Conversation with Prof. Boubacar Boris Diop
Director of the Writing Center, Ms. Emilienne Akpan, discusses the African novel and the intricate art of storytelling with the legendary Senegalese author who teaches creative writing at AUN
Boubacar Boris Diop, a celebrated Senegalese novelist, journalist, playwright, and essayist of international renown, is also one of the most prominent contemporary francophone writers. His books have been translated into English, including the famous Murambi, the Book of Bones, which is a fictional account of the notorious Rwandan genocide of 1994. His highly varied work combines political thoughts and a real literary originality, served by a rousing prose. Prof. Diop is the recipient of many national and international awards. He is also an authority in the works of another famous Senegalese, Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the most profoundly original and influential intellectual activists of all time. He is presently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Feature & Creative Writing in the School of Arts and Sciences. In an in-depth discussion about literary writing, especially in Africa, Prof. Diop shares his thoughts and hopes.
What is literary writing to you and why should it be preserved?
A writer is someone who dedicates his life to telling other people’s stories. Why? Sometimes he doesn’t even know, especially as in most cases, nobody has asked him to do so. Literary writing is a very demanding activity and far from being the best way to make money or to become famous. Actually, writing is a passion and as such, it deserves our respect because to have the urge to creatively document what is pertinent can also be very useful. You see, reading a book is like reading a society and if you want to understand or appreciate the soul of a nation at a given time, trust its writers and novelists, rather than its sociologists or its anthropologists who between them draw specific lines between society and culture. The writer identifies with everything happening around him and often recreates his nation through the common language he shares with his people. This common language, often pitted against the dynamics brought about by change, enriches, preserves, and unifies.
The great paradox of our time is that the more we speak of globalization, and rightly so, the more we feel our identities are threatened by standardization, which is the new euphemism for Westernization. The religious tensions and the cruelties we witness on the international political stage have a lot to do with these existential fears. Fiction is one of the most powerful tools to help us define ourselves without killing anybody and, in Africa, the present generation should meditate upon Birago Diop’s advice, namely that «The baobab tree will never grow up and reach the sky unless it is deeply rooted in a nourishing soil.»
You have been privileged to experience two literary worlds - African and Western. Are there any noticeable differences or meeting points?
Traditionally, people read more in the Western world. This is also because the book industry is well organized there. In addition, Westerners have a literary legacy--long-standing, established, and revered written literature that they can fall back on at any time. Furthermore, apart from the fact that writing for its own sake, as a pleasurable form of expression, is more prevalent in the West, almost all the great poets, playwrights, and novelists of all times are translated into major European languages. Largely, the same cannot be said of African literature. It’s rare that we African authors see ourselves as individuals; we live and work under the constant pressure of social and political urgencies, as self-imposed representatives of our people who feel that writing must be effective politically to be meaningful. If like Zola said once the writer is the «engineer of human souls,» some of us therefore modestly try to be the healers of our societies confronted by corruption, poverty, and political violence, while a few prefer to look the other way and write what is dictated as ‘acceptable’ by a few influential institutions. It has been said that the birthplace of a writer doesn’t matter that much as all writers have always been, and are still preoccupied, with the ultimate sense of human life and the mysteries of life, death, love, or hatred.
If you had to look back on past works of African writers, would you say there is a shift in the mainstream African literature?
Two or three decades ago, African literature was most likely regarded as a continental phenomenon. I remember my conversations with the great Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. He was in touch with all his colleagues from Angola, Kenya, or Nigeria and their books, translated into French, were taught in Dakar and Abidjan. Half a century afterward, our various “independences” have changed everything. You may not believe it, but the majority of students in Senegal have never heard the names of Soyinka and or Achebe, let alone a Mozambican author like Mia Couto. It’s sad that we lose so much time struggling desperately to be accepted in Paris, London, or Lisbon when we should be working together to preserve our heritage, share our values and groom the next generations of writers. We should realize that beyond the colonial languages we have been historically obliged to use, the challenges we are dealing with are the same and this sobering fact is clearly reflected in our novels and plays.
What influences the reception or rejection of the present-day African literature by people of other continents?
I think it’s above all the negative image of Africa. For too many people, Africans can only be good football players or singers but when it comes to arts and sciences, there is nothing interesting to expect from them. I am sorry to say that but it’s a reality we must confront, as I have often met people who think that in an ideal world nobody should be African and black. But the media power is a key factor here too and until we have the collective power and opportunity to make our writers heard and better known on the world literary stage, the present trend will continue.
Africa is known for its oral tradition. Has this shaped written literature in any way? Alternatively, has it instead widened the divide between those who can express themselves in indigenous languages and those who can’t?
I think orality has always been and is still at the heart of our literary practice. We can see it with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngūgi wa Thiongo’os Matigari, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers. It isalso impossibleto understand in depth a celebrated novel like Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s The Ambiguous Adventure without also listening carefully to and appreciating the voices of the main characters. This phenomenon goes far beyond the African continent and reaches into the diaspora. We can also identify it with Aimé Césaire or even, what’s more striking, with a pure theoretician like Frantz Fanon whose expression is at times extremely lyrical. Maybe this oral tradition is why African poetry was so powerful in the 1950s, an era when African intellectuals used ‘indigenous’ orality to its full potential as they fought individually and collectively for the liberation of the continent. It is a little different nowadays, and what I will call the crisis of language is a crisis of poetry. In that sense, the African novel is also a deafening eulogy to silence.
From our histories, we all bear the mental marks of our oral traditions but we are’ marked’ neither in the same way nor with the same strength. Consequently, there is a generational divide and, more broadly, a gap between those who can express themselves in the African languages and the others, who are the tiny ruling minority. But audiobooks can be of a great help to build a bridge between these two categories of the population in any African country. Every writer knows instinctively that it is not enough to create fiction in the language he speaks, that in fact, it is better to create it in the only language that speaks to him: his mother tongue, which always comes from so far….
With colonialism came Africans' detestation of their indigenous languages. Why is this the case? Why do you think many (notable) African writers do not write in their mother tongue?
It’s perhaps because from the very beginning this literature has defined itself as anti-colonialist. What writers wanted above all was be politically efficient; they wanted to confront the white colonizers with their poems, plays, and novels. But they quickly found themselves in a bizarre situation: they were talking for their people instead of talking to their people. In fact, they dreamed to be heard by the colonial oppressor, they wanted him to know how angry they were. In my view, this is why our most politically committed writers of that era were so strangely comfortable with Portuguese, French, or English, and that is what I called ‘the original sin’ of African literature. I am not saying that it was a deliberate choice; I think it was in fact largely unconscious. And I won’t say either that these first African writers despised their mother tongues, as it was quite the contrary, but because of their eagerness to liberate Africa as soon as possible, they made a historical mistake. At the end of the day, ordinary people were excluded from this face-to-face between the colonizer and the black emerging elite. The few exceptions included writers like Ngūgi Wa Thiong’o, Cheik Aliou Ndao, or Okot p’Bitek and, as early as 1948, the famous Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop warned African writers of the impasse they were heading to but these voices couldn’t be heard at that time.
What hope is there for writers who write in African indigenous languages, and how can the present generation of writers be encouraged to write proudly in their indigenous languages?
I am not very familiar with the situation in Nigeria but in Senegal, things are changing very quickly. Our creative writing in Wolof and Fulani is becoming more important than our francophone literature. Nobody can stop a new trend. It is history in the making. This said, I am aware of the fact that in countries like Cameroon, Ivory Coast, or Gabon, for example, the language problem is very complex as these countries are far from Mali, Burkina Faso, and or Senegal. But those who are ready must go forward because if they succeed, it will encourage the others to follow their path. Frankly, it would be absurd to wait for the day everybody would be ready.
For the second part of your question, I strongly believe that each country must develop a book industry promoting literature written in its national languages. Journalists and scholars must take this literature more seriously, to give it the visibility it really needs. Some may argue that by doing so we will miss the chance to reach the world at large and that I am advocating the use of tribal languages, which can compromise national unity in many African countries. I understand the desire to be connected to the rest of humanity and I don’t underestimate the risk of strong negative reactions in some countries, but does this mean that we will have to use English, French, or Portuguese until the end of the time? It would be a tragic prospect as Africa is the only continent on earth where fiction writers use a language that the vast majority of their people can’t read, the only continent where there is a glaring disconnect between literature and language. I know we are dealing here with a very sensitive and complex matter and that we will certainly make some mistakes but we can’t just consider this status quo as eternal. As for the need to reach the rest of the world, it’s understandable but I think it’s better to ask the planetary readership we are looking for to come to us. Let’s invite the world into and to our languages! This is not arrogance; it is just the normal pride of any human being worth this name. I mean, the right question is not: «for whom do you write? » but «which reader is our first target?» Yes, the global reader exists, we all write for him but we have to do it in different ways. Texts can be translated from Wolof or Yoruba into English or Spanish. Greece, Albania, and Hungary are tiny countries with very small populations but their books are written in Greek, Albanian, or Hungarian, the three languages they are the only ones to understand. Afterwards, these books translated into other languages that you and I can read. How can it be a problem for us to do the same for our cultural legacies and for ourselves?
In many African universities, English language and literature studies are not as popular as they once were. What do you attribute to the decline in interest and what consequences do you foresee?
I think we should reverse the educational process and find a way to teach French and English from our national languages. That’s what we are trying to do in Senegal, at Gaston Berger University, and the experience is a huge success. Many people were skeptical when we started it but the results are just amazing.
From poetry, drama, and fiction to non-fiction, which genre do you think presently contributes significantly to the growth of African literature by Africans themselves and by others? Do you think the present literary forms stay true to African ideals and cultures?
Africa is a huge continent, a very diverse one too, and it is not possible to find a literary solution that could equally work for Botswana, Mauritania, and Chad, to name a few. All genres of literature must be welcomed; writers have just to choose from them the one with which they feel most comfortable. In fact, some authors are talented enough to navigate from one literary genre to another and it must be stressed that fiction and nonfiction have very little in common.
The novel remains my favorite literary genre. I could even say like Milan Kundera, “I am not a writer, I am a novelist.” But I am more and more inclined to think that in our current literary situation and the present dearth of committed writers, promoting theatre in African languages could be one of the ways to reconcile Africans with their emotions, imaginations, and realities so that they can effectively recount their stories. This is the reason I have translated into Wolof Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo - a monumental play about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. It is really the best way to connect Africans to the contemporary world through the great tragedies of our time. I don’t like the idea that African theater must only be about improvisation and buffoonery. To answer your questions about African values, in a sense we have, as human beings, the same literary heritage; as writers, we must use it to express our feelings and thoughts, in order to depict the world as it is and even to create a new world if need be. Occasionally, we also have to engage in a mortal combat against human realities and have our personal will prevail against African ideals and cultures, which are, anyway, constantly evolving.
Subsequent generations of African writers have lamented the perceived lack of recognition by the first generations. What is your perception of African writers after yours?
I am impressed by the Togolese Théo Ananissoh and by Koulsy Lamko from Chad. I have also read Chimamanda Adichie and I think she is a good writer. What these three authors have in common is that they take the time to make their characters credible and give them a real psychological consistency. Ananissoh, in particular, is a very refined and subtle novelist. There are some other interesting names but you have also many young authors who are very well known without being talented at all. It is easy today, with the potential of new technologies, to become famous without deserving the interest of so many people. Some cynically and astutely play the media game and in a way it works, as the end is that everybody knows their names. The unfortunate flipside is that in spite of the perceived fame, few people have read their books. In my view, the notion of ‘posterity’ is a crucial one in literature and if you don’t care about it, you may end up writing for a small clique and that’s a despicable waste of time. The possibility of having immediate success with the Internet is a danger because people do not focus on your book but on your public performances or even on your physical appearances. And just because they want to be accepted by a wide international audience, which in fact translates into a Western audience, some young writers declare, for example, that they have nothing to say about slave trade or colonialism because they were born after these historical tragedies… It is a stupid and laughable statement and there is no need to comment on it.
With all that you have highlighted so far about how African writers are betraying their literary and cultural heritages, do you think that the next generation of African writers will have the skills and courage to celebrate, retain (and project) their "Africanness" in their writings?
The skills? Certainly. The courage? I doubt it. All this is related to what I have just said. If by lack of self-esteem you reject your history, African history, you won’t accept to be burdened by your «Africanness.» That’s why so many writers, and not only the young ones, find it so convenient to declare, «I am not an African writer. I am a writer.» Media and literary establishments in the West like this kind of ‘sweet’ music, but it is not that simple. After having warmly congratulated you on making them feel less guilty, the Western journalists will ask you the same old question: «Now, what have you to say, you an African writer, about Africa’s political disasters?» You talk of ‘courage’ in your question and ironically the very same Western media expect these writers to be ‘courageous’ enough to criticize or even insult Africa and Africans. And when they do, they can be rewarded. It’s a strange game indeed.
Writing and reading complement each other but these days we often hear regrets or read lamentations about the declining reading culture in Africa. What would you say accounts for this?
It is true that reading is not as popular as it used to be. In Dakar, for example, you have four or five regular bookstores for nearly three million people. The main reason, I think, is that in Senegal, the French language itself is in decline. Many rich people are simply illiterate; they cannot read books written in French, while poor people have their priorities, which include having access to potable water, healthy food, and medicines. Unfortunately, we don’t have yet, in between, a strong and educated middle class to rejuvenate the reading culture. There is also Internet, which is the best and the worst thing, a blessing, and a real curse, if you want.
Talking about the Internet, how has it affected reading and writing around the world?
I think it has affected reading more than writing. As you certainly know, many students don’t bother now to read a novel, they just ‘Google’ it, as do some lazy literary critics and journalists. Sometimes, when I am invited to a public library or a school, I quickly realize that I have been abundantly ‘Googled’ by the moderator of the debate, who has just copied many mistakes that can be found about me on the Web. For example, it’s written everywhere on the Net that I am the author of a novel called «Impossible Innocence.» In fact, this book doesn’t exist, I have never written it. I once read on a website a brilliant analysis of this purely imaginary novel! There is something very important that every reader needs to be familiar with and it is the writer’s voice. With the Internet, this voice is completely lost. As for the way we write, if there’s a change, it’s not a very significant one. Maybe we are more aware of the diversity of our audience, which also seems to us, paradoxically, closer and more distant. A writer may not be conscious of this factor but it affects the way he deals with his story and with his characters.
One of the Internet's offerings, the social media, has been known to distract young people, especially from reading quality writings, or even writing well. What advice do you have for young people on how to manage reading and using the social media?
Specialists say that if you don’t start reading before twelve, you will never love books; and yours will forever be a lost cause. The situation is more dramatic now, as the social media give young people the false feeling that they are fully involved in the most important cultural dynamics of our time. Lost in a virtual planet, they have ‘friends’ all over the world and can’t find time to read Mongo Beti or Ayi Kwei Armah. I think it’s their parents’ responsibility to prepare them to deal with these new challenges and the sooner it is done, the better.
What hope is there for the printed book when everything is being digitized?
I don’t think the printed book is in danger, especially in Africa where people don’t even have electricity. We used to complain about the numerical gap between Africa and rich countries but there is also a huge numerical gap within each African country. We shouldn’t worry about the imaginary danger of using new technologies but on the contrary about the danger of not having access to them. This said, yes, on a global scale, digitization threatens the very existence of the printed book. But, as I have already told you, I am personally more interested in the future of audiobooks because, if we develop this tool, it can be the greatest chance for Africa since decades. Imagine a public reading, in a Nigerian village, of your great authors in English or, preferably, in Hausa or in Igbo… Even people who have never set foot in a school would be able to listen to the book and understand it. And if this public reading is designed as the first step towards something more ambitious, it can be of great help in the fight against illiteracy. This has been done by some friends, in their families, with the oral version of my Wolof novel «Doomi Golo» and for many listeners, it had been a striking experience they said they would never forget. I am talking here of the possible revenge of African oral tradition on the written tradition and, ironically, with the active complicity of the new technologies!
What do you foresee for the literary novel as opposed to other popular forms of fiction, especially when we consider that some major films that are made and heavily advertised are from the latter category?
Maybe it’s only in Africa that you have films made exclusively from this popular category of novels. To be frank, what you are saying doesn’t apply to Senegal or to any of the so-called francophone countries. I am afraid you are just alluding to Nigeria because in the part of Africa I come from, French «cooperation» has just killed cinema. This said, writers and filmmakers should work together and adapt African literary masterpieces for cinemas, to give them a wider audience all over the continent and even beyond. But, once again, this is only conceivable in countries like South Africa and Nigeria where there exists an economically viable film industry and where filmmakers have relatively freed themselves from cultural neocolonialism.
We all have our parts to play to preserve our literary heritage, but what about organizations and governments?
I think we should celebrate more our deceased great writers by naming streets, universities, or official buildings after them. In Senegal, Sembène’s biographer, Prof Samba Gadjigo of Mount Holyoke College, is trying to transform the house of the late writer into a museum but only American universities are interested in the project, as the Senegalese government doesn’t just care. Now, less than a decade after Sembène’s passing, his magnificent house is falling into ruins… It would be also good to have a continental literary prize on behalf of African Union, for example. But, of course, the most important thing is to encourage those with the resources to promote public reading by the building of libraries. It is also expedient that writers collaborate to read out in indigenous languages to those who have never been to school so that they can also be a part of their literary experiences by connecting to the stories, their stories. In Senegal, my friends and I organize these readings in Wolof and it works very well.
Do you think that someday, veteran African writers will see the need to establish an academy of writing where they can collectively hold workshops in different genres and techniques to train the upcoming sets who look up to them as role models?
It would be great but there is an important preliminary step: we must find a way to have more direct contacts among African writers. The Berlin Wall of the Cold War doesn’t exist anymore but ours, one with a triple layer, erected by colonial powers in Berlin in 1885, still hasn’t been destroyed. You know, the so-called francophone don’t talk to either the Anglophone or the Lusophone and the latter don’t talk to anybody else… Colonial languages are overshadowing our common African heritage. You know, there are not so many differences between my literary universe and Ngugi’s, although he writes in English and I do the same in French. When I meet an author from France or Canada, we both write in French but we have nothing else in common, we can’t even talk to each other…
A final word from you would be...
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and doubts with so many people I don’t know personally. It is a privilege that I value. Let me also say how happy I am to be at the American University of Nigeria. I have traveled all around the world and I have also lived in many countries, including Tunisia, South Africa, the United States, Switzerland, Mexico, and even North Korea, in some cases for years, but here in Nigeria I just feel at home. Yola reminds me of the small town of Thiès where I grew up and in my new hometown, Yola, I learn a lot about myself and about my native Senegal!