The Jalada Conversations No 1. Richard Ali

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Translation by Edwige-Renée DRO


Welcome to the Jalada Conversations, these are conversations about literature and writing, and we talk to some of the continent’s most exciting and respected writers. To kick us off, Renée Edwige Dro speaks to Richard Ali A Mutu about Language, writing in Lingala and closing the gap between Francophone and Anglophone world via literature.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Richard ALI A MUTU KAHAMBO, better known under the name of Richard Ali lives in Kinshassa where he studied law. He has been selected for some literary prizes such as the Mark Twain Prize in November 2009. In 2011, his collection of short stories, Le Cauchemardesque de Tabu” was published by Mabiki and then by Mediaspaul Publishing in 2015. His novel, EBAMBA, Kinshassa-Makambo, written in Lingala helped him be selected by the Africa39 project as one of the best 39 young African writers in 2014. He is the founder and the president of the Association of Young Congolese Writers (AJECO), a TV presenter on literature and a copywriter consultant. He collaborates on different cultural projects both at national and international levels.

INTERVIEWER:

Richard, first of all, it is a pleasure for me to be doing this interview with you. The first time I heard of you it was when I saw your name on the Africa39 list of writers selected. What did you feel when you saw your name on that list?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

Oh thank you very much, my dear Edwige. Let me tell you however that I’m just as pleased as you are. So, I think I will be lying if I said that a shiver didn’t run down my spine – at least something like that – the evening (yes, it was an evening, my memory is still clear on that), that evening when I got the email letting me know and congratulating me on being among the 39 writers of the Africa39 project. Yes, I was quite happy and proud of myself. I think however that I had yet to grasp the significance of being among those who were chosen. It was much later, whilst reading the comments of the organizers, seeing the criteria used to choose the winners and speaking about it with some friends and elders that I finally realised that I had just written my name in another beautiful page of history, my history, the history of my country, the history of African literature and then, I became truly happy.

INTERVIEWER:

I sometimes say that if I were not connected to the Anglophone literary world, I would have perhaps missed the call for submission for the Africa39 project. How did you hear about the project?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

I think that your argument is true because the Francophone and the Anglophone spaces look as if they are doing their own thing, separately. Yet, we all write, we tell stories, we do the same job. It is quite uncommon to see something happening in the Anglophone world give a nod to the francophone world and vice-versa, unfortunately.

Unlike you who knew of the Anglophone world, with me, it was more the case that a few friends and acquaintances in my country and abroad knew that I was engaged in the promotion of writing in our national languages, and more specifically in my case, in Lingala. I would intervene sometimes in conferences where I would advocate for a literature in local languages and mentioning the fact that I was writing a novel in Lingala. That’s why when my publisher (Mabiki) heard of the project, the wife of my publisher did everything in her power in order that I be informed of the project so I could submit my work because both she and her husband were convinced that I met the criteria. That was three days before the closing date. And on my part, I informed a few friends whom I knew met the criteria.

INTERVIEWER:

You write in Lingala. During the PEN International workshop in Nigeria in October 2014, you mentioned that in the francophone world, we’d gone beyond this debate of writing in our African languages. Would you care to expand on this? And do you really think that is the case?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

You do have the memory of an elephant, my dear Edwige (lol). Yes, yes, I remember that day. In fact, it was because during the conversations, I noticed that you (I mean the Anglophone who were present) started with the problems of a literature in African languages. The francophone world, and this is a personal observation although it can be attested to, had started making concessions to minority languages; I mean local languages, African languages and Creole. That is the purpose of “Linguistic Diversity” acknowledged and promoted by the International Organisation of the Francophonie. To that, I will add the “Prix KADIMA” (KADIMA Prize) organised by the International Organisation of the Francophonie for writings in African languages and Creole. That’s why I said that we Francophone had reached a stage where that debate has become redundant. I think we are now at the stage of the conscience of any African writer: It is up to the African writer to pick up his pen and write in his language.

INTERVIEWER:

I’m happy to learn that your novel Kinshassa Makambo had the success it had because it was written in Lingala. Are there literacy projects in Lingala in the DRC and is that what helped with the success of your book?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

Thank you very much. However, so that we get it right (lol)… the title of the novel is “EBAMBA, Kinshasa Makambo”. However, it is not a major problem. Many people make that mistake so I’m not going to hold it against you. I have to be honest and say that the success of this book went beyond my expectations. That reinforced for me the conviction and the determination to keep on producing more work in Congolese languages.

Yes, there is a literacy project in Lingala in the DRC but not just Lingala; there are literacy projects for the four national languages we have in the country: Tshiluba, Kikongo, Swahili and Lingala. And if my memory is good, I think it was a pilot project put in place by the Francophonie which was called “ELAN Project” (ELAN is Schools and Languages) and the DRC is among some of the first countries beneficiaries of the project.

But, and this is where you might somewhat be surprised, this project or this policy did not contribute at all or make it possible in any way for my novel to know the success it did. I hope in the future that it might because I’m convinced that this project has a lot of future and will become a determining factor for our works in African languages. The child who learns to read in Lingala will be at ease and will expect and be happy to have a book in Lingala to read.

INTERVIEWER:

Are you the only writer who writes in Lingala?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

Oh no, not at all, not at all, my dear, do not be mistaken! I am not the only one to write in Lingala! (lol) Just imagine that huge continent country that is the DRC and the number of its populations and the number of people who speak Lingala who go beyond the frontiers of the DRC and for me to be the only one up to today to try this adventure… No, I’m not the only one. There have been people before us who’ve done that and others who write in Lingala like us who are not as well-known as us or are yet to be well-known (laughter). However, the truth is that we are quite few in investing ourselves in this adventure. The very first one, according to the history of Congolese literature, was a Belgian missionary, then came writings by Congolese that didn’t last very long so are not so well known. Where I’m concerned, it is the CEO of Mabiki Editions, Dr Bienvenue Sene who greatly supported me in this adventure. He is someone, an elder for whom I today have a lot of esteem in this area.

INTERVIEWER:

At Writivism 2015 in Uganda, we had a panel discussion on closing the gap between Francophone and Anglophone world via literature. First of all, do you think this is an important thing to do and then, do you have any solutions on how we go about that?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

Talking of “Gap”, I hope you mean the gap in terms of the non penetration of the two worlds in the literary sector… (laughter), it is just so I’m able to keep my answer concise. Yes, I think you did a good job to raise this problem with our friends in Uganda. I think it is a shame and also a regrettable state of affairs and what is more, it is that this situation has been there for a long time. Our generation arrived, saw the situation and I think it would be a major contribution for us to close the gap, because that can’t just continue. Our continent has a great wealth in terms of literary talents in whatever language you take: Anglophone, Lusophony, Francophone, Swahilophone, etc.

African writers have this tendency to lock themselves in the language in which they work when mixing stuff up would be much more enriching for them: mixing things up in terms of themes, styles, approaches, etc.

For me, this issue would be better resolved if we invested more in translation. Yes, translation is the first remedy in my opinion. Then, do more literary festivals where the two worlds can meet each other, see each other, feel each other, touch each other, speak to each other… And you might have noticed that up until now, I had avoided using your expression of two Africas: an Anglophone Africa and a Francophone Africa. It is so that that doesn’t start becoming the norm in our thinking because Africa, my sister, is one and must remain so. I think that the Port Harcourt Festival where we went (for the launch of the Africa39 anthology) can be used as an example. We need more of them and in every corner of Africa.

INTERVIEWER:

You are the president of the Association of Young Congolese Writers. In what shape is Congolese literature?

RICHARD ALI A MUTU:

Congolese literature is doing well. A new generation is rising up. New literary projects are being born. Writers in the diaspora and at home are not giving up, they are writing and continue to write despite everything. The Congolese literary torch has been lit again, not to say, has been revived. Otherwise yes, we recognise the fact that for more than a decade, our literature went through a kind of lethargy but that is now the past. Things are moving and quite fast since a few years now: this literature is coming back with a bang! Our association works hard to contribute to lighting up and keeping the lamps of this literature lit up! Trust me, you will hear about this and you will tell me…

INTERVIEWER:

Thank you


Edwige-Renée DRO is an Ivorian writer. In December 2013, after more than a decade in England, she made the decision to return to Côte d’Ivoire because she couldn’t be safely ensconced abroad and pretend to be contributing to the development of her country.

Edwige has had a number of short stories published on platforms like African Writers and in magazines like Prufrock, Prima, Ankara Press Valentine’s Day anthology. She is also a laureate of the Africa39 project, a project which selected 39 of the best writers under the age of 40 from sub-Sahara Africa.

Edwige is this year’s PEN International New Voices award winner and was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship 2014. As well as being a writer, Edwige works as a translator. She worked on the translation of Les Cités Fantastiques (The Fantastic Cities) a coffee-book featuring some poems and paintings by Werewere Liking.