In 1983, Ken Bugul’s first autobiographical novel, Le Baobab fou (The Abandoned Baobab), immediately caused a scandal in Africa. Torn between her parents’ culture and her experience of the West, she was one of the first African women to write intimately about her own body. In her following novels Cendres et Braises (Ashes and Embers) and Riwan ou le chemin de sable (Riwan, or the sandy track), the Senegalese novelist continued to make the awareness of the body and the exploration of her feelings a central element of her writing.
In her book on new African women’s literature (1), Odile Cazenave analyses the way in which Le Baobab fou establishes the body as a literary space. What role does the body play in this novel?
K.B: The body plays an essential role in all my novels, and my life for that matter. I feel that its language is the best way of knowing oneself. In Le Baobab fou, the narrator suddenly becomes aware that her blackness makes her an outsider in Belgium by touching her body, her cheek, and her chin. Later, her total loss of markers causes her to lose her body to prostitution too. Our bodies, our attitudes don’t only reveal our personalities, but also what we go through in life. We don’t make the same gestures, we don’t walk the same way on the pavement or in the sand, when we are happy or sad.
The body isn’t always the reflection of psychological suffering in your novels; it is a site of pleasure and desire too
K.B: The body is also a wonderful means of communication. In Riwan, the narrator manages to free her body, something she would never have been able to do within the confines of her Western-style education. When she is 30-35, she is reconnected with her roots and discovers sensual pleasure, marking a new stage in her own self-discovery. That doesn’t mean that this pleasure is free of all suffering, a suffering that comes from waiting, which takes the desire to its paroxysm. African women are experts in dosing and controlling this waiting. They make it a part of pleasure itself.
How do African readers take the sensuality of your writing?
K.B: They often take it badly or not at all. People have judged it to be pornographic or provocative. If you dare to speak about the body in Africa, people immediately associate you with vice. Both men and educated women are always unduly prudish. It is not the done thing to speak about the body. I felt more comfortable with Serigne, the diviner’s wives (cf. Ken Bugul’s previous novel, Riwan ou le chemin de sable) than with women intellectuals. As I describe in Riwan, these women, who don’t know how to read, who live together in Serigne’s court, speak about eroticism without the slightest inhibition. They slap their thighs, ripple with imagination, get themselves all worked up on their own. It really reassured me to see real African women totally assume their sensuality. Unfortunately, they aren’t the people who read my work. Reading remains the prerogative of an elite rigid with principals.
What is the origin of this taboo on evoking the body in Africa?
K.B: It isn’t religious because in all religions the body serves to worship God. I think, rather, that as the body expresses itself, people don’t feel it necessary to say any more about it. I think that the arts should explore it though.
Precisely, over the last twenty or so years, African literature has seen the emergence of a female writing of the body started by you and other writers, including Calixthe Beyala, Angèle Rawiri, and Véronique Tadjo. Are African women more aware of their bodies today than in the past?
K.B: I think so. Women are seen for their bodies far more than men are. The body is the source of all happiness and unhappiness for them. I am part of this movement that dared an intimate writing of the female body which goes beyond male representations of it. A lot of people were disturbed by that fact that I tackled a dawning awareness of my own body and its feelings.
The body is the most important thing in my life. The head comes second. When I write, for example, my hands are always under my top I need to touch myself, I need this sensual proximity with my body. I also have a very carnal perception of other people’s bodies.
There are offices today in the United States where employees stop working from time to time to do corporal exercises to make them more attentive in their work. That shows how important the body is for the brain. It’s a step in the right direction, but I think that the world will be a better place when we acknowledge the essential role of sensuality.
(1) Odile Cazenave; Femmes rebelles, Naissance d’un nouveau roman africain au féminin.Ken Bugul (whose real name is Marietou Biléoma Mbaye) was born in Maleme Hodar in Senegal, fifty years ago. She now lives in Porto Novo, Benin, where she runs a company that promotes cultural works, art and craftwork. Ken Bugul has published 3 novels: Le Baobab fou (The Abandoned Baobab), 1983; Cendres et braises, 1994; and Riwan, ou le chemin de sable, 1999.///Article N° : 5396