Magazine article World Literature Today

How to Become Globalized without Losing Your Mind: A Conversation with Alain Mabanckou

Magazine article World Literature Today

How to Become Globalized without Losing Your Mind: A Conversation with Alain Mabanckou

Article excerpt

During his visit to the University of Oklahoma in April, Alain Mabanckou sat down with Rokiatou Soumaré-a graduate student in OU's Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics-to discuss his work. Their public conversation, in front of a packed audience, has been adapted and abridged below.

Rokiatou Soumaré: My first question relates to your recent sojourn in France, where you were the first writer to hold the Chaire de Création Artistique at the Collège de France. Could you share your experience with us?

Alain Mabanckou: My experience at the Collège de France is different from what I've been teaching so far because you have to teach in front of eight hundred people, gathered in an auditorium, and then you have people in another room who are watching you on a screen. It's the first time for me to teach in France, after teaching in the United States for fourteen years. And for the first time since the sixteenth century, the Collège de France decided to sponsor a lecture on African literature. So the class is full of Africans, young students, because anybody can come to the Collège. So the challenge for me is to speak to the specialists and nonspecialists alike, so it's not that easy: you have to be specific at the same time you are trying to explain the first lesson to someone who perhaps never heard about Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, or René Maran.

RS: Hopefully this will open new doors for African writers. Your first lecture at the Collège de France was entitled "Lettres noires des ténèbres à la Lumière" (Black Literature: From Darkness to Light). Could you summarize it for us?

AM: In that lesson, I try to explain how French literature in the nineteenth or even in the sixteenth century treated African literature or Africa like the continent of darkness, as if we couldn't speak, couldn't think. I explain that we weren't in darkness, however. It was maybe the ignorance of France that made people think Africa was the continent of darkness, which was a reference to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. At the same time, I try to explain how African people did their best to escape from these prejudices in order to create another kind of literature in which they were trying to demonstrate what Africa was; they wanted to show that we had culture even before the white man came to Africa, so our history didn't begin with colonization. We had great empires in Mali and Ghana, and people forget that the empire of Ghana was twice as big as the empire of Charlemagne in France. So the darkness was on the side of Europe, not on the side of Africa.

So it's tough to explain that idea at the Collège de France, in the shadow of Barthes or Foucault or Eco, who were teaching European literature. It was for me a way to tell how we came from that kind of darkness and we were trying to learn European literature in order to create our own literature, which René Maran did so powerfully with his novel Batouala (1922). We have a lot of writers like Mongo Beti, Camara Laye, and so on. I gave that lecture in order to explain even to someone who didn't know anything about African literature that they need to read us even to understand French literature because African people read French literature. That way we have this kind of step forward compared to French perceptions of African literature.

RS: Let's talk about your novels now. Many of them include intertextual references, such as Broken Glass or African Psycho, to name a few. What motivated your choice to use so many references to other literary works?

AM: I began to write Broken Glass when I was teaching at the University of Michigan-maybe I was feeling bored because of the snow. I was surrounded by a lot of books I was reading at the time, and it crossed my mind: what if I put all my books inside one book so that if they all burn, my books will survive. It was at the same time a game and also a pleasure for me to create a story in which the books are talking among themselves. …

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