The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore: An Epic in Three Cantos
Sylvie Kandé
Translated by Alexander Dickow
Wesleyan University Press, 2022

Sylvie Kandé’s epic poem, The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, describes two journeys over water from the west coast of Africa: One across the Atlantic, and the other to Europe. The first two cantos are about Abubaker II, a semi-mythical Emperor of Mali who, in the early fourteenth century, was said to have sponsored two voyages of discovery across the Atlantic, neither of which returned to West Africa. The third canto, which is narrated by a contemporary migrant, describes a crossing undertaken in the present: a fishing boat overloaded with African migrants on a hazardous journey to Europe. In contrast to Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros (1990), Neverending Quest is a poem about leaving. In Omeros, the St Lucian fisherman Achille dreams about return: he travels back in time and space to encounter his ancestors, living on the west coast of Central Africa, under the looming shadow of the intensification of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is a difficult experience, as Achille begins to realize what he and his ancestors lost in the Middle Passage. But on waking on a fishing boat, he is in reflective mood, and observing a frigate-bird fly “into that immensity” of the ocean, he thinks of his ancestor and father-figure Afolabe, who appeared in his dream, feels “the phrase lift his heart as high as the bird whose wings wrote the word / ‘Afolabe’,” and remarks, “‘the king is going home’” (III, pp. 158-159).

In The Neverending Quest, the king never does go home. Kandé is a poet, literary critic, and historian who currently teaches at SUNY Old Westbury. The daughter of French and Senegalese parents, her poetry and other scholarship explores the fashioning of cultures in the Atlantic world in the long wake of the trans-Atlantic trade. The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore was published in French in 2011, in between the volumes Lagon, lagunes: Tableau de mémoire (2000) and Gestuaire (poèmes) (2016). This beautiful translation by the US-based poet and scholar Alexander Dickow appeared in 2022. As Kandé explains in the Preface, this “neo-epic narrative” is concerned with the “tribulations, triumphs, and contemplations of those who, out of a taste for adventure, a thirst for knowledge, or economic necessity, set out in pirogues [or canoes] upon the Atlantic” (p. xiii). Even before the poem’s opening lines, Kandé establishes the Atlantic as a site of possibility for the subjects of her epic, with her subjects undertaking dangerous crossings for a variety of reasons.

Writing about Africa and the Atlantic through a possibly apocryphal pre-Columbian African attempt to reach the Americas, as well as the contemporary migrant crisis, allows Kandé to offer a rethinking of the continent’s relationship with the Atlantic. She uses the genre of the epic to think through questions of home, leaving, and settling, but—at the same time—her choice of subjects produces a tension in the poem. What purpose does it serve to compare the choices and experiences of a mythical emperor and contemporary migrants? Are these the same kinds of journeys? Do they possess the same kinds of meaning?

Before turning to these questions, it is worth thinking about the poem’s orientation towards the Atlantic, and Africans’ crossing of it. While Kandé does not address the trans-Atlantic slave trade directly in this poem, she threads references to it throughout the text. At the end of Canto I (p. 41), she describes the wreck of Abubaker’s voyage:

But in the depths of the greenish abysses
        the doubles of the to-be-enchained-branded lacerated-before-
                overboard-to-the-mercy-of sharks

Here, Abubaker’s sailors are the “doubles” of their descendants: those who will be enslaved and transported unwillingly across the same ocean, and subjected to worse torment. In Canto III, the seventy passengers onboard an unseaworthy vessel “are elbow to elbow / standing most often / sitting when possible,” losing hope as “the night is giving birth / any which way / wasting no time / to an even uglier day than the last” (p. 115). In these scenes, time is not only linear, but also simultaneous: events hundreds of years apart exist also concurrently. The effect of this layering is to produce an account of the Atlantic which includes but which also exceeds the trans-Atlantic trade. The narrator of Canto III comments that “the ocean belongs to all those who dare” (III, p. 133), suggesting a connected continuity of experience over long periods of time.

And yet the quests undertaken by Abubaker and his crews, as well as the narrator and his seventy fellow passengers en route to Europe, are ambivalent enterprises. Abubaker’s journey is a “story in which misery and grandeur mingle” (I, p. 13). While the epic celebrates “the ‘excellence’ of this ‘deed’” (I, p. 39), as well as the enthusiasm with which both men and women “embarked for the unknown / defying their fathers and praising [Abubaker’s] name” (II, p. 55), it devotes as much space to the suffering of those on board Abubaker’s canoes, and to premonitions of catastrophe for the voyage, including a pod of fifty beached dolphins on the shoreline, “their bellies scooped out by the oblique crabs,” a discovery which causes some of the “hopeful voyagers” to conclude: “It’s to our death that he wishes to lead us” (II, p. 87). This episode is echoed in Canto III, when the narrator is “bumming around on the shore,” being “careful not to slip on any entrails” of “leftover fish” caught by an “enormous trawler” (III, p. 119). While he “took the sea lightly” and with hope, he acknowledges, too, that he was tricked by a “coaxer” who set him and others on an ill-prepared boat to make a potentially deadly crossing (III, p. 121). In yet another echo, the “shining” tears (III, p. 121) shed by his mother evoke the tears “wept” by the dying dolphins near Abubaker’s launch (II, p. 87).

Kandé repositions Africa in relation both to the Atlantic and to history: it is not the site of return, but, rather, the point of beginning. While in Omeros, a return to Africa helps one character to think through his relationship to the traumatic legacy of the Middle Passage, in The Neverending Quest, Africa and Africans look outwards, across the ocean, as the “Bright Land” (not the dark continent) from which travelers set off (I, p. 11). Her choice of the epic form makes sense, as a result: she is in tempered celebration of a legendary king, as well as migrants of the present day. But she has also chosen a genre which is, as the French-Martinican theorist and writer Édouard Glissant has written, is “about exile and often about errantry.” Glissant’s point is that the sagas and epics which are often considered to be the “founding books of communities” usually concern protagonists who have an ambivalent relationship with their communities: they might be in exile, but may not wish to return home (they are, in other words, “errant”) for the joy of discovery and travel. [1] (Kandé had a long association with Glissant, who wrote the afterword to Lagon, lagunes, and is thanked in the acknowledgements for Neverending Quest.) For instance, in the Sunjata—a West African epic dating from the thirteenth century, which Glissant cites—the eponymous hero is exiled by a rival faction in the royal court, and while residing in a neighboring kingdom comes to a full realization of his physical and supernatural powers. He does return home in victorious conquest and becomes the founder mansa (or emperor) of the Empire of Mali. In Canto I, Abubaker is compared unfavorably to the hero Sunjata, and to Mansa Musa, Sunjata’s descendent, who undertook in 1324 the hajj to Mecca, and later transformed Timbuktu into a centre for Islamic learning. Both Sunjata and Mansa Musa returned from their travels, and it was partly their homecoming which sealed their status as significant figures within Malian society. By contrast, Abubaker and, the poem implies, the narrator of Canto III, never go home.

Dickow has called The Neverending Shore an “epic of indetermination, of missing foundations, borderless and without clear destination.” [2] It is a poem of non-endings, of moving forward, even if momentarily paused. The narrator of Canto III invokes Ulysses as he and his fellow migrants are rescued when their boat sinks. When “safe and sound” on the rescue vessel, he concludes the epic with the line, “it is time at present for the word to make port” (III, pp. 151, 153). The line does not end with a period, suggesting that this is a pause, not an end. Abubaker’s tale ends, too, with an imagined scene, one which “we ourselves this day conceived” (II, p. 111), implying that other destinies were as possible. In fact, Cantos I and II provide speculation as to how and why Abubaker undertook his voyages, and even alternative versions of what might have occurred, with Canto II opening: “But let us double back / . . .  and quite determined to do it again / we shall recite the fable by means of touch-ups” (II, p. 45). Dickow adds that Kandé remakes the epic in its refusal of empire: in Canto I, Abubaker declares that he and his fellow explorers would not build new cities on whatever lands they might alight, and they “will thus be spared foundation and its crimes: / our gods will not push aside more vulnerable ones / we will not impose on an unwilling land.” In fact, the voyage “shall have no end / for we remain the sea’s chance / to discover its bounds and each of its shores.” This is an anti-imperial venture. Even in the second telling of Abubaker’s voyage, when he makes war for a year with the Taíno people on a Caribbean island, he relents when it becomes clear that he cannot win. His imperial ambitions are converted into settlement when he marries a local woman and “Thus was Africa wedded to America / before they ever knew their names” (II, p. 111).

This happy ending sours when considered alongside the realities described in Canto III, where the migrants are at less liberty not only to choose the kind of voyage they will make—they have no option but to make a dangerous water crossing—but to choose where they will land. The narrator leaves home because of overfishing and unemployment, and he is ambivalent about leaving, especially given the dangers he faces: “If you want to know what will happen / after your death then travel” (III, p. 123). He remarks that in their small, leaky boat these migrants “are left valueless / at the market’s brutal behest” (III, p. 143). But, he writes, “We’ll get into this empire / by the back door mind you” to “profit in our turn from the riches / After all we’re just looking for work” (III, p. 147).

Here I would like to return to the questions I asked at the beginning of this review: what do we learn when Kandé presents readers with two heroes whose voyages out may share some similarities, but who remain in nearly every other way very different? Is it possible to think these two journeys together? In her comments in the Preface, Kandé seems to believe that they can be pulled together in a celebration of adventurers and voluntary exiles, of people who leave home for whatever reason. For this reader, though, The Neverending Voyage does not hang together as a single poem, but, rather, as an account of Abubaker—“this daydreamer this rebel / whose hypothetical existence / shall be better spoken of in the conditional” (I, p. 17)—which concludes with a certain whimsy, and a separate and profoundly empathic account of migrants making impossible choices under conditions not of their own choosing. The poem is astonishingly beautiful, humane, and profoundly intelligent. But is the narrator of Canto III a hero? Is he errant, or in exile? In the light of the catastrophes he witnesses and experiences, such designations and questions feel trivial. His enemies are not gods, but the mundane horrors and the everyday terrors produced by the omnicrises of the twenty-first century.

*   *   *


Alexander Dickow, ‘The Contemporary Hero in Sylvie Kandé’s Epic of Futurity, La Quête infinie de l’autre rive.’ Journal of                   Narrative Theory, vol. 48, no. 3 (Fall 2018), pp. 399-422.

Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Derek Walcott, Omeros. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Sarah Emily Duff

Born in South Africa, and educated there and in the United Kingdom, Sarah is Assistant Professor of African and World History at Colby College in Maine. A historian of age and gender, she is the author of Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Church Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895 (2015) and Children and Youth in African History (2022). Before coming to the US, she worked at Goldsmiths, University of London, and at Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Her current research is on sex education and histories of the future in twentieth-century South Africa, and on menopause in the nineteenth-century British Empire.

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