- Hearts in ExileA conversation with Moses Isegawa and Mahmood Mamdani
Holland isn’t generally known as a center of black culture. Sure, Zwarte Piet, Santa Claus’s “Negro” helper, still terrorizes young Nederlanders at Christmastime. And the black soccer sensation Ruud Gullit led screaming Dutch fans to don cardboard dreadlocks in tribute. But in much of the world, Holland still conjures up images of clogs, waffles, sex workers, and windmills.
That’s not quite true, of course. Like many European cities, Amsterdam has become in recent years a hub for migrants from postcolonial points south. Indonesians, for one (a testament to Holland’s former colony in Southeast Asia); but also Kurds and North Africans and a cross section of migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. And one of these, a 36-year-old black Ugandan expatriate named Moses Isegawa, has just become a literary superstar.
Abyssinian Chronicles, his debut novel, sold over 100,000 copies in this nation of 16 million people; he’s been invited to parliament, profiled on television, heralded as the future of Dutch literature. Not bad for a man whose previous publications had been in obscure missionary newsletters. Abyssinian Chronicles has been heralded as “a masterpiece,” “a hurricane,” “the Great African Novel”; the book has been translated into Finnish, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, German, Spanish, and Swedish. (The English version—the original—was finally published by Alfred A. Knopf last summer.)
Isegawa’s sudden success reflects a broader trend: black literature is entering the European mainstream, as continental readers struggle to understand their own increasingly multicultural circumstances. Emmanuel Dongala from Congo-Brazzaville, Calixthe Beyala from Cameroon, and Boris Diop from Senegal have all won major French literary prizes, alongside their colleagues in the Antilles. In London, where novelists are treated like rock stars, the hottest young author is a 24-year-old black woman named Zadie Smith.
Abyssinian Chronicles is a torrid river of [End Page 126] [End Page 127] a book, a profusion of myths and legends and personalities. The novel begins in medias res, with Serenity, the frustrated trade unionist and feeble family patriarch, daydreaming in the jaws of an enormous crocodile. Serenity’s eldest son, Mugezi, is the book’s distinctly ambivalent hero. He moves from country to city, rebels against his tyrannical family (especially his abusive mother, a staunch [End Page 128] ex-nun named Padlock), attends seminary, and connives to survive as postcolonial Uganda lurches from crisis to civil war and back again. Founding Father Milton Obote becomes a dictator and is overthrown by the wildly popular Idi Amin, who then becomes a dictator himself and is overthrown in turn by Tanzanian troops, who promptly reinstall Obote, who once again sets about terrorizing the country. Mugezi even fantasizes about becoming a dictator; Uganda is “a land of false bottoms where under every abyss there was another one, waiting to ensnare people.” By the end of the book, Mugezi’s ingenuity lands him outside the country altogether, living as an African expatriate in—surprise!—Amsterdam.
Isegawa’s avowed literary influences range from contemporary fabulists like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez to James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and Jerzy Kosinski. African writers seem more important to him as icons than as writers, though it’s possible to detect an echo of Sony Labou Tansi in his narrator’s scatological obsessions. What’s refreshing about Isegawa is his outsized ambitions: he wants to speak for his homeland, his continent, but he also wants to conquer the world.
Abyssinian Chronicles was “fertilized,” in Isegawa’s words, by From Citizen to Refugee (1973), a slim volume by Mahmood Mamdani. Like Rajat Neogy, Transition’s founding editor, Mamdani is Asian by descent and Ugandan by birth. From Citizen to Refugee told the story of Uganda’s Asian population: their importation by the British colonial government; their unique and precarious position as both victim and beneficiary of colonial rule; and their expulsion from the country in 1972, on the order of Idi Amin. Mamdani’s book was written in a refugee camp in Britain immediately after the expulsion, and Isegawa drew on it for his account of this epochal event, as...