Ivoirian man of the theatre, recent winner of the RFI prize for Le Pari de Dizô, and winner of the Kilimanjaro prize 98, Elie Liazéré teaches literature at Treichville High School in Abidjan. He has written a dozen plays, including La Complainte d’Ewadi, published by Lansman in 1996.
Slavery and the slave trade are very rare subjects in literature, and particularly in dramatic literature. In France, this avoidance is tied to political reasons, the colonial lobbies for a very long time having stopped the subject from being brought to the stage and thereby opened up to public opinion… But the same avoidance can be seen in African theatre, undoubtedly for different reasons. Where do you, as a young playwright, situate yourself in relation to this subject?
I don’t think we avoid slavery. There have simply been stages. Before independence, there were writers, such as Césaire or Senghor, who attacked slavery and denounced colonialism. But after independence, we couldn’t carry on speaking about slavery and colonization indefinitely, as new problems came up, problems of another kind. After the departure of the colonial masters, the chiefs took power, taking the place of the colonialists, and, in some cases, still behave like colonialists today. We are subjected to a form of colonization which does not say its name, but which is perpetrated by our own kind. It is these forms of dictatorship which have imposed themselves as the themes of our writing. That, in truth, is our concern today.
It is, in a sense, because more pressing problems have come up that that which falls into the category of history has had to be left aside. Deal with the present first before revisiting the past?
In fact slavery continues in another form. The struggle thus has to take another form too. It is essential to be able to target the adversary, the enemy. We do not want to avoid slavery. But what we experience today, carnally, are these economic problems, these political problems, these social problems. It is our duty to denounce them. Now that we have the power, that we have the means to recreate our society, what are we doing with it? The marginalization of street children, who are forced into prostitution, is nothing but a new form of slavery, and we are the ones responsible for that, as it is the result of poor economic management.
The slave trade drained the African continent. Aren’t the problems Africa faces today the result of those five centuries of odious raiding?
There has been no rupture. We are still living under the yoke of the major powers. Neocolonialism is a continuation, but there are transformations at each stage.
The past paves the way for the future. We cannot build the future if we do not revisit the past, if we do not accomplish an act of memory. Isn’t there a need for Africans to address this history, in solidarity with those who were deported and who now find themselves on the other side of the ocean?
We can forgive, but we must not forget. It is our duty to recall history so that it is not repeated. I have a writing project, a kind of historic fresco from slavery to the present day. I would like to participate, in my own way, in a recollection of history. We do not forget our past, it’s the foundation. And that foundation is hollow, it is missing. We lost men, we lost culture… this has created a certain number of mental complexes, which sometimes continue to convince us of our inferiority.
But doesn’t the priority you give contemporary subjects reveal a certain feeling of guilt with regard to the past? The guilt of a mother who loses her child and doesn’t find it.
Our responsibility truly exists. Many of us cannot go beyond these things: we have internalized them, they occupy the collective subconscious.
There is something there in the order of a psychosis of a whole people, there is something very deep there.
Four centuries aren’t easily shaken off: it is a struggle which has to be waged every day.
Isn’t Africa caught in a paradox? On the one hand is this shame, this guilt, which means people are reluctant to speak about it. But on the other hand, as Africa is always associated with poverty, isn’t there also the pride of the Africans who say: « let’s stop speaking about that time when we were slaves; it’s over today and we affirm that we are upright and proud »?
Perhaps. But you can’t turn the page on the past, it always catches up with you. And I am convinced that it is, above all, by taking care today not to reproduce the behaviour of our torturers of the past that we will confront our past with the utmost lucidity.
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