A satiric comedy of African racism
A freewheeling, boldly told fable of an extraordinary cast of characters living in a dysfunctional post-colonial state
Born in the Sudan and (following the murder of her birth parents) raised by adoptive parents in the United States, Kola Boof has published at least eight books in various countries, and appeared in more than 40 Arabian movies. The protean Boof sometimes appears bare-breasted to read from her own work, “as a way of holding on to my Nilotic culture and . . . to taunt those Africans who are ashamed of our original cultural beliefs.” The legend constructed by her own accounts includes these startling details: For the writing and missions she undertook for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, a Khartoum court found her guilty (in absentia) of blasphemy and treason, and condemned her, by fatwa, to beheading. Because of her brief love affair in the 1990s with Osama Bin Laden (the only aspect of her flamboyant career she would prefer to have kept secret) she was listed as a terrorist and menaced with the loss of her US citizenship.
It’s dubious to project a character back onto her author, but in this case it’s also safe to say that Eternity, heroine of “The Sexy Part of the Bible” (who becomes an international supermodel and the consort of King Sea Horse Twee, an African rap star who rises to the rulership of the parodically dysfunctional African state of West Cassavaland) is no more extraordinary than her inventor.
Eternity Frankenheimer, a.k.a. Orisha, has an identity crisis, as you might too with names like that - or in her circumstances, as the jet-black child of two white American missionaries who run an AIDS clinic in West Cassavaland.
In its post-colonial period, West Cassavaland has a majority population of pure-blood Africans, ruled by a lighter-skinned European-African upper-class calling itself (hilariously) the Pogo Metis Signare, though formerly known as the “Bastars Elite.” For the usual racialist reasons, the Pogo Metis Signare can’t rule the unadulterated African masses directly, but require a figurehead and proxy: President Yaw Ibrahim the Black. Come election time, the black majority, politely identified as “the national class,” throngs to the presidential palace, “beating bongos, slicing coconuts open with machetes, and performing extravagant tribal dances for the benefit of fascinated white foreign dignitaries while calling out one of the most traditional election time chants known to West Africa: ‘He killed my pa, he killed my ma. . . but I will vote for him!’ ”
Meanwhile, back at the AIDS clinic, Eternity has more personal complications. Her white parents could not possibly have engendered her, since Eternity’s “father,” Stevedore, gave her “mother,” Dr. Juliet, a sex change so that the two could be together as man and “woman.” Reproached for playing God, Stevedore responds with triumphant joviality, “Of course I’m God. . . . I’m a white man!” The white parents didn’t adopt Eternity either, but (as Dr. Juliet reveals in a fit of pique at her discovery that Stevedore and Eternity are lovers) cloned her, and not from just anybody; Eternity is genetically identical to a black activist named Orisha who was beaten to death by a mob whom she was trying to dissuade from using toxic lotions and oral concoctions in the hope of lightening their skin and so assimilating to the Pogo Metis Signare master class - for this effort the “bleachers” and “swallowers” called her “The Racist.”
These revelations destroy Eternity’s enthusiasm for being pregnant with Stevedore’s child, and turn her suicidal. “I decide that the only way for me to own myself is to drink the Wife of Tarzan,” an insecticide brewed by Stevedore that has already killed another resident of the clinic who believed (despite its being labeled “POISON-DO NOT DRINK”) that it was really “the secret formula that caused Michael Jackson to fade from black to white.” It’s a hot day when Eternity pours her own dose, and Stevedore, “his ice-cream flesh dripping from the heat,” takes her glass and makes his own quietus.
All that before the book has reached page 50! Reading this novel is less like following a conventional plot, more like falling out of an airplane.
Its jacket copy proclaims Alice Walker and Toni Morrison to be Boof’s “idols,” and the novel shares a number of their usual concerns: race and racism, (especially black) women’s oppression, liberation, and progress to fulfillment. But Morrison and Walker are not often funny, at least not on purpose, whereas a reader of this book will laugh loud and long, often because the satire is so well and comically turned, and as often out of sheer astonishment at the audacity of this text, which exploits the power of speaking within the tribe to a mind-boggling extent.
Boof doesn’t just explode clichés, she murders them, but playfully, like a cat killing mice. Yes, there are serious issues here, and no, the author does not take them lightly, and by the way she may have written the most jubilant celebration of black African beauty so far seen in the English language. Read this book and you’ll learn just how sexy that part of the Bible can be, and you may also be convinced that there’s nothing so likely to cure racism and oppression than wave after wave of laughter and love.
Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent novel is “The Color of Night.’’ He teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.