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A literary landscape in flux: Fiston Mwanza Mujila's take on Congolese and diasporic literature

Portrait of Fiston Mwanza Mujila by Jürgen Fuchs, used with permission

The 2021 Nobel prize in literature went to Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah — it looks like African literature is finally getting the attention it deserves. However, Congolese-Austrian author Fiston Mwanza Mujila, asserts that visibility for African authors, particularly the Francophone ones, still remains a challenge inspiring a new generation to explore new linguistic environments.

It seems 2021 is the year of African literature. Besides the Nobel for literature, other prestigious prizes have been awarded to African and Afropean authors. The 2022 Neustadt Prize, which is announced the year before, 2021, and has in the past pointed to numerous future Nobel Prize winners, went to Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop. The Camões Prize was won by Mozambican Paulina Chiziane. The Booker Prize for Fiction went to South African Damon Galgut, while the International Booker for Translated Fiction was won by French-Senegalese David Diop. The Prix Goncourt, arguably France’s most prestigious literary prize, went to Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. 

But could this be the case of the tree that hides the forest?

The last time an African author won the Nobel was John Coetzee in 2003. The last time a black or mixed-raced author was awarded the Goncourt was Patrick Chamoiseau in 1992 and Marie NDiaye in 2009.

To hear what Francophone African writers experience themselves, Global Voices talked to Fiston Mwanza Mujila, an author who grew up in Lubumbashi in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (also called Congo-Kinshasa or the DRC). Mujila was educated in French, his second language after Swahili, and now lives in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, where has has founded the transnational literary festival Weltwortreisende. He writes theater in German and his plays, which are rooted in the tradition of Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek, are performed in Vienna and Berlin. His fiction is produced in French: his first novel “Tram 83,” published in 2014, was translated from French to over a dozen languages and awarded several prizes, including the German International Literature Award. His latest novel “La Danse du Vilain” (The Villain’s Dance) was published in 2020. He also writes poetry, and his collection “Le Fleuve dans le Ventre” came out in 2013 and is translated in English. He describes himself foremost as a poet who happens to write plays and novels. 

According to Mujila, unlike their Anglophone peers, Francophone African authors face a number of challenges, the first being the nature of the French literary scene: 

Alors que le Nigéria qui est une grande nation littéraire a des portes d‘entrée dans les maisons de renom aux US ou en Grande-Bretagne, l’écosystème littéraire est plus complexe pour les littératures francophones: Paris reste le seul centre de gravité et, souvent, de légitimation. Bruxelles et Genève sont plus au moins à la traîne.

While Nigeria, a large literary nation, has a door open into all major publishing houses in the US and the UK, for Francophone literature, the literary ecosystem is more complex: Paris remains the only center of gravity, and often, of legitimacy, while Brussels nor Geneva are more or less left in the back.

The situation is also difficult in Francophone Africa itself, according to Mujila: 

En Afrique anglophone, le Nigéria, le Kenya et l'Afrique du Sud sont les grands pôles littéraires avec leurs revues comme Kwani? et Chimurenga, des maisons d’édition comme Cassava RepublicPour l’Afrique francophone, le Sénégal et le Cameroun jouaient jadis ce rôle, par l’entremise des Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal et les éditions Clé. Au Congo-Kinshasa, nous payons les pots cassés de nos turbulences politiques. La littérature demeure encore un objet rare et désirable même si des initiatives d’ordre privé essaient de palier à la carence d’une politique culturelle nationale. L’institution de prix littéraires, tout comme la création des bibliothèques et des maisons d’édition sont une nouvelle espérance. Mais seuls la décoration et les bâtiments ne suffisent pas. Je suis persuadé que la matrice littéraire d’un pays dépend pour beaucoup de la qualité de son enseignement et du niveau de vie.

In Anglophone Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are the main literary hubs with their own magazines such as Kwani? and Chimurenga, as well as publishing houses such as Cassava Republic. For Francophone Africa, Senegal and Cameroon played that role in the past, thanks to publishing houses such as Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal and éditions Clé. In Congo-Kinshasa, we pay the price for our political instability. Literature remains a rare and desirable object even if private initiatives try to compensate for the lack of a national cultural policy. The creation of literary prizes, libraries and publishing houses brings hope, but just having buildings and the decor is not enough. I am convinced that the literary matrix of a country depends largely on the quality of its educational system and of its living standards. 

The existential question of the choice of language

For many writers from post-colonial societies, the choice of the literary language is often an existential dilemma. This choice sometimes comes with accusations of cultural betrayal by certain parts of those societies. Some exophonic writers opt for an original solution: writing in a third language, usually unrelated to their home or colonial history, such as Bengali-American author Jhumpa Lahiri who now writes fiction in Italian. Here is how Mujila describes his own questioning and possible new direction:

Si j’ai réussi à vivre en Autriche, c’est aussi parce que je viens de Lubumbashi au Congo, donc un endroit où la capitale Kinshasa ne joue pas de rôle important, et où Lusaka ou Johannesburg jouent un rôle plus grand car plus proches. Les gens du sud du Congo ne vont pas forcément en France ou en Belgique quand ils quittent le pays, et ne s’associent pas forcément aux communautés congolaises de l’étranger qui sont majoritairement lingalophones. Au sud on parle d’autres langues, comme le swahili.

J’ai parfois l’impression d’avoir trois ou quatre vies en même temps, car même si j’écris en français je ne le pratique pas au quotidien, j’écris en allemand qui est ma sixième langue, en dehors du swahili, du lingala et du tshiluba qui la langue de mes grands-parents. Quand j’écris en allemand, je dois me préparer, pareil en français, c’est le même rituel de préparation, c’est toute une expédition, je note des mots qui viennent à l’esprit, je recopie une page de Camus pour me replonger dans le bain linguistique. Mais depuis deux mois je me demande si je ne devrais pas changer catégoriquement de langue et ne plus écrire qu’en allemand. Je n’exclus pas d’abandonner le français. 

The reason I managed to survive in Austria is that I do come from Lubumbashi, a place where the capital Kinshasa does not play a key role; Lusaka or Johannesburg are more important because they are closer. People from southern Congo do not necessarily go to France or Belgium when they leave, and do not always get together with the Congolese diaspora who speak mainly Lingala. In the south we speak other languages, such as Swahili.

Sometimes I have the feeling that I lead four lives at the same time, because even if I write in French, I do not practice that language daily. I write in German which is my sixth language, besides Swahili, Lingala, and Tshiluba, the language spoken by my grandparents. When I write in German, I need to prepare myself; the same with French, I have rituals to get prepared, it is like an expedition. I note down words that come to mind, I write down an entire page from Camus to reenter the linguistic environment. But for the past two months, I started asking myself if I should not switch categorically and write in German only. I do not exclude completely abandoning French. 

Mujila notes that the Congolese literary tradition is embracing multilingualism: certain writers, such as Richard Ali, write in Lingala. In the diaspora, authors write in local languages: Daniëlle Zawadi writes poetry in Dutch, JJ Bola in English, Kayo Mpoyi in Swedish.

This has led him to define his identity as in constant flow, as he explains:

Un écrivain a comme outil principal la langue. Quand je me suis installé dans la Mitteleuropa, je me devais pour survivre comme auteur non seulement d’apprendre la langue allemande mais d’échafauder une généalogie littéraire. J’écris en français et en allemand mais ce dernier prend souvent le dessus. Je suis habitué à parler de littérature dans cette langue.

Quand je suis en France, on me définit comme écrivain autrichien. À Vienne on m’identifie comme écrivain de Graz, et en Allemagne comme écrivain autrichien. Au Congo on m’identifie comme écrivain congolais mais vivant en Autriche. Mon identité est polyphonique et mouvante. Mudimbe, philosophe congolais, parlait d’expérience ou de subjectivité africaine. J’ajouterais à cela une subjectivité autrichienne. Graz et Lubumbashi sont mes points de ralliement et d’observation, lieux à partir desquels j’élabore mon discours.

For a writer, language is his or her main tool. When I settled in Mitteleuropa, as we call Central Europe in German, I had not only to learn the language but to establish a literary genealogy. I write in French and German but the latter is taking over. I am used to talking about my  writing in that language.

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 author. In the Congo, as a Congolese writer living in Austria. My identity is polyphonic and on the move. Mudimbe, a Congolese philosopher, used to say talk about African subjectivity or experience. I would add to that the Austrian subjectivity: Graz and Lubumbashi are my points of connection and observation, places from where I build my discourse.

One term that has emerged more prominently in the past years is the concept of Afropean, a contraction of African and European. Here is Mujila's take on this notion:

En Autriche, je me considère comme congolais, africain ou encore écrivain black autrichien, parce qu’être écrivain noir en Autriche n’est pas la même chose qu’être noir en France ou en Belgique. Je respecte ceux qui utilisent le terme d’Afropéen, mais chacun peut se définir à sa manière. L’Europe est grande, je préfère donc me référer aux termes d’Afrofrançais, Afrobelge, Afroautrichien pour mieux contextualiser.

In Austria, I consider myself as a Congolese, an African, or as a Black Austrian writer, because being black in Austria is not the same compared to France or Belgium. I respect those who embrace the term Afropean, but everyone can define themselves as they wish. Europe is large, I thus prefer to use the terms Afrofrench, Afrobelgian, Afroaustrian to provide more context.

But in the end, the strongest identity marker might simply be literature itself, as Mujila concludes by saying, “in fact, literature is my sole and unique language,” something he masterfully displays in his latest novel:

Ce qui m’intéresse est le dynamisme interafricain, ainsi que la porosité des frontières héritées de la Colonisation. Mes deux romans sont des réflexions sur la gestion (post)coloniale et urbaine de l‘espace africain. “Tram 83″ met à nu la fragilité des états nés de la colonisation—c‘est-à-par par hasard— où le discours sécessionniste se décline comme premier et dernier recours contre un nationalisme doublé d‘autoritarisme. “La Danse du Vilain” poursuit la même réflexion en mettant en lumière le devenir de la ville blanche, occupée aujourd‘hui par les enfants de la rue et autres marginaux.

What interests me are inter-African dynamics, and the porosity of borders inherited from the colonial period. My two novels reflect on the colonial and postcolonial urban management of the African space.  “Tram 83″ discloses the fragility of the states born out of colonisation — born by chance — where secessionist discourses develop as a form of resistance against nationalism and authoritarianism. “La Danse du Vilain” extends the same theme by showcasing the future of the city of white people, currently occupied by street kids and other marginal people. 

Mujila concludes with a note of irony on the future of African literature:

J’ai comme l’impression qu’on demande beaucoup à cette littérature. D’ailleurs, elle n'est même pas centenaire. Il faudrait peut-être la laisser en paix et revenir après 3 siècles. Je pense que notre regard sur l’Afrique et les littératures africaines va changer quand on s’attachera sûrement aux oeuvres.

I have the impression a lot is required from African literature, which, by the way is not even a hundred years old. Perhaps we should leave it in peace and return in three centuries. I think our understanding of Africa and African literature will change once we focus on the literary works themselves.

 

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