In Conversation with
WE HAVE TO KEEP TALKING AND WRITING. BECAUSE WE HAVE NO OTHER MEANS.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr & Kathrin Röggla
The writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Literature fellow of the JUNGE AKADEMIE and winner of the Prix Goncourt 2021, in conversation with Kathrin Röggla.
KATHRIN RÖGGLA: Mohamed, you live in Beauvais, you studied in Paris, but you started your life in Senegal, where your family lives. I know that you write in French, have you written in any other language, and would you like to?
MOHAMED MBOUGAR SARR: I have tried to write in Serer, my mother tongue, and in Wolof too, the most spoken language in Senegal, but it is now difficult for me because in Senegal you don’t learn to write in Serer or in Wolof at school, you study in French, which is why I write in French. Everything that concerns the brain, the activity of the brain, the intellect, comes to me in French. But deeper there is Wolof, and there is especially Serer. I have tried, but for now I’m not ready, but one day I will because it’s important for me personally, politically, and symbolically.
KR: Would you say that literature is a work of translation?
MMS: Writing is always a matter of translating, or at leas there is always a way to find the balance between the different languages that I must speak… As the famous philosopher Édouard Glissant said: “I always wrote in the presence of all languages, even if I wrote in French.” So, at the same time, I also wrote in Serer, in Pulaar, and so on. There are all languages present. Every writer has his or her own language, and this language goes far beyond the technical language French or English or German, it is his or her personal language as a writer.
KR: How is the situation as an author living in Paris with his origins in Senegal? You know there is this term “world literature”? Here in Germany it would be understood as a marginalising term.
MMS: There’s a situation of marginality, that’s clear, a kind of inheritance from colonisation, because in French literature I am not always considered as a French writer. I don’t like it when people talk about “world literature”, I always have the feeling that it is a way, even if it is not expressed clearly, to say: I am the centre, and here is this periphery – satellites which surround me – and that’s world literature. In France, I can be recognised as an African, Senegalese writer. When I write in French, I am considered as a francophone writer, someone who only writes in French, but this French does not belong to France, it comes from an ancient colony, from Senegal, Kongo, Haiti… That’s a very ambivalent situation.
KR: You recently published a new novel…
MMS: I am doing a very exhausting reading tour now, because my novel is shortlisted for many important literary prizes: Prix Goncourt (Mohamed Mbougar Sarr received the Prix Goncourt award a few days after this interview), Académie française, and so on. These last few days I made several meetings in libraries and bookstores with young students.
KR: What’s the title of your new novel?
MMS: La plus secret memoire des hommes – the title comes from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, he is a writer I really admire. All the questions we have been discussing just now are in his book: What is it to be an African writer in the French literature scene? It is also a trap for French journalists, or for the literary field, because the book shows them their own images in the mirror of colonisation.
KR: Your most celebrated novel, Brotherhood, from 2015 – which just this year has been translated into English – tells us a story of rebellion against an Islamist terror regime in a fictional city called Kaleb. I suspect there were probably many paths leading to this novel?
MMS: I started to think about writing the book in 2012, because large parts of Mali had been assaulted by Islamist militia that year. It made me very sad. I really love Mali, because the Malian culture is absolutely beautiful and ancient – poetic and meaningful for the African continent and history. Seeing the culture literally being destroyed really shocked me, and I decided to start writing a novel to show what could happen in a city dominated by terrorists. That really simply was the main idea of that novel, to just show what can happen in any ordinary city.
KR: In your novel it is not only the militia against the army, it is especially the ordinary citizens, who revolt…
MMS: It is important to show that the ordinary citizen can resist, as they are in the front line of this kind of situation. Resistance is a beautiful idea, but it is also a very challenging one. It was important for me to show ordinary people in ordinary situations showing resistance, to show cowardness too, and to show how people resist, because every citizen, every person, has his or her own reasons to do or not to do something. Not everyone resists, because it is risky. The possible diversity of reactions in ordinary people interested me.
KR: You also raised the question of the moment: When do the people start their resistance? At the beginning of your novel there is a public execution of a young couple, and nobody showed any resistance. But one day when the wife of Ndey Joor Camara, who is one of the main characters, was publicly beaten, they reacted.
MMS: Violence has something fascinating about it. When you are fascinated you have two reactions: You can stay silent, be very impressed, or not be able to do anything, but sometimes the violence moves you so deeply that you must do something. Especially when that violence implies an act of barbarism, an act of killing, it produces some tragic reaction in humanity. This is what I tried to compare in the novel.
KR: Did you have a model of some kind for this type of resistance?
MMS: I read a lot of novels like Albert Camus’ La Peste, or Joseph Kessel’s L’Armée des ombres about the French resistance during the occupation. Even a novel like Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada has something to do with this idea of a city where many characters have different reactions in the face of the same situation.
KR: Literature has its own role in this fight. When the famous library of Bantika in your book is burnt down, the international community responds. But you also quoted Heinrich Heine: “Where they have burned books, they will end up burning people.”
MMS: It is ambivalent. Sometimes we do love books more than people. As all the dimensions of our humanity pass through symbols it is not so surprising that we are moved when one of the symbols is destroyed, because we feel that there is something in ourselves, our humanity, which is destroyed too. I started to write when I saw the destruction of the library of Timbuktu, the cemetery, the saints of Timbuktu… but I try to remember, that before symbols there are living people, men, women, children, who die from that situation too. In a perfect world we should be moved by the fate of people more than by the fate of symbols, but that is very complex.
In a perfect world we should
be moved by the fate of
people more than by the fate
KR: The symbols are important, but there is this futility of language mentioned by your characters as well.
MMS: Every writer knows that language is a very powerful tool, maybe the only weapon he or she has, but, on the other hand, every writer can see very quickly how language is not touching the true depth of things. We try to reach something beyond – the truth – we try to find something essential with language. In the situation of violence there are many things you can do, many things to denounce, describe, and criticise to do with the situation. But on the other hand, you can say: These are only words, what can they do? Nevertheless, we have to go on talking and writing because we don’t have anything else – we are powerful, but also poor.
KR: The question of language is also connected to the concept of justice you address. There is the Islamist leader shown in his ambivalence between arbitrariness – he likes the people pledging for their lives and to see them die, he likes to play God – and has the urge to instil the law of God. He is arguing, working with words as well: Is this why you give him so much space in the novel?
MMS: Language and Justice are connected. Both are searching for a kind of truth. When justice is enacted it is to discover or to reveal or to find a kind of truth. Both are in a way united in that character of Abdel Karim. It might be very tempting to reduce him to a kind of beast, an incarnation of evil. But I thought it was more interesting to adopt his point of view. To describe him in his complexity as a human being. He is leading people who are very different from him, but he believes deeply in what he is doing. He has to punish his own men because he thinks they are acting in the absence of a sense of justice.
My main idea relates to the notion of prophecyas a
poetic language in literature and in music.
KR: Why do you think that the people of Kaleb follow the Brotherhood?
MMS: They are afraid and also versatile. Evil can lead them to change. Do they have something to die for? Do they have something to lose? Do they follow the Brotherhood by conviction or do they follow by fear? Sometimes it is a grey space between those two possibilities.
KR: Was your novel discussed in Senegal, in Mali?
MMS: Yes, in Senegal, in Mali, in Burkina Faso, in Niger, in many countries where Islamist terrorism is present. I feel this is because people found some of their own questions in the novel. Of course, I was really happy and surprised. A playwright from Burkina Faso recently adapted it for a theatre play which was very popular with the Burkina people. He told me that the people went to the scene, testified, and cried out: “That’s what we are living. We see in that adaptation something of us.”
KR: You have quoted Victor Hugo, Apollinaire, Heinrich Heine… but no African authors…
MMS: That was something I regretted after the book was published. There were many African authors who wrote about the situation I could have mentioned: the Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, the great Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah…
KR: You wrote four novels, but during your fellowship at the Akademie der Künste you worked with sound poetry – are you performing as well?
MMS: I am not a performer in the strict sense, but a friend, the Chilean composer Francisco Alvarado and I often discuss the relationship between literature and music, we talk about both as a particular artistic and poetic language. We decided to do something around my fifth novel: my main idea relates to the notion of prophecy as a poetic language in literature and in music.
KR: Prophecy in a religious or in a strictly poetic sense?
MMS: In a very personal interpretation, because my next novel could be a work around the figure of my grandfather. He was considered a kind of prophet locally. He’d say some things that would happen years and years later. Every time I went back to Senegal, I’d see aunts and uncles and other family members and people of my village who would always say to me, you should write about your grandfather. So, I decided to see to that. He prophesied that one of his grandsons would become a writer…
KR: So, it’s a circle?
MMS: Maybe I come from that the prophecy. I will see how I can deal with this idea of prophecy in a literary, poetic way.
KR: Did you meet your grandfather?
MMS: No, he died some years before my birth. There are many legends, myths, stories people tell me about him, which no one can verify, but they describe an exceptional man, someone really strange, really joyful, but also really scary. I will try to describe him in the book. But this is also about questioning the act of writing… one of the topics is memory, the timeline. Literature is always a type of time architecture.
KR: Your work is often on the topic of memory…
MMS: Writing is always an attempt to go deeply into our memory, a way of giving structure or – on the contrary – to deconstruct time. I deeply believe that what interests us human beings the most is not the future, but the past. We are going toward our future, we are progressing… but what preoccupies us the most is not what is coming, but what has happened. In that way, literature is an investigation of time.
KR: For the project Arbeit am Gedächtnis – Transforming Archives at the Academy, you participated in the discussion “Rewriting Memories”. There, you were talking about a language game called ñaangooj…
MMS: Learning about the genealogy of our ancestors has always been done through that kind of play, as a way to teach young children their family history and how he or she is related to that family. And it’s also used as a way to stimulate young minds. I had this as a child with my mother, my grandmother, and many aunts. It is used as a way to teach the child to tell very simple stories and tales and to play with language.
KR: Is it a female tradition?
MMS: Most of time it is a tradition held by women. Indeed, I come from a culture in which mainly the women recount history, memory. So maybe it’s not the prophecy of my grandfather, but it is the tales, the narratives told by women that taught me how to tell stories.
KR: What would you say are your expectations for literature?
MMS: My expectations for literature are very high and also very humble. I expect everything from literature: the truth and revelation, I also expect to learn something deep and secret about our human condition. But at the same time, I know it is a game, it is not serious. I must not expect too much from literature, because if you expect too much from literature, it gives you not that much… I am in between: High expectations and no expectations. And this might be a definition of literature.
*1990 in Dakar, lives in Paris
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr was born in Senegal and went to college and high school at a military institute. He studied studied literature and philosophy in Paris and focused on postcolonial and de-colonial works and thoughts. He has published three novels so far; all of them question the complexity of some contemporary situations, in various places (terrorism in West Africa; hospitality (or not) towards immigrants in Sicily; homosexuality in Senegal). One could say that those novels focused on a political and social approach. Is current obsession is more with literature: its power, possibilities, failures, secrets. What do (my) people expect from a writer and what do I expect from literature?More about Mohamed Mbougar Sarr