The African been-to novel was a short-lived phenomenon. Here’s the quick and dirty:
From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, African authors including Wole Soyinka, Tayeb Salih, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, and Yambo Ouologuem produced a sub-genre known as been-to novels. In their most paradigmatic form, been-to novels feature a brilliant male student who travels to Europe or the U.S. with the aim of returning to his home country to help build the post-independent nation. The designation been-to, from which the sub-genre takes its name, encapsulates this process of travel: he has been to a foreign country and returned. However, the instrumental purpose of the journey abroad, to acquire skills and education, conflicts with the cultural and psychological experiences of travel. In an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, been-to novels depict what happens when, as Frantz Fanon puts it, “the Negro” comes into “contact” with “white civilization.”
The been-to novel is primarily about interiority; it might, in fact, be the most modernist African novel because of this focus on interiority. Because we understand the been-to as an intellectual, we are more willing to spend time on this figure, and by “we,” I mean those of us who read literature more than casually. It also helps that Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is an iconic African novel (and also so gorgeous) as many other been-to novels are out of print (The Interpreters, Fragments, Bound to Violence—though newly available in a collection edited by Christopher Wise).
It’s easy to value the been-to novel and particular been-to stories in that vicious way that canonization and genre value certain works: I am inclined to value works about African intellectuals, African students, African modernist characters, precisely because my training inclines me to view these works as valuable.
Something interesting happens when I’m presented with a story that falls outside the been-to paradigm, where the character is, well, not exceptional. This is the problem of reading Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid.” How does one read a kind of character that one has not encountered before? Or, rather, how does one value a kind of character one has encountered as a foil to the exceptional been-to?
As with the been-to novel, “Foreign Aid” is marked by silences:
“Two marriages, one to a White woman, and three child-support payments later, Logan, in his early forties, emerged from inner-city America—documented, potbellied, and with an American twang.”
What is an “American twang”? What kind of “twang” does one get in/from/around “inner-city America.” Why is “inner-city” America present as the thing that does not need to be represented? Of course, the been-to story has always been about what is not told, about a return from what cannot be spoken. Balogun/Logan has “two failed marriages” and has “faced tribulations” (notice the biblical language, as with “Miracle”) but these remain unspoken, as erased as his before-American Twang mode of speech.
This is, in many ways, a story that erases itself as it proceeds.
At the immigration station, he presented his passport to a uniformed officer who peered at each page like a diviner deciphering his kola nuts. Logan exhaled and tapped his fingers against his thigh.
Logan tossed it on the counter. The officer eyed him as would a father an impertinent child, grabbed the book, and scrutinized it with the intensity of a diviner puzzled by the message of his kola nuts. Logan’s fingers tapped his thigh and his chest heaved.
“I’m from the States, bro?”
“Whether you are from America or from a septic tank, the laws of Sierra Leone say you must have the correct vaccinations.” The officer slammed his stamp into both booklets and shoved them to the edge of the counter.
“Next.” He looked past Logan.
As he stood by the conveyor belt at baggage claim, Logan recognized that the encounter had offered him a lesson, but fatigue and watching suitcases pop out of the luggage chute at the speed of childbirth aborted the little inclination he had for reflection.
“Correct Vaccinations”: an introduction of now-forgotten, attenuated, diminished antibodies into a system that has since forgotten what it used to know, or might have. What is it to have a “correct vaccination” when one returns to the country of one’s birth? What must one be protected from? What must be re-introduced to re-turn Logan to Balogun? This impossible return.
Indeed, Balogun/Logan’s encounters are precisely about his failed return; following an encounter that makes explicit the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, he tells his father: “I don’t live here, Pops.” When his father tells him, “This is not America,” he replies, ““That’s not the point, Pops. . . .” And, in fact, Balogun/Logan insists, “we do things differently in America.” Who is this “we”? What is this entity called “America”?
A rather imprecise count suggests that the name Balogun appears under 15 times in the story while the name Logan appears over 60 times. This small detail might suggest the extent to which he has not left “America,” but this “America” remains fuzzy, undeveloped, a place of fantasy-cliché, an unreality that presents itself as “Foreign Aid.”
That Logan is tone deaf and arrogant is unsurprising; this, after all, characterizes “Foreign Aid,” but also speaks, I think, to a kind of remittance economy fantasy that believes “giving” or “sending money” is doing good, all the while remaining indifferent to how local economies work.
I find myself stuck, though, because the inner cities from which Balogun claims to have graduated are densely packed local economies, anchored by the circulation of favors and promises and hopes and fears that Balogun encounters in central Freetown (notice, of course, the implicit comparison between “inner cities” and “central Freetown”). The tough pose that he adopts as his mark of graduation, the tone deafness to the local he re-enters, the foolish arrogance he demonstrates (for someone who had once wanted to be an economist, he really does not know how to think about the multiple economies around him), all of these suggest that he has been unlearning everything. That, like the money he accumulates to give away, and gives away too fast, there is little he retains that can allow him to navigate the lifeworlds he visits.
Were I more patiently Derridean, I might trace the doubled signatures that close this story: Tima/Tina and Balogun/Logan, the way Tima/Tina reminds Balogun/Logan that he is Balogun/Logan, that his misrecognition is recognized for the doubled/misrecognition that it is, and that his acts of doubling are not specifically or even necessarily primarily a mark of his American-ness, but, in fact, a shared condition, an ongoing splitting and shuttling between selves and lifeworlds inhabited even by young women who don’t seem to have such an option.
I kept wanting the U.S. to be more than background in this story. I’d have liked a richer engagement with Baltimore’s rich life and textured local economies. And while I enjoy the splitting and proximity of Balogun/Logan, I would have liked to see this splitting be more formally interesting. (And, here, I echo Matthew’s desire to see more formally innovative writing represented as African. Perhaps we need an anthology or special issue of a journal on formally innovative African writing?)