With nine novels, five collections of poems and a bunch of essays to his name, Franco-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou is a literary phenomenon in the Francophone world. Renowned for the derisive drollery of his prose but also for his candour when talking about Africa, he has become an important voice of African literature – a subject he now teaches at UCLA. We talked to him on the occasion of the publication in English of his novel Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, in which he evokes with mischievousness and emotion his childhood in Pointe-Noire, the Congolese port city on the Atlantic coast. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Alain Mabanckou speaks about African identity, his eclectic influences and why it is difficult to define an “African literature”.
You published your first novel in your early thirties while being at the time a lawyer for a large company in France. When did your passion for literature arise? Have you always been writing? Have you always known that you wanted “to be a writer”?
The funny thing is that I always knew that I wanted to become a writer. It was maybe because of the fact that my father kept bringing books at home. He was supposed to read these books once he would retire; although I never saw him open a single one. All these books were stored in my parent’s room, so one day I decided to have a look on it. The first book I took was a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine. I began to read it and loved it.
To this you have to add the fact that I was the only child of the family. It is a very sad situation to be the only child: you do not have brothers and sisters with whom to share your concerns and your friends tease you because you are alone. This situation pushed me to start writing. I both wanted to conceal my sadness and to change my reality. I started creating another reality in which I was a kind of god: I created characters and involved them in stories. Then I turned to poetry when I was in middle school. After that I kept on writing and writing, first poetry then novels and eventually essays.
Your book “Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty” recalls how it was to be a child in a large African city in the Seventies. Why was it important to write that story?
It was very important because I figured out that we had no stories told through the voice of a kid in Congolese literature. In Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, I wanted to explain the way we were living under this Congolese regime called “Soviet Socialism”. We were a red country! Everything was about Marx and Engels, about materialism and the philosophy coming from the USSR.
At the same time, I was completely fascinated by Camara Laye’s tale: “L’Enfant Noir” (“The Black Child”, ed.). This was a huge book about how to describe Africa through the way of life of a simple family. This is why I chose to give a voice to this kid called Michel, my central character, and let him explain his way of living during these years.
Through Michel’s lenses, you evoke the hypocrisy of the adult’s world. Your character “Tonton René” embodies a Marxist revolution that benefits only a handful of happy few. Do politics necessarily interfere with the experience of being a child in Africa?
Without hesitation, yes. When I was a child, my father would open the radio everyday and I would hear names such as Ayatollah Khomeini’s and Henry Kissinger’s, news from Vietnam and a lot diverse situations coming from the whole world. Even today I am still surprised at all the news I heard of. People tend to think that surely, African children are not aware of politics but they are wrong. Everyday my father took great care to explain me what was happening here and there.
I think that we were maybe more aware of world news than children from the Western world. Politics was everywhere. To a larger extent, it raises an important question for the African novel: is it possible to talk about our lives without describing the political situation?
Humour and sarcasm are the hallmark of your prose and you often use them to underline African problems. Then last year you published “Le Sanglot de l’Homme Noir” (“The Sobbing of the Black Man” yet to be translated), a daring essay that reflects on the danger for black people to define themselves as victims of history only. Was this theme too difficult to carry through fiction? Or did you want to express a new message?
Actually I have two faces in my writing. When I want to spread a clear message with my own voice, I will rather use the essay than the novel and its fictional characters. “Le Sanglot de l’Homme Noir” should be read as an explanation of what is the black identity today in France. We have a lot of discussion in France about who is black and who is not, about if and how one should keep his African identity when living in Europe and also about why the country is trying to kick out all its immigrants – when it was more than happy to call its African citizens from the colonies to help protect its empire during WWI and WWII.
But when I want to play with my own country, when I want to express our way of thinking, I will rather use the fiction. The essay probably helps me to say things more sharply. I sometimes say to people: “you know there was this theme I developed in my fiction and you did not understand it. Now I am going to explain it to you with quotations, with examples, with ample illustrations of the situation so that you cannot pretend any more to ignore that I was talking about such a theme in my work.”
You worked for years in France and you are now teaching in the USA. Yet, most of your fictional work is set in Africa. Is it easy to write from afar? Can distance be an asset in the writing process?
I think that being far from Africa can be considered as a gift. Would I have stayed in Africa, I am not sure that I would have written what I have written so far. To write, you have to be in a situation where you are looking for something you do not have, searching for a country that you cannot find. In this process, you have to deal with your dreams: you kind of draw an imaginary country.
This brings us to the question of African writers living outside of Africa and trying to write about it. In such a situation, you can write in an “exotic” or in a “nostalgic” way, moaning that you are far from your country and looking at ways to get back there. For me, I made the choice to describe the Africa I knew when I was a kid – that is from zero to twenty years old. But I also made the choice to talk about France, because you find in France a lot of Congolese and African people who have been living there for a while and who are precisely dealing with this issue of the creation of another, new country.
So far, I think that this position of mine to be a kind of bird, travelling from here to there, trying to experience all the seasons, see all the countries is very important. I need to define myself in connection with what other people are doing. I need to know the Chinese culture, the American or the European one: in all these cultures I am going to pick something useful for the definition of my own self.
On your influences: you are sometimes compared to the French Renaissance writer Rabelais for the larger-than-life characters you create; or to 20th century Céline for your iconoclastic style. Where are your literary influences to be found? Which writer(s) inspire you, and why?
I read a lot! I like writers from Colombia like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also like writers from Italy: I remember reading every day this writer called Dino Buzatti. I love “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway… My inspiration is very eclectic. Literature was for me the only way to get out of Congo-Brazzaville. That country is so small that you have to read to travel, otherwise you are going to stay trapped within the country. I am very lucky because I could meet at that time these influential writers I just mentioned. My reading included African writers of course, such as Mongo Beti from Cameroon or Ahmadou Kourouma from Ivory Coast. I used to read everything.
What I mainly liked were authors with something exceptional, almost magical in their use of language. I think about Céline for example: Céline is one of the writer I preferred to read. Besides Céline, there also was Albert Camus and Günter Grass, from Germany. When I wrote Broken Glass, I put a lot of books I liked in the novel. I can say that I put my ideal library in it. If you read the novel, you will see that almost every sentence is build with titles of books I read.
Are African authors obliged to write in English of French to be published? On a personal level, how do you feel about writing in French?
I feel comfortable writing in French. I always say that my problem is not the French language, my problem is to know how I am going to express what I am thinking and what I am feeling. I do not have a problem with the French language, the French language has a problem with me… Literary commentators in France have to deal with what I am writing. Although it is written in French, they often prefer to call it “Francophone literature”, a term implying that this literature comes from far away.
For many in France, “Francophone literature” means something like a “small literature” above which you would find French literature. I endeavour to explain to French writers that they do not have the monopoly of the French language; that sometimes French language is even more protected by people like us, who are coming from smaller countries, who were colonized by French and who are now trying to enrich the language they brought us.
Africa Book Club is about books coming from and talking about Africa. As for you, do you think there is such a thing as “African literature”? How could one define it? What would be its common traits?
One could say that there is an African literature if one could agree on the elements that would define this African literature. The danger is that, by trying to impose an “African” label on a certain type of literature, one will seek to recognize only a few defining elements – things as random as the bush, wild animals or ants for example…
I remember this Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, who wrote a great short story called “How to write about Africa” in which he derisively explained that you had to use the word “war”, or “starvation”, or “tribe” an so on when writing about Africa. I do not want that to define African literature of course. African literature is not an exotic literature; it is the literature coming from the black continent. That is to me its first definition. But at the same time we know that Africa acts as a kind of “mother”. African-American literature for example comes from African literature. Take Maya Angelou who talks about such things as slavery and the situation during the segregation: it is all about blackness!
But one should not consider African literature as a black thing only. Take the South African author André Brink: he is white but he is African. The same for Nadine Gordimer or J.M. Coetzee, not to speak of Egyptian writers as Naguib Mahfouz. That is the whole problem of the definition of African literature: if you take it as a closed thing, you will be forced to consider Africa as one territory with one language and one culture. As far as I know, Africa is different from North to South and East to West. Within Africa, you can meet a Congolese writer who will have different dreams than his Senegalese colleague. It is definitely something to think of… For me, I would rather opt for the term “African literatures”, meaning that it is multiple, it is diverse and it reflects on many culture in Africa.
And finally, you often endeavour to change perceptions about Africa. You recently organized an important literary festival in Brazzaville carrying a strong message of “African optimism”. Who is that message directed to?
First of all to Africans. Organizing this festival, we wanted to let them know that the world was there, at their doorstep. I am talking about young African people who might be thinking that things are falling apart: we wanted to bring them culture. I am not only a writer; if I am doing this, it is also to promote culture. I want to bring artists in Africa in order to support young people. I want these youngsters to meet renowned writers, I want those who are writing to carry on writing. And I think young people in Congo are expecting a new message from me. They want to know what is happening outside of their country, when the writers I bring are very curious about what is happening there in Africa.
Photo Credits: Caroline Blache