Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: ‘Colonisation is a thorn in the side of the colonised’

Clarisse Juompan-Yakam
By Clarisse Juompan-Yakam

Posted on Friday, 31 December 2021 21:13

Paris: Remise Prix Goncourt 2021
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr winner of the 2021 Goncourt award. pour son livre La Plus secrete memoire des hommes aux Editions Philippe Rey, au restaurant Chez Drouant a Paris le 3 novembre 2021. Paris, FRANCE - 03/11/2021 ISA HARSIN/SIPA

With more than 50 interviews with international media such as 'Deutsche Welle', 'The Financial Times' and 'The Guardian'; between 2500 and 3000 copies of his book signed in 20 bookshops across France... Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has been keeping score since 3 November, the day of his crowning by France's Académie Goncourt for 'La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes', a stunning investigation between Senegal, France and Argentina, on the trail of a writer who disappeared off the radar, questioning the power of literature and the face-off between Africa and the West.

Considered a phenomenon in spite of himself, the child of Diourbel still has resources: carefully considered words – and not a single one out of place – a structured speech; he keeps us on the edge of our seats for a good two hours, delivering his oration without wavering, with softness and intimidating authority.

Just like during the delightful exchange of more than an hour with former French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, on the role of literature in politics, this was an argument against argument, quote against the quote. A real delight.

Cracks and anguish

As a young man who was well in tune with the times, but deeply moved by literature, this son of a doctor had already begun, in small steps, to put together ‘an honest work’, one that he says he will not be ashamed of. Noticed in 2014 after the publication of his first short story, La Cale, for which he received the Stéphane-Hessel prize for young French-speaking writers, he came to the limelight in 2015 through Terre ceinte, his first novel, which earned him the Ahmadou-Kourouma prize and then the Grand Prix du roman métis.

However, Sarr confesses to a few cracks, as well as his obsessive fear of one day not being able to express what he wants, of giving in to mediocrity or taking himself for what he is not. Sarr also intends to say what he is not on the continent, where he plans to tour – a way of connecting with his poetry to get closer to the human spirit.

Some controversy arose after your nomination by the Académie Goncourt. For example, one of your texts, published in 2013 – when you were 23 years old – which described a Senegalese crowd going to a Youssou N’Dour concert, was denounced as racist.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: I was indeed very young, but that is no excuse. I already knew what I was writing. Exhuming old writings to confuse their authors is a classic procedure. I realise that the slightest visibility subjects you to the inquisitive gaze of others: they dig into your past in search of some kind of virtue or absolute purity. It is futile.

The text in question is an exercise in satire and self-deprecation. I include myself in those I mock. I went to the concert that I am mocking. To read this text at face value is to miss its humour and ironic distance, but I understand that Negrophobia, which historically also involved the use of stereotypes, caricature and satire, has caused so much suffering to black people that, even today, directing satire – even literary satire – at them is still frowned upon, even more so when the author of the satire is himself a black man. It may have been a clumsy text, but as a writer, I refuse to confine myself to certain themes and literary genres because I am black.

I defend the idea of open literature, where all imaginations find their place.

You have been criticised for writing for white people…

I am not always sure I understand this process, which is more about ideology and identity than about poetry and literature. I almost feel, at times, that there is a background of contempt for Africans, who can end up being infantilised by trying to particularise them as if they were not capable of being real readers. What would it mean to write for Africans? Writing about African themes (assuming we know what those themes would be)? Writing in African languages (on the understanding that writing in these languages would not be enough to be read by Africans)? I defend the idea of open literature, where all imaginations find their place. I am African, Senegalese, Serer. My imagination is just as much so and, whether we like it or not, this comes out in my texts.

Your novel De purs hommes, which deals with homosexuality and homophobia in Senegal, was awarded the ‘Prix du Roman gay’ by the Verte Fontaine association and the Frigo publishing house, which earned you the wrath of some on social networks and on the continent, where these subjects are disturbing. Is it a poisoned chalice?

I find it strange that it should come now, for a novel published three years ago. I was surprised, but it also made me smile: the Goncourt prize has such effects: many people want a piece of it.

You don’t deny it?

Basically, I don’t care about the prize, but I could have done without the controversy it has generated, which suggests implausible intentions and distances me from literature. [He has been accused of being under the influence of LGBTQIA+ lobbies.] From now on, whatever position I take, some could blame it on me. This is the price of media overexposure.

I have to accept to live with it, that is to say, not to respond to all the polemics, to refuse to appear before all the courts set up to clarify positions. My court is my conscience. My judges are my books. I would like to remain a writer, someone who assumes those moments of tension created by literary language, which is subtle, ambiguous, made of misunderstandings. This ambiguity, though disturbing for some, interests me.

Were you hurt by these attacks?

Some of them were violent and directed at my family. They affect me, but do not shake me. I try to understand the deep logic of these reactions, even the most abject of them. To write is to take the risk of being judged and misunderstood. I am not the first writer in this situation. I won’t be the last. In any case, I thank all the people who defended the freedom to create and take on any subject from a novelistic perspective. It wasn’t just a lynching: there was also a debate, and it went beyond me and touched on principles.

Isn’t there a gap between reality and the taboos that Senegalese society places on sexuality, homosexuality and abortion?

Like most African societies, Senegalese society has been brutally thrown into globalisation. The major societal issues are now posed to it in terms that are foreign to it. For example, when De purs hommes was published, some people told me that “homosexuality [came] from outside”, yet scientific studies prove that it has always been present on the continent. But how were they present? In what way? That is the question.

In reality, African societies have always been able to integrate all minorities. They have always had structures and stratagems of social intelligence, which colonisation has precisely destroyed. Today, because of this contact with the outside world, whether European or Arab-Muslim, homosexuality is paradoxically becoming a taboo, whereas at one time it was digested by an African social, cultural and traditional genius. Today, following Western logic, and in a brutal manner, the question of its decriminalisation is being raised. This causes tension among the populations, who are convinced that a model of society is being imposed on them. This leads to homophobic violence.

Isn’t that hypocritical?

Things are known and experienced, but they must not be said or written. This is the most exact definition of hypocrisy: knowing and not wanting to hear it said.

In La plus secrète mémoire des Hommes, you tell the story of a writer who sets out in pursuit of a missing author whose only novel has marked the history of African and French literature. What does this story say about the relationship between Africa and France?

It recalls a movement of civilisation and a historical moment, when racism was present everywhere, including in literature. Racism and prejudice weighed heavily at the time in the reception given to African authors in France and Paris alone decided on the value of these writers, sometimes praising them before precipitating their downfall. Beyond the story of this ghostwriter, I try to dissect this complex relationship between two spaces. The first, which has been – or still believes itself to be – central, has arrogated to itself the right to dominate and colonise the other.

From its position, one sometimes denies the other the right to express itself on their relations, on itself and on the former coloniser. I try to show how colonisation could, through a writer’s character, be a space of domination, ambiguity and exclusion, but also of love and powerful relationships. The story questions not only the structures of the African literary exchange, but also the face-to-face relationship between Africa and Europe, which would be doomed to stare at each other.

Both sides now seem to agree on one thing: this face-off must end.

As I say in the book, colonisation is a thorn in the flesh of the colonised, and the question is how to continue to live with this thorn without being obsessed by it, taking away the privilege of making us suffer and imprisoning our minds. Many people imagine that there is only one way to do this.

What would that be?

A definitive, radical break. Those who advocate it would like to cease all relations with France, which is unthinkable for the simple reason that the world is interconnected. Moreover, the tragic history that Africa has with the European continent has also given rise to individual and family histories between these two spaces.

Breaking away from Europe would then mean introducing breaks, disorders in the trajectories of families, which are from here and there. What relationship would we then have with the diaspora? We must not see things in an abstract and ideological way. In principle, fighting against imperialism and neo-colonialism is a noble cause. It remains to manage the historical complexities of the implementation of this struggle. We also have to admit that there are other, more peaceful ways, which attempt, by establishing a dialogue, to ask questions that are just as radical, in that they go to the heart of things.

This also involves a geographical shift. Let’s turn, for example, more towards the South American continent. Let’s identify what we might have to build together, in order to get away from the exclusive relationship with Europe, which is becoming toxic.

Pan-Africanism is a beautiful utopia that is difficult to implement

Can pan-Africanism be one of these paths? Does it still make sense?

I believe in the idea. It appeals to me in its individual and local expressions, but its failure, on the scale of the large groups, is obvious. Even the major continental organisations do not work to bring it to life and therefore fail to make themselves heard on essential issues, such as the presence of foreign armies in Africa or the CFA franc. These issues are raised by activists, sometimes by intellectuals, but never by major political institutions. This inaudible character reinforces my idea that pan-Africanism is a beautiful utopia that is difficult to put into practice. The sheer difficulty of travelling freely within the African continent leads to disenchantment.

Yet many want the Africa-Europe relationship to evolve…

Everyone wants it, but if you propose solutions, there will be an outcry. Saying that we want to improve relations also means accepting to take the other party into account. It is this consideration of the other that is vilified, but you have to realise you can’t change a relationship alone.

That ‘other’ is France. Is Emmanuel Macron really doing what it takes to repair the Africa-France relationship?

Yes and no. He does what he can and what he must. His sincere desire to change the relationship does not conflict with his equally sincere desire to preserve French interests on the continent. He is well aware that the relationship of young Africans to the Hexagon is changing.

Since he belongs to a different generation from that of his predecessors, Emmanuel Macron is trying to provide them with answers or guarantees. This does not always take the most relevant forms and does not always succeed either, but he tries. He has made more gestures than any other French president before him, but he can and must go further.

The restitution of looted art objects is one of the gestures that are supposed to help repair the relationship. To date, only 28 have been returned, out of over 90,000 officially listed. This is a long way off.

This figure may seem laughable, but the process is underway. I prefer to remember the touching scenes of the reception in Benin, of the returning pieces. It will continue, provided that the African states do not stop asking for them. On the French side, it would be desirable for a framework law to be passed quickly.

From a philosophical point of view, why is it so important that these objects are returned?

Ask the people who felt dispossessed of these figures – and I mean figures. To speak of objects, as Felwine Sarr says so well, is an anthropologically colonial way of naming statues. Yet, in many of our cultures, these are living subjects or repositories of life, ancestors whom we would like to see a return of.

Obviously, this spiritual or philosophical dimension does not immediately come to mind when we talk about the development of the continent or the resolution of its most basic social problems. However, to be concerned about these figures is not to deny other emergencies.

The anger of young Africans is not only directed against France, but against imperialism in all its forms, which deprives them of any horizon.

Why does the anti-French sentiment seem more than exacerbated despite these gestures?

I do not believe in a specific anti-French sentiment. It is a general, more diffuse anger, born of various frustrations and deep despair, which includes suspicion and distrust of the French political elites. It would not be fair to isolate it. It animates especially the youngest Africans. Their anger is not only directed against France, but against imperialism in all its forms, which deprives them of any horizon.

Some of this discontent is directed against the African elites themselves, whom they also hold responsible for their despair, and goes hand in hand with the feeling that France supports and sometimes legitimises the governments that oppress them. While it is desirable to engage in uncompromising discussions with France, we must also take responsibility by clearly expressing our political aspirations and challenging our own governments. For example, on the tampering with constitutions, which is not directly related to the colonial situation…

How do you view the state of democracy in Africa?

In West Africa, the region I know best, I always have the impression that we are in a ‘low-intensity democratic regime’, as my friend Elgas rightly says; that is to say, a democracy of pure form, where the instruments enabling it to be implemented in practice do not exist. Our structures are there, they are old, they reproduce themselves.

It is enough for an election to go off more or less smoothly in a country for the poll’s democratic vitality to be hailed and for its leaders to boast about it, even though their populations do not experience it on a daily basis – in civic attitudes, in debates on ideas, in the existence of counter-powers, in the freedom of the press. This is absurd and humiliating.

Is Senegal one of those democracies?

Because its basic structures were solid, it was – for a long time – seen as a model of democracy. I am increasingly concerned about the relationship between the different powers, between the executive and the judiciary in particular – although I cannot deny that press freedom is a reality. The last 10 years have seen the emergence of young, strong citizens’ movements – perhaps criticised for their lack of a clear project – which has taken hold because the institutions have failed.

I strongly hope that Macky Sall will not run again. This would give him a free hand to carry our various projects for Senegal.

Could these movements that have emerged in several countries be the other end of an alternative?

I don’t like this term. It imposes the idea of a simple man, ready to save the world. Let’s get rid of the mythology of salvation, but yes, these movements provide examples of what a more direct democratic regime could be. We need to question the place of parliamentarianism in our societies. Do our national assemblies still make sense? I am not sure.

We should think about modes of government or distribution of power that would involve citizens more and thus educate them to a full and complete democratic life, lived on an individual level – which presupposes knowing exactly what living as a democratic citizen means. We need to start from the bottom up and no longer lock ourselves into so-called democratic frameworks.

Does democracy necessarily mean term limits?

It is not the only criterion, but it is fundamental. I would give Ghana credit for having resolved the issue of the renewal of the political class and life terms, which allows the country to focus on essential issues, such as health, education and development. In French-speaking Africa, we are wasting a lot of time because our constitutions are fragile and can be manipulated with disarming and overwhelming ease.

Should President Macky Sall refrain from running again?

I strongly hope that he will not run again. This would give him a free hand to carry out his various projects for Senegal. Having discussed this with him when he was in Paris, I know that he has a number of them. It would be so much easier for him to do so if he were free of the third term equation. The example of President Abdoulaye Wade should be enough to dissuade him. In March 2021, the president got a glimpse of what the revolted youth is capable of, even if that anger was not motivated by his possible third term. The youth population is so desperate, that dying in the streets during demonstrations seems to be a commonplace occurrence.

What does the return of the coups in Mali, Guinea and, to some extent, Chad inspire in the military man you once were?

This frightens me. To legitimise a coup is to forget the threat of illegitimacy, which will then weigh on the power thus wrested and which, sooner or later, will be defeated; and, sooner or later, it will also lead to institutional and military instability.

A coup, however justifiable, opens the door to other coups. That the people take to the streets to protest and take their destiny into their own hands is appreciable, but when the army gets involved, it is always worrying, even more so in a country like Mali, which is plagued by the threat of terrorism.

In the Sahel, despite the presence of French troops, the eradication of terrorism is failing. Why is it so difficult to defeat jihadist insurgencies?

It is a phenomenon that is difficult to define, explain and combat. Military failures alone cannot explain the failure of the fight against jihadism in this immense area, where borders complicate controls and where the models of jihadism differ from country to country. As long as there is no basic political reflection involving each African country feeling solidarity with the threatened country, as long as it is left to others to deal with it, the fight will be ineffective. The multiple and continuous crises in the Sahel prove that, despite the G5, there is a lack of cooperation between states. Transnational political, military and social actions are needed. These crises also reveal the weakness of our armies, which nevertheless manage to overthrow heads of state.

Terrorist attacks are always part of a clear strategic vision, with a project of opposition, conquest and civilisation overthrow

Jihadist insurgencies also raise the question of political Islam. Were the attacks on France an act of rejection of the Western way of life, a retaliation to French strikes against the Islamic State, an articulate strategic thought or a simple act of barbarism?

I have been saying this since my first novel, Terre Ceinte. The attacks are always part of a clear strategic vision, with a project of opposition, conquest and civilisational overthrow. This is also what feeds and strengthens all these jihadist movements around the Islamic State. To reduce these attacks to reprisals is to ignore the whole ideology that has been built up over many years. Such an ideology cannot be based on the simple idea of reprisals.

Of course, hatred of the West exists and is part of the ideology, but it is not the only motivation or the only principle. There is a thought, structured, which can be barbarism. This raises philosophical questions about what would be barbarism, civilisation or humanity. The fact remains that jihadists are human beings who think, who want more power and who want to dominate, in the same way, that Western civilisation dominated the whole planet for many centuries. This is their project and it involves this confrontation.

Terre Ceinte is about colonisation and the Holocaust. What link do you establish between the two? Was it important to mention them in the same book, knowing that some people do not hesitate to engage in memory battles?

It is indecent to speak of competition of memories. To rank sufferings, to evaluate them according to idle criteria such as duration, the number of dead or historical exceptionality is to fall into the trap of memory competition, which makes us lose sight of the specific character – the particular historical moment when it happened – of all these tragedies, as well as the sufferings of individuals, which are equal to each other, in these great human catastrophes.

These horrors, which bring shame on all humanity, must not happen again and their memory must be kept alive to this end. We must therefore place responsibility and tell the story as clearly as possible. We need to find out how it happened, why it happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again. In my opinion, these are the historical views linked to slavery, the Shoah and colonisation.

You write in French. The question of language can also be very political. In your opinion, doesn’t the Francophonie consecrate the relationship of political domination?

Francophonie is, first and foremost, the awareness of a shared language. In saying this, I am avoiding the trap set by the relationship between the centre – France – and the periphery – the other member countries. I am not subject to this relationship of domination, but if it exists, we must get rid of it. The centre of the Francophonie should not be in France because French belongs to several million other speakers, without others subjugating those whose mother tongue is not French. I don’t have a French complex or a complex in front of the French.

What is the point of a [Francophone] space if it is impossible to move around in it, including between African countries?

Are you referring to the cultural and linguistic Francophonie?

There is a more political and institutional Francophonie that has difficulty carrying weight. Just recently, during discussions within the framework of the Mbembe Committee, which is responsible for reflecting on the reorganisation of relations between Africa and France, the question of a Francophone visa to facilitate mobility was raised again. What is the point of space if it is impossible to move around in it, including between African countries?

You have said that your prize is a strong signal to the French-speaking world.

It goes beyond both me and the book. I cannot ignore the symbolism it represents. It should be able to say to all French-speaking sub-Saharan writers (but also from elsewhere): “This language is also yours, you can use it to write works that will be acclaimed”, but this should not remain an exceptional signal. It will not take another century to crown another Sub-Saharan.

Your novel places in the background the Malian writer Yambo Ouologouem, winner of the 1968 Renaudot Prize, who fell into disgrace under suspicion of plagiarism. Do you feel you have rehabilitated him?

I belong to a great tradition of people who, in the West as well as on the continent, have never abandoned him, have never wanted to forget him, and who, over the decades, have dedicated tributes to him in various forms. This is the case of the academic Jean-Pierre Orban, who in 2015 re-edited Les Mille et Une bibles du sexe. I wrote about Ouologuem, in my own way, to pay my debt to him, because he helped me become the writer I am. Reading Le Devoir de violence, in particular, gave me structure. If La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes can allow me to reread his books without prejudice, I can assume this form of rehabilitation.

Have you cleared him though? According to you, authors borrow from each other, and the whole history of literature is one of great plagiarism.

You don’t exonerate an innocent man. He was innocent because he conceived literature as a large playground in which reference, intertextuality and homage have a large place. People did not want to see this inventiveness, the inventiveness of real writers who allow themselves everything in this reserved space. I return to his life to represent to the world this writer who could have built a magnificent work, but who was lost because he was denied the right to be singular. It was denied to him because his name was Ouologuem; it was the late 1960s, he was young, he displayed an insolence that annoyed both the African intelligentsia and the French cultural elite. He was not recognised as having the right not to bend to the injunctions that both sides seemed to be addressing to him.

What other African authors appeal to you?

There are many of them. Malick Fall, author of The Wound – recently republished by Jimsaan – died very early. It has some similarities with Le Devoir de violence. Published in the same year, 1968, they are the almost unique works of two major authors, to which I would add Ahmadou Kourouma, author of Les Soleils des indépendances. I appreciate Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, for his novels, and, of course, Ken Bugul, who inspired the character of Siga D in La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes. Boubacar Boris Diop and I do not share the same ideological positions, but he remains important to me in terms of fiction. I am very close to Sami Tchak, with whom I have an almost filial but also very friendly relationship, and whose novel Hermina was a direct source of inspiration.

We talk a lot about our literary tastes, about what we are trying to do, about our work, about subjects concerning the African continent, too. I read more and more of Leonora Miano, whom I find very stimulating, even if I don’t always share her ideas. Every position she takes on a subject always invites you to clarify your own. The list of African writers I admire would be long. I promise that one day I will send you my ideal African library, which would include English speakers and writers from the Maghreb.

What about Mongo Beti?

I don’t know if he would have liked my novel, but he is important to me. He assumed the fact that he was a conscience. He did not deny his commitments or the positions he took, even if it meant sometimes being unkind to his colleagues. His mockery of Camara Laye and Ahmadou Kourouma was unjustified: funny and fierce, but a little easy.

Commitment is always the meeting of an author’s temperament and a reader’s sensitivity. Never absolute, it is always relative, fragmentary.

Who else outside the continent, like the Chilean poet, novelist and short-story writer Roberto Bolano, do you owe the title of your novel?

Yes, he radically changed my conception of writing, taking me to a decisive turning point, to the writing of La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes. This might comfort those who accuse me of having ‘white references’. This ignores the fact that Sony Labou Tansi was inspired by Gabriel García Márquez, who was inspired by African traditions transhipped to Cuba or Haiti. There is also an ‘African Bolano’ who speaks of the continent like no other.

He set several of his works in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, in The Wild Detectives. His comment on the atmosphere of political instability in Liberia, all in poetry and without an exotic colonial vision, is particularly accurate, even though he has never been there. This is what literature is: a journey, an opening, a continent apart that encompasses all the others.

Does a writer have to be committed?

Yes, at least in and for writing. The most significant commitment is existential. Great books always contain the soul and spirit of their authors, who project themselves into them. As for political commitment, it is not enough for an author to proclaim it or to want it for his work to reveal it. Commitment is always the meeting of an author’s temperament and a reader’s sensitivity. Never absolute, it is always relative, fragmentary.

Which African intellectuals do you admire?

Felwine Sarr, for his many works, Achille Mbembe for the importance of his work, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Cheik Anta Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Sophie Bessis… Beyond the divisions that may exist between them, I hold them in high regard. My esteem does not imply adherence to their ideologies, but to the interest that their thought or their work occupies in the history of ideas. I also admire Souleymane Bachir Diagne as well as Boubacar Boris Diop.

You tackle a multitude of themes relating to literature. French publishing takes a lot of flak for it, as you criticise writers who write with three words, critics for whom everything is equal, publishers who produce marketed products…

I am exaggerating to draw attention to the lack of real faith in literature, to the fact that the requirement is considered counterproductive because it is not very commercial, to the standardisation and uniformity of works for the sole purpose of selling.

This is a far cry from what literature should be trying to do: a place of knowledge, of elucidation of the world and the self, of ever deeper and more philosophical questioning. Literature must renounce only clichés – that is to say, everything that is already installed in a given language – in order to try to find, underneath this usual and ordinary language, another language, a poetic one, which questions us better, questions all the phenomena of the world by subjecting them to a demanding light. Great literature tends towards this poetic requirement.

2021 was a year of great literary harvest for African writers. Perhaps this heralds a golden age?

There have always been great writers on the continent. Perhaps the literary institutions realise that there are some anomalies in their lists and seek to discover and highlight this literature. It is not simply to obey political correctness. All the winning books are undeniably beautiful works. Perhaps we are coming to an era where, on a massive scale, works are recognised without it looking too much like a balancing act to keep everyone happy.

These awards are part of a moment that seems to be that of the effort made on the continent to promote literature. This includes the creation of publishing houses that are trying to structure themselves through the creation of literary prizes like the Ivory Prize, which is becoming established in the landscape. In short, the African literary institution – although still in its infancy – is making a movement that, through a domino effect, also ends up being reflected in the major international institutions. We must hope that this will continue.

How did you feel about the little phrase from the president of the Académie Goncourt, Didier Decoin, underlining the ‘African twists’ in some of your sentences?

It was probably a little clumsy, but without malice. Didier Decoin immediately brought the book back to literature and defended it as a literary work. However, beyond this little episode, more generally, I notice that there is sometimes a kind of unease in the West about the works of Africans. The colonial imaginary still weighs on the language of evaluation, description and judgement of their creations.

In 2000, Robert Sabatier, then a member of the Goncourt jury, said the prize had not been awarded to Ahmadou Kourouma because of “his too African manner”.

Yes, there is sometimes a dubious background in the unconscious. We have words that mean nothing, or that say everything. To say that Kourouma was deprived of the Goncourt for that is deeply scandalous. In 20 years, things have changed. Such statements can no longer be made today.

The French university remained stuck on a few names in African literature and on the 1970s, 1980s and, perhaps 1990s

Perhaps these misunderstandings are also due to the lack of importance given to the teaching of African literature in French universities?

They are lagging far behind in this area. French universities have remained stuck on a few names and on the 1970s, 1980s and, perhaps, 1990s. It quite clearly ignores contemporary authors. Although some of them are the subject of individual theses, their works are hardly ever taught, which contributes to the prejudice against them.

How do you achieve posterity under these conditions?

This is a difficult question under any sky. All writers ask themselves this question, no doubt with anguish because they are not sure of surviving after all. For African writers, the concern is twofold, because there is also the question of their survival in their country of origin. They remain in the memory as important figures. However, are they read, are they still alive through their works, and are these works updated? Do we understand all the complexity of their thoughts if the same analyses, the same interpretations and the same courses are given over the decades? I’m not so sure.

Omar Pene’s music is the laughter of Democritus and the cries of Heraclitus. I always have the impression, listening to him, that he knows exactly what I feel.

The music of the Senegalese Omar Pene accompanied the writing of your latest novel. There is something deeply melancholic about it. What does that say about you?

Even when it’s rhythmic and cheerful, his music has a melancholy undertone. It’s not quite sadness, not quite dark, but it touches us and reminds us that our relationship to the world is always structured by the intuition of a lack, a promise that awaits us, something we are moving towards and that we are not always waiting for. His music expresses this state of waiting, of desire, of powerlessness.

It makes one sad and happy at the same time. These are the two sides of melancholy already well represented by the metaphorical paintings of Democritus (laughter) and Heraclitus (weeping). Omar Pene’s music is the laughter of Democritus and the crying of Heraclitus. I always have the impression, listening to him, that he knows exactly what I feel and that he expresses it very simply.

Has this award changed your life?

It certainly has. It changes the way people look at me, but not my relationship to literature and writing. I will try to follow the principles I have set for myself and the complexity I try to introduce in each of my books. I am a writer and I intend to remain one.

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