A truncated memory

Interview with Kossi Efoui, by Sylvie Chalaye

Limoges, September 1998.
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The Togolese writer Kossi Efoui won RFI’s Grand Prix du Concours Théâtrale Interafricain in 1989 for Le Carrefour (L’Harmattan, 1990). Many of his plays have been staged and read in diverse festivals around the world: Récupérations (Lansman, 1992), La Malaventure (Lansman, 1995), Que la terre vous soit légère (Le Bruit des autres, 1996)… He has just successfully published his first novel, La Polka (Editions Seuil).

We can see that there is an almost total absence of the subject represented by slavery and the slave trade in African literature, and particularly in the theatre, apart from very fleetingly in a few plays, such as Iles de tempête by Dadié. Have you already come up against this subject? Have you wanted to address it?
No, I have never wanted to address this subject. Perhaps because this subject implies a genre – that of historic reconstitution – which I do not practice. Furthermore, my writing attempts to move away from realism, and I don’t really see how one could speak about something as real as slavery without using realism. In fact, I have never asked myself the question.
That’s your answer as an artist, but how do you explain Africa’s ignoring of this subject in general?
Maybe, for a start, because it’s a history which is taught in a truncated manner in school. We speak about the slave masters, the slave traders who traded men… But if we looked closely at things, we would realize that there had to be a significant participation on the part of certain African despots for this trade to have functioned so well. Africans themselves actively collaborated in this ignominy. As a consequence, if you wanted to deal with this subject, you would need to deal with it in its entirety.
That implies that Africans are not ready to face up to their own involvement, their own guilt?
I think that they are ready. But the way in which this memory is handed down in the history books poses a problem. When my mother used to sing songs on the subject, Kondo and other African kings came up, were explicitly named, and it was not a question of white slave traders. But at school, I never learnt that. In fact, this truncated memory is very useful in the sense that it serves as an alibi, it serves to give a sense of security, to define the way of looking at the self and others. And as it works, people have perhaps not seen the need to re-establish historic truth.
Do you think that the Africans have easily turned the page?
Yes, I think so. I think that that history is only of interest today with regard to how we reappropriate memory in the present.
In a certain respect, you think that the history of slavery carry on being written outside of literature, in the very flesh of the Africans, that it is still there without it needing to be named, stressed?
Absolutely. It’s what Glissant called « the traces ». I think that, in the culture emerging today, there is something which is not the memory of slavery itself, which is not slavery as a theme, but which constitutes the traces of the experience of slavery which continues to inhabit us.
Do these traces unite the diaspora and give the black world a sense of solidarity?
Yes, but at the same time, they divide it. There are certain complicated relations between the Blacks of the diaspora and African Blacks simply because we do not share the same vision of slavery. For example, the fact that reference is explicitly made to Africa as the land of return in certain cultural manifestations is a thing that can be found amongst the Jamaican rastas, but which will not necessarily be found amongst the Antillians, for example. When you read L’éloge de la créolité, Chamoiseau and Confiant’s cutting digs at Césaire are made in the name of the idea that we mustn’t think that the Antillian today is the remains of an African, or a simple descendant of Africans. He is a new man forged in the melting pot of the Caribbean. The contributions have been multiple, and there is no reason to consider Africa as the main one. It is also a certain view of slavery which provokes this distancing attitude. It can thus be the basis of signs of recognition, but also the source of major misunderstandings and a lack of solidarity.

///Article N° : 5404

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