Abdi Latif Ega and the rejection of the ‘African’ novel

Somali-American novelist Ega speaks about creating complex characters, the relationship of images to creative writing and the state of African literature today.

Abdi Latif Ega in Harlem. Credit: Zachary Rosen

It’s not an uncommon sight to find Abdi Latif Ega, cup of steaming tea in hand, strolling through the streets of Harlem in the afternoon sun, stopping to converse with a range of acquaintances along the way. Ega, a contributor to Africa is a Country, is a Somali-American novelist whose first book Guban breathes life into Somalia’s vast and intricate cultural landscape through the journeys of its characters. It’s a refreshing contrast to the barbaric representations Somalia frequently experiences from the Western media.

Now in the process of writing his second novel, Musa, Ega has launched an Indiegogo campaign to support the creative production of the book. More than just a writer, Ega embraces being a cultural worker who subverts the pigeonholing of African narratives in the mainstream publishing industry by self-publishing his work. In doing so, his writing transcends limitation by not being beholden to what a publisher deems is the  marketability of Somali and immigrant lives.

Consider contributing to this fiercely independent thinker’s campaign to create Musa and read our interview below where Ega speaks about creating complex characters, the relationship of images to creative writing and the state of African literature today.


What kinds of issues move you to write?

My writing comes from being moved to say something about injustice. It’s almost reactionary to it, as a reflex to it. There is a colossal, almost belligerent continuum through history of the elite who everything seems to be working for at the cost of most of humanity. So I don’t see myself particularly as a writer, but part of many things that involve culture; a cultural worker meaning averse to the idea that the writer is put on this pedestal on the back of a book where no one encounters him unless they come to an event or something like that. A cultural worker is a part of the village that creates to enhance the village. In essence as a cultural worker there’s some fundamental injustice or wrong narrative that I’m trying to amend, represent, change; there’s activism and it’s sort of like “writing is fighting” which Ismael Reed says all the time.

When people are coming to appreciate a collection of writing, they’re often invested in the lives of the characters. How do you conceive of your characters? And, how do they accomplish the visions that you have for your stories?

Well I think it’s not difficult for me to find characters. My characters are generally composites, sometimes caricatures of maybe 40 or 50 different types of traits. Perhaps one character can encompass three or four different kinds of bad traits that you feel in one person, like greed and avarice. Sometimes it’s toned down, sometimes exaggerated, but nonetheless a lot of the ingredients come from things that I have seen or intuitively add.

So they’re not alien to our existential, but at the same time the empty page has its own magic and sometimes you find that a character will veer off and do other things. At that point the plot will work as a harness to keep them in a certain vision so that they don’t run away completely from what it is you want to say. So there’s many ways where the character is unknown to you and they speak to you not necessarily by talking, but by inserting themselves in the work. I generally see such; shadows, silhouettes. A lot of it is also in the subconscious, that comes into play; the excavation of the archive.

Things we don’t remember that are locked in our subconscious and we need to delve into that place where the story will open up to you. That’s why it’s an excavation.

So as you’re excavating the archive, do you find yourself in conversation with writers whose work you have been influenced by?

Yeah, I think we’re somewhat collections of what we’ve read. I believe the writing is a legitimate son, or daughter of reading. So you are influenced by many people and certain lines and how that previous author did a certain thing in a description. And this doesn’t really revolve only around writers but it also revolves around poets, who are also writers in another form, musicians, artists, certain paintings you have seen or photographs or movies that capitivate your imagery.

How do photographs in particular move you? How do you translate your experience of looking at images into your writing?

Well, I think it relates in the sense of the reality of the photographs. There’s nothing closer to reality in that moment, that second or two seconds, it’s still life. And so when you’re writing an entire story from a period which is historic, you’re also in some ways creating a much larger photograph with much more detail.

So images are some of the ingredients from which the story coalesces. It seems when the reader experiences that story, they’re also recreating those images again on their own. Images are reborn then through the imaginative process of reading.

It’s a dream sequence. That’s why sometimes your imagination looks better than the movie that’s made of the book because your imagination can be so much more fascinating than what the director decided.

So what is Musa, in your new work, fighting for?

Musa is a spoof on white supremacy. It’s called Musa after the prophet Moses and it deals with a lot themes; racism, institutional marginalization of immigrants particularly of African descent, which I am. The problems of immigration; which means paperwork, legalities during, before and after the war on terror, and how one pays into the capitalist coffers of the system. There’s a duration of eight years or nine years where you might not be able to visit your family or leave the country. Those are definitely the different sides of this which have a lot of problems. I want to represent myself and the activism behind this is that there is a particular story that has not been done to even approximate the colorful lives that we’ve lived. I’m not a son of a diplomat or anything like that. I’m not from the upper class so this is a very different approach. I don’t think any experience is less than the other, but I think the question of representation, where one becomes the representative of everybody, is the issue.

You seem to also take a strong stance against more traditional publishing houses and a style of writing that some writers may perform to be published. There’s a sense that you are not interested in fitting that corporate mold. So what is your relationship with the publishing world?

My relationship is from my previous work, Guban for which I got a traditional agent.

The problem then was that what mainstream publishing was excited to publish were things in my view that were demeaning to African personalities, and particularly the image of Africa. They were more interested in producing works that had a lot to do with child soldiers, works that have something to do with pornographic famine, poverty, violence those things. In the case of Somalia it was all about warlords, pirates and terrorists. Guban is basically a response to all of that caricature and demeaning of the African personality. This is the 21st century, it is not Treasure Island. This marriage between mainstream publishing and media has often determined the things being published. So when Guban started off to actually pose a counter-narrative to these ignoble caricatures of African people, it didn’t fit what people were looking for. That is the relationship between me and mainstream publishing.

I think that [self-publishing] is something that is becoming more and more available. The people who are doing literary criticism whether they are academics or not are going through this amnesia as if it doesn’t exist. People are buying and reading more than in any other time, works that are independently published. Imagine a place like The New York Times will not review a self-published book. How realistic is that in this day and age? My experience has taught me that I think nothing in my life has been mainstream. I’m happy to put out my own work, in that I have no regrets over the work itself. There’s a certain amount of integrity in the work. That it is aligned to my politics, it’s aligned to the things that I want to speak about and I am not necessarily changing anything to pander to any market place.

You’ve alluded to corporate media feeling very comfortable with boxes and one of those contested boxes is the mythical beast of ‘African writing’. Over the last few years there’s been a lot of conversation about ‘African writing’ means.

Some writers and artists of African heritage want to say their works are art first and then ‘African.’ They don’t want to be put on the African shelf, they want to be put alphabetical. Another faction claims their ancestry and speaks of how they define for themselves what an ‘African’ experience can be. Where do you see this conversation now?

There’s a lot of projection onto the African writer in that there’s always someone trying to define what they should be doing. I think there’s an inordinate amount of paternalism that is directed towards African writing in general. The second thing is there are sort of hardened divisions between orality and also a simplistic view of African writing as beginning with Heinemann [African Writer Series], which is textual. How do you look at something in the Somali language, which is oral, or in any other language which is African and disassociate that literature with its Africanness? That’s a very difficult proposition. You cannot say a book in Somali, written from Somali poetry that comes from a long line of centuries, is not Somali. It’s difficult to remove yourself. But the appraisal of it is where the problem is. How, for example, somebody who’s writing in Chicago, all of a sudden becomes a writer who’s universal, rather than provincial and no one says this is not a universal work? I think that’s also where the problem is linked to white supremacy in that, certain literatures are not considered universal as the European or the Western one. In other words, the human condition seems to be located only in the North or the West. If all was fair and there were no limitations of universality as a writer, then of course there would be no problem. So, I don’t think it’s a negation of being an African, I think it’s a negation of being thought of as less than any writer from any country or continent. It’s a rejection of limitation.

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