Alain Mabanckou at his book signing after the interview.
This is a summary of the headlining event of the 2017 Africa Writes literature festival, ‘Alain Mabanckou In Conversation’, with interviewer, Madhu Krishnan. Alain Mabanckou is Congolese novelist, poet and academic, renowned for his Francophone writing. He is currently a professor at UCLA. Mabanckou is the author of several novels including: Blue-White-Red, African Psycho, Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine, Black Baazar, Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, The Lights of Pointe-Noire and Black Moses. He is the winner of the Grand Prix de la Littérature 2012, the receiver of the Subsaharan African Literature Prize and the Prix Renaudot, and the 2015 finalist for the Man Booker International Prize.
On his life and journey as a writer:
Alain Mabanckou begins by thanking all of the people behind the Africa Writes festival, commenting on the importance of these cultural celebrations.
Mabanckou states that he owes his literary career to his mother: “If I didn’t have a great mother, I know that I wouldn’t have become a writer.”
This is an interesting comment considering his mother’s illiteracy, “She didn’t go to school, she couldn’t read. She died in 1995.” His mother would even question his literary inclinations. Mabanckou quotes her in jest: “Why are you writing? You’re going to destroy your eyes!”
The first time his mother read his work, she commented: “You didn’t put a picture in the book!” He states that this is why his later novel, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, published after her death, includes images in the hope of pleasing his mother from “paradise”.
Mabanckou says: “So my book is about myself”. He then comments on the tendency of Francophone writers to evade the question of family, asking: “What about your family, who can explain all of Africa? If you want to free your continent you need to understand, first of all, what is happening in your own house.” For Mabanckou, the family offers a point of exploration – the beginnings of a wider understanding of Africa.
Mabanckou finishes the question by returning to the subject of his mother: “You can see in the background [of my writing], a woman who is my mother […] My goal is to make her one of the most known mothers in Francophone literature.”
If you want to free your continent you need to understand, first of all, what is happening in your own house.
On his family’s reception of his novels, particularly his semi-autobiographical novel The Lights of Pointe-Noire:
Mabanckou describes his initial worry about his family’s reaction to his work: “When you write about your mother and father […] they say ‘I didn’t do that! I didn’t beat you when you were a kid!’”
He comments on his uncle’s offence at his exclusion from the novel, recounting a humorous exchange between the pair:
“He was browsing the book, saying: Mm, you write a lot?
I said, yes.
It’s a lot of pages.
I said, yes.
I said, yes.
So everybody is here?
But I’m not here.”
His uncle demanded: “Okay, you’re going to go back to America. You’re going to write another book. I don’t want to be in the middle or in the end – the FIRST CHAPTER, you say my name.”
Mabanckou states: So now I am writing a book so that I can pay a tribute to that uncle – I’m trying to put him everywhere. EVERYWHERE. You’re going to be sick and tired of him.
On the division between French literature and Francophone literature:
“I think it’s a very complicated situation for all Africans writing in French because they are integrating. France is still thinking that French literature is above and Francophone literature is written by people with an accent or something like that, coming from the previous colonies, and so on and so on. So we need to explain that the world is changing. English is strong because [of all the writers] who are spreading the language and giving it a new way of living. […] In France […] everything needs to come from the centre.”
Alain Mabanckou states that French writers write to “pay the rent.” In comparison, “When Africans write, they don’t expect to pay the rent. They are expecting to testify something. And they can do it for free. That way they have something to give to the world. Francophone writers are the most translated compared to French. Sometimes they ask me ‘Why?’ […] I say because we are trying to explain to the world that the French language is not only French, it is also Cameroon, Congolese, etc.”
Mabanckou comments on the work of Francophone writers in regards to linguistics: “We are trying to break the rules.”
He also stresses the important universality of writing: “We need to express to France with our African roots inside it, and to express to everybody that when I’m talking about my mother, I’m also talking about yours, about theirs, and so on and so on.”
A French writer writes to pay the rent, an African writer writes to testify.
On whether or not he consciously thinks of himself as a linguistic innovator/breaker:
Mabanckou gives a modest and humorous answer: “Not at all. Because when I’m writing, I’m trying, first of all, to deal with myself. I have a lot to do. But all of a sudden they say, ‘Oh you’re the one […] who is trying to keep France in good shape’. I’m not gonna say no. Especially if they pay me for that.”
Mabanckou mostly mediates on his family when writing: ”But at the end of the day when they read my book – who are they going to see there? My mother, my uncle […]. That’s who I’m gonna keep in my mind.”
Mabanckou doesn’t want to be “stuck” to a certain theme: “I need to be free in order to express what I’m gonna say in my novels.”
Even without linguistics in mind, literature inevitably comments on this perceived hierarchy between French and Francophone writers. To illustrate this point, Mabanckou describes his experience at the Collége de France – “the temple of French spirit” . He states: “From the 16th century until last year they didn’t teach African literature over there. So I went over there and said ‘Yes, you have asked me to teach here. But I’m not gonna teach creative writing. I’m going to teach African literature’. They said, ‘No you’re not gonna fill the room, maybe you should stick to being a writer’. Because they know that in African literature, I’m gonna testify about the European meeting on the continent, I’m gonna talk about slavery, I’m gonna talk about Rwanda genocide. So it was sensitive.”
At first the institution placed him in the room which seats 200 people and he questioned why not a room that seats 600. They insisted he would not be able to fill it. “Two days before they had about 1,300 people who came, so they had to put a screen […] Because I was teaching about African literature – even putting [the writers’] pictures.”
…in African literature, I’m gonna testify about the European meeting on the continent, I’m gonna talk about slavery, I’m gonna talk about Rwanda genocide.
On the role of humour and satire in social of literary commentary:
“I think that it is linked to my own culture in the Congo. Even if we were in trouble, we wouldn’t cry. We would find a way to laugh at our own condition. We wouldn’t want to show people that we are lacking something to eat, that their parents cannot afford their uniform to go to school […] Life is something laughable.”
“I don’t prepare what’s gonna make people laugh […] It just comes naturally. When I’m writing I need to let my spirit go, even if its unsure. I need to throw everything on the table.”
Perhaps humour is the key to realism: “At the end of the day, if you write a novel, make people feel happy. Make them feel that the novel is real. Try to hide that it’s just a novel. It’s real and it’s gonna make people laugh.”
On the importance of the bar – a space which recurs in his novels, particularly Broken Glass and Black Baazar:
Mabanckou states that his uncle owned a bar. “In Congolese rhumba, a track is always 30 minutes. […] I spent a lot of my life in that bar!”
On being a Francophone writer who is popular within the Anglophone circles, and his role as a mediator between these two spaces:
“The connection is [formed by people who] work harder. Because I didn’t go to school to learn English – I learnt French at that time. So when I went to the United States it wasn’t easy for me. We need to push Anglophone writers […] We need to help the Anglophone writer to come to the French and Francophone literary landscape.”
“I’m lucky to be adopted by Anglophone writers. It’s not just because of my suit.” He gestures to his snazzy blue blazer.
We need to help the Anglophone writer to come to the French and Francophone literary landscape
On his experience living in both France and the United States:
Mabanckou describes the benefits of living in the U.S., even with Bush as the president at one point during his residency (he notes this comment may get him into trouble:“They’re going to tweet! Ban Mabanckou from coming back!”):
“Living in a country where they don’t speak French gives me another perspective of writing. Because the French which is coming from the heavens and falling on my pages are words which are not perverted by the life of the people here. I’m relieved from the pressure of living in France and going to the café where they have other French writers. America is for me a kind of island in which I can stay thinking about Africa, and Europe and try to write and teach African literature. America is a country with the chance to become a professor in French literature or African literature. Because France didn’t give me that before – they called me because I was in the United States. It is a country which has given me the opportunity to grow, the opportunity to meet other writers […] A writer needs to be patient. Don’t rush. Literature has its own time.”
“A writer needs to be patient. Don’t rush. Literature has its own time.”
Tidbits from the Audience Q & A:
On continental self-criticism: “We need to look at our present and our future. The past is gonna be a kind of paper to read to resolve the mistakes we made before. Even if we are talking about slavery […] at some point we need to find if we have a part in the responsibility […] That is called a kind of auto-criticism and it’s not that easy […] Moving forward is also auto-criticism. Yes, Africa is great […] But we need to resolve its problems instead of only trying to [….] relieve the pain.”
On whether speaking French compromises his African identity: “You write in the language in which you read. I did not read in Lingala […] It does not mean that if I’m using the French language or the English language, I’m gonna stop being African. The language is just a means for the creator to succeed – to express his creation. […] But I speak seven African languages. […] Don’t worry. Even if I write in English or French, they’re gonna say ‘He’s not really English, he’s not really French’, so it’s African anyway.”
On the art of translation: “Translation is a new work […] You have to show what can help the readers to get to know the original. Sometimes, a translation is better than the original […] Sometimes it’s difficult to take from a language and put it into another language […] But Helen Stevenson [the translator of Mabanckou’s novels] – she’s British. So the only thing I said was: ‘Don’t be too British.’”
Alain Mabanckou with the young winner of the ‘Best Dressed’ competition.
When Madhu Krishnan states “I’m afraid we’re out of time” Alain Mabanckou interjects with “Don’t be afraid!” He then proceeds to play on his reputation as one of the most stylish writers, by naming an audience member as the ‘Best Dressed’. He finally chooses a young boy wearing a yellow checkered shirt and pink pants, and the child is gifted a free copy of Mabanckou’s most recent novel, Black Moses, as his prize.