Literary Explorations of Afro-Swedishness
Contributor: Anne Heith
Johannes Anyuru, born in 1979 in Sweden, is an Afro-Swedish author whose connection to the African Diaspora is related to his Ugandan father’s escape when Idi Amin came to power. His father settled down in Sweden, where he married a Swedish woman. Anyuru grew up in the Swedish small town Växjö. He started to study to become an engineer, but changed his mind and became a writer. Today he resides in Gothenburg. In 2003 he made his debut as a poet with the collection Det är bara gudarna som är nya [Only the Gods are New]. The collection, which mingles influences from Homer, Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi, rock lyrics and hip hop, was well received by the critics and it helped to establish Anyuru’s reputation as a significant contemporary Swedish author. His second collection of poems, Omega (2005), is about the death of a close friend in cancer. The theme of the third, Städerna inuti Hall (2009) [The Cities Inside Hall] is more explicitly political (1). In December 2009 the political drama Förvaret [The Deposit], co-authored by Anyuru and the philosopher Aleksander Motturi had its premiere at Gothenburg City Theatre. The title refers to Detention Centres where refugees are kept as detainees waiting to be deported out of the country as a result of the implementation of Swedish Immigration Law. Both authors are members of the Clandestino Institut whose members engage in activities targeted at racism (2). Anyuru has performed live extensively. During 2003 he toured with the National Theatre Company with a performance called Abstrakt rap. He is a member of the spoken word group Broken word, which released the album Anatomy of a Dying Star in 2005. In 2010 Anyururu’s first novel, Skulle jag dö under andra himlar [If I Were to Die Under Other Skies], was published. The following year, En civilisation utan båtar [A Civilisation Without Ships], was published. This book is a diary about the time Anyuru spent in Athens in the summer of 2011. Together with other activists he was waiting for a permission to start the voyage from Greece on Ship to Gaza. The permission was not granted. Nevertheless popular engagement and protest are presented as valid strategies for fighting a politics of silence complicit with prevailing power structures. Anyuru’s second novel about the life of his Ugandan father, whose training to become a fighter pilot was interrupted as a result of the political upheaval in Uganda, is forthcoming in 2012.
In 2007 Johannes Anyuru converted to Islam, a choice which involves a conscious positioning in opposition to contemporary secular Swedish and traditionally Christian, White Swedish society. The image of Islam conjured up by the writings of Anyuru is not that of a confrontational religion, ideologically at war with Christianity. On the contrary, Anyuru explicitly refers to antagonistic, diversifying and totalitarian tendencies in Nation of Islam as a ‘racist, distorted version of Islam’ (En civilisation utan båtar, 54, my translation). In Anyuru’s writings the reading of the Quran is linked to self-exploration, identity-formation and Bildung. Practicing Islam is described as a way of creating belonging and a linking to the culture of his father. The first collection of poems about young men in urban areas being chased by the police, ends with a tender depiction of how a Muslim father is preparing for evening prayer. He washes his hands, face, arms, ears, hair and feet. Carefully he shuffles the carpet over the floor so that its direction corresponds to that of ‘kibblah’. The use of the term kiblah, referring to the direction of Mecca to which Muslims turn in prayer, signifies a conscious choice by Anyuru to use terminology which connotes familiarity with the religious practices of Islam. The calmness and serenity of this section stands out in relief to the beginning of the collection. The second line of the second stanza in English, which conjures up contemporary, urban, Americanized youth culture, reads: ‘keep your sword up nigga’.
The theme of finding peace through Islam is further explored in Anyuru’s first novel, Skulle jag dö under andra himlar. The novel is an Afro-Swedish Bildungsroman in which the protagonist, a young man called Francis, attains belonging and a sense of meaning when becoming a practicing Muslim. The African father of the novel gives his son a copy of the Quran and introduces him to Muslim religious practices. Thus, the Bildung of the son involves that he actively chooses to link to cultural expressions handed over by his father. This is a form of linking to an African ancestral origin, but in the novel Islam also is depicted as an element of a contemporary transnational global world. Francis participates in the evening prayer at a mosque when he visits Madrid. When back at home in Gothenburg, he visits a Muslim place of worship in the residential area of Hisingen. In the same street in an industrial area at the outskirts of Gothenburg there are two Turkish Muslim prayer houses, one Gambian, which Francis visits, and one Bosnian. The enumeration of the places of worship of various immigrant communities conjures up the creation of ‘home’ and belonging by migrant groups. In the world of the novel, religious practices and the linking to communities function as positive counter-strategies to experiences of homelessness and meaninglessness.
Anyuru’s texts contribute to a redefinition and remapping of how myths of belonging may be sensed. In Bhabha’s words the text conjures up “the starting-points of other national and international histories and geographies” (Bhabha 2008: XX). Anyuru’s authorship contributes to depicting intersections between the African Diaspora, migration and emerging migrant cartographies. References to Islam and the Quran function as elements in the process of self-exploration and identity formation, both processes which involve examining and coming to terms with the implications of ‘Africanness’ for a contemporary Afro-Swede.
In the diary published in 2011 (‘A Civilisation without Ships’), the narrator-focalizer Anyuru expresses a feeling of community which transgresses the borders of the nation-state and those of ethnic and racial affiliations, as well as historical and geographical ties. When expressing his solidarity with the Palestinian people, his feeling of connectedness is expanded in a vision which unites the histories of marginalized and disempowered groups of people to his own African family history. The fact that he is of African descent and consequently ‘looks African’ is related to the mediation of ‘Africanness’ by means of the images in accounts of the first African Diaspora:
You are my cousins and I know like you what history is, that it does not pass without making an impact, that it is stuck in the bodies and the dreams, and that it is a waterfall of chains, and that you inherit something although you don’t want to. I have a father, I have my childhood, I have the history books with pictures of people who look like me in chains (34, my translation).
The theme of ‘people who look like me’ is central for the exploration of an Afro-Swedish identity as it is the fact that Anyuru himself, and the protagonists of his literary texts, do not physically look like ethnic Swedes which makes them the targets of racism directed against Black people. It is also their physical appearance which marks them as ‘different’ in a predominantly White society. When the narrator Anyuru hesitates about joining Ship to Gaza in the 2011 diary he grapples with the question whether his position is more vulnerable than the other travelers’ as he is not sure of being protected by his ‘Swedishness’: ‘Do I look like a Swede in the eyes of a foreigner? In the eyes of a foreign soldier?’ (9, my translation).
Anyuru’s trip to Athens turns out to be a journey of self-discovery in which reflections upon interrelations between the African Diasporas, his personal family history, present-day migration and the role of the author are examined. The West-African traditional poet, the Jali (Griot) is actively explored as a model for the contemporary Afro-Swedish author. The narrator ruminates over his own role as that of a Jali, asking himself whose Jali he is and for whom he sings. At the conclusion of the inner journey Anyuru shoulders the role of the socially engaged author using writing in acts of solidarity with people claiming their democratic and human rights. In the 2011 diary the narrator Anyuru encounters marginalized Africans in Athens, street vendors and prostitute women with no protection in the form of citizenship. In one of the episodes a Greek motor-cycle policeman robs an African prostitute while another is hiding in terror behind a car. In another, Iranian asylum seekers have stitched their lips in protest at not being heard. Both examples conjure up an image of Europe as a place where vulnerable, subaltern migrant groups have no means of being heard as they are not recognized as partners of a dialogue (cf Spivak 2010).
Anyuru has never lived in Africa; still, ideas of Africa and linking to Africa are recurring themes in his writing. The sense of belonging connoted by the concept of ‘Africa’ is related both to ancestral ties and the ‘racial’ identification of a person of African descent in a Europe where Whiteness is the norm. ‘Africa’ functions as an emotional node and imaginary place, the implications of which for identity-formation and belonging he explores in the process of writing. Implicitly, Anyuru’s texts provide a response to the Hegelian tradition which has posited the ‘Negro’ as the other of the Enlightenment and modernity (Wright 2004, 8). Anyuru does not depict the shifting relationships between ‘Black’ and ‘White’ people as binary or dichotomous. Rather, ‘Blackness’ is described in terms of “fluidity” (cf Wright 2004, 2), which has the potential to heal the individual.
1) ’Hall’ is the name of a Swedish prison.
2) There is a short presentation of the play at the website of the Clandestino Institut.
Anyuru, Johannes. Det är bara gudarna som är nya [Only the Gods are New].
Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2003.
—, Omega. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2005.
—, Städerna inuti Hall [The Cities Inside Hall]. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2009
Anyuru, Johannes & Motturi, Aleksander. Förvaret [The Deposit]. Gothenburg: Glänta produktion, 2009.
Anyuru, Johannes. Skulle jag dö under andra himlar [If I Were to Die Under Other Skies].
Stockholm: Norstedts, 2010.
—, En civilisation utan båtar [A Civlisation Without Ships].
Gothenburg: Glänta produktion, 2011.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London & New York: Routledge, 2008.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Wright, Michelle M. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora.
Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004.
‘Clandestino Institut’, http://clandestinoinstitut.org/en/2011/09/29/forvaret-av-johannes-anyuru-och-aleksan. . ., 1 May 2012