Writing in a language that betrays you

Interview with Marcel Zang, by Sylvie Chalaye

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Among African authors who have become successful, Marcel Zang, along with Ousmane Aledji and Florent Hessou, is undoubtedly one of the most astonishing. Having left Cameroon a long time ago he claims his place in contemporary culture with a very modern plain-speaking style, focusing on subjects he knows – immigration, French Africans, deportation, prison, la double peine [the double punishment of serving time in a French prison and then being deported]… Zang’s writing is not politically correct. The swear words burst forth, piss squirts, but Marcel Zang says strong things, he piques bad consciences and leaves no place for hypocrisy. He pierces the soft belly of those who drape themselves in finer feelings and his theatre shakes the audience!
At the moment he is having two works published at Actes-Sud Papiers: L’Exilé [The Exile], a text written in residence in Limoges and recorded by Patrick Mauff in 2001, followed by Bouge de là [Move From There], a play staged last June at the Manège in La Roche-sur-Yon, by the Universalisapo Company and directed by George Bilau Yaya.
These two texts are set in a prison and centre on a confrontation between two men, a black and a white, an immigrant and a cop. Marcel Zang creates stark situations with extreme dramatic tension, but at the same time the dialogue is always profound, sometimes even philosophical and it is a genuine reflection on the question of identity to which he invites us with the violence of a bludgeon. It is difficult not to open your eyes, difficult not to look at the otherness opposite. His theatre, however, is not without humour, quite the contrary. Zang uses ridicule. If The Exile is rather a tragic situation, where the topic of rape recurs and the laughter is rather jarring, Move From There has real comedy and the scene where the entire police squad contemplates the nature of the puddle of urine left by a prisoner right in the middle of the station is very funny.
Marcel Zang is a playwright of the prison, enclosure, perhaps because he sees the French language in which he invents his stories, like a yoke. He considers himself « deprived of his own language » and obviously maintains a difficult relationship with French. He evokes in particular in The Exile this characteristic of his relationship with the language which traps and destroys from the interior if one isn’t on guard:
« Thus I am obliged to adopt by force, and as before a fait accompli, a language which is not mine… a language which dictates to me its wills, its feelings, its desires, and which says to me at any moment, with each beat, with the least turning, at which point I am nothing, … I am obliged to shelter in my head, my skin, my brain, into the depths of my sleep, the apprehensions, perceptions, feelings, values, myths, dreams, landmarks, ideology which are not so much artificial as coming from outside. Obliged to use words, words, all these foreign words, these French words, which conceal in their tiniest articulations a vision of the world and prejudices absolutely negating of me, the Black. Obliged to integrate all these concepts and to use them daily, against myself. It is like exhaling a breath which strangles me on return or to go from morning to night with shoes filled with nails. Look at the torment! But we have to breathe. We have to walk … » (The Exile, Actes-Sud Papiers, 2002, pp. 36-37)

How did you start writing? What triggered your desire to write?
Like many, I started to write in adolescence. I kept a little diary, I wrote poems. Nothing serious. Never did I think that I could continue on that path. I just wrote like that. Then, one day, at school, I wanted to go further and tell a story, to write a novel. I wanted to impress my classmates with my stories. I gave a friend a story to read, and when she gave it back to me the following day, she seemed astonished, she could not understand how I had been able to invent all that, had been able to construct a whole story. She was fascinated and I was fascinated by her fascination!
This infected you with the virus!
With this I felt the power of writing and so I continued. For me, writing is an adventure, a game, which necessitates a rupture with one’s habits, one’s own world, because it is about investing in the unknown. It is to leave a known place and leap towards the unknown. One cannot write without this rupture. But, for me, it is a rupture which I experienced in a rather dramatic way. I was 18 years old, I was in my final year at school when my father committed suicide. My world collapsed. Until then I lived in a identity bubble, my father and I were very close, and then this bubble burst. I found myself facing a void, it was terrible. My universe had literally been pulverized. The known ground which remained was not comfortable, it was no longer reassuring. And finally I jumped, I started writing. A bit like in a swimming pool, one dips one’s toe and finally one dives in.
Was it a way of going beyond the suffering?
Above all it was a way of finding life again, to start moving, in the rhythm, in the turbulence of life. When one deals with the same thing, there is no movement. While passing from known to the unknown, I started moving and found the agitation of life.
What were your first subjects?
La dette [The Debt] was my first published work thanks to La Revue Noire. Loss, what one must give back, what one owes, attachment – these are the subjects which haunt me. I was nine years old when I left Africa with my father to come to France.
And you have not returned?
No. My father died in 1972 and I have not seen my mother since that day. It is thirty years since I’ve been to Cameroon.
The Debt is a short story, but today you are primarily a playwright. What led you to the theatre?
A professor of history in the faculty of law at Nantes read my writing and was convinced that I had the qualities to write theatre. I found that a little absurd, but the idea kept running through my mind and finally I did a dramatic adaptation of the novel La danse du Pharaon, which was when I really started writing. The play was staged in Nantes, three years ago. There are two young Africans who find themselves in prison. One, George, wants to remain in prison: he feels that he can find his roots and his past there. And he does. The other, Max, wants, on the contrary, to get out and leap towards the modern world. One can see there a combat between young and old. The play is built on confrontation between the two characters. This confrontation is also found in Un couple infernal [An Infernal Couple], another of my plays, a metaphysical tale which was recently staged at Nantes Conservatoire. It is a reflection on identity and difference, Genesis revisited. Identity reigned for a long time and one day Difference arrives. This marriage is very tumultuous, it is a little Adam and Eve: whereas Difference brings sex, Identity is pure, but it is dying, Difference can save it but it is necessary to unite them and how? By sex of course! And Identity is indignant. No question of compromising its purity!
The Exile also centres confrontation …
Yes, this play functions like an in camera, a face to face between an African called Imago and Inspector Charon, who is a little like the ferrymen of Greek mythology. It is not really autobiographical. It is the story of a young African who must be deported after years of prison, although he has always lived in France. Inspector Charon has the mission of persuading him to go. He is skilled in making the recalcitrant prisoners leave, by finding the right words and using a whole battery of arguments. He reasons and plays with the language.
You ponder over the French language a lot
It is by language that one perceives the world. But an African who expresses himself in French will find himself one day discovering inside the language he employs an energy and an ideology which is against him, against the Black, and it is tragic. He uses a tool without having the choice, since it is his first tool, and this tool turns back against him. Because in the French language, all that is white is positivised, while the black is negativised. When one becomes aware of that, it is the height of the tragedy. It is another prison!

Born on March 2, 1954, Marcel Zang migrated from Cameroon at nine years old to France. In 1976, he graduated in modern literature from the University of Nanterre. After many odd jobs and various training programmes in advertising agencies, Marcel Zang became a trainer in the advertising industry in Nantes – where he resides. At the same time, he continues a career of playwright, poet and short story writer. Many of his works have appeared in literary newspapers, magazines, literary reviews (Libération, Le Serpent à Plumes, Revue Noire …).
Trans. by Petra Liverani///Article N° : 5632


Laisser un commentaire