There are many ways to write about Africa, but talent remains the compass. While the continent’s history cannot be easily summarized, its predicament is still one of domination, a taxing predicament that calls for sagacity as well as imagination. Writing under domination is not a matter of location but of condition. It is simply wrong to depict the African continent as a living hell populated by child soldiers only and held captive by thugs, even if such a narrative sells books; it is equally too easy to view the story of Africans as that of a people whose quest for happiness and freedom is fulfilled only on American or European shores. Because there is no way all African people will one day leave Africa to come and settle in Paris or New York City, telling the story of African lives will always have to look for the ways in which African people do indeed find happiness in Africa, do cope with their everyday, and transform their potentials into stunning stories that more than often surprise the world. For the continent is immensely beautiful, rich, and populated by amazingly gifted people.
Domination blankets the paths of the multitude, transforms enchanted visions and recomposes unexpected endings to make them into predictable tales. The disconnect between an African writer’s life and the story told in his or her books will one day astonish many. That disconnect will stop being looked at from the point of view that fiction gives a writer the license to invent, and will become what it truly is: another chapter in the continent’s struggle to transform the lived experience of its children into dignified narratives. What makes life so joyful—and thus beautiful—when one is in Harare or Dakar may well be best expressed by singers and not by writers. And what produces a Samuel Eto’o—and not only him but a succession of extraordinary athletes in Lagos, Nairobi, Accra—may well be the stuff that still finds its expression only outside of literature. And yet in those moments of bliss, it is beauty that presents itself—the beauty you see in the smile of an infant in the middle of a refugee camp in the Congo, or in the genius of Sultan Njoya, who composed seven versions of an alphabet to write books (and this during the deepest years of colonialism and World War I). There is no beauty in despair, but the ability of the human spirit to transcend a history of domination is a flash of sunlight.
Writing has the ability to inspire people. As a matter of fact, there lies writing’s most transient secret, beyond the capacity it has to narrate. Because a novel or a poem is read from the intimacy of people’s lives—because a writer’s sentences are digested in those places where readers choose to be face to face with the unknown—a reader’s conversation with a writer is always conducted in whispers. For a writer is a whisperer before being a storyteller. Remember, a book can say to its reader: You simply have no obligation to accept the bullshit you are presented with. Remember that you have in you an inner strength that can defeat all the odds you see before you. Remember that the evil you see displayed under the sun is manufactured, and you can easily obliterate it the moment you apply against it an equal force housed in the good. To accept that there is no fatality in evil is to say that no domination is eternal. Writing enchants people’s souls by reverberating in them the multiple stories not yet lived, by resurrecting the tamed potentials of each one of us. It does so by showing a reader that one is never ever alone, for with the reader there is always the person who wrote the sentence that incites to act, and thus understands the predicament in which one is. Community starts with the pas de deux literature composes and with it, when writing works well, the dance we always call change.
Patrice Nganang was born in Cameroon and is a novelist, a poet, and an essayist. His novel Temps de chien received the Prix Littéraire Marguerite Yourcenar and the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire. He is also the author of La Joie de vivre and L’Invention d’un beau regard. He teaches comparative literature at Stony Brook University.
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