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New African Fiction: 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 117, Transition presents new short fiction from writers with Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Liberia—and the diaspora—in their veins. Also in this issue are: selections from Transition's online forum, "I Can't Breathe," a venue for discussing the recent murders by police of unarmed black Americans; selections of poetry; and an interview with the architect and curator of the opening exhibit at Harvard University's new Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.

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New African Fiction

ePub

Transition hosts an online forum for responses to the murders of unarmed black Americans by police. The responses are raw and unedited. The following is a selection of submissions from that site. Please visit, and add your own voice.

http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/I-Cant-Breathe

I Can’t Breathe

I can’t breathe because I watched the news and saw myself, crawling on a pot-holed filled street from Monrovia to Conakry by way of Freetown. I am the other. I named my last born Ebola, but I still can’t breathe.

I am Eric, Mike, and Tamir. My grandma calls me Amadou, and my friends Trayvon. I inhabit your dreams. I am the night to your day. The bad to your good, and the cry to your laughter. So I laugh to breathe. I laugh to let the air swim in, but I feel an arm grabbing me. I am humid like a New Orleans summer night. I gasp. Grasping for the Bayou’s wind, yet I can’t breathe.

Yemoya, abeg o!

 

To Be Where We Are

ePub

JUST A FEW weeks ago I was thinking about the first time I read an issue of Transition.

A sepia-toned memory began to play in my mind: I have been at Bates College for only a week or so, and the school still seems so foreign to me that I sometimes wonder how I will escape if, no, when the urge strikes. I’m walking out of my first class of the day when my English professor hands me a magazine. “Read this,” she says.

I am actually a senior at Morehouse College. I’ve just returned from a summer working in DC, but I don’t have enough money to continue my education. I am effectively homeless, but my best friend has offered me a place on his couch. On my first night there, I notice a magazine on the floor. I pick it up, begin to read.

No, I’m a second year graduate student at Oxford, and I have fallen in love with literature. Or, more accurately, I have finally admitted to myself that I have always been in love with literature. I’m playing around on the internet one afternoon when I come across the archives of a magazine called Transition. I’ve never heard of it before. I click on a link.

 

Bras-Coupé

ePub

translated from French and introduced by Sarah Jessica Johnson

LITTLE ENOUGH IS known about Louis-Armand Garreau. His fictions tell us that he was an anti-slavery Frenchman and intimate examiner of antebellum Louisiana. His patchy biography reveals a man whose political writings necessitated a life of on and off exile from France. By the 1830s, Louisiana was a known and fairly stable haven for French and francophone refugees of many backgrounds; political outcasts were common contributors to the multilingual literary world of the newly American state. Garreau’s short story, “Bras-Coupé,” translated here for the first time into English, is a graphic and nuanced depiction of plantation slavery in New Orleans, capturing the multi-ethnic, multilingual, immigrant-saturated city and its environs.

Published in France in 1856, “Bras-Coupé” retells a popular local legend based on actual events of the 1830s: Then, a slave named Squire escaped from a plantation and lost an arm in the process. He continued to evade the police in a standoff that lasted years. Quickly dubbed “le Bras-Coupé” or “The Severed Arm,” Squire and his supposed “encampment of outlaw negroes near the city” resisted capture for enough time to reanimate intense local fears of slave revolt. Additionally—and importantly for this literary history—the continuous newspaper reporting of the prolonged stalemate built up a legend that would go on to be retold by late-nineteenth century authors George Washington Cable and Lafcadio Hearn. The former would feature Bras-Coupé’s story in two chapters of his magnum opus The Grandissimes: A Tale of Creole Life (1880), while the latter would respond to Cable in his newspaper column with a report meant to set the historical record straight, titled “The Original Bras Coupe” (1880).

 

Over Seas

ePub

Mer d’Asphalte. ©2012 Rym Khene.

KOFI WAS LOOKING over the whitewashed walls of the Elmina Castle. Three centuries before, he might have seen a row of desperate Africans, shackled together and exiting through the narrow Door of No Return. They would have shuffled across the beach and boarded a ship whose crew would have given some of them to the sea and sold the survivors in the Americas. But on that day the beach was teeming with fishermen and fishmongers. Men, their upper bodies chiseled by years of battling the sea, dragged in gigantic nets laden with fish and rubbish while women waited impatiently with deep enamel basins in hand, their eyes trained on the day’s catch, poised to haggle with the weary fishermen.

They didn’t come to the castle to see the dark and airless slave dungeons but to stand on the rampart overlooking the sea and boyishly fantasize about when they, too, would cross the expanse of foamy water to America.

 

Welcome to the Big Apple

ePub

an excerpt from a forthcoming novel

“GOD IS AMERICAN and he lives in New York City,” Khalifa liked to say.

Though Awa did not believe her brother’s exaggeration, she always imagined the city as celestially mighty, shrouded in blue. The Americans she translated for often spoke of the city as one talked about God, with a sense of reverence and wonder.

Her fear of heights had gradually melted but when the plane started its descent, she was sweating. She looked out the window but saw only water. The plane seemed to glide on the calm tide. She didn’t know which was more terrifying: being on a plane for the first time, or coming to America for the first time.

The Americans she translated for often spoke of the city as one talked about God, with a sense of reverence and wonder.

She had heard that New York was very cold in December. It did not stop her clamminess. Her brown-striped suit stuck to her back. She wondered why Moussa the tailor had used that scratchy polyester for the lining. She clenched her jaws and held on to her seat. Finally the airplane came to a stop. The passengers riffled for papers and stood up to deplane. The woman seated next to her was applying make-up, making faces as she looked into a small red mirror.

 

The Smell of Fear

ePub

Bangundo. Afronauts series. Digital C-print. 12 × 12 in. ©2012 Cristina de Middel.

from the forthcoming novel My Place is Good

THE WAR CREPT up on us. First the army flooded Acholiland. Foot soldiers passed through Kati-kati, our village, in training. They ran and chanted songs in Swahili and Luganda. Sometimes, they even chanted in Luo. We ran after them, imitating—an exciting new game! Some days, they marched on the main highway. From the distance, they seemed to be moving in one straight line, countless pairs of legs lifting and moving as one. Countless pairs of eyes looking straight ahead, brows tightly knitted. The dark faces of the soldiers glistened with oily sweat, illuminating brilliantly like the midday sun.

The soldiers perched on top looked mean, competent, and important. Even adults stood by speechless, such grandeur!

I loved the sight of the trucks and trucks of soldiers, tanks, artillery—huge machine guns like we had never seen piled high, moving at a leisurely speed, heading towards Amuru. The soldiers perched on top looked mean, competent, and important. Even adults stood by speechless, such grandeur! Baba said that the soldiers were looking for rebels, whom I had never seen but was told wore tattered clothes, walked on foot, and carried small rusty guns. I was sure that the rebels wouldn’t survive a day.

 

Rumors

ePub

This Muslim girl attends a Koranic school where lessons are in Arabic. The board she carries serves as her writing pad. Sokoto, Nigeria 1989. © Betty Press

THE INSURGENTS HAD acted swiftly, killing all the whitemen they encountered as government soldiers attempted a rescue. The blood of the whitemen is not on the insurgents’ hands but on the government’s, because they were warned but refused to listen. The above I learned from Turaki, my only friend and a dedicated rumormonger. Though he’s older than me, we’re like twin brothers. We eat together from the same plate when the food is not enough to go around; we go everywhere together, even to the newsstand, where all the rumors emerge before travelling to every nook and cranny of Zungari.

All we do is read the headlines as much as we can and start discussing. Then the rumors start building up in the crowd, gaining form and weight: developing limbs and wings and then start roaming and soaring over Zungari.

 

100,000 Men

ePub

“HUSH, HUSH,” HE said expectantly, jittery, running about the camp, the gaping hole in his brown shorts thoroughly visible, as was his entirely emaciated state. “Do you not hear them?” he turned around and around, looking about, pausing, staring intently at each face, as if to will them, to force them to apprehend what he was saying. “Do you hear them coming?” He breathed heavily. “They are coming! I saw them with my own eyes, my own two eyes! I swear they are coming.”

“Taidor, Taidor, Choul is having another of his fits again,” Alek said to her husband, stating the obvious.

Taidor looked on, unable to shake off the melancholy expression on his visage. Of course he knew there was no one coming. He was the sober one, calm, collected, resigned to fate without complaint. And he knew there was definitely no one coming. He hated the hopeless optimism of Choul. Even from their days at the university in Khartoum, Choul had entertained and nursed this ridiculously hopeless idealism. “They are coming where?” he scoffed. “Who? Who is coming?” He shook his head sarcastically and proceeded to scratch his unkempt hair.

 

An Unexpected Gift

ePub

an excerpt from a forthcoming novel

AJAKA CHEWED THE last of his bitter kola and gazed forlornly out of the barricaded window of his Ikot-Ekepene Road flat into the busy city streets. Was today the day they would find the missing child?

It was the will of the Alusi, the old gods, that the fortunetellers fail. It was their way of reminding the rainmakers that no one, not even a priest, could tell a god what to do.

It was the pronouncement of the local meteorologist on the beat-up FM radio he kept beside his bamboo-sleeping mat that, It will not rain today, like a blind priest trying to read the hand of God. The breeze from the harmattan wind had ashened his skin and cracked his lips that morning like it had the morning before, but Ajaka was not surprised to find streaks of grey lining the aging sky. He had lived in the Jungle City long enough to know that no one could accurately predict the passing of the rainy season. Not even the entreaties of the rainmakers from the villages and the local government areas could keep Kamalu’s double-headed axe from cracking the calabashes holding the waters of the sky in place; or Afo, the alusi of tornadoes and hurricanes and the goddess of the northern sky, from whirling her skirt and using the air it whipped up as a cutlass to cut open the sky whenever she willed it. It was the will of the Alusi, the old gods, that the fortunetellers fail. It was their way of reminding the rainmakers that no one, not even a priest, could tell a god what to do.

 

The Dragon Can’t Dance

ePub

Mother Lisa Revlon (Fem Queen with mother). From the Fireflies, Baltimore series. ©2011/2012 Frédéric Nauczyciel.

THE FIRST TIME I danced, I hated it. Six years old, skinny as a string bean, shy, observant, the last thing I wanted was to be pulled into my nana’s long, strong arms and swept onto the makeshift dance floor at her birthday party. My hair was tightly braided, laced with the new gold and white beads Mama bought just for the occasion. My freshly oiled temples smelled like heaven, hurt like hell. Coconut and mango braids throbbed with the thunk, thunka-thunka that thumped from wood veneer speakers sprawled across two wobbly card tables in a corner of the garden. Nana threw back her head and pranced, that’s right, pranced past my two uncles, my sisters, Papa and Mama, past all her old neighbors and church friends, and rolled her ample hips like a much younger woman. I was scandalized! Everyone clapped and howled at the vision, bellies full of roti and spicy jerk chicken. Nana wore red. And she looked amazing, a juicy hibiscus blossom in her hair.

 

Breweries

ePub

CLEMENTINA, OH, CLEMENTINA! A woman is not supposed to wear a miniskirt and pick up a coin from the ground. I am coming right behind you, rushing to catch up with you. Hang on, please. Don’t you remember me anymore? Oh, for history’s sake, stop pretending you can’t recognize my face. My name is Chinedu, Felix Okeke’s first son. You should know my Popsy, my weird father. He used to be a driver in the city where he sired seven of his children from a single wife. Where did you hide your face? I was searching for a tortoise in the sky and did not know that the cunning animal was on the ground, crawling under my feet. I’ve found you today, Clementina, and my stomach is happy, and I thank our ancestors for that.

You said you were fingering it for love, and that love was headquartered in my groin.

Are you going to the market, too? I am dragging this old she-goat to the market so that my Popsy can sell it off. I returned from the boarding school last week, and I can see that you are now one of the many palm-oil traders in this village. I think the load of palm-oil barrels, which you have in the wooden carrier on your head, is too heavy for you, a breastfeeding mother with a sleeping baby on her back. But that does not stop me from reminding you, as we trek, of where we both started our journey. So listen to me, and stop pretending! You already know there is a poisonous snake lying under your mattress, and you don’t need a microscope to see what you grip tangibly in your hands.

 

From That Stranded Place

ePub

Taiye Selasi with Aaron Bady. Photo by Mike McGraw at The Daily Texan. ©2014

a conversation with Taiye Selasi

TAIYE SELASIS REPUTATION precedes her. Before she published her first novel in 2013, the celebrated Ghana Must Go, she was already well-known as the author of “Bye Bye Babar,” a very small essay that asked a big question, “What is an Afropolitan?” The answer, she wrote, was a young and beautiful generation of international Africans like her. “We are Afropolitans,” she wrote, “not citizens but Africans of the world.” In the decade since then, the term has become strangely polarizing, almost notorious. On the one hand, it’s been taken up as banner for Brand Africa in the twenty-first century; there’s a magazine called Afropolitan and you can buy “handmade and designer accessories such as jewelry, bags and shoes” from The Afropolitan Shop. But as the term has been commodified (quite literally), there has been a backlash, not only against Taiye Selasi and the idea of the Afropolitan, but against the bourgeois aesthetic that many have taken them to represent, a twenty-first-century black Atlantic that many have taken to be at odds with more explicitly politicized versions of African diasporic culture. Binyavanga Wainaina, for example, made waves at the 2013 UK African Studies Association by declaring, in his keynote address, that “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan.”

 

Poetry

ePub

Beautiful. Acrylic and collage on canvas. 180 × 150 cm. ©2013 Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo. Image courtesy of artist and Gallery MOMO.

after Warsan Shire

Your son is dumb, a nobody,

without honor, country or history.

Talk to him.

The books he reads do not.

Have you not told him

life is mean but fair,

God created the stars, wind and sea

and slave ships passed,

God parted the sea

and slave masters drowned?

So what that your son’s belly

bears the marks of your teeth

and blunt edges of your fist.

So what that his father is a ravaging wolf.

Your son is a shark

with no reverence for life,

not even his own.

Does he not know

that no loving outstretched arms,

no prayer, salt, or grail will save him?

Fathers tell their daughters

to not go near him,

not let his words be pomegranates

or the soft-drip thaw of ice on the myrtles.

 

Ali Mazrui (1933–2014)

ePub

Ali Mazrui. Photo by Seifudein Adem. ©2011

THE RANKS KEEP thinning, bringing sadness both for the individual loss and for the inevitable receding of an era whose seizure owed so much to the intellectual industry of scholars such as Ali Mazrui.

Ali and I were unflagging adversaries. Indeed, it is only by dint of a hard effort of recollection that I find myself able to cite a few areas of absolute concordance on any critical issue that concerned the “Africa Project”! Fortunately, I was able to participate—at his touching insistence!—in the colloquium at Binghamton University to mark his seventieth birthday. He was the perfect host, presiding affably over the multidisciplinary motley of African scholars and Africanists, including statesmen and -women, that he had labored very hard to bring together.

Among these was another adversary of a different kind—General Yakubu Gowon, former Military Head of Nigeria. We were meeting for the first time since my emergence from prison detention in 1969. Gowon was obviously ill at ease, understandably, since he had signed the detention order that had kept me in prison for over two years during the Biafran war of secession. Many knew this already, so the tension was not confined to the General alone; certainly, Ali was on the watchful side, especially as he had seated the two ‘enemies’ side by side.

 

Remembering Ali Mazrui

ePub

Ali Mazrui. Photo by Seifudein Adem. ©2011

THE RANKS KEEP thinning, bringing sadness both for the individual loss and for the inevitable receding of an era whose seizure owed so much to the intellectual industry of scholars such as Ali Mazrui.

Ali and I were unflagging adversaries. Indeed, it is only by dint of a hard effort of recollection that I find myself able to cite a few areas of absolute concordance on any critical issue that concerned the “Africa Project”! Fortunately, I was able to participate—at his touching insistence!—in the colloquium at Binghamton University to mark his seventieth birthday. He was the perfect host, presiding affably over the multidisciplinary motley of African scholars and Africanists, including statesmen and -women, that he had labored very hard to bring together.

Among these was another adversary of a different kind—General Yakubu Gowon, former Military Head of Nigeria. We were meeting for the first time since my emergence from prison detention in 1969. Gowon was obviously ill at ease, understandably, since he had signed the detention order that had kept me in prison for over two years during the Biafran war of secession. Many knew this already, so the tension was not confined to the General alone; certainly, Ali was on the watchful side, especially as he had seated the two ‘enemies’ side by side.

 

A Tribute to Ali Mazrui

ePub

Ali Mazrui. Photo by Seifudein Adem. ©2011

LET ME SPEAK briefly to Mazrui’s love of writing, his commitment to scholarship, and his position on issues of justice in general. Mazrui loved writing, and in 1974, he told us why:

[T]his tremendous urge to communicate . . . This is why I write at all, why I write so much, why I write on such varied subjects. I have a constant urge to try and share with others what I think are glimpses I have had . . . When I want to communicate any particular thought that has occurred to me, a) I want to work it out and b) I want to communicate it to others. I have to work it out. I work it out in the writing. Having worked it out, I want somebody else to know what occurs to my mind, to my being.

In order to play Boswell to Mazrui’s Samuel Johnson someday, hopefully, I kept more than 5,000 pages of handwritten correspondence with him. This collection bears testimony to Mazrui’s love of writing, a collection that includes his instantaneous thoughts and immediate reactions in writing when he was pleased and when he was less-than-pleased.

 

Luminous City, Luminous Gallery

ePub

Kimbembele Ihunga. Installation shot from Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy exhibition at the Cooper Gallery, Fall 2014. Bodys Isek Kingelez, 1994. Paper, cardboard, polystyrene, mixed media. Photo by Marcus Halevi. Courtesy of the Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection (WWW.JAPIGOZZICOLLECTION.COM | WWW.CAACART.COM)

David Adjaye, Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discuss the new Cooper Gallery and its first exhibition, Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy

WHEN IT CAME time to design a dynamic space for Harvard University’s new Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, the Hutchins Center’s founding director, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., turned to award-winning Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, whose numerous grand and ambitious public buildings—including the soon-to-open Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—are renowned for their seamless merger of modernist and African aesthetics. When Adjaye was then invited to curate the first exhibition in the new gallery space, he sought the help of Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, the young Somalian curator whose gallery in Seattle is making waves by insisting that African contemporary artists be taken seriously by the contemporary art world at large. In this conversation—which took place at the Cooper Gallery’s opening event in October 2014—Gates, Adjaye, and Ibrahim-Lendardt discuss the gallery’s architecture and the process by which Adjaye and Ibrahim-Lendardt selected the pieces for their show from the legendary Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection. The Cooper Gallery is under the direction of Vera I. Grant and is located in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

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