• Monday, July 22, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

At home with Alain Mabanckou: Prolific Francophone Congolese poet, novelist

At home with Alain Mabanckou: Prolific Francophone Congolese poet, novelist

On June 20, 2024, the Nigerian literary circle was enlivened with the generous presence of Alain Mabanckou, a prolific Francophone Congolese poet and novelist.

The ace writer, with several award-winning books to his credit, was in Lagos for the Nigerian-leg of his five-country book tour.

The tour, which ran from June 6-21, 2024, commenced in Senegal, through Togo, Burkina Faso, Ghana and ended in Nigeria.

The prolific and internationally well-known author used the tour to present his newest book, talk to the public and discuss literature across the five countries.

The tour was coordinated by the various French cultural institutions (Institut Français and Alliances Françaises) to support the promotion of African and multilingual literature and the debate of ideas on the continent.

However, Mabanckou’s Nigerian book tour was unique, with Alliance Française Lagos being a good host for the author whose works have been translated and published in 15 languages, including several books in English.

At the Lagos event, Alliance Française Lagos hosted two events to mark the tour. One of them was a special event tagged, ‘Telling your story, authentically: A conversation with Alain Mabanckou’, where the author, who also translated ‘Beasts of No Nation’, a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian American writer, into French.

At the event, Mabanckou had all the time him wanted to speak freely to his audience about his life, his successful literary career, books and their inspiration, issues on language barriers, why most African writers don’t write in local languages, adapting to trends, book publishing and patronage in Africa, among others.

Speaking from his heart, in response to questions asked by the audience, Mabanckou noted that literature is important because it is the only thing that does not remind us of our diversities, but our common existence as humans.

“It does not really matter if a book is written in English, French or in any of our African languages; it is the narrative and storyline that will hook the reader. We read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child and other writers despite our language barriers and we still enjoyed their writings and were impacted too,” he noted.

However, he decried the fewer number of novels in African language, noting that language is part our culture, part of the setting of the book, part and parcel of the writer’s faculty, hence needs emphasis.

“Though most of my inspiration comes from music, yes I play guitar, they often come in local languages and I write them in French. But I still capture them well, and also represent our local nuances, cultural paraphernalia and narratives,” he noted further.

Recalling his life journey, he noted that Africans can excel anywhere because they are naturally gifted.

As the only child of a mother who could not read and a father unfamiliar with fiction, by his own account and before starting school at age six, he spoke several African languages—Bembé, Laari, Vili, Kamba, Munukutuba (Kituba), and Lingala.

It was after learning French that it began to dawn on him how much was lost to posterity with the use of unwritten languages and the disappearance of the rituals that served an oral tradition.

He is making an effort to address the situation in his own way with his books, especially for Africans in the Diaspora.

Speaking on how Nigerians will perceive his books, the author said that they would be enjoyed by Nigerians so much.

“Nigeria is a big market for books in Africa because of the population and the level of enlightenment of the people. My books will be enjoyed by the Nigerian reader because I shared the same realities and experience. Also, they all have English versions for those who don’t understand French language”.

Beyond the book presentation on the first day of the tour, Mabanckou had meetings and discussions with students from the University of Lagos Foreign Languages Department on the second day.

But the “Lettres à un jeune romancier sénégalais” (“Letters to a young Senegalese novelist”), his newest book and the reason for the tour, is worth reading.

The writer from three continents puts together the jigsaw puzzle of his identity, and shares an ode to writing.

In the book, Mabanckou answers the questions posed by Alioune, an 18-year-old Senegalese apprentice novelist, who doubts himself, and who shares his anxieties with the author who reassures him by talking about his first steps in writing. Mabanckou talks about his career, his first textbooks, his love of the French language, the need to play with words, with the French language, and the need to write. He also talks about a childhood wide open to words, the epiphany of a vocation, the joys of creation, but also the torments of solitude and anguish. In this intimate account, he confides about his journey as a writer and offers some valuable advice to young novelists. It’s an extremely sincere book.

“We are in an era of change, dear Alioune, and it is encounters like ours that increasingly define our relationships. Nationalities no longer mean anything. You’re Senegalese, I’m Congolese. What does that mean? Our fraternity is linked to the complicity we feel when we read each other,” Mabanckou read from the book.