Africanity and contemporary creation

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Excerpts of the « Africanity and contemporary creation » round table, chaired by Sylvie Chalaye at the Université de Rennes 2/Haut-Bretagne Theatre Arts department on 13 January 1999. With Caya Makhélé (Congo-Brazaville), Kossi Efoui (Togo), Koffi Kwahulé (Côte d’Ivoire).

Sylvie Chalaye: Where do you stand as writers vis-à-vis the concept of an African identity? Do you try to assert an African identity or not? It seems to me, Kossi Efoui, that you defend the idea of writing as an author, not as an African, as you are African come what may, you cannot escape it.
Kossi Efoui: What bothers me when people talk about « African » literature is what that puts the onus on, when there is nothing to emphasize. It is simply a matter of classification, of classing books on shelves. For example, people can create « Africa » categories where you will find African authors, which, a priori, is not a problem. The problem is what is emphasized, which is what exactly? Putting the onus on « African » presupposes the existence of a series of invariants that can be identified from one work to another, thereby allowing the construction of a framework or an analytical model by which to identify an African work. (…) When people refer to « African » literature – and I suspect people who do so of highlighting the Africanity, rather than literary character – I think that they slip very easily into making a mechanical link between the origin and the work. To me, the act of writing is an act of discrepancy vis-à-vis the origin, a challenging of the origin. In no way is it a quest for a perfect affinity with the values in vigour in one’s group of origin.
Koffi Kwahulé: It is true that a writer’s origin does not explain his or her work but, at the same time, in the African writer’s case, it is difficult to dissociate one from the other due to our specific history. We have a relationship to culture that is equally as specific as we express ourselves in the culture of the other. So, even if what we write doesn’t seem typically « African », it seems to me that a person who does not share this « condition » cannot approach writing in the same way. That is why we cannot entirely evacuate origin when looking at African writers, even if what I write myself is not very « African ». I assert what is Ivoirian, not what is African. I am not at all familiar, for example, with Togolese or Congolese culture. It might seem paradoxical, but, ultimately, I understand the French better than I do the Togolese, even if Togo is next door to my country. Culturally speaking, I have not been involved enough with Malians or South Africans to be able to speak on behalf of these cultures.
Sylvie Chalaye: You very often hear people who follow this theatre say – in your case anyway – that if a work is too universal, it’s because you live in France. You hear things like: « Anyway, they’re denaturised, Westernised Africans who have effectively renounced their own specificity ». Caya Makhélé, what can you tell us about La Fable du cloître des cimitières (The Fable of the Graveyard Cloisters) with regard to this question, as, although staged by the Swiss director Patrick Mohr and played by black African actors, it does not necessarily evoke an African destiny?
Caya Makhélé: La Fable du cloître… is set in a kind of no-man’s land in which I wanted each reader, each spectator to be able to find his or her African identity if African, Jewish identity if Jewish, etc. Having said that, I would like to go back a bit to the example of my previous text, L’Etrangère (The Woman Stranger), which is set in Africa. It’s the tale of a kind of black mythical nation. (…) L’Etrangère is the story of a woman… Women are a recurrent subject-character in my work, as are the condition of children, economic conditions, the place of the individual in society… Yet these question crop up in any other literature or society, even if we pose them in a relatively more acute way in Africa, maybe because the situations are often much more raw. (…) My encounters with women in my life are not very African: my children are mixed-race and I’d say that I myself am a kind of cultural hybrid in my own country. Where, consequently, is my African identity in all of that? It is this ensemble that defines me as Caya Makhélé. (…) I don’t write to define Africa, nor to show oh how very African I am. I quite simply write to satisfy my own ego.
Kossi Efoui: I’d just like to say two things about this « denaturised African », this « unauthentic work » business. This raises the question of a work’s authenticity. Is this a question of aesthetics: for example, in what way is this work determining, in what way does it constitute a singular voice? Or is a work’s authenticity measured in terms of how it fits a supposedly pre-existent aesthetic model? Do people look at a play to see if what they see corresponds to this model, whose contours have never actually been defined? To tell the truth, I hear warning bells when I hear « denaturalised  » because it’s very close to « degenerate ». It’s as if there were a kind of African aesthetic purity, as if all works not corresponding to this model were denaturalised, or, to put it more clearly, were degenerate art. (…) Sony Labou Tansi’s publisher told me that on the way out of a Sony Labou Tansi play someone said to him one day, word for word: « It’s not an African play, it’s too intellectual ».
Koffi Kwahulé: I think that in this « degeneracy » business – irrespective of the fact that Africans who reiterate it have interiorised the other’s gaze – is above all the discourse of the out-and-out conqueror and the out-and-out conquered. It’s the discourse of the conqueror who refuses the conquered the ability to transcend. (…) In our world, everyone is in the process of becoming. However, as soon as you refer to the African… I am Ivoirian, but I don’t have an Ivoirian nature, I am in the process of becoming.
Kossi Efoui: We all know that artists all over the world travel, go to see what is produced elsewhere. Americans travel to India, the French go to Africa… The entire history of stage directing since the Sixties has been woven out of these voyages, out of what people seek in other theatre forms elsewhere. Are people surprised that, in an encounter he considered decisive, Picasso discovered what at the time was known as « art nègre », causing a revolution in Western art history? I have never heard any critical discourse whatsoever about this phenomenon, which, ultimately, is common fare, the normal movement of things.
Koffi Kwahulé: That is precisely the relation between the conqueror and the conquered. It’s not the Bamileke sculptor who is a genius when Picasso takes interest in Bamileke sculpture; it’s Picasso who confirms his genius by taking an interest in this art.
Caya Makhélé: One has to recognise that the conqueror’s gaze tends to fix and globalise things. And Africa has always been a globalized element in Western thought: there’s Africa, a country inhabited by individuals who do practically the same thing, dance the same way, eat the same food, who all speak « African »… And this globalisation – to come back to what Kossi Efoui was saying – creates very specific schemas according to which music has to be sung and danced in such and such a way to be African. Along the same lines, theatre has to meet certain aesthetic canons, certain rituals, certain modes of writing. But as soon as you show Africa to be fragmented, with its distinct, different countries…
Koffi Kwahulé: I would say that my theatre – and I’m talking only about my plays here – is political in this respect. It isn’t political in the stories it tells, or in its themes, but in its approach of making all definition of what people call Africanity complex, or even impossible. (…) And what interests me when I write is the hope that people will wonder where the African is in all that. It is in that respect that my theatre is political.
Sylvie Chalaye: Precisely. It seems to me that, beyond the questioning of an African identity, there are political subjects, or stakes which are dear to you in your theatre. The play Jaz comes to mind in particular. The play is basically about a woman who recounts what happens to her after she is raped; she tries to explain why she kills her rapist. I don’t think the word Africa, or any other word referring to Africa, appears in the text; it’s about a block of flats that could be in Paris or any other similar city, and the woman could be black, yellow, or white… Yet Jaz, which for all I know could be based on a true story, is also about another rape than this woman’s. Could you tell us about this commitment, which is not just the political commitment of an African, but also that of the man you are.
Koffi Kwahulé: Whether it be Jaz or my other plays, my concern isn’t to write plays on subjects such as rape, etc. Even if I take political stances in what I write, it’s just poetic matter. (…) I would like to write a play that isn’t about rape, a play you’re just in, the leaves falling, nature beautiful. But, as if by some kind of fate, I systematically find myself writing things about others because, at the end of the day, that’s more or less the question God asks Cain: « What have you done to your brother? » To me, this question forms the specificity of theatre as an art. I would like to be able to answer this question if God asked me. What have I done to my brother? I try to testify what I’ve done in my theatre. But this testimony, this commitment, has to be put back in the poetic sphere first of all.
Caya Makhélé: I would add something to the question, « What have you done to your brother? » I’m always apprehensive about God coming down and asking me the question « What have you done with your life? » because I worry a great deal about my life. (Laughter). If I worry about it so much, it’s because I can’t accept having been born just to visit, just to go and contemplate dead leaves, as Kwahulé put it, or just to sit by the fireside for the sheer pleasure of it. I suppose that it’s my lot, as a human being, to say how great my suffering, my joys are…
Sylvie Chalaye: One notes the recurrence of what can be called an identity quest, a wandering, a seeking, in all of these works. This is obviously not specific just to contemporary Black African writing, but could we look at this recurrence a moment? Crossed paths, or crossroads are systematically present in your work, for example, Kossi Efoui, where they seem to be an obsessive figure; maybe they are the representation of this question itself. This seems to be to be related to the Orphic quest present in your work, Caya Makhélé, especially in La Fable du cloître des cimetières, but also, in a different form, in La Danse aux amulettes (The Amulet Dance). Maybe we need to look for communities of inspiration here? These are no longer necessarily related to Africa, but to something greater, to a belonging to a community that has suffered or that has been divested of its history at a given moment. (…)
Kossi Efoui: Listening to Caya and Koffi, you realise that at the end of the day, although we insist that the question isn’t about defining what constitutes the Africanity of our writing, we do nothing but take a stance on that very question. This shows how much the question of identity is right at the heart of our preoccupations, just like the question of memory; it’s obvious. However, there is a way of offering answers that does not constrict us. That’s what Koffi was saying: it’s about taking the question further, of making sure that the question is so complex that people cannot give a clichéd answer. That’s what interests me too, a way of advancing masked, so that when someone holds up a mirror and says « Here’s your portrait », you disappear from the mirror. It’s about no longer being there where people expect you to be, of systematically giving rendezvous elsewhere, of displacing the questions elsewhere. That’s what I try to do when I write for the theatre: how and when and due to what kind of brutal encounter words and their assumed meanings lose this obviousness, at what moment the image I have of myself loses all obviousness. This way of seeing matches the very geography of the crossroads, of multiple paths… (…)
A student: Where do you situate yourselves today vis-à-vis the Negritude movement?
Kossi Efoui: We are still the descendants of this intellectual position, which had its meaning in the Thirties; self-affirmation was they only way the African theorists of the personality, the Senghors and company, could counter the negative discourse with which they were faced. It was understandable from a strategic point of view. Today, however, not only has the system of references on which this discourse was founded been turned upside down, but, what is more, the balance of power that made this discourse necessary has changed, not to mention that I find the theoretical presuppositions of this discourse completely preposterous. That fact that they spoke at the time about African religion, African history, African poetry… this overstatement of Africanity was also part of the logic of the discourse that had to be articulated in order to stand up to the symbolic violence inflicted on these cultures. The problem is that it has carried on right up until now; we need to distance ourselves from it by multiplying the masks and proposing different representations.
Bruno Tackels, lecturer at Rennes 2: It seems to me very important not to get stuck in a discourse that negatively resists negation. I am a little wary of both specificities and universalism. What interests me, on the other hand, is how the same things are displaced and – if I dare use the word with utmost caution – how everything is deported. I am very keen on this word precisely because it evokes a history – that of the theatre since its origin – because we often forget that the theatre was born in the Mediterranean and that it was only deported to the north later. It is important to recognise that there are voyages between places which result in specific appropriations. Which brings me onto my question: taking this history, this specificity into account, how do you envisage the portrait of a mask today?
Caya Makhélé: I would just like to make one small comment first: even if we are talking about masks, I would be wary of the claim that the theatre was born on this side of the Mediterranean, that it was deported, etc… If we consider a certain number of ways of behaving, a certain number of gazes, if ways of apprehending the world and giving it meaning, of translating it into performance, other forms of expression, other ways of wearing the mask may have been born in different places at different times. Coming back to the mask, in my mind it can be defined as the rupture we seek to highlight in order to define our personality vis-à-vis a history which, at the end of the day, is contemporary. I, for that matter, am tempted to answer with a question: is what we, as writers, bring today an answer to that history? I also ask myself another question: is it the writer’s role to answer questions posed by history, by society, by his or her relationship to others? We have touched on an element of doubt: is there a place for an answer in this constant doubt? Isn’t it in fact a constant mask? In a nutshell, are we an adequate mask for narrating today’s Africa?
Koffi Kwahulé: Bruno Tackels’ question entails a kind of collective reply. Yet it seems to me that what differentiates us from the generations of the past is the fact that they all moved forwards, in fits and starts, with the same mask. Nowadays, everyone furrows their own path; we write to save our own skins first and, in the same movement, hope that this might save other people’s skins too. That doesn’t completely answer the question, I know; I don’t have a satisfactory answer in fact and I hope I never will. For as soon as you identify the mask you wear, there is a kind of intoxication of the mask which can end up suffocating the bearer. (…) As we are born out of this singular history, we are – as Kossi writes in Le Carrefour (The Crossroads) – at a loss in Europe and strangers in Africa. So, to be able to put one foot in front of the other and survive, we have, unconsciously, to wear masks. And knowing the mask doesn’t matter because as soon as you identify it, you enter the realm of the dogmatic. We’re hardly going to emerge from the dogmatism of Negritude to invent new dogmatisms!
Kossi Efoui: (…) The people we call the first African intellectuals indeed wore a collective mask; they, for example, reproached Sembene Ousmane for writing a story about incest. They said to him: « Comrade, a story about incest in Africa in this time of struggle! The image you give our enemies there destroys us. » Today, not only are we creative individualities, but, moreover, everyone constructs several masks depending on the situation; you have to respond to urgent situations right away. (…) If you are always attentive, alert, you realise that there is always a breach in no matter what totalitarian discourse. When you look at history, you realise, in fact, that the moment when a brutal reversal of the situation occurs does not coincide with the idea of this reversal. Rather, it’s the optimum moment in a long process of establishing this ruse of reason by which the conquered is never completely conquered.

///Article N° : 5501

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