Who Were We, You and I? A Letter to Our Past

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

I’ve always thought that it wasn’t necessary to explain to someone you’re leaving why you’re going; that all you had to do was simply get up and answer the call of the road ahead of you. And yet I’m writing this letter to you. I’m sure that these lines are not announcing either a break-up or a farewell. Tthey explain nothing, and they don’t explain themselves: they simply describe my resurrection. They are saying “This is your first step ‒ the hardest one of all ‒ on the unknown road.” The truth is that it’s not you I’m writing. You’re just a pretext; after being my fear, my shame and my judge, you are now nothing more than a wordless correspondent, an interlocutor surrounded by mist: the past.

I don’t want to enclose you in it. Anyway, that would be impossible, because you would immediately escape. The past isn’t a prison. If it were, memories wouldn’t make anyone suffer. Nobody would be concerned about having any memories; people would only think about the present and the future. But this is not the case, and we’re thinking about the past; in a way, that is all we’re thinking about. When each one of us asks the basic question “Who am I?”, we’re not addressing either the present or the future. Instead, we’re addressing our past ‒ even if we sense that we won’t always find a satisfactory answer there. So I’m turning to our past, and asking it: “Who were we, you and I?”

We belonged to that intimidating and prestigious family in which everyone dreamed of being a member: the family of Good. We respected all its demands, even the loftiest, and we could legitimately claim to be exemplary representatives of it. You, especially. Do you remember how thoroughly we would condemn people who strayed from the path of virtue? Do you think about the faces of the people we abandoned, denounced and humiliated to win the recognition of the family? For my part, yes I do think about them, but instead of their faces, it’s mine ‒ my own face ‒ that I see. If I were to return to our past, I would be what we despise the most: a figure of Evil. But I would be proud of it. I would be proud of having become what you now see me as. I’m an incarnation of Evil. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt recently, it’s that in our country, and many other countries on this earth, Evil is not the opposite of Good.

This is something that we should have taught our children. But it’s too late. We won’t see them again now. Or if we do, it won’t be for a long time, and by then they will have forgotten even our faces, even the fact that we gave them life. And we’ll deserve it. They will hate us or forget us, and this will be the proof ‒ what tragic irony ‒ that they apply to the letter the upbringing that we gave them. We raised them with a specific idea of Good; an idea that I have today betrayed, and which you have also betrayed. But your betrayal cost you your life and saved mine.

I remember quite well the event which caused an upheaval in our world. One day, in the street, we crossed paths with someone. We were in the restaurant with Adja and the children, happy, and playing as usual at being examples of a respectable family, caricatures of accepted Good. And then, while we were waiting for dessert, someone came in and sat down beside us. The whole restaurant looked at this person with what was not only surprise and curiosity but also an indescribable mixture of repulsion and admiration, anger and fascination. We all looked at this figure, and our eyes said to it: “What kind of being are you and who is allowing you to disturb us so?” In a few seconds, without uttering a word, through the mere fact of being there, alone but so noticeable, that person had entered our private lives like a scandal, or like a fire lighting up our pallor and our illusions.

You’re playing the part to perfection, perhaps, but you’re not happy, and some of you never will be.” That’s what that person’s whole body was saying to us. I remember ‒ do you remember as clearly? ‒ the confusion that person created in each one of us. For some, it was even a malaise, a discomfort that was all the heavier because they didn’t know what the deep-seated cause was. Yet the origin of that disturbance seems to me, today, to be easily identifiable. All of us, Adja, the children, you and me, yes, all of us knew why that person sitting beside us caused a strange feeling as soon as it entered. It was impossible, even looking at the figure for many long seconds, to be sure if that person was a man or a woman.

In truth, that figure was both at the same time. Not because both genders appeared in its features, clothes and attitude ‒ there are undoubtedly effeminate men and masculine women ‒ but because you felt, as soon as you looked at that person, that he or she was both genders inside itself. It wasn’t because of the figure’s physical appearance; it had to do with the certainty that that person was assuming a twofold belonging, an ambiguity, a refusal to be pigeonholed. Deep inside me, once the first seconds of scandal had passed, I found that person instantly seductive. But, as ever, I held my tongue. As ever, I obeyed the demand we had set for ourselves of being faces of Good. He or she was altogether the kind of person one should despise. Adja didn’t hold back. Obeying her tongue, she uttered a smouldering remark: “Another one of those men-women who deprave our society and its children. May God fill hell with their impure dead bodies!”

She had spoken loud enough for the person to hear her. The figure turned its head towards us. We stared it in the eye ‒ always that stubborn and elusive impression that the person was a woman in a man’s body, and vice versa. His/her beauty; I recall its pure beauty under the kapok tree offering shade in the restaurant’s courtyard. It lasted only a moment. Then s/he smiled before getting to her feet and left the way s/he had entered, in a stride full of elegance. I will never forget that person’s smile (nor will you). For us, everything started right there, with that smile. When the person left the restaurant, I saw in the eyes of all the restaurant’s customers a sort of huge relief, or the feeling of a victory (but a victory over what?) You, too, your face had a triumphant look on it; you comforted the children who seemed dumbfounded by the apparition that had just left the restaurant; you congratulated Adja for having dared to speak when everyone else, yourself included, was petrified by disgust.

The dessert arrived, which you gobbled, looking full of moral satisfaction. But deep down inside you, there remained the feeling that you had silenced: that of having been seduced by that person who had taken flight because of the aggressiveness of your wife, Adja, and the looks of the empire of Good. Deep down inside you, I was there. I was already there. I didn’t have a body as yet, I existed as a buried desire, or like a radioactive well buried beneath the full weight of Good, and appearances, But I was already there, in you. You could try as you might to stifle my voice for many long years, and double your zeal in the struggle for Good, in these last few years you felt more and more that the Evil you were fighting so fiercely was in you. Was you. Nobody realised that you were struggling against yourself. You lived in silence and shame, and nobody knew it. You were clever enough to hide it. Nobody ever suspected your extreme intransigence. Nobody ever guessed that, behind it, there lay loneliness and fear. I alone knew it, because I am you, or rather, I was.

Who were we, you and I? An unhappy man because of the heavy secrets he was keeping. That’s who we were. Then there was that man-woman who appeared in our life. I started to live at that very moment, and you began to wither at that very moment. But you had to fade for me to finally appear, that is to say, that you are finally appearing, in your naked truth.

Then what came to pass? That which happens when a human being gives birth to a long-hidden truth: the singular experience in which freedom, solitude, suffering, and courage are all mixed. You have given away more and more signs of your real face. You have started to deviate from the regular path. Everyone has noticed it. You have started not to give two hoots about it. People have begun to have doubts. You discovered the intoxication of what you used to condemn. One day, after tramping through the city streets, you ended up finding the magnetic apparition in the restaurant. You spent a night together. Adja had you followed. You were surprised, and you became a scandal, a shame all the greater because your reputation had been based on your exemplarity. You were banned, insulted, and hounded. You went into exile in your shame, but a shame which I am proud of today.

You miss your children. Sometimes you think about them, and you cry. Someone must have told them that their father no longer exists, that he has decided not to remain a man and become a woman. They hate you. They hate me. We would like to see them again and hug them in our arms, weep unashamedly before them and, between our tears, tell them that the opposite of Good is not Evil, but Lies. And that I no longer want to lie.


Translated from French by Simon Pleasance

*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?

Berlin Fellowship

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