Tri-continental identity “We all need each other”

Petit Piment
Petit Piment | © Lena Kronenbürger

Franco-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou on whether we should judge literature according to its utility, why his friends from Pointe-Noire in the Congo want to be in his next novel and why it’s time to stop calling him a “black writer”.

By Lena Kronenbürger

In your novel “Petit Piment” [English title: “Black Moses”) the pint-size priest, Papa Moupelo, has a big influence on the main character. Just thinking about Papa Moupelo, we immediately feel like dancing and singing the way he does with the kids at the orphanage. What role did music play in your childhood?

Music played a very important role because in Africa, music is outside, in bars, on the radio, in church. When I go to Western churches, the music is very classical, with an organ and serious-looking children. But for us, when we went to church, the mood was tropical – we jumped around, we danced! So that’s how it in this book when we see the priest arrive at the school and begin getting us to dance because dancing is synonymous with happiness, with the enthusiasm we might feel. Even when I write my books, there's always music playing in the background. I put on Congolese rumba, for example. Music is really very present in my life.

Why do you think people become writers?

Alain Mabanckou Alain Mabanckou | © Alain Mabanckou
We’re writers because something’s missing in our lives and because we want to fill in the gaps in our memory. The difference between a writer and someone doing a striptease is that the latter takes their clothes off to be seen, to expose themselves, whereas a writer, on the contrary, seeks to open things up in order to obscure a bit their own difficulties, their loneliness.

A few years ago, the writer Édouard Louis said to me, “If literature does not aim to change the world, it’s not worth an hour's effort.” Do you agree with him on that?

We shouldn’t be constantly concerned with the utility of literature. Some writers write even though they think that they’re useless, that they’re not changing the world, that they’re just extolling the joys of snow, that all they think about is themselves... So we shouldn’t think that literature always has to have a certain colour, a specific function. To my mind, literature changes the world by enabling us to explore the human imagination. I'm African, I know that literature has changed my continent. We used literature to combat slavery, literature bolstered us in the struggle against colonialism and dictatorial regimes in Africa. We had what’s known as littérature engagée [“literature of commitment” or “socially-engaged literature”]. Édouard Louis takes a committed approach – to individual, social and sexual identity. So his literature has a mission. But I remain open to those who can produce literature without necessarily feeling imbued with a mission.

You’re in Paris right now, but you also spend time in Pointe-Noire in Congo-Brazzaville, where you grew up, and in Los Angeles, where you teach Francophone literature.

I have a tri-continental identity now. Africa is the continent of my origins, where I was born, where I grew up, where I spent my childhood and part of my youth. Europe is my adopted continent, because I came to France at the age of 20. So I consider Europe my adopted home. It adopted me, it helped me to gain an awareness of my culture, to study, to read the great authors... And then America, which is where I work, where I see all that nostalgia from far away and sometimes I feel more at home there. I've been in Paris for ten days now and, well, I'm already tired. I feel like getting back to Los Angeles, back to sunny California, far from all the social hubbub in France... I’m fascinated by the three continents and I think I may have become a three-headed monster. Africa speaks within me every day, Europe reminds me that culture is still alive and America is constantly calling on me to work harder to deserve what I have today.

When you go back to Pointe-Noire, do you immediately reintegrate into society, your circle of friends and family, or do you have to fight to find your place again every time?

I write a lot about the Congo, so my books are rooted in African reality. When I arrive in Congo-Brazzaville, my friends are happy, they feel like their big brother is back! They all want to be in my novel. Everybody wants to be a character in my next book. Petit Piment wanted to be in my novel. The books I’ve published recently are autobiographical, so they’re about realities, about existing friends and acquaintances  of mine. If you go to the Congo, you can find them: the streets I describe are real, so, naturally, when you’re in a novel, you’re a big shot in the neighbourhood.

In Europe, writers tend to be wary of writing about people they know personally... Can you explain the difference between the European and the African autobiographical novel?

The European autobiographical novel is a lot like a family quarrel – in other words, you really let it all out. Generally speaking, when you write an autobiographical novel in Europe, you’re liable to end up getting sued for libel. But when you write an African autobiographical novel, you get flak from those who aren’t in the book, asking, "How come everyone’s in the book but me?” That's why I wrote Petit Piment. Petit Piment wasn’t happy with Lumières de Pointe-Noire (The Lights of Pointe-Noire) because everyone was in it except him. So I wrote a book specially for Petit Piment.

Is it important to know a writer's nationality?

Only if you want to know how society defines or receives the novel. Because it’s still the same novel. You’re a German writer and I’m a Congolese writer, but when we write we have the same creative anxieties and feel the same aspirations, so the power of creation is the same. What may set us apart is the worlds we’ve lived in and, of course, how our respective societies receive the message we deliver. Europe as such has a long tradition of established novelistic genres: surrealism, realism, symbolism, romanticism and so on. But Africa hasn’t had this long tradition of the written novel. So we didn't know how to react to a book that draws on real life to work it into fiction.

Why hasn't Africa had this long tradition of the written novel?

Several languages are actively used in African literature. Some languages have been fortunate enough to have a written tradition. But if you take Central Africa, many languages have remained at the oral stage and are not used as a medium for written literature. The literature of this region is oral, a literature fuelled by tales, legends, myths, that gets passed down from grandfather to grandson or from grandmother to granddaughter. Written literature didn’t develop in Africa till the beginning of the 20th century because that’s when Africans began going to Western schools, where they learned English, French, German, and they started writing in the language of the colonizers.

One thing I think about in your novels is how oral language gets worked into writing. Is this linked to the idea of transmitting part of the African oral tradition in your narratives?

This gets to the heart of the matter because, generally speaking, when I write I’m transcribing the orality of my culture! Most of my books give the impression of being spoken language. They're books of the spoken word. I listen to my writing first – I don't see it, I don't think it, I listen to it. And while listening, I think about what I'm hearing. There’s a connection with music here too.

So you talk out loud whilst writing?

Yes, sometimes I read aloud. Every chapter has to be pleasing to my ear. If the words aren’t pleasing to my ear, that means something’s wrong! It's like a musical note. My literature has to be listened to, it has to be heard. Because what I'm describing is life!

Is it time for people to stop calling you a "black writer"? After all, no one is ever called a “white writer"...

When people say, "You're a black writer," they’re defining you that way. They don’t leave you any room to define yourself. You've been pigeonholed, branded. When someone says "black writer", they’re saying it in a world in which there is necessarily a distinction of colour. It's different when someone tells you you're an African writer. That doesn’t define you by your physical traits, but your geographical sphere. If someone says, “You’re an African writer,” they’re allowing for the possibility that you might be a white African, for example, that broadens the range of possibilities. All they’re saying is that you’re from a region of Africa and there's a literary voice from there. In France I’m a Franco-Congolese writer.

Are you considered French in France? After all, you have French as well as Congolese citizenship.

Look, when I go out to buy some bread, the first thing people see is a big black guy walking into a bakery. When you say a “Frenchman”, everyone thinks of a white guy.

Doesn't that hurt?

No, it doesn't hurt me because there weren’t any blacks initially during the formation of French society. Blacks have come in over the course of history. It takes time to get it into the heads of the French that a "Frenchman" isn’t a blue-eyed white person anymore, but might be black, Asian, yellow, of mixed race and so on. This is a new reality for France. But consciousness-raising efforts are a must for black and white alike. Blacks need to be told that “Being French is not about the colour of your skin, it's about embracing a certain idea of this nation.”

You were young when you came to France to study law. Do you still recognize the France of old?

I lived in France for 17 years, it's a country I know very well. And it’s changed completely since the ’90s when I first came to France! New voices are speaking out. There’s even talk of “black France”! African literature was not admitted to the Collège de France back in the day. And it’s the French themselves who are behind this increasingly widespread transformation. France today is multicoloured!

I hear a lot of hope and optimism in what you’re saying. You’re not angry at xenophobes?

I’m not angry, partly because I write about these issues. If you're angry at racists, the racists are going to win. You mustn’t confront xenophobes in anger, but with the ironic dispassion of knowledge. The most crucial weapon in the fight against racism is knowledge – more precisely, knowledge of culture. It’s often ignorance that’s talking. We have now come to understand that racism doesn’t make sense in this world anymore because we all need each other.
 
Alain Mabanckou (b. 24 February 1966 in Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo) is a writer and professor of Francophone literature based in France and the US. A number of his autobiographical novels are set in his native city of Pointe-Noire. His works have been translated into about twenty different languages.