By Prune Perromat
Alain Mabanckou is one of the world’s most widely read and acclaimed African authors writing in French. This month his memoir, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, hits bookshelves throughout America.
Lights of Pointe-Noire tells the story of Mabanckou’s homecoming to Congo-Brazzaville after an absence of 23 years. Much has changed since he left, but upon his return he discovers that embracing his roots and facing his past – his ghosts, his culture, his language – are all necessary steps in an existential quest for a man who belongs to three continents. The memoir explores themes at the core of his work and life: childhood nostalgia, the love of his mother and Africa, the hard realities of exile. It is a touching, sometimes sad and ferociously funny story, and one that is a perfect entry point for new readers of Mabanckou’s work.
A poet, essayist and novelist who teaches literature at UCLA, Mabanckou was a Man Booker International Prize finalist in 2015. He is a singular and powerful voice on issues surrounding black identity and culture in the Francophone world, and was handpicked to write the preface to the French edition of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.
Sometimes described as the “enfant terrible” of the Francophone literary world, Mabanckou has never shied from blunt words about Europe and America’s black communities: the struggles they face; the anger they feel; and what he has described previously as “this attitude of victimization that I sometimes find among my black brothers.”
But Mabanckou is also characterized by a laugh that brings luck, as he writes in his first novel Blue, White, Red. And humor is certainly one of the most powerful weapons of this admirer of James Baldwin.
He recently sat for a conversation with LSP’s Prune Perromat at the Albertine bookstore, where The Lights of Pointe-Noire received the 2015 French Voices Grand Prize. The interview has been translated from the French.
The Literary Show Project: What is your book The Lights Of Pointe-Noire about?
Alain Mabanckou: The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a book about my return to the city of Pointe-Noire, the economic capital of Congo-Brazzaville, after a period of 23 years in which I hadn't set foot in my country of birth. We encounter characters from my childhood: my mother, aunt, father or uncle but also the city, the streets, memories, traditions, beliefs. In short, this book is for me a kind of identity card or a form of autobiography, which isn’t written by me but by the people who are watching me.
This is why it has the value of an autobiography but also of a narrative, a novel. It is a book of migration, travel, perhaps of the condition of the emigrant who hasn't returned in 20 years, and finally comes back only to find that almost nothing exists anymore –in any case, physically. And now he has to try to recompose in his memory what existed, to be sure himself of what used to be but also to reassure those who have never seen this time pass.
"For a writer, people never really die."
LSP: When you did return to your country, was the writing of this book an urge – something that you needed to do and put down on paper straight away, or did it come afterwards?
AM: I think the book imposed itself on me.
LSP: Why did you wait 23 years before returning?
AM: Because I left Africa very early to study in France and then, in the meantime… my parents were no longer of this world – they were dead. So for me to return home, in some way, was going to rouse painful memories. And I decided to let time do its work, remove the sediment [of the past] before summoning up the courage to return. This is about a flight from the reality of a world that is no longer and about the fear of finding out that the new world doesn’t correspond to my own vision of the world.
LSP: The fear of facing your own nostalgia?
AM: Exactly. So this book is ultimately the rewriting of what no longer exists – even if it still does in a way, because we can erase the physical elements but the soul, the mind, is another thing altogether, and it remains present in the book.
LSP: From the very first sentence of your book, one feels the suffering: "For a long time I let people think that my mother was still alive..."
AM: When one starts saying, "For a long time…” it already means that you regret something. My regret is that I tried to endure the pain, or support the absence, by lying and saying that no: my mother is alive, meaning that lying enabled me to regain a certain composure. But this lie only worked outside of my country. If I go to Congo–Brazzaville, reality catches up with me. To make amends for this lie, I wrote a book called The Lights of Pointe-Noire. And despite the darkness of the past, of this daily life, I found reasons to press the switch and turn on the light.
LSP: Was it really a lie or was it merely the act of a novelist at work?
AM: I do think it was always a lie. When people asked me about my parents, I never said they were dead. I always suggested that they were alive. And in my mind, actually, they are very much alive because in most of the books I've written, in most of my novels, there is always the shadow of these characters. So here, it’s about what, in novelistic terms, is called a “true lie,” meaning that even if one lies, the truth is also there. And for a writer, people never really die. The writer is someone who can call into being people at any time.
LSP: Yes, lying, deception, is the very material of the novelist...
AM: It's the very material of novelist; we do it so illusions, dreams and perhaps imagination can relieve the pain of daily life.
LSP: Did you suffer much when you returned to your homeland in 2012 or was the pain not as acute as you’d feared?
AM: No, I have not suffered too much. Well, maybe not too visibly. But deep inside me yes, I have. To write a book, you have to suffer. Generally, when writing a book… One has to embrace whatever is inside oneself. And it wasn’t always easy for me to reawaken these vanished characters, to put them on a stage and say to all of them: ‘While I’m writing my book, please try to pretend you’re alive,’ so that it would yield a certain power of persuasion to the story I was about to tell. And just for a moment, in this book, all the characters do seem alive, real, palpitating. And when the book concludes, the characters return to the country where the sun no longer rises.
LSP: There are elements of folk tale in this book as well...
AM: I think that's why this is a book… Actually I find Anglo-Saxons very brave in their decision to call it a memoir.
LSP: What would you call it yourself?
AM: They say memoir. I have not written on my book ‘novel’, ‘tale’ or anything else. For me, this is a rather unusual book compared to everything I've written before, since it blends auto-fiction, fiction, poetry, lyrical flights, reality.
This is the kind of book, when studied with closer scrutiny, which reveals that all genres are mixed. Which may be what’s interesting in writing nowadays – to not partition genres anymore. Because these days, a book must also be a representation of our world, of the present time, i.e. a world of mixture, of miscegenation, of blending and it’s high time that literary genres also start preaching métissage.
"The gaze of Ta-Nehisi Coates on America could correspond to certain questions I had about Blacks in France..."
LSP: A word now about the foreword you wrote for the French edition of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. This book has taken the U.S. by storm since its publication in 2015. How did you come to be associated with it?
AM: I had read the book in English, and I received a letter from the French publisher Emmanuelle Vial [from Autrement publishing house] – in France the essay is called Une Colère Noire. Lettre à Mon Fils – in which she asked me to write a preface to Coates’s book. She came to me because she used to run Points [publishing house], where I published Le Sanglot de l’Homme Noir (The Sobs of the Black Man) and other books. And they felt the gaze of Ta-Nehisi Coates on America could correspond to certain questions I had about Blacks in France, that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s gaze could... give the opportunity to question the black condition in France, so she wanted a kind of face-to-face between the black American and the African.
So my preface, entitled Letters to My American Brother, is a text in which I convene a dialogue with Ta-Nehisi saying something like this: ‘this problem for black Americans exists but there is also a problem for black people in France, and it is also very interesting that you are coming to live in France now. It will undoubtedly open up your own experience. The issue of slavery is a key issue in the United States; the issue of violence; the issue of injustice; the issue of discrimination – all of them are key issues here. But in France, they also have the issue of colonization, of the recognition of the Black France as a part of the French identity. Those are questions that you'll come across while living in France and you’ll need very precise surgical instruments to be able to sort out the conflicts that exist in France on the issue of race’.
LSP: So, is there a problem in general for black people in France?
AM: No, I don’t think that necessarily, but neither can we say there is no black problem. I think there is a problem in the way French history is rewritten. The history of France as it is presented right now does not reflect what actually happened. I find it does not sufficiently highlight the black presence in the building of the French nation.
In the 1940s, France was occupied. What was the capital of France while Germany occupied France? Brazzaville. Congo's capital – Brazzaville – was the capital of Free France during the Occupation. It’s from there that General de Gaulle reunited the troops loyal to the Free France to fight against the Nazis. How is it that whenever we mention de Gaulle's appeals, one speaks of the Appeal of June 18*, and never of the Appeal of Brazzaville? Today there still is a de Gaulle House there, where de Gaulle was in exile during the Occupation.
And what about the “Senegalese Tirailleurs” (riflemen)? What place do they have in French history? These are Africans who had nothing to do with a war between Europeans but were recruited by France to fight. And some remained in France after the Allied victory. These Senegalese riflemen gave birth to new generations of people [after the war]. And their kids today can’t get any papers because they are considered foreigners; it’s a question of ingratitude. So French history must get rid of its ingratitude and not forget that her most glorious days were not always white, that little black spots have also contributed to what is the face of France today.
LSP: What does it mean today to be one of the most important French-speaking black writers? Do you feel the need to be a voice of protest?
AM: I don’t feel I need to protest, because I’ve never done so in my novels – lamenting. When I make literature, I am in a kind of ecstatic state of mind – with the obvious exception of the books where I talk about my mother, of returning to the country. But those who’ve read some of my novels such as Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine, Black Bazar, know that what one gets out of it first is a love of humor, exaggeration, etcetera. For me literature is above all pleasure, exaltation. I don’t use it as a vehicle for identity politics of any sort.
But then, in parallel, when I want to question France, Africa, I also use the essay as a tool. Essays enable me to develop my ideas and my thinking. Also, I've never seen myself as being part of hierarchy of black writers or anything like that. The very nature of a writer is to stop being a writer of color to only be a writer, period. When one mentions au author such as Kenzaburo Oe of Japan, we do not say the Asian writer. When one mentions Céline, one does not say the white writer!
LSP: But it's something that we hear a lot here in the United States…
AM: Yes, and that’s logical. The United States is an overlay of ethnic territory, not an ancient territory, with a certain tradition. It’s not a continent like Europe in which there is a tradition coming from the peoples. People came to the United States and crushed the indigenous that were there. This country was built on the corpses of the natives who owned this territory. And everybody came. But the Whites, it's not their territory here. The Blacks, it’s not their territory. The Asians, it’s not their territory. So it is quite normal that a nation constituted by the superposition of ethnic groups ends up having a compartmentalized vision of itself with what they call ‘minorities’. But in France, it’s not about ethnicity. France is a country in which individuals are offered the possibility – at least in the Constitution – of sharing the French dream. The worst of it is when politicians impose their own visions of this dream and of this French passion [on the country], distorting that dream.
"The Black Lives Matter movement is a continuation of the legacy of the Civil Rights [movement]. It should not be confused with the Hollywood issue."
LSP: The #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon was another expression of the frustration in the U.S regarding the situation of equality for minorities... The U.S has a black president, granted, but there’s the feeling that a lot more recognition is needed, including in the world of entertainment and culture. What are your thoughts on this?
AM: When we take the example of French cinema, I would love to count the number of Blacks who have the same importance or enjoy the same recognition as a Jamie Foxx or a Morgan Freeman have here. You've seen the impact of the support expressed by Morgan Freeman on the Hillary Clinton campaign. [In France] we don’t have these kinds of actors. Perhaps French cinema is even more timid. The fight Americans are fighting in Hollywood… is more about equal opportunities than about color. Because I see how they respect Harry Belafonte or Will Smith, how they admire Denzel Washington, how highly Spike Lee is regarded as a director, to the point that even a white man, [Democratic presidential candidate Bernie] Sanders asks him for help to promote his campaign. In France, do we have players of this significance and weight? We don’t! In France, cinema featuring Blacks remains an epiphenomenon, issues are not necessarily raised or tackled. I mean, here [in the U.S.], even great white filmmakers are taking on black themes for their movies—
LSP: But still, there wasn’t a single black nominee this year at the Academy Awards for a major acting award.
AM: But there have been in the years before. If we begin to count the number of black people needed here, the number of white people needed there… It’s also this kind of American malfunction that I’d like to point a finger at. At some point, if we have nominees and all of them are black, one will start to wonder! I mean diversity – it’s not all about Blacks. Were there any Asians? America, it's not all about Blacks: there are also Latinos, and we don’t see enough of them in movies.
LSP: Let’s talk about the Black Lives Matter movement then. There is much anger being expressed out there right now…
AM: Yes, but I think I would avoid mixing both things up. The Black Lives Matter movement is a continuation of the legacy of the Civil Rights [movement]. It should not be confused with the Hollywood issue. Do not forget that – and it must be clear – that black protests in Hollywood are the protests of the black bourgeoisie. Meaning black people who’ve already gained some notoriety and are already playing in the big leagues. But Black Lives Matter is about the everyday black American living in unemployment, in pain, who has no house, who lives in the streets, who lives in poor neighborhoods. Those people wouldn’t mind reaching a level where they could discuss their presence in Hollywood! But it’s not about these people. We can’t conflate these struggles.
LSP: Your book, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, just came out in the U.S. Do you have any words for your American public?
AM: I say to the American public: come and discover my Africa, my Congo and also perhaps my little voice which tries to speak from a small country of four million: Congo. And it’s also perhaps with the help of literature that all lives will matter, that we’ll all be free.
*The Appeal of June 18 is generally considered to be the origin of the French Resistance movement during the Second World War.