There is no one way to talk about migration

Beyond news headlines, African artists complicate common migration narratives.

Salamatou, 12, steps out from work at her mother's restaurant to cut herself slices of mango as a snack. She sees a group of boys nearby playing football and immediately runs to join them, forgetting, at first, to put down her mango-slicing knife. Image credit Ryan Brown via UN Women Flickr CC.

In the summer of 1998, two Guinean boys were found frozen to death in the cargo hold of a plane that landed in Brussels. This is one of the narratives that opens Cajetan Iheka and Jack Taylor’s edited collection African Migration Narratives: Politics, Race and Space. The plight of the two Guinean boys, elucidated in a contingency letter that they left behind, demonstrates what Iheka and Taylor refer to as their disconnect from and dissatisfaction with the “gains of globalization,” a condition felt by many on the African continent.

The book was published in 2018 and Iheka and Taylor could not have known that there would be at least two other eerily similar incidents since then. News coverage of African migrants who died attempting to travel between Nairobi and London, as well as between Conakry and Paris, in June and September of 2019 illuminate the surprising lack of references to the wheel-well stowaway trope within African literature and film—at least, so far. In June 2019, a person “believed to be” a man fell from a Kenya Airways flight and landed next to a London resident sunbathing in their garden. Reporting on this event focused on witnesses at the scene and how the incident “has raised questions about the effectiveness of security checks [at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport]” (in the case of the BBC). Little information was given about the unnamed man, other than speculations from witnesses that “the reasons his body was so intact was because his body was an ice-block.”

It’s perhaps not surprising, at least to readers of this book review, that the immediate response of the UK was to consider the effectiveness of airport security in Kenya rather than the motivating factors that resulted in the desperate attempted flight. Such conditions have given rise to what Iheka and Taylor term “the migration turn in African cultural production.” The editors demonstrate the emergence of this turn in their invaluable historization of the African migrant narrative from the 1960s onwards, including the education, return, and disillusionment of the “been-to” as well as the post-2000 departure of African cultural producers in the wake of the liberalization of global trade in the 1990s and the rise of digital media.

The essays that make up this collection draw on an archive of “recent literary and filmic texts that have not received considerable attention” from across Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Africa. From this archive, it is clear that one of the biggest contributions that this collection makes is to bring necessary attention to underacknowledged, underappreciated, and omitted experiences and narratives, the likes of which are made evident in the case of the wheel-well stowaway above. This collection of essays complicates the familiar narrative of migration in terms of trajectory, geographical location, perspective, and form, as it aptly develops more completely and more humanely the subjectivity of those born in African post-colonies who attempt to leave them.

This is most immediately evident in the third section of the edited collection, “Migration Against the Grain,” which theorizes narratives of migration that refuse to conform to the simplistic renderings and linear trajectories that dominate the genre. The scholars in this section extend the work of the earlier scholarship by considering return migration as a forgotten diaspora in and of itself. As Madhu Krishnan points out, while return migration has long been analyzed in the social sciences, the affective dimension of such mobility within literature remains an understudied phenomenon. Krishnan’s reading of two Nigerian texts, Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland (2012) and Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. (2014), avoids the more familiar novels of Adichie, Selasi, and Cole that emphasize a too easy Afropolitan mobility. In focusing on the works of Saro-Wiwa and Ndibe, Krishnan demonstrates how return migration complicates binary understandings of belonging for the returnee visiting the homeland. Toni Pressley-Sanon extends the analysis of Saro-Wiwa’s travel memoir to consider the returnee’s struggle to recuperate connections and relationships within a homeland given the developments that both time and geographical distance have brought.

While Sanon examines a metaphorical “migration of the heart” within Saro-Wiwa’s text, Connor Ryan inverts this focus by detailing the paratextual migration that African migration narratives perform for the literary marketplace. Examining the different iterations and reprints of Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief (2007/2014), Ryan outlines the movement of the novel from its original niche Nigerian readership to a global one. Noting the adjustments that are made as the work is commodified for the global marketplace, Ryan proposes a method for reading what Akin Adesokan terms new African writing. This new method encourages readers to be attuned to how their interaction with any given work is shaped by the various images and texts circulating within one’s own geographical sphere.

Mary Ellen Higgins’s chapter on Sylvestre Amoussou’s Africa Paradis (2006) returns to the visual archive of film that African Migration Narratives begins with, only now with an eye to how migration is reinterpreted through speculative fiction. Amoussou’s depiction of European characters in flight to a united Africa in the year 2033 reverses the stereotypical path of migration from Global South to Global North that has come to dominate contemporary narratives. Higgins analyzes the film’s critique of a specific postcolonial futurity that encourages in the audience a reconsideration one’s own subjectivity. Noting the speculative dimensions of the film, Higgins quotes Bertolt Brecht’s discussion of estrangement in science fiction, a genre that “allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” Higgins uses this reference to demonstrate how Africa Paradis extends the mirror image that it projects of 21st century society. This point brings the section full circle as it echoes
Krishnan’s reading of displacement and belonging in narratives of return in which a returnee’s “defamiliarization resides with the irrevocable imprint of recognition.” The various narratives that run “against the grain” in this section, those of return, paratextual migration, and reverse migration, are thus unified through their collective portrayal of the uncanny.

In order for the significance of these “against the grain narratives” to be fully appreciated, African Migration Narratives opens with a section on migration films that concerns what are now common African migrant trajectories. The value of this section is in the attention to how these more predictable narratives, ranging from tragic Mediterranean crossings to ‘fortunate’ visa lottery winners, share a collective critique of how the West imagines and responds to African migrants inadequately and contradictorily.

This is evident in Valérie K. Orlando’s “Harragas, Global Subjects, and Failed Deterritorializations,” which considers the figure of the harraga and their attempts to cross from the Maghreb into Southern Europe without documentation. Orlando challenges the allegedly positive political and cultural impact brought about by globalization and “deterritorialization,” examining how African migrants become “enslaved by the forces of global consumption” in contrast to their more freely moving Western-European-United States counterparts. Focusing on twentieth century film, Orlando analyzes Merzak Allouache’s Harragas (2010) and Mostéfa Djadam’s Frontières (2002) as emblematic of the larger genre of literature and film on the harraga. Such works delineate the shift that has taken place in the precarity of Mediterranean crossings in the new millennium given the rise of antiterrorist measures being taken in the West. Subsequently, for migrants across the continent hoping to journey north into Europe, “Departure leads to neither freedom nor power over an individual’s becoming because the motive for leaving is ultimately defined by the global forces in which she or he is trapped.”

Matthew H. Brown continues the analysis of globalization’s impact on migrants in the global South in an essay that foregrounds the “farcical nature of contemporary global political economies.” Brown examines Nollywood comedies, an underappreciated genre of African migration narratives, that critique the seemingly benevolent yet unpredictable nature of migration programs and policies in the global North. Focusing on diversity visa lotteries, Brown hones in on the contradictory nature of nations that want to diversify their populace but remain “uneas[y] with extending welfare” to migrants (40). Babatunde Onikoyi extends this focus on the unease that environs African migrants abroad through an analysis of the stylistic features used to illustrate it. Onikoyi applies Hamid Naficy’s framework of “accented cinema,” films that destabilize the “overbearing styles, modes, and hegemonic prowess” of mainstream film industries, to what Jonathan Haynes has termed “New Nollywood,” contemporary Nollywood films with bigger budgets and an eye toward global audiences.

Onikoyi’s reading of Chineze Anyaene’s Ije: The Journey (2010) demonstrates how accented cinema and New Nollywood merge into “Accented New Nollywood,” a genre that “relays the African experience outside their homeland” and advocates for migrant belonging worldwide. Naficy’s accented cinema also provides a theoretical base for Daniela Ricci’s essay on the work of Dani Kouyaté, a filmmaker born in Burkina Faso who has lived and worked in France and Sweden. Ricci argues that Kouyaté draws on his transnational, diasporic identity as both inspiration and subject for his works, using allegory and parable to dramatize displacement in a way that builds on “typical griotic narrative art.”

The section that follows uncovers elided and overlooked experiences, identities, and texts of or about the African diaspora in South America and South Asia. Gilbert Shang Ndi’s essay on “The Visual Landscapes of the Peruvian District of El Carmen, Chincha” marks a departure in terms of geography and archive from the chapters that precede it. Analyzing the underacknowledged experience of the Afro-Peruvian diaspora, Ndi draws on visual cultural studies to read advertisements, signboards, house museums, and “vernacular museums” that moves beyond the literature and films of previous chapters. Such texts respond to problematic caricatures of the African presence in Peru by acting as counterimages that reimagine Afro-Peruvian identity in a more positive light. Niyi Afolabi gives voice to a similarly underrepresented archive in an examination of Lusophone novels from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde whose narratives confront the historical relationship between Portugal and its former colonies through a framework of transculturalism.

Switching the focus from forgotten regions to overlooked classes, S. Shankar considers the diaspora of poor migrants in South Africa in a move that also redirects attention away from the often studied figure of the political refugee. Riffing on the lyrics of rapper M.I.A.’s “Borders” to consider “broke people” within the work of South African author Nadine Gordimer, Shankar prioritizes the characters of July within July’s People (1981) and Abdu of The Pickup (2001) to demonstrate how migrancy becomes an inescapable condition for impoverished characters. Such individuals paradoxically find their mobility restricted under the pass books of the apartheid regime and the visa requirements of nation states.

The final section of African Migration Narratives, entitled “Migration and Difference,” considers the otherness of not the archive itself, but the characters and artists within it. The isolation of a range of migrants, from exiles to returnees, and the actions they take that both produce and ameliorate the sense of alienation, are examined in this section of essays that begins with Kenneth W. Harrow’s analysis of indigenousness in Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel Doomi Golo: The Hidden Diaries (2016). Harrow analyzes the relationship between different returnee characters and their claims to land in Senegal, drawing a parallel between the alienation felt by Yacine, who returns from France to live in the compound of her father-in-law Nguirane, and Nguirane’s own disillusioning return to the tomb of his ancestor. Harrow homes in on the reading of Yacine and her children, who have been living in France, as toubabs, a term historically used to represent the ruling colonial elite but is now used for whites more generally. The African returnee’s association with the figure of the toubab harkens back to the issue of belonging/unbelonging theorized by the likes of Krishnan and Pressley-Sanon in the section on migrant return.

John C. Hawley’s essay on Waris Dirie’s endeavor to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in her home country of Somalia also interrogates the notion of authenticity in the migrant, although here the focus is on autobiography and the activism of the author rather than a character. Like Yacine, Dirie is read as someone whose experiences in the West (as a fashion model) have changed her. Hawley goes so far as to draw a parallel to the figure of the been-to in African literature who is “caught between the two worlds, and wanders tragically without a clear sense of purpose.” Hawley outlines the debates surrounding FGM and the critiques made of Dirie, whose ability to speak up for women in Somalia is challenged by her time abroad. Dirie’s “self-imposed exile” is expanded upon in Isidore Diala’s chapter on the life and work of Esiaba Irobi, a poet and scholar who faced death threats in Nigeria because of the critical stances he took in his work towards the military. Diala contends that Irobi’s attention to the condition of exile in his work, particularly with his focus on the afterlife, extends Edward Said’s theorization of metaphysical exile in the estranged intellectual. Drawing attention to Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia’s critique that Said’s representation of exile is overly Eurocentric, Diala contends that Irobi inhabits the figure of the “‘Other’ exile” that Said surprisingly elides.

While Diala’s chapter concludes African Migration Narratives, Andrew H. Armstrong’s study of Leila Aboulela’s fiction two essays prior proposes a form of empowerment that it seems the characters and individuals of this section on “Migration and Difference” all struggle to assert. The Muslim migrant protagonists in Aboulela’s work achieve this through their refusal to relinquish their religious identity despite pressures to assimilate, and it is the religion itself that offers them solace. At the end of the chapter, Armstrong assesses Aboulela’s position within the canon of African migration literature, noting that her work “confirms that there is no blanket migration narrative […] There is no set formula for writing the migration narrative; no single or simple way to read it.”

It is a point that aptly summarizes the diversity of insightful and rich scholarship on display within African Migration Narratives, a work whose contribution to the fields of African studies, migration studies, and literary studies is invaluable in a time when, in the words of the collection’s editors Iheka and Taylor, “the world faces not a crisis in immigration, but a crisis in our capacity to offer hospitality.”

Further Reading

Carceral colonialism

On the United Kingdom’s attempts to finance the construction of large-scale prison facilities in former colonies, to where it wants to deport undocumented migrants.