He is a man of many lives: Congo ambassador to France, distinguished author, advocate of the French language, diplomat, Prime Minister, international civil servant and creator of the unforgettable character Tonton Hannibal-Ideloy Bwakamabé Na Sakkadé, the hero of Le Pleurer-Rire (The Laughing Cry), published in 1982. His ninth novel, Le Méridional (The Southerner, Gallimard), has just come out.
I don’t have a single answer to explain how I came to writing. As a young student in Paris, I discovered Senghor’s Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry. That was my road to Damascus! I didn’t know there was such a thing as Black writers. This revelation was crucial in my life. I started chronicling African works, which was easy at the time because there were so few of them. In 1969, I led Congo’s delegation to the Pan-African Festival in Algiers. That was the first time I was introduced as a writer, which I wasn’t, but the idea germinated. Back from Algeria, I took the plunge. I spent months writing the short stories in Tribaliques [editor’s note: published in 1971]. I dipped my toe in, then my leg and now I’m in it up to my neck, I’m afraid.
I keep politics and writing separate. It’s dangerous to mix them because political discourse is laced with so many clichés, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. Politics is part of life. And to paraphrase a famous saying, they are too serious a matter to be left to politicians. In my youth, it was a duty to get involved, to campaign, to organise for Independence. Then things got a bit rough. The playing field and the rules of the game — a dangerous game — weren’t the same as in traditional democracies. We dreamed of Independence and romantic revolutions; what we actually got was tragedy. Those years coincided with the Cold War. I was confronted with an apparatchik mentality. I was never, could never and can never be an apparatchik. So I started leading a double life: servant of the State and writer. In both cases, in different ways, I worked for national construction and, perhaps, the emergence of an African consciousness.
I come from a broken home. My father, who nurtured me, was French. He was a big reader and had an influence on what my writing was to become. He could not abide spelling and grammar mistakes. Like many of my books, Le Méridional is about the parent-child relationship. I wasn’tabandoned, but sometimes it felt that way. My parents sent me off to a boarding school in France in 1949; I didn’t see them again until three years later. I was forced to become an adult before other children do.
All the books I wrote after a certain period are about métissage, cultural cross-fertilisation. Senghor theorised about it but I am somebody who actually thinks with the mind of a culturally mixed writer. In Le Méridional, I say that, in the final analysis, all of us are mixed.
I consider French, like English and Portuguese, an African language. They are part of everyday life. When a Senegalese meets a Malian, the quickest way for them to understand each other is to speak French. That is the language by which one becomes African. As a young Director-General of Education [editor’s note: from 1966 to 1968], I wanted to put Congolese languages on the programme. The idea met with opposition from all the people I thought it was supposed to help. In a literacy class, an adult asked me, ‘You can teach us how to read and write Lingala, but where will we find books and newspapers in that language?’ Another asked me what language we spoke in the council of ministers meeting. It was French, the language of power. To deprive them of it would have been as though we wanted to exclude their children from power.