What I should tell you is this: Read African Titanics tomorrow, read it yesterday, but don’t read it today.
After all, the relationship between the news and literary cycles is usually to the detriment of the latter. One wheel moves at hamster-on-coke speed, while the other spins slowly or quickly, but on an entirely different axis. For some literature, the two wheels gracefully miss each other, at least most of the time. Others are constantly locking gears. The relationship is particularly messy for Arabic literature in English translation, which is often crammed right onto the hamster wheel, where it’s published and read for its “daily news” interest rather than for its aesthetic joys, exciting plots, or formal innovations.
This doesn’t just shift an individual reading or two, but the whole Arabic corpus in translation, and even the corpus itself, leading to a feedback loop where we believe that “news value” is all you get from Arabic literature—that it’s all aesthetically weak books we must scour for hidden anthropological gems. And because that’s what we’re looking for, that’s what gets published.
Usually, the best we can do is stop looking at Arabic literature in that way. Usually, we have to tug Arabic literature out of the hamster wheel and see its complex, fifteen-hundred-year scope.
And yet! There are days when we take our most cherished rules and chuck them out a window.
One window opens
Here we are, at such a rule-chucking moment, as the public crisis of human deaths on the Mediterranean sits at a prominent position in world news. These human losses, thrown into the spotlight, underscore what sort of world we have created by fortressing our borders and making whole regions into gated communities. Although this manifestation has been growing for decades, the news cycle has wedged our attentions suddenly open, startled into knowing.
Inside this spotlight moment, many of us will have a fresh openness and curiosity. We will perhaps bring fewer of our fixed ideas, fewer of our loud meta-narratives to overlay atop of Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, solidly translated by Charis Bredon (2014). This is not a book to be read with the idea of “there but for the grace of God, go I,” or you will miss the whole of it. Neither should it be subject to the framework of “goodness me, how fortunate I am.” Instead, it should be read with absolute and fierce curiosity.
It is a shame to read Khaal’s book just as a daily-news item, particularly if this seduces the reader into skimming the sections of folk history that are tucked inside contemporary travel tales. We follow characters through the Sahara Desert, to cramped refugee hideaways, to prisons and ghettos, out onto the frightening leaky ships of the Mediterranean—these are great, fast-moving Odyssean adventures. It is a loss if the reader is turning pages so quickly that she misses the echoing folk tales, because this is also a story about stories.
However, it is equally wrong to read Khaal’s book only for its aesthetic value—which is just as possible. The novel is a lovely piece of craftsmanship, particularly the fast-forwards that show us glimpses of the future amidst our grim adventure tale. We could read it just to see how the book was built, to see how Khaal created these effects.
Yet the book doesn’t want to be read that way, either. In the end, it insists on this: that we remember these “migrants” as we go about our day. It insists that these individuals deserve their space in the larger stream of human stories.
A different sort of migration novel
Most migration novels are about how the immigrant is changed for the better or worse in experiencing a new culture. Most novels trace an east-to-west or south-to-north migration, although occasionally there are narratives of west-to-east rebuttal. But the migrants in African Titanics are neither a success nor a failure at integration, as most never reach their destinations. If they do, their tenures are brief. They are usually seized by authorities and sent back, as one character is when his employer turns him in after 9/11 for being an Arab.
African Titanics must have been inspired in part by the author’s own “successful” multi-year journey from Eritrea to Denmark. But instead of following his own path, Khaal forces his characters endlessly back. Yet in the end, this book is not just about how it’s impossible to get from A to B. Instead, it’s about how stories—or the absence of stories—change the shapes of our lives and memories. How do migrants know what’s happened to other migrants, if their tales are not told? How do they tell and preserve their own stories?
The book is about how migrants’ collective memories are shaped, but it’s also about how African Titanics might change a reader’s memory. A mythicized dead man sings:
I will cut
Through these paths
With my own liberated heart
And tell my soul
To shout of your silenced deaths
Palms of dust with morning dew
Khaal’s book fills us with song. He doesn’t tell us to stop being assholes who fortress our neighborhoods, communities, and countries. He doesn’t say that there’s no damn need for it, because migrants are ordinary people who would come and live ordinary lives alongside “ours.” He doesn’t tell us to humanize ourselves, or to open another set of eyelids so we can see that people dying on the sea share the essential human right to free movement. Instead, he gives us the space to engage with and remember these characters’ stories and be changed by them. It is a moment when news and book overlap. Two windows are open at once.
This is why we should, against our usual judgment, read this book today. Teach this book today. Make it the subject of a book group, even. Not because this is literature “of the moment.” African Titanics is a book that will remain relevant as the news-hamster rushes on and away. Here we are, at the double-window moment, and we should seize it.
Marcia Lynx Qualey spends her time squinting at the in-between spaces of literary translation: who's in, who's out, and why. Most often, she writes about what happens to Arab and Arabic literature in translation, and she blogs daily at http://www.arablit.org. Her "Time Traveling" will focus on the intersections of literature, memory, and violence. As we recall violence to the page, who and what gets remembered? What gets left behind? Twitter @Arablit