Three Little Books

In 2014, three little books were published by three “big” authors, and those little books have been mostly ignored, so far as I can tell, by almost everyone. Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void has been overshadowed by his most recent novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, the just published Letter to Jimmy will probably be the most neglected of Alain Mabanckou’s generally under-appreciated oeuvre, and if you haven’t read Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, you certainly haven’t read her little book of her Kreisel lectures, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home.

There’s no scandal in the way these kinds of little books get written only to disappear; these are odd little books published on relatively small presses by writers who are, themselves, more widely respected than they are well-known, especially in the United States. Of course, being an African writer in the United States already means not quite fitting into normal publishing categories, never being mainstream. But these little books are even harder to categorize or market, because they are each about—in different ways—the fact that “African writer” is a necessary but insufficient category. This is a difficult needle to thread, and I’m being as careful as I can with it, but if there’s a generalization one might venture about the three little books, it’s that they each take the fact of their identity (that they are African) as a starting point for thinking about all the other things that they are. Or maybe the point is that they don’t even have to bother taking it for granted: of course they are African, whatever that is; but there are other things to talk about when talking about identity. So they do.

In that sense, the oddness and littleness of these books, and the freedom provided by obscurity, might be one of the most valuable thing about them. Each of these books feel like uncompleted projects, which is to say, they are ongoing and viable projections of self into a future where the world will see them and read them and know them. As assertions of lives that have not quite yet been articulated or recognized in the present, these are not “masterpieces”; in the kind of longue durée consideration of these writers’ total oeuvre

Allow my resort to francophonics to signal my attempt to open up ironic distance from “masterpiece,” here.
that we might someday undertake, they will be footnotes. But footnotes can be the open wound in nonfiction, the path not taken, the tear in the polite fiction of completion and solidity that makes interesting books uninteresting. The most interesting thing about each of these books, then—and about the three of them, collectively—is the ways they split open any corpus of writing into which we might put them, or in which we might find them. They are thinking towards new worlds, worlds they haven't yet gotten to.

Esi Edugyan uses a phrase that I’ve been feeling for some time, but have generally avoided because of how inelegant it is: “post-post-colonial.” What an unlovely word. And even she isn’t particularly enthused; it isn’t, as she says, the sort of thing that writers have on the front of their minds when they write. But:

…if pressed I would say now that I believe the age of post-colonial literature has passed, at least for us. We do not live with an empire exerting its fist over us on a daily basis. Post-colonial narratives were written against, and in the wake of, being silenced. They were an act of self-assertion, a necessary counterweight here in Canada to mainstream stories about a homogenous, particular segment of the population. Post-colonialism encouraged a chorus of voices, where for a long time there had been only one. In other words, it was an explosion of multiplicity. But today, in Canada and Britain and the US, a novel written from a “minority” perspective is hardly controversial. If anything, it has become the new dominant kind of narrative. Publishers seek them out; young writers are encouraged to flaunt their ethnic distinctiveness; reviewers foreground such elements in their reviews. We have entered a different age, a post-post-colonial age.

I wonder if a better way to paraphrase that last sentence, though, would be that the post-colonial ‘we’ has become almost as much trouble as it’s worth. Which is to say: enough of the work that it had to do—the work of simply being heard, at all, even a little bit—has been done, now, that other kinds of intellectual work beckons, precisely because it has now become possible. The least interesting thing there is to say about writers like Abani, Mabackou, and Edugyan is that they are “post-colonial.” The intellectual formations of the 1990’s are less and less well-suited to the intellectual scene of the 2000-teens, precisely because they did what they needed to do. (As Edugyan continues “I write with the awareness of those who paved the way, but without the challenge or responsibility of shattering their same barriers. Some doors are still closed to me, certainly; but it is not as it was. It is a different world.”) Which is, to return to where I started, why the “littleness” of these books seems an important index of the work they are collectively doing, a kind of work which—in turn—indicates how open the present moment is to new kinds of thinking, doing, and being.

She is quick to observe—as I feel the need, as well, to qualify—that none of this indicates any kind of “post-racialism”; if we are “post-post-colonial,” we are also “post-post-racial,” in that we now definitely have no excuses for pretending that race is over.

Dreaming of Elsewhere is a series of short reflective lectures, barely 30 pages in total; I read the whole thing in an insomniac burst at about 3 a.m. last night, and though I’m not sure my weary brain did adequate justice to it, it did make me really eager to read whatever it is she’s writing now. I loved Half Blood Blues, but I also really like the directions her thinking seems to be tending towards, now.

Chris Abani’s Cartography of the Void was harder to get my hands on—it’s only available as an ebook (part of a series from Restless books on The Face) and my kindle got stepped on and broken—but once I managed to source a pdf from the publisher, I devoured it a single sitting. It’s light and easy, and also heavy and thought-provoking. It’s not exactly a memoir, but it’s a moving and funny account of inhabiting what Esi Edugyan calls the “yes, but where are you really from?” question. As he recalls:

 “When I lived in East Los Angeles, a predominately Chicano/Latino neighborhood, I was assumed to be Dominican or Panamanian. In Miami, where I go regularly for religious reasons, I am confused for a Cuban. In New Zealand I was assumed to be Maori. In Australia, Aborigine. In Egypt, Nubian. In Qatar, Pakistani. In South Africa, Zulu or some other group, depending on who was talking. Other times, because of my accent, which is a mix of Nigerian, British, and now American inflections, I am assumed to be from 'one of the islands.' No one accepts my Nigerianness, not without argument. In fact, the two things I have been rarely taken for—Nigerian and white—are the very things that form my DNA."

This little book is all about the stories that faces make possible through the stories that they hide. Buried somewhere in there is the story of Abani’s relationship with his father, a tender and violent intimacy that tells so much while telling remarkably little. Which is to say, in the simultaneity of hiding and disclosing, the book nicely exhibits one of the most consistently interesting things about Abani’s work overall: the way he makes questions of authenticity less interesting than the process by which, in pretending to be who we are, but aren’t, we come as close to being ourselves as we ever will (but we won’t). A face hides the self, but we wear the mask.

Chris Abani has said that James Baldwin made him want to be a writer; Esi Edugyan turns to Baldwin in describing the problem of living in “unalikeness”; but it’s Alain Mabanckou’s book-length Letter to Jimmy that most directly addresses how timely, how necessary, how prescient, and how alive James Baldwin is feeling right now.

Beginning with a chance encounter with a beggar wandering along a Santa Monica beach—a man whose ragged clothes and unsteady gait remind the author of a character out of one of James Baldwin’s novels— Mabanckou uses his own experiences as an African living in the US as a launching pad to take readers on a fascinating tour of James Baldwin’s life. As Mabanckou reads Baldwin’s work, looks at pictures of him through the years, and explores Baldwin’s checkered publishing history, he is always probing for answers about what it must have been like for the young Baldwin to live abroad as an African-American, to write obliquely about his own homosexuality, and to seek out mentors like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison only to publicly reject them later.”
 It's hard not to feel a certain regret that his voice is absent, that the letter will not be answered; what would James Baldwin say about Ferguson? "If you return to this world, Jimmy," Mabanckou writes, "you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive.” But to ask the question is to be reminded, as Mabanckou’s little book did for me, just how much James Baldwin there is to read that I (and you) haven’t read. I read Cartography of the Void on a single day’s commute, but it has taken me weeks and weeks to finish Letter to Jimmy because I keep having to stop to read The Fire Next Time, or No Name on the Street. And did you know that Baldwin wrote three more novels after Another Country? How did I not know that? But now I know what to do with my amazon gift card.

I don’t have anything much to say inn summary about these three books, or any kind of grand conclusion. Except that it’s appropriate that I don’t, which will do for a conclusion to this not-quite-a-review: these are books to read, to think with, and to follow. They might take us places.