Interview with Koffi Kwahulé, by Sylvie Chalaye

Abidjan, February 1999
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The text for Déconnards was originally a novel, that is, not a text intended for the theatre. Why did you adapt it for the theatre?
It’s actually more the other way around. First of all, the play I was writing was getting too long so I decided to turn it into a novel called Village-fou. And when Sidiki Bakaba asked me for a play, I reverted to a dramatic form, with the end result being Déconnards.
The play has become very popular in Côte d’Ivoire, especially with African audiences. Why do you think Africans are particularly interested in this text?
Firstly, because of the acting of the great actor, Sidiki Bakaba. I had been warned that he was very temperamental, but I didn’t find him so. Sidiki likes to feel that he’s not dealing with bad theatre. Regardless of what might happen to Déconnards in the future, Sidiki has become essential to the role, and subsequent actors will always be judged according to his performance. The other reason possibly comes from the fact that the play makes reference to certain well-known images such as the war veteran, the life of a village rebel, an African student in Paris, etc. These images belong to the Africa’s collective imaginary.
Where do the stories that you tell in the play come from?
They’re stories that I invent or that have been told to me. They appear very separate from each other but they do actually have a common thread. I used it as an exercise to see how I could link stories that were very different, or even opposed, to obtain a whole. The trick was to find a bridge between the stories. And the bridge is obviously the character that tells the stories. It’s his own story that creates the link between the tales, which in turn create a sort of African mythology. In the play you can see it a little bit when the character tells the story of the creation of the crazy village – we go back to ancient history. But in the long version, we try to understand metaphysically, or even mystically, the current situation in Africa, and it’s origins. I tried to write a story that – of course – wasn’t exactly like that in reality. I was trying to metaphysically understand why Africans have got to the point they’re at today. Sure there are lots of stories but the challenge for me was for the spectators to be unaware of this, for them to have the impression that one story arises out of another story as the play evolves.
What do you mean by « understand metaphysically »?
I realised that there are lots of cosmogonies in Africa, but there isn’t a cosmogony for contemporary African history. That is, a sort of understanding by the origin, by a sort of genesis of what’s happening today. The Déconnards project did just that – I tried to construct a genesis for contemporary African history. A bit like – I know it’s very pretentious of me – Western societies and the Bible, Indian societies and the Ramayana – all those so-called sacred books that are simply mythology invented to understand History. On my own level, I tried in a trivial way, without pretending to be any sort of mystical thinker, to write a book that would in some way be a book of the origins of contemporary African history.
The text’s language is very unusual – a mix of French re-appropriated by Africans, and African languages. How did this language mix come about?
In the first version, I used typically Ivoirian French. But the project was to write a play, and then a whole novel, in typically Ivoirian French. But I realised that even other Africans couldn’t understand it. Given that theatre is a sort of communion, I had to find an intermediary language. For me, writing plays is not about writing well, it’s above all about finding a language that can be spoken, that is at the heart of what we could call « direct speech ». A lot of dramatic texts don’t work because the dramatist hasn’t taken into account the particularities of the language of the theatre. With Les Déconnards, I went through the exercise of finding a language suitable for theatre, a language that can be directly spoken to the other in the immediate, not something that is transmitted through … Even when there are images, the image has to be so striking that it engenders the concrete image. This is what I did to try and produce a balance between spoken and written language. In everything I write, in Bintou, and That Old Black Magic1, I tried to find a language bordering between the written and the spoken word. The real language of theatre is born of that balance. That’s the difficulty with writing for the theatre – if you only had to write well in order to write for the theatre, it would be easy. The theatre is caught between the written and spoken word.
Between orality and literature?
Between the oral and the written word, since orature is also literature.
The figure of the narrator speaks to an invisible person. Why did you personify this invisible person on stage? Why the need to go through a third party? Why isn’t the audience spoken to directly?
That’s my way of writing. For me, theatre has to have at least two figures on stage. Also, in the monologues I respect this personal rule by providing the protagonist with an invisible counter-character whose existence is in their very absence. If the monologue were flatly addressed to the audience it would be cabaret, or a one-man show rather than theatre as such. The invisible person helps the actor to speak directly to the audience in a less simplistic manner. If this principle is accepted, the audience knows that the protagonist is speaking to an absent character even though they address the audience directly. The character speaks to me through the other’s absence. I like the ricochet effect this creates because it prevents the discourse from becoming too reflexive and turning inwards. It avoids monologues that close in on themselves. I am interested in a speech that is addressed, that takes responsibility for the presence of a third person in the form of an invisible character so that the audience not only listens but also absorbs. In Jaz, for example, we don’t know who the text is addressed to but the real addressee is still the audience. How can I get the character to address the audience directly? Their partner is in reality a mask behind which the character can address the public. Most monologues do not taken the issue of address into account.
Rather than Africa, the character represents exile, the diaspora, the Africa that exists outside the continent, a kind of soul of Africa that goes beyond the continent. Does this refer to the history of a continent that only survives outside its own boundaries?
Yes, it is a metaphor for Africa! Even the Africa in Africa is no longer in Africa. The continent is no longer glued to its foundations. And for me the most significant image of Africa is its diaspora, the diaspora of slavery, but also the diaspora that is starting to form in Europe and America – as if Africa were condemned in some way to wandering, as if in its recent history Africa could only structure itself in the mentality of exile.
Could this be because you yourself have been living in France for a long time?
If I lived in Africa it would be exactly the same. Wherever I am, I feel like I’m somewhere else. That’s what being African is today. It’s no coincidence that when the narrator is in France, he only tells stories that take place in Africa. And if he lived in Africa, he would tell stories that took place in France. As if he were physically present in one place while his mind was elsewhere. Africa’s mind is elsewhere. Africa is a comparaison – am I where I belong? Am I behind? In relation to what and to whom? We don’t know but Africa is, for a while, condemned by its history to reposition itself, to refind its place, to be out of place.
There are sections that shock Europeans, in particular the part about racism, where you put things on the other foot. Why did you choose to talk about racism like that?
I realised racism is appearing less and less in African literature. As if Africans had come out of racism. Maybe because Africans are encouraged to think that they are open and intelligent because they’ve stopped questioning their condition and they talk about abstract concepts. The question is how to talk about racism today and not fall back on the usual clichés. Instead of approaching the issue as a victim, I wanted to show someone who was also proud of his own racism, by showing that black racism is never anything more than a reaction to a pre-existing racism. This is why this African doesn’t see himself as a victim of racism. He has understood that racist people don’t want to face another racist. And the extent of the absurdity of this racist stance, that unveils the character, is that if everyone became racist everything would be a lot better in the best of worlds – everyone would be the most beautiful, the tallest, everyone would despise everyone else. It’s a kind of incongruous mental gymnastics that emphasises racism’s absurdity.
There is also a kind of gibberish in Aléman’s mind that is especially shocking to the French and which refers to the fact that this history, which is so very present in the typically French universe, could become for other people something totally senseless. I think that this contains, for the French, something extremely violent in that it maybe refers back to the period in which Europeans discovered America, and discovered that down there, people had never heard of their Christian God. All of a sudden the French realise that some Africans didn’t really see any difference between the Nazis and the French during World War II…
It would obviously be absurd to associate colonialism with Nazism, but we should remember that the advent of Nazism occurred at the height of colonialism, making it very difficult for the colonised to compare their condition with the Nazi occupation of France, which is perceived as the utmost invasion. Furthermore, the Second World War is only global for Europeans, who are used to thinking that their destiny embraces all of humanity. Even though other countries took part in the war, it was above all a European war, just like the First World War, in fact. As a result, for many Africans, the ins and outs of WWII are still rather hazy. This is why Aléman, in his ignorance, bundles them together. He doesn’t even know why he went to fight and, like he says, he didn’t even know there was someone called Hitler involved. Just like Aléman, Africa is grabbing onto elements here and there to try and reconstruct its identity and a memory within modernity. And yet, this cocktail could prove to be highly dangerous, a bit like Aléman who salutes the swastika while singing the Marseillaise. This is an incongruous, conflictual combination but they belong together in his mind because they’re both elements of the white History inflicted upon him. I’m not saying he’s right; I’m not there to judge my characters but rather to say that that person existed and that it’s important to tell their view of History as well. It’s how the world is viewed by a certain Africa in which, for reasons often unknown to Africans themselves, the friends of yesteryear can become the enemies of today. This is a world in which there are no friends or enemies but rather converging and diverging interests. Therefore, Aleman quite naturally (if I can be so bold) combines the Nazi occupation of France, de Gaulle, the swastika, the French flag, the Nazi salute and the Marseillaise.
It’s definitely an unusual way of talking about Africa …
Because the usual way of talking about it is that of the intellectuals – that is, very well thought-out, simplified, civilised … In Déconnards we are confronted with a guy who was in the Second World War and who doesn’t understand the French language, let alone why he was fighting. . People don’t realise just how full of contradictions the world presented to Africans is. Our conditioning has created a kind of folly, somewhat like Aléman’s. For me, Africans are neurotic, slightly crazy … That’s mostly what Les Déconnards is saying. Africa appears to the world as a worrisome puppet that’s both entertaining and frightening – much like what appears to others as the completely irrational behaviour of the village idiot. As a people, History has driven us mad.

1 Original title: Cette vielle magie noire. Translation into American English by Jill MacDougall, Ubu Repertory Publications, NY, 1993.///Article N° : 5357

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