Of recognition

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The African writer lacks recognition. Behind the question of audience lies a sense of guilt. But what if it wasn’t a crime not writing for one’s own people?

In a not so very distant past, the exile of African intellectuals in general, and writers in particular, largely resulted from political repression. The writer was forced to leave because he/she had said what one ought not, or quite simply because he/she refused to be a sycophant. This is less the case today even if the factitious democracies that have replaced the dictators have not installed complete freedom of expression. The defection of writers and other intellectuals is above all related to the wanderlust that effects African youth in general. People generally cite the disastrous economic situation currently effecting Africa and, to a lesser extent, the weight of certain old-fashioned customs, to explain this phenomenon.
As far as writers and artists are concerned, there is one reason for their departure that is often eluded but which, in my opinion, is of capital importance. I consider this to be the case given that it not only imposes exile, but is determinant in the outcome and very orientation of a writer’s work. I am referring here to the need for recognition. The weight of prejudice is such that an African writer published by an African-based publisher’s is at present unable to achieve the renown he/she dreams of, and sometimes deserves. There is very little chance of being read and recognized by a majority of people even in the writer’s own country, irrespective of the omnipresent censure.
The African writer’s recognition by Africans and the rest of the world is still too often solely related to his/her overseas reputation. Which, in other words, means that to be recognized in Africa, you first of all need to be plebiscited by Paris, London or New York. This approbation will come all the more easily if the writer chooses to live in the West and/or is published by a major Western publishing house. One is thus, in most cases, forced to leave.
This situation is not free from the risks of perversion as the writer ultimately finds him/herself in a situation where the publishers, critics, prize-givers, media, and the target readership, all the people who are determinant in the launching of a work, are foreigners. In this context, isn’t the African writer, to a certain extent, forced to adapt his/her discourse, to smooth off the rough edges, to avoid shocking those likely to publish his/her work and who are afraid of mirrors, to reassure those who want to read but who tremble at the thought of meeting their bad consciences at the turn of the page?
Even if writers sometimes succeed in producing highly satisfactory results in this exercise from a literary point of view, the substance itself is not authentically original; they have cheated, prostituted themselves somewhat. It is a great joy for the writer, perhaps one of the greatest, to be recognized by his/her own. Our wish, the dream of all us writers, is to reach the greatest number of readers and, why not, to achieve planetary renown. What is deplorable is that we are obliged to seduce others to win the recognition of our own. The old proverb « no one is a prophet in his own land » takes on all its resonance when applied to the African writer. This latter finds him/herself a bit in the same situation as the footballer who only gains a place in the national team because he has enchanted football fans abroad.
In trying to hard to flatter the ego of others, however, we sometimes distance ourselves from the expectations of what we might rightly or wrongly consider our original readership. The situation becomes much more serious when you realize that, in order to narrate, the exiled writer is forced to dig out the faded photos from the sole album of his/her memory even when, by virtue of the distancing, he/she sometimes finds resources that allow him/her to give form to things that would have been no more than intuitions at home.
During the last Festival of African Arts and Medias held in Lille, a French journalist said that African literature lacked humour, thus provoking a general outcry. The journalist’s statement was clearly not motivated by malicious intent, however. He was simply reminding us, if needs were be, that what makes a Black person laugh does not necessarily make a White laugh, as, to give but one example, most Africans who read Ferdinand Oyono’s Le Vieux nègre et la médaille found it enormously amusing.
African writers are conscious of the fact that what they write is not primarily destined for an African readership. When one asks them the question of who they are writing for, however, the majority immediately answer that they are writing for Africans.
Even Léopold Sédar Senghor said: « I write for my people primarily. And they know that a Kora is not a harp, just as a balafon is not a piano. Moreover, it is by appealing to French-speaking Africans that we will best appeal to the French and, beyond the seas and frontiers, to other people. » That was that great poet’s sincere wish. But did it happen like that in reality? Senghor used words and a style that got him admitted to the Académie française. Africans recognized him. But, on a continent with such a high level of illiteracy, how many read him? And of those who read him, how many really understood? They were told: behold a great poet, and they replied: Amen! Fortunately, it was absolutely true. But how many others, how many other gifted artists, will remain forgotten simply because they did not manage to ignite the Western imagination properly? This is all the more true for writers who are censored at home for political or other reasons. All they have left is that elsewhere to exist; and as people want to exist, as they must exist, they are ready for many compromises.
I myself, answering a journalist who asked why I wrote one day, said: « Uprooted, I evoke my people in order to cling on to a branch« . I was absolutely sincere, but above all, I betrayed my fear of finding myself, as a result of my distance, outside the group; a potential victim, like so many others, of that « ancestralism » that privileges the group to the detriment of the individual.
It is not a crime to not write for one’s people. It is not possible to write for Africa and to do Africa justice. The crime would be to discredit Africa, to deny oneself or to mock what one is in the sole aim of amusing the West and selling books. That does not exclude criticism however, provided that it is objective and contributes to the debate, even if it is at times very painful.
the African knows that a Kora is not a harp, but there is no harm in writing to explain to a foreigner who is willing to understand that a balafon is not a piano. An African writer ought not feel guilty if he/she does not speak about Africa. There are Westerners who write about Africa, so why shouldn’t Africans write about the West. Does that make them any less gifted?
As early as 1966, Mohamadou Kane (1) said, discussing the African writer: « The writer’s Western training, the extreme receptivity of the European public, and the language shared with this public, have determined the orientation of works which primarily address a non-African world ». This orientation has today been confirmed by the cost of books which means that this instrument is out of bounds for the average African, by the illiteracy levels already mentioned above, and by the very fact that reading is not a favourite past-time in Africa.
So why then does the African writer, when he/she has left, feel the need to proclaim loudly and clearly that he/she is writing for his/her own people? Is it not simply to alleviate the guilty feeling bearing down on him/her? For, unless you are without a spirit and a conscience, you always feel a little guilty for having left, for having resigned, for having abandoned your own people to their unhappy lot. This sense of guilt is all the stronger if you were not forced to leave. And when exile is the jolt that makes us turn to writing, we seize this magnificent machine that transforms the real, we make it the sceptre of our absolution, the ship to conquer consciences, and above all our own conscience.

1. L’écrivain africain et son public, Présence Africaine nº58 (1966).
Novelist Jean-Roger Essomba, born in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 1962, has published Les Lanceurs de foudre (L’Harmattan),Le Paradis du Nord, and Le Dernier gardien de l’arbre, both at Présence Africaine.
///Article N° : 5338

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