our 41st president, Moradewun Adejunmobi and Vice-President Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi (then Chair of the Constitution and Policy Committee. And under Juliana’s presidency, more work was done on the handbook), and given the many changes that have happened within our association and in the world outside, we are surely due for another facelift. While the EC will take the lead on this review process, we will call upon you as members of the association to help us. We are therefore asking you to carve out some time from your schedule to read our handbook and share with us any thoughts or suggestions you might have for its improvement. We will set up a mechanism allowing you to share your ideas for this work.
The second objective of my term:
- Our vibrant intellectual community and new frontiers in African literatures.
“Crossings: Migrant Experiences and a New Frontier in African Literatures”
Section One: Immigrant Literature
In a February 2016 Okayafrica piece titled “I’m Done with African Immigrant Literature,” Botswanan writer, Siyanda Mohutsiwa, writes:
“I'm over it: Immigrant Literature! I don't know when it happened. It might have been somewhere in the middle of Teju Cole's Open City, as I followed his protagonist around the streets of New York. Or maybe it was at the end of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, when I boarded the flight to America with its precocious star. Or perhaps it was a few weeks after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and I had finally begun to forget the stress carried by illegal African immigrants in Europe. Whichever way it happened, it happened. And I found myself flinging my copy of The Granta Book of the African Story across the room, vowing to never read a piece of African Fiction again, or at least its ‘Afropolitan’ variety.”
The list of books on the immigrant experience is much longer that the few texts mentioned by
Mohutsiwa. We have Fatou Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique (2003), Cristina Ali Farah’s Little
Mother (Madre piccolo, 2007), Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck (2009),
Onipede Hollist’s So the Path does not Die (2012) ( and "Going to America" and
"BackHomeAbroad"), Taiye Selasie’s Ghana Must Go (2013), Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the
Dreamers (2016), Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), and Ada Azodo and Akachi AdimoraEzeigbo’s edited volume, Resident Alien and Other Stories: An Anthology of Immigrant Voices from Africa and the African Diaspora, 2020 (a second feast of stories is in preparation).
We can go even further back into the last century for Ousmane Socé Diop’s Mirage de Paris
(1937), Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Aventure ambiguë (1961), Soyinka’s “Telephone
Conversation” (1962), Bernard Dadié’s Un nègre à Paris (1959), Patron de New York (1964), and La ville ou nul ne meurt (1968), Yulisa Amadu Maddy’s No Past, No Present, no Future (1973), Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen (1974), Blaise N'Djehoya's Le Nègre Potemkine (1988), Calixthe Beyala’s Le petit prince de Belleville (1992) and Maman a un amant (1993), and Alain Mabankou’s Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (1998).
In film, I can think of Beninese-Senegalese director Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s 1955 Afrique sur Seine and the more widely known La noire de (Black Girl, 1966) by Sembène Ousmane.
These works - the list is by no means exhaustive - are part of the larger focus on African experiences in the West: Travel literature, migration studies, refugee studies, etc. They depict the physical and psychological encounters between Africans and Westerners in Western spaces.
In terms of criticism of this literature, the treasure trove is in reality a cornucopia.
Regarding the Francophone phenomenon known as ‘Afrique-sur-Seine’ or ‘Africa on the Seine,’ I would cite two examples: 1) Kandioura Drame’s seminal 1995 essay, “Bwanapolis or Africaon-the-Seine” in which he addresses the issue of the “ambiguous significance of Paris for Africans” (97) and 2) Odile Cazenave’s Afrique sur Seine: A New Generation of African Writers in Paris (2007).
Other critical analysis of immigrant literature writ large include:
Brenda Cooper’s A New Generation of African Writers: migration, material culture and language. Woodbridge: James Currey (2008).
Dominic Thomas’s Black France: Colonialism, Immigration and Transnationalism (2006)
Aedín ní Loingsigh, Postcolonial Eyes: intercontinental travel in francophone African literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.
Ayo Coly’s The Pull of Postcolonial Nationhood: Gender, Migration, and the Claims of Postcolonial Nationhood in Francophone African Literatures. (Lexington Books, 2010).
Cajetan Iheka and Jack Taylor’s 2018 African Migration Narratives. Politics, Race and Space, which was published in 1918 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2018).
And most recently, there is Christopher Ian Foster’s Conscripts of Migration: Neoliberal Globalization, Nationalism, and the Literature of New African Diasporas ), described as the “first full-length study of migritude literature as it intersects with postcolonial, black diaspora, and women's studies” (https://www.upress.state.ms.us/Books/C/Conscripts-ofMigration). I must also mention, even if in passing, the concept of migration against the grain, narratives of return, reverse migration, or reverse diaspora. Pioneering novel’s like Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North and Yema Lucilda Hunter’s Road to Freedom come to mind. A separate section is dedicated to this sub-genre in Iheka and Taylor’s aforementioned edited volume.
Occupying the liminal space between the above-mentioned texts focusing mostly on the African experience in Western spaces, and the migrant literature I am interested in here, there is Shailja Patel’s path-clearing Migritude (Kaya Press, 2010).
In her postface to a 2020 special issue of the Minnesota Review, Ayo Coly, in her characteristic erudite fashion, writes:
Having previously dismissed migritude as a theoretical fad and taken to task francophone African literary criticism for its blind adoption of the concept (Coly 2010), I am enthused by its new critical edge and theoretical purchase. Probably the best development that could have happened to migritude was its inclusion of literary traditions beyond francophone Africa (see Patel 2010; Foster 2019). Patel’s seminal gesture of opening up the routes of migritude to include East African Asians puts the concept to work in the service of new geographies of movements, histories, and entanglements, beyond the Africa-Europe and South-North unilateral trajectory of the early concept of migritude. The new migritude also encompasses a demographic of underprivileged migrants and therefore makes up for the elitism of the original migritude (170).
Coly goes on to underscore two important contributions of the new migritude to the task of
“rethinking the mechanisms and stakes of contemporary movements of people” (170), namely its “foregrounding [of] South-South movements and encounters” (170) and its “rehumanizing [of] the figure of the migrant” (172). In other words, the new migritude presents Africa as a “category of thought” (170) and the migrant as an agent, not merely a victim (172).
Section Two A: Migrant Experiences
In her now famous poem, “Home,” Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, highlights the four stations in the refugee’s trajectory: 1) the reasons someone leaves the familiarity and security of their home for an unknown place, 2) the actual departure from home that is clearly no longer home, 3) experiences during the journey (which could involve time in camps, prisons, and other unsavory and traumatizing spaces, and 4) experiences at final destination, wherever that might be.
In Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity , Ulrich Beck engages issues of uncertainty and the future. Coining the phrase ‘Risk Society’ that he then theorizes, Beck argues that modern society in its myriad manifestations, can best be engaged and accounted for through the prism of risk. He argues that, everything we do is motivated by the fears and anxieties and hopes harbored and occasioned by our everyday experiences in nature and human relationships. This, of course, is not new, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Gabe Mythen surmises in his retrospective analysis of Risk Society, Beck’s “book reads as a jarring account of the sweeping environmental, economic, social, and political transformations that defined the late 20th century and an impassioned critique of the systemic production of unmanageable risks that the author claimed had endangered society” (3).
Beck engages both natural risks and manufactured risks, taking care to make clear the distinction between them. “For Beck, although natural hazards possess force, they are nonetheless temporally and geographically limited. Furthermore, in Western cultures, the development of welfare systems, critical infrastructures, and risk management processes has tempered ill effects. For example, the deleterious consequences of earthquakes have been lessened by legally enforceable restrictions in volatile areas and the siting of shock-resistant buildings” (4).
Considering such incidents as the ongoing eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Goma in the DRC, and its unfolding humanitarian crisis (with thousands of people fleeing their homes and town for safety in other parts of South Kivu and beyond), religious extremist violence (Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, etc.), xenophobia (South Africa, etc.), and Anglophone-Francophone violence (Cameroon), we begin to see the limits of Beck’s otherwise useful risk society thesis when applied to the African situation. As an aside, we do not even need to go to Africa to see the limits of Becks theory: Remember Katrina, New Orleans?
But back to Africa! As the millennial locus of the battles amongst the industrial superpowers in their so-called capitalist modernization schemes, the modern African State has never been equivalent to “the safety state.” It has never really been known for its ability to guarantee the security and overall wellbeing of its citizens. On the contrary, from its concoction in colonial laboratories, its vocation, it seems, has always been that of working against the interest of the majority of its citizens. The African state mostly generates “social bads” rather than “social goods” (in Mythen 5).
Beck also claims that “[t]he penumbra of risk threatens all and disrupts the capacity of the wealthy to buy their way out of dangerous situations: “under the roof of modernization risks, perpetrator and victim sooner or later become identical” (quoted in Mythen 5).
Yet, “the ideational concept of ‘world’ risk society suggests a universality of hazard distribution and a shared experience of danger that is not mirrored by contemporary reality. Indeed, if one takes any major quantifiable threat to human existence in the modern world—famine, disease, warfare, terrorism—it is clear that the global distribution of harms is uneven and unequal. Taking the latter instance, despite the deluge of media coverage of terrorist attacks occurring in Europe, the risk of being a victim is palpably higher in other areas of the globe” (Mythen 6).
For her part, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and activist Isabella Alexander-Nathani engages the migrant experience by deploying the concept of liminality in her pioneering work, Burning at Europe's Borders: An Ethnography on the African Migrant Experience in Morocco, which will soon have an accompanying documentary, The Burning. She reminds us in her book that liminality “has been applied to the refugee experience as both a legal and a lived state of being” (133).
Writing about the specific African migrant experience in Morocco, Alexander-Nathani notes: “It is here, in liminality, that they (the migrant and the initiand) are seen as both vulnerable and threatening to the established social structure. Initiands standing between two social statuses do not have the protection of either, and yet their temporary placement between the two threatens to upset the social structure by creating something that falls outside of accepted categories of identification” (6). Furthermore, she writes, “it is through the dissolution of all established order – a moment that exists outside of our conceptions of time and place – that liminality creates the possibility for something new to be born... New identities, institutions, and nations are established through completion of the ritual” (213). In liminality (this state of limbo), the pre has been exited, the post may never be entered, and the liminal now feels like a jacket that does not quite fit. The liminal space can be its own, distinct, autonomous reality and can lead to the creation of what Turner calls “Normative communitas” and what Alexander-Nathani contends “can be created when individuals are stripped of the social status markers that once differentiated them” (109).
In her work in general, Alexander-Nathani problematizes interconnected notions and realities of race, class, citizenship, identity, gender, legality, home, and liminality as they play out in Morocco in both time and space. She sees African migrants as “quintessential postmodern subjects” (192) largely because of their uncommon ability to remake themselves constantly as they adapt to their precarious and shifting circumstances. The author’s deliberate focus on the migrants’ liminal present in Morocco allows the reader to tune out such distractions as media images of desperate Africans falling for Europe’s siren song.
Section Two B: Emergence of a new literature, film, and art
Over the past decade or so, a new kind of literary, artistic, and cinematographic practice has been emerging. One that focuses, in part or in whole, on a specific aspect of the migrant experience.
This representation of the African migrant focuses on the journey, even as it acknowledges the points of departure (the home as locus of original disaster and trauma) and the points of arrival (the tantalizing West/North).
This is about the in-between spaces. What happens on the high seas of the Mediterranean or on the dunes or shifting sands of the Sahara or the Kalahari. Or in the forests of tropical Africa.
This is the twilight zone or the clair-obscur space-time of experience where the migrant is torn between the past and the future, but holding both together, or being held together by both, precariously. Almost like Sankofa.
Migrant: English/French noun. Migrant. French present continuous. Migrating. Moving. Constantly. Verb of action. And survival. One day at a time. One hour to the next. Living on the fringes of hope and despair. Yet fed by hope and desperation. No rest for the weary. No respite for the wayfarer, the seafarer. On the old and new frontiers of life. Voluntarily or forced.
To quote Paul Gilroy in the The Black Atlantic, “the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organizing symbol for this enterprise” (4).
Add to that the image of motor vehicles and rickety trains and overburdened dromedaries moving across large swaths of territory from the forest regions of tropical Africa through the Sahel into the Sahara. And maybe into the Mediterranean.
Add to that the image of boats. Dinghies. Inflatables. Sometimes a sorry flotilla crossing or trying to cross the Mediterranean or the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean. And bigger and stronger boats, ships, helping them or preventing them from crossing. Think of the caravan of the lost boys and girls of Sudan of yore.
In this new epistemology, the aeroplane has very little currency, if any. Except of course, you are in a plane that is forced to land somewhere between your point of departure and your desired destination. Then you can be like the characters in the American TV series, Lost (2004-2010). Then your story will join the annals of migrant literature.
Happily, writers, filmmakers, and artists have not neglected the migrant experiences of which I speak.
Books: There is the series of books on the Lost boys of Sudan: Among others, Dave Eggers What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) and Aher Arop Bol’s The Lost Boy (2010). There is Sylvie Kandé’s magisterial epic in three songs, La quête infinie de l'autre rive (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). There is also the prize-wining poetry collection by Josué Guebo, Songe à Lampedusa (Silex/Nouvelles du Sud, 2014 . Think of Lampedua, African Poetry Book, 2017). And the Amistad story.
We also now have Benjamin Kwakye’s Obsessions of Paradise (2019), the winner of this year’s ALA award for Best Book in the creative writing category.
Finally, I would like to draw special attention to what could be the most recent book on the migrant experience, Mamadou Saliou Diallo’s independently published 2020 short memoir, Mon sacré voyage.
To me, this little known book is a model of the new migrant literature. Mamadou Diallo’s account is a first person narrative divided into four sections, each representing the four major stages in his excruciating journey: Guinea-Mali, Mali-Algeria, Algeria-Morocco, and MoroccoSpain. Of the 78 pages of the actual story, only four pages (the first four) are devoted to the original point of departure in Conakry, Guinea and only one sentence to his final destination in Spain, Europe.
In Music we have Senegalese DJ Didier Awadi’s 2006 album, Sunugal, our boat in wolof. And in film, I can cite Moussa Touré’s La Piroque (2012) and Mati Diop’s Atlantiques (2019), even if much of the action of Diop’s film takes place on the ground in Dakar.
In Art/photography, I would like to point you to an ongoing photography exhibit at the Institut du monde Arabe (Arab World Institue) in Paris. The exhibit, Mon ami n’est pas d’ici (My friend is not from around here) features the work of eight African artists from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and France. Finally, here at our conference, our colleagues are examining some of these works and works about migration in general. There is a panel on the work of Omofolabo Ajayi Soyinka and a panel on Immigrant voices in short stories. There is Joya Uraizee’s presentation on Arop Bol’s The lost boy and that of James McCorkle’s on Josué Guebo’s Songe à Lampedusa. I am certain there are others that are not evident to my naked eye.
A special Appeal
I would like to end my remarks with a poem and an appeal. I wrote the poem in remembrance of
Aylan Kurdi, the three year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey in 2015. You can easily replace Aylan with any three-year old African child who met a similar faith at the end of hope!
My name is Aylan Kurdi
When my mother dressed me for the Journey she said:
“My son, we know what we are leaving
behind, but we don’t know what we are
heading into. Yet, the tea is bound to be
sweeter on the other side.
So let me dress you in your best.”
Buoyed by the dreams of our fathers and mothers
Dreams reborn from the ashes of earlier
dreams We swim toward unknown
I am of the Tribe of the forgotten
flotsam and jetsam of this world
Blood-marked Children of God floating in shark-
infested waters gasping for air around the fringes of
Abundance knocking unheeded on the door of our
Buoyed by the dreams of our fathers and mothers
Dreams reborn from the ashes of earlier
dreams We swim toward unknown
Then came the angel of Heaven
Surfing the waves of Peace and Love
to deliver us onto the shores of your
so our memory may not
disappear into the news cycle
of yester days.
Buoyed by the dreams of our fathers and mothers
Dreams reborn from the ashes of earlier dreams
We are swimming toward the Spirit of Hope and the Earth
Unlike Siyanda Mohutsiwa who I quoted at the head of my remarks, I do not have a problem with immigrant stories. These are important stories that need to be told, especially if it is true that “half of all the writers hailing from African countries are said to have lived abroad” (in Madhu Krishnan). Furthermore, we live in a rapidly changing world where connections happen quickly over time and space (including virtual time and space, as the COVID and this year’s ALA conference have made evident). New experiences are generated. Experiences engendered by the effects of rising ultra-tribalism in the West and the incidences of pandemics. I am thinking about the 2020 painting The New Normal, by Sudanese artist Almigdad Aldikhaiiry. Almigdad has an interesting itinerary. Born in Sudan, raised in Saudi Arabia, returned to Sudan for college and then work. Has lived and worked all over the Gulf. Came to Los Angeles in 2016, but currently living and working in Dearborn, Michigan. My colleague, Isra El-bechir, Associate Director of Museums at Washington and Lee, speaks more eloquently about Almigdad’s painting:
Almigdad Aldikhaiiry’s painting titled The New Normal, evokes a growing sense of uncertainty considering the artist’s central position in the painting. This self-portrait is in many ways an intimate insight into the artist’s ruminations on his reality, his ‘new normal’. His exposed brain and the sporadic markings indicate a vulnerability to his existence that is often absent in his work, and one that is a direct result of COVID-19. I am instantly drawn to his bleeding heart and the misfortune suggested by the sudden impact of the pandemic. He holds a briefcase and is in motion, while uprooting a flower from the ground, indicating economic turmoil and forced migration. I believe the presence of multiple speakers highlights the torrent of alarming news and entropy brought by the outbreak. The pathos of this particular painting left me with a sense of hope, despite the fleeting moments of gloom suggested by the artist.
Who wouldn’t want to write and read about these experiences of the so-called new normal!
That said I am also calling on all writers, potential writers, artists, critics, researchers, and teachers to make a conscious effort at unearthing, exposing, and analyzing migrant stories.
I think, for example, about the story of a particular Congolese family. One out of millions waiting to be told by them, by us. Fahizi Msimbwa and the woman who would be his wife, Jeanne Etunyemya fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as children in 1996, and came to the US with their five children in 2016, after spending 19 years in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania. What happened in those 19 years in that camp, that purgatory, that liminal space? What effect (psychological, moral, physical, spiritual) did that seemingly perpetual holding pattern had on Fahizi, Jeanne and their children?
These are the stories of the African boat people, the African desert caravan people, and the African refugee camp dwellers. The stories of the 94% of Africans who migrate intracontinentally (Africa Migration Report: Challenging the Narrative). You will agree with me that the stories of 94% of us are worth the telling. Much of what we currently have on migrant experiences are anthropological studies (many of them vital, like Alexander-Nathani’s Burning), sensational media accounts, and policy papers or white papers that don’t move the needle much. The African Literature Association, African writers, artists, and other creatives and connoisseurs of African letters and practices are better placed than most to engage these stories. So let’s do it.
Aldikhaiiry, Almigdad. The New Normal (Oil on canvas, 60 x 66 inches). 2020, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.
Alexander-Nathani, Isabella. Burning at Europe's Borders: An Ethnography on the African
Migrant Experience in Morocco. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Coly, Ayo. “Postface.” The Minnesota Review 94 (Spring 2020) pp169-173.
Diallo, Mamadou Saliou. Mon sacré voyage. Independently published, 2020.
El-bechir, Isra. Personal review of Almigdad Aldikhaiiry’s The New Normal, email to Mohamed Kamara, May 29, 2021.
Dramé, Kandioura. “Bwanapolis or Africa-on-the-Seine.” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26 (Spring 1995) 97-110.
Foster, Christopher Ian. Conscripts of Migration: Neoliberal Globalization, Nationalism, and the Literature of New African Diasporas (2019).
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the African Union Commission (AUC).
African Migration Report: Challenging the Narrative.
https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/africa-migration-report.pdf (accessed May 28, 2021).
Krishnan, Madhu. “Reading Space, Subjectivity, and Form in the Twenty-First-Century Narrative of Return.” African Migration Narratives: Politics, Race, and Space, edited by Cajetan Iheka and Jack Taylor, vol. 81, Boydell & Brewer, 2018, 143–159. Mohutsiwa, Siyanda “I’m Done with African Immigrant Literature.” Okayafrica.
Shire, Warsan. “Home.”