What does literature mean to me?
Let me describe the possible impact of the act of writing, my relationship with words and the universes they try to construct, in just a few words. Yet, can my own short career and limited experience allow me to adequately address the subject?
To not go too far back in time, I will stop at Zola, with the naturalists and realists. For them, it was a question of representing the nature of reality (if it has one) and how it operates, to give an exact and complete picture of French society at that time. What do we find in Germinal? A desire to paint a faithful portrait of the France of mining towns, to inextricably link the destiny of these workers, their suffering and their rare joys, to that of the coal company, and to capture through literature a binary world, that of the poor and that of the middle-class. At the same time, during the prolific ideological upheaval of the 19th century, the Parnassians had their own vision of art. They saw writing as sufficient in and of itself, contenting itself with its celebration of the beautiful, nothing more than that, unconcerned with literature’s potential impact on reality. The Symbolists, with their coded universe, couched reality in signs. The playwrights of the absurd (Ionesco, Beckett, etc.) played on the absurdity of life and questioned its meaning. In the same vein, Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) more or less joined in the same genre of reflection on the absurdity of existential situations.
I encountered these authors and literary movements at school and through a very personal journey through the world of books. I must confess how fascinated I was by the writers of the absurd. Over the course of my reading, I discovered their different relationship with writing. Through the funny and absurd scenes of Ionesco and Beckett, one could wonder: is there a meaning to life? Does there have to be one? And what is literature? Are life and writing only a road to be travelled, a quest for meaning on an existential journey? Writing, for me, is not making sense of things, but discovering deeper meanings — the meaning of this life, here and now, under the cruel, biting, tropical sun.
I discovered these authors and their questions in the 1990s when — following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and in the upheaval of what was referred to as the wind from the East — Africa was beginning a new chapter in its history: democracy.
It was a critical, violent period that gave birth to a new generation of writers, a generation of anger and protest. I think of Koulsi Lamko from Burkina Faso, the Togolese Kossi Efoui and Kangni Alem, or the Beninese Camille Amouro. Writers of the theatre whose plays served as an art of urgency crying out against the tragedy of military repression. For these authors, it was also a way to sketch an outline of the society of their dreams: that of love and justice. My first drafts date from this time. The theatre (La Boutique à Mélo, Cailcédrat) gave me the means to translate my modest portion of anger. Also, I still had the absurdist equations and questions of a Beckett in my mind.
The World As I See It
What to distil from all this? These words, perhaps: writing comes down to confronting reality with a singular memory, one’s own, and by extension that of a whole society. It is setting down one’s relationship with the world even if it seems, as Sartre put it, that writing carries little weight in the face of the terrible tragedy of humanity: Nausea is no match for a child starving to death! I often wholeheartedly agree with this when faced with the tragedy of military oppression that my native land — the breeding ground for the universe of my own imagination – and when faced with the famine that grips bellies and desiccates bodies in Darfur. Faced with so much human stupidity and suffering, one constantly assesses the weight and the influence of what one writes. Or perhaps does not assess it at all. Is this possible?
For me, beyond the question of literature’s possible role in the complex world of reality, it is simply a question of describing the world as I see it, and above all as I would like it to be, and creating things and lives as I see them from my own perspective – and, also, as a measure of my own dreams. To write is to construct a universe, to make of a novel, a play, or essay a structure of reality at once “existing” and “thought”. The structure of my Self, and me as well: to say, to say to me, myself, I; to write, to write to myself (to question myself, to try to figure out my Self). Literature describes, presents characters, and builds a decor of the countryside or a town. Yet isn’t the most important aspect to give the reader my particular relationship with this setting, this space assembled piece by piece?
Places and a Structure
So in the process of developing a structure, I try to put in place, one by one, the various parts of the edifice that is my novel, and to arrange these scattered ideas that may, in the end, form a universe. These ideas, pieces, characters and settings are obviously inspired by my own limited experience. Hence I refer to the altogether traditional path I’ve followed, the journey of a child from an ex-French colony taking me from Lomé to Paris and Paris to Quebec. It is a sort of exile that I tap into and analyse in my attempt at writing. In this way, my imagination feeds off the various places I pass through and carry within me. This, perhaps, is what it is to write, to tell — as Homer did in The Odyssey — of the native soil of Ithaca that Odysseus kept in him and with him as he roamed the seas, the land that is ever-present in the character’s memory despite the years and time spent beyond its shores. To tell also of the lands, the sum of territories explored which in the end become our own. To write like Homer of the fold to which one returns but also — and especially — of Penelope, the beloved whom Odysseus could never forget. And so, in short, to sketch onto a blank page the contours and the geography of these cities and faces that traverse our lives.
The book of the earth and of love, or the book of the love of the earth, is Kateb Yacine and Nedjma. This approach, this rooting in a land and of faces speaks to me. And, without claiming to be aware of any construction mechanism in my imagination, I can nevertheless try to present this universe in relation to three dimensions.
The Place of Dreams
Here is first what I call the place of dreams. Dreams very much in the literary sense of dreams, of projection towards a world which, in principle, does not exist, and the dream space makes it possible for my characters to substitute a gentler universe, more lenient towards the hardships of daily existence. And that can be explained by the fact that, until now, I have largely portrayed my characters under the tropical sun, the Africa of eternal misery and permanent violence. In my first short stories, Le Rameur and Le Vase d’honneur or Les Bottes du soleil, one can read this attempt to build in the dream of another life and a new destiny. In the first story, the character dreams of finding hidden treasure represented as a beautiful, clean and whole vase, in the middle of a rubbish heap where everything is ugly, dirty, broken. The second is about a woman who dreams of the return of her lover who left to fight in Indo-China. The place of dreams, superimposed on the place of reality to allay suspicion, an optimistic stance that allows the character to continue to believe. What is literature but an act of faith? In the distinct space of Africa, it is quite simply a dream of freedom, the desire to step beyond the scenario of oppression. It is also a posture, a poetic choice which broadens the field of reality, which grafts other strange unknown spaces onto this first known world. The dream, the projection enables me to highlight a field of possibilities, it accompanies a reflection, an assumption: to write, to suppose that this world which is, and can be, like this, or like that, can be built differently by the measure of a dream.
The Place of Childhood
The second place that inspires my imagination is childhood. Childhood, and its moments of first joys and sorrows but especially a time when life perhaps had a different meaning, where one saw it differently, through a child’s eyes and with a mind full of questions or the viewpoint of Sarraute, who profoundly felt the need to question her first impulses, words, acts, and desires. For a writer, it can be a question of getting one’s bearings along one’s journey, finding oneself, rediscovering oneself through an Orphic return rather than through birth. But I am not yet there. Still my first novel, Port-Mélo, does explore the world of childhood to a great extent, much more so by this desire to understand the hero in the present day by confronting him with his childhood rather than with nostalgia. Mélo, the narrator, will often return to his childhood through his thoughts with the aim of finding his share of innocence lost with the passage of time in the ruins of a cruel and violent city. This city which I describe and where children are masters of their own destiny strips them of this essential innocence. In my imagination, this place provides a drawing with simple lines that is overlaid onto a more complex present, with twisted lines. The time of childhood would indeed be simple and serene, giving place to a kind of linear narration, as with Camara Laye, author of L’Enfant Noir (The African Child), which becomes more and more complex as the character moves forward in the story, as he grows and brings himself to step out of the preliminary world of childhood. My writing is sensitively touched by this pattern.
The Place of Memory
There is, finally, this other world that also demands my attention: a memory. Is not writing giving back a small portion of this memory, to rework in one’s own fashion these facts, stories, dates and anecdotes which constitute a collective imagination? Memory is an ensemble, an immense field, a real and invented edifice whose windows open onto the past, the present, and a possible future -- onto a panorama, a perspective that blends the present day, which exists and which existed. Memory is this human cultural legacy from which I cannot escape. It is a gift, yet also a burden, at once a blessing and cross to bear. To write is to simultaneously bear witness to this blessing and this cross. But it is possible to make choices, to recover a portion of this field, to cut and refashion a section of the legacy for the imagination. Is this what I tried to do in Port-Mélo through the image of a wharf? There, historically, the date of German colonisation played a major role in opening-up the town of my childhood in its being opened to the rest of the world. The wharf is a remembrance site around which I tried to construct a story, my own and that of all these people who live under the same sky, but also that of all these men and women (foreigners?) who had to cross this tropical sky. Beyond a project of personal and ultimately selfish writing, there would then be a search for roots. In a memory lies a land.
My imagination is divided between these different places. My novelistic universe is made up of their overlapping and merging. The past is grafted onto the present, dreams, and the poetic relationship onto a lucid perspective. I try to put these various parts of a story together. But it is true that these parts, indeed the story, often escape the grasp of the creator. It also escapes me, like the characters and settings that travel through my imagination. Like a memory and a vague thought evaporated in time. Like an evanescent body that I want to grasp. So I pursue them (these characters, settings, memories and bodies) over each new page with the desire to settle them into the places of dreams, of childhood, and of memory. But, obviously, these places are but only one part of a whole collection of spaces (inner and outer universes) which writing puts before me.