Fiston Mwanza Mujila & Roland Glasser by Sofia Samatar

“When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have.”

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An assortment of photographs from Brazzaville, Kisantu, and Leopoldville, circa 1934.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila is a poet and dramatist whose work explores what one of his poems calls a “geography of hunger.” His debut novel, Tram 83, takes its title from a bar in an unnamed City-State where patrons meet to indulge their hunger for alcohol, money, music, and sex. Into this ruthless central terminal comes Lucien, a poet returned from abroad, carrying his own hunger for literature, meaning, and political and artistic freedom. His adventures among the denizens of Tram 83 unfold between two overarching hungers: that of foreign and local profiteers for the country’s mineral wealth, and that of ordinary people for survival.

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Tram 83 moves with a relentless rhythm, full of lists that rush into one another, cassava fields and churches, miner-diggers and digger-miners, railroads and rumba. This forward charge is countered by frequent loops and repetitions, creating an intense, circular energy. In his efforts to find an art that speaks to the City-State, Lucien invents the genres of the “stage-tale” and “locomotive literature”—terms that could describe Tram 83 itself. His comic search for the right language ultimately suggests the impossibility of speaking. For all its exuberance, this is a novel of dismay.

Born in Lubumbashi, Congo, Fiston Mwanza Mujila currently lives in Graz, Austria, where he is pursuing a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures. Tram 83was published by Editions Métalié in France in 2014, garnering wide acclaim and winning the Grand Prix SGDL and the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria. The book appears in English this fall from Deep Vellum, translated by Roland Glasser. Originally from London, Roland Glasser lived in Paris for a decade, and has had an extensive career in the performing arts, mainly as a lighting designer, in addition to being a translator. I interviewed both Fiston and Roland over email, with Roland translating my questions and Fiston’s answers.

Sofia Samatar Fiston, I want to start by asking you about jazz. Reviewers have found a jazz rhythm in Tram 83, comparing it, for example, to a Coltrane number. The novel, however, states bluntly that “Jazz is no longer the story of the negroes.” Rather, jazz belongs to “the bourgeoisie of the eleventh hour.” The music seems fatally compromised, associated with tourism and the predator class of the City-State. Can you talk about the role jazz plays in Tram 83?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila I am a music lover, not just of jazz but also Congolese rumba. I dreamed of becoming a saxophonist when I was a child. That wasn’t able to happen, since there was no music school in my hometown and I couldn’t get hold of a saxophone. When I was nineteen or twenty I realized that literature or writing could play the role of a saxophone or bass clarinet. I was reading the surrealists a lot at the time. There is a connection between automatic writing and improvisation. Since then, I compose some of my texts like scores. I also make performances, often accompanied by jazzmen.

Music allowed me to explode the story in order to conform to the characters’ whims and excessiveness. I come from a country that exists only on paper. The Congo—by its very history, its everyday life—is an extraordinary, or shall we say paradoxical, country. There is no such thing as moderation there. We are always immoderate, excessive, exuberant, etc. Everything happens as if the world was going to end in forty-eight hours and we should therefore make the most of our remaining crumbs. Everything happens as if we belonged to another planet, with our own ways of thinking, of getting drunk, of dancing the waltz, and so on. I therefore needed jazz’s (incantatory) energy to define the heartbeats of a territory ravaged by all kinds of predation but whose people remain standing.

Tram 83 is irrigated by other rhythms, including those of the freight trains and the Congo river—one of the longest rivers in the world, and the deepest, second in discharge after the Amazon. The Congo river rises in the south and wanders through the whole country, before committing suicide, or hurling itself out the window, it depends, into the Atlantic ocean.

SS I want to ask about those freight trains, about the concept of “locomotive literature.” I’m thinking of a book like Sembène Ousmane’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood) and how one could call this “locomotive literature,” since the novel is built around a railroad strike and the movements and stoppages of trains. And I’m also thinking how very distant Sembène’s social realism is from the surreal atmosphere of Tram 83. In Les Bouts there’s a map of the railroad: you can follow the progress of the strikers as they advance into a better, more socialist future. Tram 83 has none of that faith in progress, it has no landmarks, only the abstract spaces of the Back-Country and the City-State, and of course the terrible station that both opens and closes the novel—that “unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley…”

I suppose, before even asking about locomotive literature, I want to ask about locomotion. The novel seems to suggest that political change is impossible for the City-State as long as it remains weighed down by its own resources, the minerals that make it an international target. It also suggests that the notion of progress, political or otherwise, is suspect. I wonder if you would agree that this marks a difference between your work and a twentieth-century novel like Les Bouts—the way the train, a symbol of modernity and technology of travel, becomes a vehicle for colonial haunting.

FMM The realism of Sembène Ousmane corresponds to an era. Francophone African literature began at the start of the twentieth century. For the first African writers, otherwise called “writers of the first generation,” the space of the novel was devoted to social questions. There was a desire to describe African society as faithfully as possible. The readership for this literature was mainly Western. They fell back on this realist, socially-oriented writing in order to dissect the issues related to colonization, as well as explore the African world. This is why Sembène turned to cinema, with film being the continuation of his literary work. Sembène Ousmane’s realist canvases can also be explained by the fact that the Francophone African novel of the time was inspired by realism—the literary current of the late nineteenth century embodied by Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert, and so on.

The freewheeling writing of Tram 83 comes from a retrospective reading of the colonial situation. Trains were part of the colonial landscape and architecture. They had a whole other symbolism than in Europe. They symbolized the taming of African nature, deportation, forced labor, exploitation, the transport of minerals, looting, etc.

Interviewed for a documentary, the South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela said that “the train was South Africa’s first tragedy.” I think that is also valid for the Belgian Congo. You could write a whole other history of colonization based just on railroads. It wasn’t without reason that Stanley, the explorer commissioned by Léopold II, declared: “Without the railroad, the Congo is not worth a penny.” 

I needed to use a language that was dislocated, abrupt, slithery, in order to describe these freight trains and the reality of the uncontrolled exploitation of minerals.

When I was working on this novel, I listened a lot to “Coal Train,” a track by Masekela that speaks of a train, a train that wends its way across the whole of southern Africa, transporting men forced to go work in the Johannesburg mines for nothing.

There is no possible progress without the enslavement of mankind. The inhabitants of the City-State careen through a colonial modernity.

SS One of the most insistent repetitions in the novel is “Do you have the time?”—the pick-up line of the prostitutes of Tram 83. They also repeat lines about foreplay—sometimes demanding it, sometimes saying they don’t like it, it spoils the pleasure, it’s a waste of time. There’s so much play with time there: the possibility of possessing or wasting it, the way it relates to work and pleasure, the way it stands still. I wonder what’s being said here about time and the body—the female body in particular, especially considering your epigraph, a twist on Genesis: “You will eat by the sweat of your breasts.”

FMM The City-State is neither a city nor a state. When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have. And the girls of Tram 83 know it. The City-State is like a paradise that’s run out of gas. And in this paradise, time is an illusion.

The eastern part of the Congo has suffered a series of rebellions over the last ten years. Mass rape (of women, men, and children) is used as a weapon of war. The rebels even go so far as to mutilate genital organs… This inspired me to ponder the question of the body. When I give readings, I walk about, trying to use my body as a country, my body as a memory, my body as a river.

SS Questions of the body, of what’s carried in the body, are central to the novel. I’d like to ask you about what you carry yourself, in terms of influences. While reading Tram 83 I was reminded of Césaire’s lyricism, the fantastical quality of Sony Labou Tansi’s novels, the bitter, ritualistic language of Yambo Ouologuem… But perhaps I’m way off. Can you talk about influences, literary or otherwise?

FMM In writing this novel, I often thought about Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the opera by Brecht and Weill. This text speaks to me as a native of a mining region. I read Sony Labou, Césaire, and Yambo Ouologuem when I was a teenager. They have surely influenced my writing.

My reading also covers other territories: Siegfried Lenz, García Márquez, JM Coetzee, Achebe, Saramago, Orhan Pamuk, Toni Morrison, Agualusa, László Krasznahorkai. Before being a writer, I am first and foremost a reader.

I have published poetry. I write short stories and stage plays. All these forms of writing cohabit in Tram 83. Music and painting give structure to my poetry. There is also the ever-present Congo River. I am a child of terra firma, the elder son of the mine. The river draws its source in Katanga—the province where I was born—wanders through the entire country and pours into the ocean. Like the river, I always come from the interior, from the belly, before embracing the world. 

SS Roland, I was interested to discover that you’re also a lighting designer, because lighting creates atmosphere—something that’s often a challenge for translators. I wonder if that makes sense to you, if you see a connection between these two practices. And I also wonder what it was like creating the lighting for the English edition of Tram 83.

Roland Glasser There is indeed a connection between these two practices, but less to do with lighting than with the practice of theater-making in general. My experience in the performing arts stretches back twenty years, mainly as a lighting designer, but also as a performer, assistant director, dramaturge, and producer. The making of a theater piece, be it devised or text-based, is all about process. The end result may appear magical and mysterious but its creation is very down-to-earth and logical. A thorough deconstruction of the script, or of the elements being adapted, is key, as is research and exploration of the background and themes, the world in which the piece is set, aspects of the characters and their evolution, the writer’s concerns and intentions. And so it is with literary translation, at least for me. For example, I like to read the book first—many translators prefer to discover it as they work. In the case of Tram 83, where the rhythm and musicality of the text is so important, I commenced each day’s work session by reading the upcoming chapter aloud while walking round the garden—rather like an actor might start working on a text—even moving my body or gesticulating in the manner of a performance poet or rapper! Perhaps it was nothing more than sympathetic magic, but it felt like I was subconsciously imprinting aspects of the text within myself.

It was also really important for me to establish a rapport with Fiston. We met a couple of times before I started work—over some tasty Congolese food and not a few beers!—and this allowed me to get some sense of his motivations and intentions regarding Tram 83, as well as find out more about the history of central Africa and its current situation. Then, as I progressed with the translation itself, I sent him a ton of detailed questions, and we Skyped and emailed several times.

Finally, I would say that it’s my past experiences as an actor that have given me a good ear for dialogue—one of my favorite elements to translate.

SS Translation is down-to-earth, you say, it’s about logic—yet you admit to practicing sympathetic magic! Can you say more about the tension between magic and logic, or how they work together in the translation process?

RG It is important to have a process that one follows, yet leave oneself sufficient freedom to respond to one’s intuition. When working on a particular fragment, there may well be a lot of spadework, a lot of digging and delving, and cross-referencing, to determine exactly what the author is saying, how exactly they are saying it, and, of course, the best way to convey that in one’s own language. But there comes a certain point where you have to relax your conscious mind, stop thinking about the nuts and bolts, and let your subconscious do its work. For me, it’s important to have the right working environment that allows me to access that state. And I can’t jump straight into it. I need to ease in. I’ll potter about, make tea or coffee, check emails, surf the internet, obsess about finding the right music, look out the window, daydream… But eventually I’ll get on with it, and, as the day goes on, it’s like I morph from “regular Roland” into “translator Roland.” At which point, the logical and intuitive parts begin their intertwined dance.

SS It strikes me that you’re both involved in performance, both accustomed to being on and around the stage. I wonder to what extent you see Tram 83 as a “stage-tale,” to use Lucien’s term, and this English edition as a collaborative performance.

RG There is certainly a collaborative element. Fiston and I discussed many aspects of the book, and he was able to clarify a number of points on which I had questions, and to provide his own view on certain elements that were ambiguous or had several possible interpretations. This was particularly important when there were choices I had to make that would involve losing something from the French, be it a play on words or a hidden or double meaning. And as we prepare to embark on an extensive tour of the US, we will be performing the text together—and I mean performing—he in his own way for the French, and I in mine for the English, bringing something fresh and exciting to Tram 83.

FMM I can’t wait to read, to bark, to proffer Tram 83 in the United States.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria and co-editor of the journal Interfictions. Her next book, The Winged Histories, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2016.

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