Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

Tahar Ben Jelloun believes that “in a writer you can sense something akin to mystery – that he is capable of inhabiting a world of his own, of creating a work of art, that he can travel the long road”. Ben Jelloun agreed to assist at the birth of such a work, anxious, despite all his talent and past experience, about being up to the task, and ready to be challenged. Thirty years separate him from his disciple Edem, a young author from Togo who has just written his first novel, but a strong rapport has grown between them, based largely on their experience of exile.

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

An Interview with Edem early in the mentorship

Your first meeting with Tahar Ben Jelloun must have left an impression on you. What happened?
I met Tahar at his flat in Paris. We were supposed to go to the book section of Galeries Lafayette department store afterwards because I had a public event there for my novelPort-Mélo. Tahar and I went over the main events for our year together in a very relaxed atmosphere. I was sitting in front of him, between an imposing desk which testified to a busy workload and his bookshelf, which was just as impressive.

The book he was reading at the time was sitting on the table:Pedro Paramoby Juan Rulfo, an author we both like. I talked about my influences; he mentioned Joyce’sUlysses, Sabato’sThe Tunnel… Then he said, ‘You have to have read in order to write!’ I have read, of course, but at that moment I thought of all I had yet to discover about literature. Then he gave me a signed copy of his novelPartir(Leaving).

A sign, indeed. Did you imagine yourself “leaving” with him for a year?
In secondary school, I spent some time with the characters ofLa Prière de l’absent,the first book of his that I read. But I never imagined “leaving” one day to write with him for a year. It’s silly, but when we took the bus to go to Galeries Lafayette together, I thought it was simple and beautiful, as if it were something we had always done together.

Did he give you feedback on your work?
A lot! Most importantly, about what a literary work should offer in relation to the works that have come before it, with some surprises for the reader. He pushed me to find the appropriate words, the right form, to move away from common language by embracing the exact contours of what I wanted to express, describe…

What are your goals for this mentoring year?
To learn! Writing means telling a story, or rather trying to tell one, or asking yourself questions about what could happen in a human adventure, with the world, other people, words. But it’s also about constructing a world. Tahar’s experience can help me a lot as he has already constructed many worlds and characters.

How do you communicate with your mentor?
Basically, our work is organized around a logical system of exchange. Exchanging texts (excerpts from the book I’m writing), feedback (from Tahar on precisely those excerpts), ideas. Our views on writing. We communicate by phone and e-mail, but also when we meet.

You have both experienced exile. What role does that play in your exchanges?
We haven’t brought that experience up yet, which shows that maybe it’s not so important. We’ve talked about exile in text, with Orpheus, Ulysses…

How has this experience affected your writing?
It has most definitely affected the way I organize things, which is already saying a lot. As for my work rhythm, I’m forcing myself to write more consistently and methodically. And as for the rest, it’s a little early to say… We can meet up later to assess the results if you want!

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

Breaking ground (Chapter 3 of 7)

If anyone had told Tahar Ben Jelloun that one day he would become a mentor, he would have burst out laughing. And if anyone had predicted to Edem Awumey that he would have the pleasure of being a protégé some day, he would have scratched his head. Now, their partnership seems so natural they do not even discuss it.

At the beginning, they discovered each other cautiously, that is to say they read each other’s books. Just to get an idea. Then they listened carefully to one another, circling around each other to see where they could push the envelope, one in voicing criticism and the other in accepting it.

Edem began to send Ben Jelloun the first pages of what he was working on, a typed outline that was to become a work in progress before becoming a finished book; then Ben Jelloun sent him his comments. Edem was in Gatineau, in the province of Quebec, Ben Jelloun was in Paris, Tangier or wherever his novels in translation took him. They were planting the seeds of an “e-collaboration” that naturally brought them closer together.

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

Solid foundations (Chapter 4 of 7)

Edem laid and displayed the foundations for his forthcoming novel based on a year he had spent long ago in Paris, often wandering along the Rue Auguste Comte, near the Luxembourg Gardens, where black people are something of a rarity. “It’s the story of an expatriate chestnut-seller in Paris,” Edem explains. “Chestnuts are his life, his status, his identity. One day, in the square in front of a museum, he meets a white girl – an art student who’s like a younger version of a woman he once loved. She suggests he should transform himself into a black who counts – change his destiny to become a black who succeeds rather than just a black.”

A few months later they met in Tangier, by the fireplace in the sitting room in a house on the mountainside, while, outside, the bricklayer repaired the garden steps. In his hands Ben Jelloun held Edem’s first 110 pages, annotated in his own writing. The rest was in his head. They forgot about the story and talked instead about the structure, construction and architecture of the novel. The Franco-Moroccan writer, an admirer of the great North- and South-American novelists, got Edem to read them, to see what made them tick and how they went about putting some order into their chaos. “You learn to write by reading powerful, difficult texts,” he maintains. Edem, for his part, remained marked by Romain Gary’s novels and by Camus’The Outsider, which had left a strong impression when he’d read them as a boy at school with the nuns, in Africa. And, at secondary school,This Blinding Absence of Light, written by a certain Tahar Ben Jelloun, also left its mark.

Then they argued about the main character’s credibility in Edem’s novel-in-progress. At the start they were not listening to each other: one insisting that the character wasn’t believable, the other thinking it would be crazy to turn him into a Pakistani. After days and nights of discussion, what emerged was the same book, only different.

Every time Edem began to have doubts about his story, Ben Jelloun gave him a little shove: “Imagine you’re facing the representatives from Gallimard publishing house who’ll be in charge of selling your book to the booksellers: convince them!” Ben Jelloun would not have dreamed of directing Edem – he just wanted to support him.

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

Structure emerges (Chapter 5 of 7)

In his early days of his writing career, Edem gave absolute priority to his work on the words of his fiction; he later dropped that for work on the story. Ben Jelloun helped him combine the two by showing him that you don’t write a story with ideas, but with words. The deep understanding between them really came into its own when, after deciding that his protégé had started off on the wrong tack, Ben Jelloun realized Edem was now heading off on a very good one.

While Edem’s novel emerges, a lasting relationship has also emerged. Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem have gone from cautious beginnings through a mentorship period and will continue as friends.

Extracted from an article written by Pierre Assouline forMentor & Protégé,a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Edem talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

You seem completely transformed since your recent, long visit to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Morocco.
I certainly did have some unforgettable times in the alleys of Tangier which have been such an inspiration in his novels. I’m left with a very strong mental image of one moment in particular when, as I was watching the sea, moments from the present came together and joined memories from the past. Actually, in the port of Tangier, where so many young people dream of crossing the sea, I found the same music of taking flight, of leaving, as I found between the walls and on the shores of Lomé, the city of my childhood. Such strange resonances!

Like a mysterious, subterranean echo passing between the mentor and his protégé…
I rediscovered part of my own story in his. The story I’ve lived myself, that I carry within myself and that I’m in the process of writing about. We talked about it – we talked about it a lot – at his home, in his house on the mountainside, which has such an air of work and serenity about it.

How did you work?
On a low table! With blank pages, words to be heard, and mint tea. It was spell-binding, and the spell still held when we went to Fez, his native city. There I had an even stranger experience: it was my first time there, and yet I had the impression I was returning and finding places I’d known long ago. In fact they were the places in his novelPrayer for the Absent, which I had absorbed really thoroughly. You can imagine how bowled over I was when I came upon the real setting for the novel, and how useful it was for the work I’m doing now. There’s no substitute.

Has your way of doing things changed since you started discussing things together?
Definitely! We clashed as much about the form as the content, he got me to reread Faulkner’sThe Sound and the Fury, and he proved to me that my African-chestnut-seller-in-Paris character wasn’t believable… and I turned him into a black taxi-driver, which does actually fit better in my story. I’m the one who invented him, but it was [Ben Jelloun] who prompted me to invent him. It was perfect, really. Isn’t that what you’d expect from a collaboration like this? It was a tough fight, because each of us clung to our own point of view, but without making concessions we managed to reach agreement.

Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun

Did your view of the role of a mentor change during the course of your relationship?
I have to admit that at the start I imagined myself playing the teacher, taking on the role of Elder or even Wise Man. I’d been convinced of that since a discussion about it with Mario Vargos Llosa, who went through this experience before me. But, after the first couple of words, that was it – Edem and I had shifted up a gear. From then on, what I wanted to do was to discuss literature and writing with him. I like to illustrate what I’m saying with examples, recommending novels for him to read so he can see the internal logic in them. You learn to write by reading texts that are powerful and difficult. Besides Faulkner, who is a giant, I suggested he should have a look at The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato, for its architecture, and Borges’ Collected Fictions for the magic in the writing. He read them and we had long discussions about them.

That’s also the attitude of an educator…
No, I deny that. What right have I to be an educator? It’s not my role. A mentor doesn’t direct, he accompanies. The outcome of this should be not just the text, but a concept of literature. And Edem is bubbling over – he’s a river in flood that needs to be channelled.

What were the flaws in his novel in its original draft?
It was too conceptual. His heroine didn’t just want to raise this poor black guy and give him a better situation in life, she wanted to turn him into an icon, a James Baldwin. The latest version is far more satisfying, more credible. I have to tell you that being criticized for a lack of credibility shocks and offends him – it really hurts his feelings. I found that out… afterwards, but he had to go through that particular pain in order to make progress. In any case, my influence is merely indirect, which is always preferable to anything head-on.

After that, what kind of questions did he ask you?
Technical ones, often. To get past that I took him to the Lycée Régnault in Tangier one day, and we had a debate about being a writer – there, just the two of us, in front of the fourth- and sixth-year students. I was the journalist, asking questions, and he was the writer, answering them and explaining how he wrote. The students were thrilled!