I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview :
I met Alain Mabanckou in Chad in 2004. The French Ministry of Culture had flown a bunch of African writers there to … I am not sure what they wanted us to do. I guess we were performing Africa for them. I was on a panel chaired by an eminent French professor whom I had met for lunch earlier. He wanted to go over a list of points about East African literature that I should discuss in my presentation, points that, according to him, I could not have possibly known already, although I am an East African writer and editor. Invitations to a conference like this one, grants, prizes, jobs, and visas are available to those who are in Françafrique’s good graces; to those who are not, well (shrug), good luck … Divisive politics do not serve Françafrique—France’s official (and often clandestine) policies toward certain African governments. The net result is simple: no Ivorian Francophone writer is read across the border in Anglophone Ghana, for instance.
Good things are coming, though, through independent initiatives. Writers from African nations are beginning to read, collaborate with, and influence each other just like an older generation did back in the ’50s and ’60s. Alain Mabanckou is leading the pack. His move to America, his openness to new ideas, and his refusal to play the game, as it is rigged, has meant much for all of us. When he and I met in Ndjamena, Chad, we hit it off, drank a few beers, and started a conversation that we took up this past spring on the occasion of the release of the English translation of his groundbreaking novel Broken Glass.
Binyavanga Wainaina What’ve you been up to?
Alain Mabanckou I was just in Europe meeting with my new publishers; I’m going over to Gallimard.
BW Oh, wonderful.
AM I just finished a new book about my childhood that will be released in September. It takes place in the ’70s, when I was around ten.
BW How strange. The book I’m writing is also a memoir, and I’m in my childhood now. It’s funny; initially I was resistant to the idea of trying to look at Kenya through the prism of myself. There’s vanity in the idea of a memoir. Why are you writing about yourself? It’s a question that’s difficult to work through.
AM The best way for me to do it was to add a lot of fiction. I thought of it as writing a novel in which my mother, father, and uncle were the characters. I put a lot of magical, surreal ideas in it. I covered only the period between which I was 10 and 11 years old, but I wrote 400 pages!
BW I’m very jealous! I’m barely done reading Broken Glass when another book comes along.
AM I hadn’t figured out the new book Demain j’aurai vingt ans (Tomorrow I turn twenty) would be so long. My God! Gallimard sent me the proofs yesterday and it was like 400 pages. It’s rare in African Francophone literature. Usually it’s English or Anglophone writers that write huge books, like Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who’s from Kenya. This is my first very dense book.
BW Was there any kind of urgency in your imagination that made you want to write this book?
AM I’m 44. My mother and father died. I’ve written eight novels in French. Four or five of them have been translated, yet I was feeling that something was missing both in my biography and in my way of writing: the voices of my parents. It’s like a kind of disease that usually happens when you are around 40: you start thinking about your childhood. Camara Laye wrote The African Child, about growing up in Guinea, when he was 25, but he died early … (laughter)
BW I’m seeing that myself; I’m turning 40 next year. So, back to your childhood in Congo-Brazzaville, which you left when you were 22. Was there something in your childhood that made you a writer?
AM When I was nine or ten I was shocked to realize that my mother wasn’t able to read and that my father had never read a novel. My father would bring books home that I would read to them. Besides, I might have become a writer because I was an only child; I was reading a lot, I was shy. I began writing poetry; the best way to enter literature is through poetry. You’ll begin by speaking with yourself, and then the novel is going to become a kind of explosion.
BW That’s very interesting. I went the other way around. Only now I’m starting to discover poetry. I was terrified of it before.
AM (laughter) But your writing is very poetic. People laugh with your writing, but it is a kind of poetic laughter, you know?
BW It arrived while I was resisting it, but now it has taken root. So, like most writers, you were a child who lived inside your imagination and the world of books, and also relayed this world to your parents, who valued it in their own way also. Being in Congo at the time, what was the language that legitimized you as a writer? In my Anglophone Kenyan world, you’re supposed to become a lawyer or a teacher, something with … more structure. “Just writing” is thought of as a frivolous thing. There’s a bit of an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mentality. In Congo, can you be in grade school and say, “I’m going to go and become a writer; I’m going to become a poet”? What would that mean there?
AM First of all, I learned French when I was six. This means that before six I was speaking five or six African languages: Bembé, Lingala, Laari, Munukutuba, Vili, Kamba. I was shocked to see later on that there was no literature in these languages. Nothing is written in Bembé or in Lingala—they’re oral languages. The only way to reach any knowledge about writing was by learning French literature in school. When I was in high school, we first read Anglophone literature. We read Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in an anthology for us in the Francophone world to understand what people from Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya were writing in English. So I discovered that in Kenya, for instance, you can have great literature in Kikuyu and Swahili. I was frustrated that that was not the case for Congo: my practice of literature is still in the colonial language. I cannot express something directly to my people, each time I have to explain what it is that I write. I’d like for my people to just read me.
BW Of course, this is a problem I also encounter a lot, for pretty much the same reasons. In Kenya there is a lot of writing in Swahili but very little in Kikuyu or any of the other languages, although films in these languages are developing very fast. But I don’t have a philosophical problem with writing in English because I spoke English first. My parents are from two different countries—Kenya and Uganda—and I don’t speak their languages, which is a strange thing. I’m a bit of an outsider in Kikuyu and Kinyarwanda, and in Kenya I have Swahili, which I speak well, although I’m nearly illiterate when it comes to writing and reading it. Where it’s frustrating for me, in the sense of not feeling a confident ownership of a language—in my case English—is that there are English words in Kenya that are very difficult to write. I find American dialogue exciting because if I’m reading a text with dialogue that moves from Brooklyn to LA to wherever, I don’t have to pause and think about its epistemology, but if I’m trying to put together a dialogue between a guy who speaks Kikuyu from Nairobi and is talking in his English to somebody from somewhere else, there are some things I cannot do. I have to stop and reprocess even something that’s familiar to me—my ear can recognize it, but my eye cannot.
AM Yeah! So do you from time to time read literature in Swahili or in Kikuyu? Can you read it?
BW No, I’d say I can communicate in Sheng—the Lingala of Kenya, right? Text messages, blogs, people’s stories, I’ve been consuming them all my life in writing, but not in a formal way. My generation was the last for which English was compulsory. If you failed English in school, you were dead. You were transferred to a different school and it could mess up your future. Swahili for my generation was not compulsory in school, even though it was the national language. You spoke it to all Kenyans, but there was no exam for it that was urgent in the sense of where it’d place you in life. Nothing in the school infrastructure was promoting it. That has changed now. So I come from a generation that lives in Swahili, reads it in the newspaper, listens to it in advertisements, and so on, but for whom formal, proper Swahili is very painful. Reading it, I feel like I am nine years old again.
I wanted to approach the idea of what you want to do with the French language in your work. How do you see yourself as someone trying to own French somehow?
AM Given my frustration with not finding literature in Congolese languages, writing in French implied that I wouldn’t write anything similar to what classic French writers tend to write—very polished, clean literatures respecting the rules of L’ Académie française. But at the same time when I read certain French writers like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, who wrote Journey to the End of the Night, I saw that it was possible to break the rules. Broken Glass is written in French, but if you feel the rhythm of the prose, it’s like the Congolese way of speaking. That’s why I use only one kind of punctuation throughout the book: the comma. I’m proud that I now finally found a way to deal with the French.
BW Broken Glass; I read it twice because it’s an astonishing book.
AM I got good news today. The book is on the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award.
BW Congratulations! Is that for the translation?
AM Yes. In France the book was released in 2005; I won I think three awards for it. It was a finalist for the Renaudot Prize, but I actually got it a year later with Memoirs of a Porcupine.
BW Structurally, Broken Glass is fascinating. It seemed to me as if the character Broken Glass was speaking to me, yet I was reading him on the page. I was taking in the sound somehow, although I read it in translation. And also the setting, the bar Credit Gone West! (laughter) Here is this very drastic, very crazy place, and this half-crazy man who has digested this world of literature and is speaking back to it. I mean, that is incredibly powerful because it almost sends the center of the world to this decrepit bar in Congo-Brazzaville, the middle of nowhere. Broken Glass, the character, is taking from Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, García Márquez, and from all these other writers, weaving them into his speech and speaking to them and owning their territory. Beautiful.
AM The title of the bar in French is “Le Crédit a voyagé,” meaning there’s no credit at the bar; you pay, you drink! I came up with the name by taking two titles of Céline’s books: Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) and Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). And I was very influenced by Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It’s so deep and so funny; written in a kind of “broken” English. After I released Broken Glass I read another book, Beasts of No Nation by the Nigerian American Uzodinma Iweala. I immediately wrote to my publisher in France saying I wanted to translate it into French. So I did it, and it came out in 2008; that was Uzodinma’s first translation in France.
BW That’s a wonderful book too. A couple more questions about Broken Glass. Have you encountered any literary controversies about the book? I know there are always battles about the place of the Francophone writer within the very aggressive politics of Françafrique and the institutions of the French Ministry of Culture. I’m not aware of any; I’m just asking.
AM When the book first came out in 2005, one critic for the newspaper Matricule des Anges said that I sounded like someone who had read a lot and was trying to show off my literary knowledge. I was disappointed, you know? That was the first time I had published a book in a major publishing house in France, Le Seuil. I was a professor in Ann Arbor at the time. But then two weeks later, I received a very enthusiastic review from Bernard Pivot, who in France is the equivalent of Larry King. He’s an opinion leader, so then things changed for me. Up until now I think people still talk about Broken Glass. The book is still following me!
BW There is a political relationship between culture and France’s power and authority over the French-speaking world. This was part of your experience. France makes no pretense that culture and the French language are part of its diplomatic and political mission. There’s still a door that you have to knock on to be welcomed. And that door is very much a part of the state’s policy, or the state’s idea about itself.
AM I had been knocking on doors in France for about 11 years. At first I published with two small and independent publishers in France, with no reviews; I was selling like 100 or 200 copies of each. Nobody knew me until I wrote Broken Glass. And then, thanks to the Renaudot Prize—one of France’s major literary prizes—the doors remained open. Once you win a major prize over there, the French will even forget that you are an African writer. As with any other French writer, you’ll be considered someone who has an opinion on everything. They used to call me from Le Figaro. Yesterday I wrote a long article on African literature for Le Monde.
BW Yes, but, of course, you are in America while this is happening. (laughter)
AM That’s a plus. I don’t know what it would have been like if I were living in France all this time. I live in the US, and I teach Francophone literature in French. The French establishment should get the message about the French language: it will survive thanks to people who are teaching it and writing in it outside of France.
BW For sure. You are part of a generation of Francophone writers who have a visibility in America. Two or three of your books have been translated: African Psycho, Broken Glass … Has Memoirs of a Porcupine also been translated?
AM The translation is in progress. I think the book is going to be out next year.
BW So, as a producer, what does this mean for you? Mine was the last generation of Kenyans who read English translations of African Francophone literature in high school. There were simply no translations being produced after the ’70s. It was Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono, writers from the Independence Generation in the ’60s, as part of the Macmillan African Writers series. There’s a kind of mutual invisibility now between authors from the same continent writing in English, Portuguese, or French who occupy the same continent. Someone like you is a bridge between all these communities. What has this meant to you?
AM Francophone writers don’t know a lot about Anglophone writers, and I don’t know if many other Francophone writers are translated into English. That’s the toughest translation to get for someone writing in France. Even Philippe Sollers, a leading French writer, doesn’t have books translated into English. Things are getting better maybe. Michèle Albaret-Maatsch, a French writer, is translating a Nigerian writer into French: Chris Abani. If I had more time I would have translated his wonderful novel Becoming Abigail. You need to influence French people with the new generation writing in English, and more translations need to come from writers who are well-known in France. When I translated Uzodinma Iweala people were curious. They didn’t know him, but they knew me. They bought the book out of curiosity and discovered that it was deep and that it dealt with contemporary problems in Africa.
BW As you know, here at the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard we have been in the process of trying to put together a project that would address this problem by sending 12 writers—Francophone, Anglophone, and, if all goes well, a Lusophone writer also—to a part of the continent that they haven’t been to or that they are not deeply familiar with. We will send 12 writers to 12 cities for two weeks during the soccer World Cup this June, and each of them will write a full-length travel book. You’ll be going to Lagos as part of the project. Have you been to Lagos before?
AM In 2003 I was on a boat with people from Le Figaro: they invited writers to travel to Africa by sea. So I saw the beach at Lagos from afar, but I’ve never been there. People say a lot of things about Lagos—that it’s a cold city, that there are a lot of problems over there. But no, it’s Africa. It’s my land, so I need to see it, to feel it. I hope that things won’t fall apart. (laughter)
BW No, no. We finally got the money, so everything on that front is good. So the team planning the project is in Cape Town; they’re getting everything together. Nigerian Breweries will be sponsoring part of your Lagos trip. They will give you a driver and a guide and a car with an incredible amount of complicated security. Everyone says that Lagos is not functional, but all over Lagos you see beer bottles; they arrive and are consumed in rich places and poor places alike, and they make people some money. So the operation behind the operation—to get the beer distributors involved—is coherent. (laughter) This will allow you to enter any corner of Lagos you wish. Maybe not outside the churches … they’re not too happy that people consume beer there. It’s a great city, you know.
AM I’ll talk about the project with my new publishers. It may be possible for the Center to sell the book later on to Gallimard.
BW For us it was the idea of travel writing. There’s this typecast genre of “Travel Africa!” literature which permeates the world. What we want to do is to put authors out of place inside their own continent so they see it as travelers, during the World Cup. This is the first World Cup in the continent, and therefore the first time we all, as Africans, will be attentive to the whole continent—through soccer.
Memoirs of a Porcupine—could you talk about it a little? I haven’t read this book because it’s not translated into English yet.
AM It’s a sort of fable. The narrator is an animal that is also a serial killer—it’s a porcupine. The porcupine is the double of a man whose name is Kibandi. According to myth in Congo-Brazzaville, when you are born, you come into this world with an animal that is your double or totem. You will live the same life and will die on the same day. In my book the problem is that the man dies but the animal survives. The porcupine decides to write a memoir. The reader discovers that the animal had a very ugly life, that the man would order him to do really bad things to the people of a deep village in Congo. The myth of the double exists not only in my own village; a lot of African readers have told me that in their country people also believe in having an animal as a double.
BW That’s true. You’re a global writer now. Having that visibility must have made the people of Congo want to celebrate you in some way. There’s a political establishment there; what are you to them now?
AM It’s funny. People want me to occupy a government position in Congo. Two years ago they wanted me to become the minister of culture. I said, “No! It’s incompatible with my writing.” People are suffering; people are not happy. I don’t want to be responsible for what I didn’t will. I’m giving more visibility to the Congo by writing in France. Writers are ambassadors of their countries. Today if you speak about Colombia, people are going to say, “Ah! Gabriel García Márquez’s country.” And Nigeria is Chinua Achebe’s country. You need to be clean and exemplary then. For example, Wole Soyinka—Nigeria is there; the culture is deep.
BW Are your books studied in school or at the university now in Congo?
AM Yes. Sometimes students write to me: “Dear Alain, We are reading Broken Glass. I wanted to know if you wanted to say this, or that, or that.” I say to them, “Come on! I don’t know every word in my books. I cannot do your homework; I just wrote the book!”
BW So how are your books published then in Congo? Is it through the French publishing houses or through independent publishing houses on the continent somehow?
AM Unfortunately, through the French publisher. They send the paperbacks because the hardcovers are expensive for the people over there. We don’t have a lot of bookstores in Congo-Brazzaville; we have two or three main bookstores, and they’re owned by French people.
BW And Congo-Brazzaville, the country, and Brazzaville the city, has a next-door neighbor called Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But they’re continuous cities, right?
AM They’re the closest countries in the world. We have the same culture, the same food, the same music, and we speak the same language: Lingala. The colonizers tried to pit people against each other in order to reign, but we are the same people on both sides of the Congo River. I feel equally at home in Kinshasa.
BW Each city has its own special spirit, I guess. What is special for you about Brazzaville/Kinshasa?
AM Kinshasa is huge. The vibe is more intense there with musicians such as Koffi Olomidé, Fally Ipupa, or Werason. In recent years the people from Congo Démocratique were coming to Congo-Brazzaville in order to earn money. You can cross the river in like 20 or 25 minutes.
BW Now, through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a story like “The Lagoon,” and through V S Naipaul, the idea of Congo and the river and the jungle has entered the world’s imagination—it’s become an iconic image of Africa. And also so many assumptions about Africa exist in the media. Pascale Casanova, who wrote The World Republic of Letters, says that there is a geopolitical world of books that is a separate country; serious writers from around the world compete for attention and credibility in the global centers that dominate and disseminate literary credibility, such as Paris or New York. So in this republic of letters there are Alain Mabanckou’s books, and then there’s Heart of Darkness. They are both fighting for geopolitical space. What are your thoughts about this?
AM Before Heart of Darkness, André Gide wrote about Congo, Chad, and so on. These writers gave a particular image of Africa or, more precisely, Congo, to the world. It’s very difficult for a writer to change that perception. Africans didn’t have a voice in those books; they didn’t utter a single word. Writers need to step back a little bit and let the characters talk. That’s what current African literature is about—letting ordinary African people speak, instead of this literature written by tourists or people with preconceived ideas of Africa who’d prefer to describe a suffering person with a big belly instead of, for example, a laughing Nigerian who is playing the guitar. No, this is not good for them. They want to show Europe that Africa is still the heart of darkness, a dead end.
BW So nowadays there is a community of people born in Africa or in Europe who write in French, and who I assume interact a lot because of research institutions and prizes and conferences. How is this community different from the group of Francophone writers of the ’60s?
AM There’s a huge difference; we are now facing many other problems. In the ’60s they were dealing with national independences. They depicted joy. This joy has come to be a sadness, with so many countries facing dictatorships. Besides, in the postcolonial era, we are dealing with the fact that we are migrating a lot. In the ’60s it was difficult to see anything other than the problems between black and white people, between colonizers and the colonized. Nowadays the real topic is how am I going to express my singularity before the Western world’s ideology, which wants to erase my soul.
BW What do you mean by this?
AM The West wants us to believe that the only civilization is the civilization of the Western world. Take the French president. One day he said that Africa needs to get into history. Come on! Europe needs to join history. The arrogance! They believe that the only way of surviving in this world is to embrace that civilization, but they overlook that the Western civilization is about to fall apart, quoting that nice expression from our elders … They don’t understand they need people from the outside world. America does understand this because America is a country of immigration. People came from everywhere around the world to build a nation. In France they don’t understand that. They are still talking about identity, and the French identity means having white skin and blue eyes, and speaking French without an accent.
BW (laughter) I was 19 or 20 when the Berlin Wall fell. So I am somebody who is part of a regime that thinks that the world can be put inside this one basket called the market, or whatever. Nairobi, my city, has a complexity that I myself cannot process. This is the city most familiar to me in terms of time spent there, but if I sit at a bar and just watch people doing things, it’s hard for me to imagine who they are and why. Part of this is because we do not consume their inner lives in texts, yet I am consuming the inner life of, for instance, New York all the time. If I sit and watch people in London or Paris it’s easier for me to speculate. Something has been simplified about how people stream, how they work, how their bodies have adapted to named and visible institutions—the world has been flattened. And when you go back home, there’s something precious about the idea that people have refused to be flattened in that way. I don’t know how many languages are being spoken in Nairobi, or what everybody’s idea of the city might be. Work has not been standardized, most people work for entities that have no license, no easy name. Yes, we are waiting for “development,” but, at the same time, a kind of modern life is lived. I suspect that most people in Nairobi would call themselves Western, whatever that means to them—this carries so many possibilities. Do you think that with the Sarkozy government things have moved backward somehow?
AM Yes. It’s dangerous politics to have a president talk day in and day out about the identity of the French people. People need jobs, healthcare, but he is talking about identity—he forgot that he is an immigrant.
BW So does the Sarkozy government see people like you or Marie Ndiaye, who have visibility and strong things to say, as dangerous?
AM They think that we complain a lot and that we owe them. Like, “We gave you the French language, and this and that … You should be grateful.” I say they didn’t give us anything. We took it from them because they didn’t want to give it us.
BW I’m interested in your thoughts on how we could get what we write to somehow cross from Kinshasa, Nairobi, Lagos, and whatever, without necessarily having to go through Paris. In some countries in the Anglophone world there has been a kind of growth of independent publishing; also in some Francophone countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. At the same time, it seems that there hasn’t been enough of an opening like there was in the ‘60s.
AM We visit Europe, the United States, Australia, India. You and I saw each other in Norway … But we don’t know enough about our own continent. I want to see a Kenyan writer writing a novel set in Congo-Brazzaville. We need to show our readers that we can deal with our continent, that our writing can pass through the boundaries of colonization. That’s why I’m very excited about the World Cup project. I’m going to realize my dream: I’m going to write about Nigeria as a Congolese. Maybe after the project I’ll develop a new kind of travel literature. I’ll try to write about each country I visit—without forgetting my own country, for sure.
Binyavanga Wainaina won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. He is the founding editor of Kwani?, a leading African literary magazine based in Kenya. Wainaina is currently the Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. His memoir I Will One Day Write About this Place is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2011.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee