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Transition 113: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

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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 113, Transition updates Countee Cullen’s iconic question by asking, "What is Africa to me now?" A soul-searchingly private query, its ramifications nevertheless play out in profoundly public ways, around issues of immigration, racial and ethnic tension, and the search for belonging. Guest edited by Benedicte Ledent and Daria Tunca, in this cluster Madhu Krishnan takes Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a starting point for defining contemporary African literature, while Louis Chude-Sokei explores through their novels the experiences of Africans living in America. Julie Kleinman reveals the perspective of Malian immigrants in France, and photographer Johny Pitts searches Europe with his camera for what he calls "Afropeans." Meanwhile, celebrated author and editor Hilton Als has his own questions about diaspora, which he explores in recollections of a childhood summer in Barbados. Caribbean Canadian novelist David Chariandy also treats Transition readers to a sneak preview of his forthcoming novel, Brother. The issue concludes with a suite of essays that examine the social impacts of collective fear, and ask—given obvious parallels between the Rodney King beating and the murder of Trayvon Martin—why does this keep happening to young black men?

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Negotiating Africa Now


IN 1957 LONDON, a young Nigerian broadcaster named Chinua Achebe, on the advice of friends, showed a manuscript for a novel chronicling the saga of three families in precolonial Nigeria to an instructor at his BBC training course. The manuscript, overhauled, revised, and rescued from consignment to the dustbin of an unscrupulous typewriting service, would eventually make its way to Alan Hill who, working for William Heinemann, would publish it first in hardback and later in paperback as the inaugural offering of the Heinemann African Writers Series. The publication of that novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), has come to mark the founding of modern African fiction, the first foray of a new body of work which has since been hailed for its revitalization of English-language writing and its centrality in the consecration of world literatures. Outstripping all publisher expectations, Things Fall Apart has since become the most widely-read work of African fiction, selling over ten million copies, translated into nearly fifty languages, and enabling Achebe’s legacy as the father of African writing. Described in its initial publishers’ reports as “a very exciting discovery” chronicling “the breakup of tribal life in one part of Nigeria,” the novel was rapidly lauded for its simplicity and feted for its ethnographic inquiries, finding its way into discussions of literary value, anthropology, and colonial discourse. “Writing back” to the vision of Africa as a land of savagery and darkness, the distorted reflection of the continent depicted in the work of writers like Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary, Achebe’s novel became a cornerstone in the project of recuperating a positive notion of African culture and heritage. Proving, definitively, that the privilege of literary voice and aesthetic representation in imaginative writing were no longer the sole property of the colonial powers, Achebe’s novel marked the first occasion on which the continent’s cry back to its masters might be heard, enlivening anti-colonial sentiment and humanizing, for the first time on a global scale, a distinctly African story of colonialism.


The Path Between Two Points


Malian adventures in France

Nous ne savons pas, au moment de partir de chez nous, si nous reviendrons jamais.

Et de quoi dépend ce retour? demanda Pierre.

Il arrive que nous soyons capturés au bout de notre itinéraire, vaincus par notre aventure même. Il nous apparaît soudain que, tout au long de notre cheminement, nous n’avons pas cessé de nous métamorphoser, et que nous voilà devenus autres. Quelquefois, la métamorphose ne s’achève pas, elle nous installe dans l’hybride et nous y laisse.

At the moment of leaving home, we do not know whether we shall ever return.”

“And what does that return depend on?” asked Pierre.

“It may be that we shall be captured at the end of our path, vanquished by our adventure itself. It suddenly occurs to us that, all along our road, we have not ceased to metamorphose, and we see ourselves as other than what we were. Sometimes the metamorphosis is incomplete, it turns us into hybrids, and there we are left.”


An Afropean Travel Narrative


THIS JANUARY, I found myself squashed in a small room with perhaps a hundred other people, mainly black, cocooned within a snow-covered Paris for a conference on Black Portraiture. As I looked beside me, I noticed the silhouettes of my fellow attendees’ African features contrasted against the icy white brightness gleaming through the windows. I had my camera poised—it would have made a great photograph, but Simon Njami, the influential French art critic, was finishing his talk entitled “The Black Body as an Artistic Metaphor.” His eyes were heavily lidded and self-possessed, and speaking in English with a French accent he exuded authority.

I have searched for my blackness as though it were a missing piece of luggage containing important ID.

“Of course,” he said, “this whole idea of the ‘black body’ is preposterous—if you are black it isn’t a black body, it is just a body. I don’t see anybody talking about the white body in such a way.”


The Newly Black Americans


African immigrants and black America

THERE IS A moment in Dinaw Mengestu’s well-received novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) where the narrator, Sepha—Ethiopian, refugee, victim of an anomie that is as Naipaulian as it is stereotypically modernist—encounters traces of Pan-Africanism and, what continues to be celebrated in scholarly and cultural circles (often uncritically) as, black Diaspora. Walking through neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. convulsed between decline and renaissance, where the domestic migrations of gentrification speak to the displacements of post-Independence Africa, Sepha encounters amongst the abandoned lots and littered condoms, the prostitutes and alcoholics, the memory of black transnational solidarity, or at least its symbols. The memory trigger in question is “a black-owned bookstore called Madame X,” where once were Afrocentric poetry readings, shared plates of “yam patties,” and no doubt the sound of jazz, reggae, hip-hop, or even Afrobeat.


Happiness · Fiction


SHYLOCK WAS A man of few words, and then only when a nod or a shaking of the head would not suffice. Prosperous did not know anyone else less inclined to use their tongue. She told Agu this the first time Shylock came to their house, the friend of a friend, and so recently arrived from Nigeria that Prosperous swore that as soon as he walked in, her homesickness lifted because he smelt of home. She did not tell Agu that she thought Shylock looked like him: same high forehead, same roast coffee complexion, they could have been brothers.

“He has a lazy tongue,” Agu said. Prosperous said she did not trust a man who would not talk in the company of other men.

“Maybe he’s shy.”

She said she had thought that too at first when he answered her “would you like a beer?” with a nod. But the longer he sat there, in their sitting room, nodding and shaking his head to questions, listening to the other men argue and talk but contributing nothing, as if he were a sponge absorbing their voices, she began to feel that her initial assessment of him was wrong.


“Some Connection with the Place”


exploring displacement and belonging with Jackie Kay

WRITER JACKIE KAY was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. At birth she was adopted by a white couple and grew up in Glasgow. Inspired by her own life story, her first poetry collection The Adoption Papers (1991) won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire Society First book of the Year Award. Told from three different perspectives, the poems narrate the story of a black girl who is adopted by white Scottish parents.

One of her subsequent poetry collections Other Lovers (published in 1993) won a Somerset Maugham Award. Influenced by the history of Afro-Caribbean people, the poems explore the search for an identity grounded in the experience of slavery. The collection also includes a sequence of poems about the blues singer Bessie Smith about whom Jackie Kay also published a biography in 1997.




for Peter

That sky’s largeness and generosity reminded me of how pitiful I can feel on islands, where one’s ideas about the place amount to so much sentimental or ideological bullshit.

I AM WRITING this some time after standing at the edge of the bay for the first time. The bay’s edge runs parallel to the water, from east to west in a not-at-all-straight line. For students of master prints and drawings, a line occurring in nature is the original mark or beginning, inspiring artists ranging from DaVinci to Picasso and one or two hundred others, to wonder how to approximate that line’s naturalness on the page, in an artificial medium, just as I am trying to use another artificial medium—prose—to describe what I see: the water’s edge, little white pebbles embedded in light brown sand at the lip, sand that turns brown and then browner as baby waves wash up and over a little sandy beach like the one I stood on this evening. There was a moon, not full and not at all poetical; on the surface of the water, a small craft hobbled back and forth on the black bay water, like a legless man rocking back and forth on an expanse of black. I could not find irony in anything I saw. There was a bit of moon in the night sky. It killed me. That sky’s largeness and generosity reminded me of how pitiful I can feel on islands, where one’s ideas about the place amount to so much sentimental or ideological bullshit next to shoeless island dwellers with rust-colored heels tramping through pig shit putting pigs to bed, or other island dwellers sitting, legs spread, on a concrete step leading to a little tin-roofed house, a house with one or two rooms and black people coupling and talking their coupling in a bedroom in that house, maybe under a window crammed with stars. I like it here. I stay on this island on weekends, when I visit a friend who lives here, a friend I love like no other. It’s far north of the island my family came from originally, which is smaller, mean, and turned in on itself, like an evil-smelling root. Looking down at the black wavelets in the black night bay—the patterns were visible to me because of that piece of moon—I could not help but think of lines—lines made in nature, and then lines on a canvas or in a drawing, and how those lines were not really very different from lines of writing brought together to describe sensations such as the love I feel on this island with its bay, and my friend, whom I love like no other.


We Eat Cold Eels and Think Distant Thoughts · Poetry


Said American boxer Jack Johnson, glistening like a fish,

To the newsman who asked him why white

Women were drawn to black men, like him.

What is it like to eat cold eels and think distant thoughts?

What is it like to be a black man who eats cold eels

And thinks distant thoughts? What is it like to be

A black man who thinks to say we eat cold eels and think

Distant thoughts to a white reporter, in early-1900s America,

Who wishes to reduce him to meat, to red, to sexual.

Once in the Chicago Aquarium, a long time ago,

I met an eel I was told by the label on his large

Tank weighed 53 pounds, and was 100 years old.

It looked at me with such a fierce intelligence through the glass

And silty water of its address—its grey bald head almost human,

Its two lidless eyes, its small nose holes; and instead of a body

Below its head, no body but a tail of fluid form, one great muscle

Behind ears that were not ears, but also holes. Its whole body


Straddling Shifting Spheres


a conversation with David Chariandy

Am I a writer? An artist? I do not know. I know, though, that if tomorrow someone managed to convince me that all is hunky-dory with those who look like me, I would indulge myself in long Fieldingesque works . . . I would call myself a writer. Right now, I feel the term intellectual worker, which I have heard Lloyd Best of the Tapia House Movement in Trinidad use, best describes me.

—ERNA BRODBER, “Fiction in the Scientific Procedure”

CARIBBEAN WRITERS HAVE a long tradition of straddling the worlds of critical and creative work. Some, like Erna Brodber and Kamau Brathwaite, formally pursued academic studies and continued to practice in their discipline while also producing fiction and poetry; and others, like Derek Walcott and M. NourbeSe Philip, wrote cultural criticism alongside their poetry without the official sanction of a doctorate but often from the ivory tower nonetheless. The boundaries between the academic and cultural spheres have never been firm and the balance never even, but our theorists are frequently also our poets, our novelists, our playwrights. Such intellectual workers consciously shift between various types of writing as they grapple with Caribbean concerns.


Excerpt from Brother · Fiction


Jambiani Beach no.1. Black and white photograph (digital). ©2008 Isaak Liptzin.

a forthcoming novel*

HE WAS MY brother. The one who told me about lightning and girls. The one who crouched beside me in hideouts when we were little. His shoulder thin and bare against mine, his body always just a skin away. That summer when we were only seven and eight and we climbed the sappy pine busting out of the asphalt behind the 7-Eleven. Days after reaching for each other’s hands to smell and name what clung there still. (‘It’s Mr. Clean,’ my brother finally said, nailing it.) That fall of the same year when he led me to the road-side ditch off Lawrence Avenue and piled the loose and blowing stuff of this land over our bodies like a blanket, hoping for cover. Leaves of orange and red, dried weeds and twigs. Also trash like paper and foil and the many shredded plastic bags blown here from fast food shops. Our hats camouflaged all guerilla style with twigs and mashed up drinking straws. Our faces already the color of earth.


Burial Ground · Poetry


There are dark places; drunk with grief where water

drizzles. There are wilted flowers and dried wreaths.

There is your grave hidden back there, behind

God’s back. There are clusters of Charles

buried here; neighbours in this family plot.

Two lone wooden stumps mark the grave

where you wait for that marble headstone

etched with your name. There is wild bush

and the broken fence where your nephew

crashed that rented car at your funeral,

when his vision blurred with tears. There are

the marks we leave and those that will be made.

Malika Booker


Legacies of Fear


from Rodney King’s beating to Trayvon Martin’s death

ON APRIL 29, 1992, the Los Angeles Riots began. Thousands of people stormed the streets following the verdict that acquitted four police officers who kicked, Tasered and beat black motorist, Rodney King, within an inch of his life. The incident, captured on a video recording lasting roughly ten minutes, was beamed out on television screens across the nation. In the intervening days, tensions ran high between Korean American shop owners and African American patrons. By the time the Riots (or the uprisings or rebellions, as some prefer to call the events) came to an end, property damages totaled nearly $1 billion, fifty-three people had died, and more than 2,000 people were injured. The National Guard was deployed to occupy L.A., and U.S. Marines patrolled the streets enforcing a curfew.

Twenty-one years later, on July 13, 2013, millions of Americans watched their TV screens with baited breath, awaiting another verdict—the fate of a man, George Zimmerman, who had killed an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. The basic facts of the case were not so different from the circumstances that led to Rodney King’s beating, though Martin was nearly ten years younger than King was at the time of his accosting. And King survived his beating. Martin did not. Martin was on his way home when George Zimmerman began to follow him. Zimmerman told the police he had been following this “suspicious-looking” teenager. Martin knew he was being followed and told his friend, Rachel Jeantel, that the man might be some kind of sexual predator. Soon thereafter, Martin and Zimmerman confronted each other on the street. The confrontation ended when Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. This fact was not in dispute. During the trial, the critical question was whether or not there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. The jury took the word of the confessed killer. Protests erupted across the country over the verdict. Activists, through banners, speeches, and song, pointed to a long history in the U.S. that has intertwined law-enforcement and race-based violence.


Remembering SA-I-GU


an interview with Dai Sil Kim-Gibson

DAI SIL KIM-GIBSON is the co-director, along with Christine Choy, of Sa-I-Gu, an acclaimed documentary film about the Los Angeles riots that focuses on the perspectives of Korean American women. The film’s title literally translates to “4-2-9,” or April 29, which is what many Korean Americans call the uprising in keeping with the Korean practice of naming important events by their date. PBS broadcasted Sa-I-Gu in 1993, and since then, the film has been screened in many venues, including numerous film festivals and universities.

Kim-Gibson left Korea in 1962 to pursue graduate studies in the United States. After holding positions with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Council on the Arts, she decided in 1988 to devote herself to filmmaking. In addition to Sa-I-Gu, she is the director of Wet Sand: Voices from L.A. and Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women. The latter film was critical in raising awareness about the Japanese military’s practice of forcing Korean women into sexual servitude during World War II. Kim-Gibson is also the author of the recent book, Looking for Don: A Meditation, which brings together writings she composed after the passing of her husband. She is the first Korean American filmmaker granted official permission to film in North Korea, where she herself was born. Both personal and historical, her film on North Korea, People Are the Sky, is in the editing stage and set to be completed in 2014.


The Luminance of Guilt


on lives through the lens of apocalypse

In March of 1991, Los Angeles resident George Holliday was awakened by the sound of police sirens and hovering helicopters. Holliday went to his window and what he saw appalled him: a group of LAPD officers hitting a man who was lying on the ground. Holliday grabbed his video camera and filmed a now-immortal twelve-minute sequence of the Rodney King beating, documenting that King was tasered, kicked, and struck with a metal baton at least fifty-six times. King suffered multiple serious injuries, including eleven skull fractures.

The film provoked international outrage and led to the indictment of the officers involved. The officers’ defense rested largely on a frame-by-frame analysis of the images in the film, relabeling each still of the assault as reasonable self-defense. When they were acquitted, Los Angeles burst into flames, enduring the worst civil disturbances in its history. As then-President George H. W. Bush said, “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids.”



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