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Véronique Tadjo: Discussion with an African Voice

Véronique Tadjo's novels evoke Africa's vivid myths, daily life and tragedies. Born in the Ivory Coast, this artist and writer is also a respected academic heading the French department at the School of Literature and Language Studies of Wits University (Johannesburg). As she is preparing for the exciting new literary festival Open Book Cape Town in September, IntoFrench sought her opinion about topics as diverse as the use of French in Africa, the importance of writing about disasters and the state of South-African literature.

 

You write in French about Africa. Is French an African language?

Technically speaking, French is not an African language. I would rather say it is a language of Africa, as it was brought on the continent through colonization. The French language was imposed by force, one has no other choice but to learn it – remember the famous quote “our ancestors are the Gauls” that black pupils were forced to repeat, or the ban of all native languages in the playgrounds. When independence occurred however, most of the new political elite kept French as the official language. Today I would say that despite a sorrowful past, French has found its place in the contemporary life in Africa. It is true that “la francophonie” – the idea of a francophone area i.e.– has gained ground but in the same time, particularities linked to different African realities have arisen. There are now several “African French” that we could compare to the “pidgin English” of Nigeria and Liberia.

Your novels evoke Africa through its darkest tragedies (The Shadow of Imana), its myths (Queen Pokou) or by more personal means (Away from my Father). How difficult is it to write about Africa?

Our past is made of joy and sorrow; trying to escape our sorry memories cannot be a solution. As a writer, I wish to remain as clear as possible about the events that distress our world. Rwanda's genocide concerns each one of us for example. Therefore, when I wrote The Shadow of Imana, I wanted to create a text that would be a space of memory without giving way to “afro-pessimism”. Queen Pokou aims at something different. Taking a strongly influential legend as a starting point, I revisit the “oral tradition” because it is important to question some of the ideological message that can lead us backwards. In both these texts, as in Far from my father which is about personal responsibility, I hope I succeeded in showing that African cultures are lively and powerful and that they bear the answers to the challenges we face.

You live in Johannesburg, where you head the department of French studies of the University of Witwatersrand. What do you think of contemporary South-African literature?

I love to teach. From this privileged position, one can advocate multicultural dialogue and foster the exchange of ideas between cultural spheres, such as the francophone and anglophone ones. I think that South-African contemporary literature is in the process of defining itself. Under Apartheid's rule, it was politically committed as its foremost goal was the denunciation of the oppressive system. Now that democracy has arrived, writers try to guess which path the country will follow. Their works reflect the expectations of the people swinging between the idea of a rainbow nation and the difficulty of living together. South-African literature is rich and diverse, but it has not yet found its potential readership.

More about Véronique Tadjo:

With an African father and a French mother, Véronique Tadjo grew up in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Abidjan and a doctorate from the Sorbonne (Paris) in African American Literature and Civilization. Her PhD thesis was about the process of acculturation of African Americans through slavery. In 1979, she went to teach English at the Lycée Moderne de Korhogo (secondary school) in the North of Ivory Coast. In 1983, she went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. on a Fulbright research scholarship. She subsequently became a lecturer at the English department of the University of Abidjan until 1993 when she started writing full time. She took up writing and illustrating books for children in 1988 with her first book Lord of the Dance, an African retelling. Her second book, Mamy Wata and the Monster won the Unicef Award in 1993 and has been published into 8 dual language editions. It is also on the list of the 100 Best African Books of the Century.

On the inspiration behind her written and drawing, she says: “I follow the African tradition of storytelling which gives me a great freedom of interpretation of our myths and legends. I am interested in preserving the richness of our cultural heritage for the generations to come. Many of us live in big African urban centres or in the diaspora and are increasingly losing contact with oral traditions. One after the other, our stories and mythical characters are disappearing. Instead of lamenting this phenomenon, I feel it is my role as a writer and as an artist to fight against alienation and amnesia.” In 2005, her novel Reine Pokou, concerto pour un sacrifice (novel) was awarded Le Grand Prix Littéraire d´Afrique Noire.

She has lived in Paris, Lagos, Mexico City, Nairobi and London. She is currently based in Johannesburg and will attend the new literary festival Open Book Cape Town in September.

Interview by Hadrien Diez

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