In 2021, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah ; African literature finally seems to be receiving the attention it deserves. However, the Austro-Congolese author Son Mwanza Mujila affirms that African authors, especially French-speaking authors, lack visibility; he believes that this challenge pushes a new generation to explore new linguistic territories.
This year finally seems to be that of African literature. In addition to the Nobel Prize, many awards have been awarded to African and Afropean authors. Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop moved back International Booker Prize and the Neustadt 2022 Prize [en] (awarded in 2021) which has once recognized many future nobel Prize winners. Mozambican Paulina Chiziane [en] won the Camões prices ; the Booker Prize for fiction was awarded to the South African Damon galgut. the Goncourt Prize, arguably the most prestigious French literary award went to the Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.
Could it be however the clump of trees that hides the forest?
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is a writer who grew up in Lubumbashi in the south of Democratic Republic of Congo (also called Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, RDC or RD Congo). He was educated in French, his second language after Swahili, and now lives in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, where he founded the transnational literature festival Weltwortreisende [de]. He composes German plays performed in Vienna and Berlin rooted in the tradition of Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. He also writes in French, and his first novel, Tram 83, published in 2014, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, winning several awards, including the German Prize for International Literature [en]. The Dance of the Villain, his last novel, was published in 2020. He also composes poems, including a collection entitled The River in the Belly was released in 2013, then translated into English [en]. Fiston Mwanza Mujila considers himself above all as a poet who sometimes enjoys touching the novel and the theater.
Global Voices spoke with him to hear from one of them what it means to be an African writer today. According to him, French-speaking authors are faced with many problems, first and foremost the very nature of the French literary scene:
While Nigeria, which is a great literary nation, has entry doors into renowned houses in the US or in Great Britain, the literary ecosystem is more complex for French-speaking literatures: Paris remains the only center of gravity and, often, of legitimation. Brussels and Geneva are more or less lagging behind.
He adds that the situation is also difficult in French-speaking Africa:
In English-speaking Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are the major literary poles with their journals such as Kwani? [en] and Chimurenga [en], publishing houses like Cassava Republic [en]. For French-speaking Africa, Senegal and Cameroon once played this role, through New African Editions of Senegal and the Key editions. In Congo-Kinshasa, we are paying the price for our political turmoil. Literature still remains a rare and desirable object even if private initiatives try to make up for the lack of a national cultural policy. The institution of literary prizes, like the creation of libraries and publishing houses, is a new hope. But decoration and buildings alone are not enough. I am convinced that the literary matrix of a country depends very much on the quality of its education and the standard of living.
The choice of language, an existential question
For many writers from post-colonial societies, the choice of literary language is often an existential dilemma, sometimes accompanied byaccusations of betrayal of one’s culture launched by certain sections of society. Some exophone artists [qui n’écrivent pas dans leur langue maternelle, ndt.] opt for an original solution: write in a third language, often unrelated to their native country or colonial history, such as Jhumpa Lahiri, American-Bengali woman of letters now writing her novels in italian. Here is how Mujila describes his own questioning and what direction he sees:
If I managed to live in Austria, it is also because I come from Lubumbashi in Congo, so a place where the capital Kinshasa does not play an important role, and where Lusaka or Johannesburg play a bigger role because they are closer. . People from southern Congo do not necessarily go to France or Belgium when they leave the country, and do not necessarily associate with Congolese communities abroad who are predominantly lingalophone. In the south, other languages are spoken, such as Swahili.
I sometimes have the impression of having three or four lives at the same time, because even if I write in French I do not practice it on a daily basis, I write in German which is my sixth language, apart from Swahili, Lingala and Tshiluba which is the language of my grandparents. When I write in German, I have to prepare myself, the same in French, it’s the same preparation ritual, it’s a whole expedition, I note words that come to mind, I copy a page from Camus to immerse myself in the linguistic bath. But for the past two months I have been wondering whether I should not categorically change the language and write only in German. I do not exclude giving up French.
He notes that Congolese literature traditionally embraces multiculturalism; some like Richard ali [en] write in Lingala. Within the diaspora, authors compose in the language of the country: Dutch for Daniëlle Zawadi [nl], English at JJ Bola [en] and Swedish in the case of Kayo mpoyi [se]. This finding led Mujila to define his identity as subject to a constant flux:
The main tool of a writer is language. When I moved to Mitteleuropa, in order to survive as an author, I had to not only learn the German language but build a literary genealogy. I write in French and German, but the latter often takes over. I am used to talking about literature in this language.
When I am in France, I am defined as an Austrian writer. In Vienna I am identified as a writer from Graz, and in Germany as an Austrian writer. In the Congo I am identified as a Congolese writer but living in Austria. My identity is polyphonic and moving. Mudimbe, Congolese philosopher, spoke of African experience or subjectivity. I would add to this an Austrian subjectivity. Graz and Lubumbashi are my rallying points and observation points, places from which I develop my speech.
The concept ofAfropean [fr], portmanteau formed by the fusion of the terms African and European has become more and more significant in recent years. Here is what Mujila thinks:
In Austria, I consider myself to be Congolese, African or even a writer Austrian black, because being a black writer in Austria is not the same as being black in France or Belgium. I respect those who use the term Afropean, but everyone can define themselves in their own way. Europe is large, so I prefer to refer to the terms of Afrofrançais, Afrobelge, Afroautrichien to better contextualize.
Ultimately, however, the strongest identity marker could be literature itself, as the Congolese writer specifies: “In fact, literature is my one and only language”, which he demonstrates brilliantly in his latest novel:
What interests me is the inter-African dynamism, as well as the porosity of the borders inherited from Colonization. My two novels are reflections on the (post) colonial and urban management of the African space. Tram 83 lays bare the fragility of the states born of colonization — that is to say by chance — where the secessionist discourse is declined as the first and last resort against a nationalism coupled with authoritarianism. The Dance of the Villain pursues the same reflection by highlighting the future of the white city, occupied today by street children and other marginalized people.
Son Mwanza Mujila concludes in éevoking the future of African literature with a touch of irony :
I have the impression that a lot is asked of this literature. Besides, it is not even a hundred years old. Maybe we should leave it in peace and come back after 3 centuries. I think that our outlook on Africa and African literatures will change when we will surely focus on works.
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A fluctuating literary landscape: Fiston Mwanza Mujila evokes Congolese literature