PEN World Voices: The Africa Track

Pen World Voices 2007

Devoting my PEN World Voices Friday to modern African literature, I grab a seat at the Instituto Cervantes near the United Nations where Dedi Felman is moderating a panel of four diverse writers representing Algeria, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivorie and Zanzibar. There’s a good crowd of fifty or so eager listeners, and many of us feel confused when the panelists enter and a male writer occupies the seat behind the name plate for Yasmina Khadra. Introducing each writer, Dedi Felman explains that Khadra’s real name is Mohammeed Moulessehoul but that he was able to avoid censorship during his country’s civil war by writing under a woman’s name.

Khadra then immediately catches the crowd’s interest by declaring that he does not agree with the basic premise of the panel, because, he says, he spent his life trying to rise above the perceived limitations of being “an African writer”, only to find that he is now “stuck back in Africa”. He states that this type of categorization amounts to “intellectually subcontracting”. Since we’re only about two minutes into the panel at this point, it’s clear that Yasmina Khadra is here to make his presence felt.

As the panel progresses, in fact, it becomes more generally clear that Yasmina Khadra has got an attitude a mile wide. But I don’t mind, since these festival panels often suffer from over-politeness, and it happens that Khadra is capable of delivering eloquent, poetic answers to questions about the concept of home, about language, about the importance of place (though he has to scoff at each question first). By the end of the event, Khadra reveals that it’s not this panel but the American war in Iraq that makes him angry. He succeeds in making a very positive impression on the crowd, and I’m going to read his The Swallows of Kabul (I am worried, though, that he’s going to beat up a cabdriver or a waiter before the night is over).

American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala, author of the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, is as placid as Khadra is rude, speaking of his unique use of “pidgin English” in his work, and reading from a new work in progress (directly from his laptop computer) that will prove, he hopes, that he is capable of writing about something other than child soldiers.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and currently living in England, is soft-spoken and thoughtful and doesn’t mind trying to speculate about how Africa’s unique history and frequent civil turmoil affects its literary identity.

Young graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet has a warm and unpretentious style, and she begins her self-introduction by marvelling at the fact that she is here on this panel when only two years ago she was living an obscure life as a legal assistant. Her Aya is yet another book I’m looking forward to checking out.

I race out of the Instituto Cervantes to get to the Donnell Library where Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng are speaking about their book What Is The What, which Eggers composed from Deng’s experiences in Sudan. Obviously unaware of Eggers’ star power (or is it Deng’s?), I’m surprised to find a nearly hysterical crowd scene outside the library as non-ticket-holders jockey for standing-room positions. I can’t generalize about all the events in this festival, but every one I’ve been to has been surprisingly well-attended.

The Eggers/Deng presentation gets off to an exciting start when Valentino Achak Deng proudly announces his news: he became a citizen of the United States of America just yesterday. He shows the crowd his new certificate of citizenship (to happy applause) and quizzes us with the questions he was asked, like “When was the Constitution written?” (most in the crowd say “1776”, I try “1789”, but Deng informs us it was 1787).

Unfortunately, though, it’s all downhill after this exciting beginning, because Eggers and Deng seem a bit tired of their ongoing road show, and fail to light any literary sparks. The problem here is structural: Dave Eggers is playing the role of moderator, prodding Deng to tell stories, but it’s clear that Eggers already knows the answer to every question he’s asking (e.g., Eggers asks “Was it hard to leave any of your family members behind in Sudan?” so that Deng can tell the story of how it was hard to leave his family members behind in Sudan). Like the Beatles in 1970, this team needs to be broken up, and I have no doubt that either Dave Eggers or Valentino Achak Deng could do a better presentation on his own than they are currently capable of doing together.

Moderate complaints aside, my Friday sessions at PEN World Voices leave me feeling excited about the state of African literature and eager to read every one of these writers more. Based on the evidence presented today, contemporary African literature is thriving, and there’s a lot I want to dig more deeply into.

My festival-going today will include a rare appearance by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard together at the Bowery Ballroom (the fact that Smith and Shepard are not only former artistic partners-in-crime but also former lovers may provide some extra chemistry at this event). I’ll certainly be writing a report on this tomorrow.

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