Writer on postcolonial literature: “new urban cultures”

French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou speaks at the French Literature Days in Frankfurt and then in Berlin.

Writer Alain Mabanckou: "Africa is more than a continent" Photo: imago/ZUMA Press

site: Mr. Mabanckou, do you see yourself more as a writer anchored in the French writing tradition or in the African-Congolese one?

Alain Mabanckou: It’s a mixture of both. I am anchored in the French writing tradition, but I also bring my little universe from Congo-Brazzaville. The words are written in French, but the rhythm of my work comes from Congo. It is sometimes very very fast, and it is based on narratives. I am first and foremost a storyteller. In this respect, my writing tradition is a mixture of French and Congolese traditions, if not the Central African tradition.

In your novel "Porcupine Memoirs," you parody African folk myths. And in "Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty," you sketch the postcolonial situation in Congo through a teenage love story. What is the significance of the Congolese or African dimension in your novels?

I think the Congolese or African dimension is that many proverbs, tales and myths appear in my works. I remain faithful to the tradition that the writer is a storyteller. "Porcupine Memoirs" is a fable, a tale. "Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty" is a childhood story told in a French spoken in the Congo: With its repetitions and specific vocabulary and digressions.

You have written in essays about contemporary African literature and the modern African writer. What are the major themes of postcolonial black African literature?

I think it’s the analysis of the situation of the formerly colonized. How can the one colonized by France live in a globalized world? It is a literature that deals with the theme of migration. It is a literature that draws the former colonized, with his despair, with his dreams and perhaps visions in the midst of globalization. So it is a literature that wants to describe a different Africa than the one in earlier times, and it describes how Africans today, who were colonized in the past, are involved in new urban cultures that are outside of Africa. So it is also a literature that explains why Africa is more than just a continent. In many African novels today, you find characters traveling from south to north. From Africa to Europe. Which describe the African societies, but also the foreign ones, which their characters chose to live in a new way.

Literaturtage with Alain Mabanckou in Frankfurt a. M., Jan. 20-21, program: www.litprom.de/.

In Berlin, Alain Mabanckou will speak at the Akademie der Kunste on Jan. 24.

You are a professor of French literature at the University of Los Angeles (UCLA). What do you try to teach your students there?

To tell them that French literature doesn’t just come from France. Literature in French is much more expansive than the French territory. It’s a global literature that spans continents. It can be found on the American coast, in Montreal, on the islands, in Haiti, in Switzerland, in Belgium or in African countries. I want to convey to Americans that if they want to know the richness of literature in French today, they must not read only French authors. There are many who come from elsewhere who enrich the French language. Who create new extensive fictional worlds and think very globally.

How do the ways in which your work is received differ in Europe, the U.S., and your native Congo?

It is a reception that has gradually expanded. I think the fact that my works have now been translated into 20 languages gives you confidence that you’re not just writing for French speakers. So you write for all kinds of people who are trying to understand that the world today is one in which we all have responsibilities. So it’s also a literature of humanism. And maybe that’s what has driven me to write to this day.

Alain Mabanckou, born in 1966 in Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo. Studied law in Brazzaville and Paris. Today a professor at UCLA in California. His work is published in German by Liebeskind.

In "Black Bazar" you have created all kinds of nicknames. The protagonist is "Fessologue" (assologist), his ex-girlfriend is "Origin Color." What’s a nickname for Alain Mabanckou?

(laughs) I remember that I was always called the only child. The child who was alone. Because I didn’t have any brothers and sisters and it’s a rarity to be an only child in Africa.

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