Necklace of beaded messages
Sunday Independant October 18 2009 Edition 1
Veronique Tadjo, the author of As the Crow Flies, is head of French at the School of Literature and Language Studies at Wits University. Born in Paris, she was raised and educated in Cote d'Ivoire.
Among her publications are novels, poetry collections and children's books. As the Crow Flies, originally A Vol d'Oiseau, was translated from the French by Wangui wa Goro, a Kenyan writer and translator in 2001.
Tadjo says in an interview that this was her first book of stories. A first edition of The Flight of the Crow was published in the Heinemann Africa Writer's Series.
The author "would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end. But... lives mingle, people tame one another and part. Destinies are lost."
This is her message in a preface to the reader. Tadjo says that her work is "not experimental". She describes her book as "a necklace. Each story is a bead. It requires a second reading, a thread that goes through all the stories - I think this thread is love."
She begins with a poem: "If you want to love/Do so/To the ends of the earth/With no shortcuts/Do so/ As the crow flies."
Tadjo says: "I have an aversion to telling a story in a linear form. I prefer not to, because I think that is not how it happens in our heads."
She refers me to the blurb. "The reader travels across the borderless landscape composed of tales of daily existence, news reports, allegories and ancestral myths becoming aware in the course of the journey of the interconnection of individual lives."
She says: "The book is about life, different lives in different places in different states, but when you remove the concept we are just bare human beings, experiencing the hardship of life, making love for the last time before you die."
She says that in her stories, there are no specifics: "There is the girl, the man, magician, the boy: these could be all aspects of the self."
Is it like a dream?. "No, because some of it is very much rooted in reality. At times you have bits of dreams because of the story, because they come from myths.
"This book has been called a nouveau roman (new novel) - but it is not the new roman."
She is talking about the 1950s French novel that broke with traditional novelistic genre, and its obedience to plot-driven action.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, a theorist who wrote in this genre, said he wanted to see a novel focused on objects: "The ideal nouveau roman would be an individual version and vision of things, subordinating plot and character to the details of the world."
Tadjo says her method is close to the old African tradition in which several genres, including poetry, myth and the oral tradition, are mixed. "There is always room for your own interpretation."
What do you want from your reader?
"I believe in readers being active participants... I want them to continue the stories (where I leave off). I think literature is about breaking the rules.You read the book and you 'get' some of the stories and don't 'get' others. That does not bother me, as I am from a culture where you grow with books.
"The stories in As the Crow Flies are what you make of them. At times the thread that holds them is intimate, at others it is political and responsible.
"Sometimes I can have a political speech, warning of disaster. For me, writing is about freedom and you use whatever means are at your disposal.
"Chapter One, part VII, for instance, says only: 'There are no frontiers'."
This is as much a binding theme as is the idea of love in the "necklace" woven by Tadjo. Her work is elusive, challenging, different. Its messages are several, but its chief urging is its reader's enjoyment.
BOOKS THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE TO Véronique Tadjo
O Mag South Africa, November 2010
The writer and artist is drawn to works that lead her to cross borders and encounter "the Other."
As children growing up in Abidjan, in Côte d'Ivoire, my brother and I were fortunate to have a library in our family home. My father read a lot because of his work in the civil service, and my mother was an artist, so we were surrounded by a variety of books.
But while my brother was reading the latest popular series as an adolescent, I was drawn to poetry. For me, the genre is full of possibilities. It offers a lot of freedom, and I am convinced that everybody is sensitive to poetry at one point or another. It's no surprise, then, that my first book was a collection of poems, Latérite (RedEarth).
My desire to write the anthology was triggered in the desert, on the journey I made back to Côte d'Ivoire after completing my doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris. Travel is hugely important to me, and it features a lot in my writing. I see the world as an island, and what happens when you find yourself stranded on an island? You start discovering where you are. I've lived in England, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria and, now, in South Africa, and I've learnt about each place I've stayed through its literature. Like the books that have most impacted on me, I want my writing to help readers go into previously unknown territories.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My mother read this to me as a child of about 7. It's about an encounter be tween an aviator and the young prince of a distant planet. 'What made an impression on me was that it wasn't a linear story, and the drawings: I remember being struck by the realisation that you can just draw whatever you like. As an adult, I was approached to write and illustrate a children's book by a publisher concerned that there were not enough of these by African authors. I've never turned back. It's so important to give young people texts they can identify with.
By Albert Camus
I read this as a teenager, and it is probably my best book of all time. Camus's simple, but powerful use of language creates an atmosphere that is both ordinary and extradorinary [sic]. Although the novel has its defects - for instance, it is set in Algeria, yet his vision of the Arab world is underdeveloped - I appreciate how he focusses [sic] on the benign details of life to reveal the big picture.
SONG OF SOLOMON
By Toni Morrison
This was my introduction to Black American literature, which became the focus of my PhD. In this, and in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, I was drawn to the themes of Blackness and of being in a transition. As an African in Paris, coming from a traumatic past and being a minority in society really resonated with me. Morrison's use of language was a real eye-opener. In textured prose, she renders the flavour of Black American culture, and that is something African writers have grappled with.
Her favourite stanza of poetry:Listen more often to things than to beings
Hear the fire's voice,
Hear the voice of water.
Hear, in the wind, the sobbing of the trees.
It is the breath of the ancestors.
-From "Breath" by Senegalese poet Dirago Diop [sic]
(translated by Samuel Allen)
By Marguerite Duras
I really enjoyed this beautiful love story, which was later developed into a film. The main character (known only as "the young girl") retells the story of the illicit affair she had with a Chinese man, in French colonial Vietnam, when she was a teenager. But it's only at the end, when she receives a phone call from this man, and suddenly everything comes back to her, that you realise the story was a flashback. I liked that idea of spending life with love wedged into you; it's just there, even though you're not doing anything with it. Not all of your stories will develop till the end, but they're still there - there's still a richness that makes you who you are.
By Lewis Nkosi
Dumisani, a young Zulu boy growing up during apartheid, is obsessed with Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter. Dumisani wants to emulate him in ever way, hut particularly in his relationships with women, as he believes his hero is a highly seductive man. All goes well, until Mandela is captured and imprisoned on Robben Island. This dramatic event renders Dumisani impotent for 27 years. What I particularly like is how Nkosi puts enough distance between facts and fiction to create a story that is both light and thought-provoking.
PORTRAIT WITH KEYS
By Ivan Vadislavic
My writing involves a lot of research, and since I'm working on a book set in Johannesburg, this title took my interest. Vladislavic's book is like an impressionist painting: He uses short snippets - one brushstroke here, one there - to build a large canvas. This ties in with my current project, looking at migrants and what they carry in their cultural baggage. Joburg has many layers that are still not integrated, so it can be difficult to navigate in its midst.
The year 1994 was, as in the words immortalised by Charles Dickens, "the best of times, and it was the worst of times".
Ten years ago, South Africans were ululating in the streets as Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first democratically elected President. The world watched, and smiled. But in another place, the world also looked on - as neighbour turned against neighbour, husband slaughtered wife, and swollen rivers hushed the screams of thousands of dead. The country's name will be forever soaked in blood: Rwanda. Writer and poet Veronique Tadjo went to Rwanda when everyone else's eyes were on "the good news" of South Africa because, in her words, she wanted to make sense of the numbing images on her TV screen; of black bodies piled like haystacks; of one particular blurred, out-of-focus image that disturbed her for months afterwards - of a man laying into the head of another with a machete.
What she wanted to answer was a question that has burned in the minds of many writers, from Primo Levi to Antjie Krog: What turns ordinary people into killers?
In the Shadow of Imana is a deeply personalised account of the otherwise ordinary lives of the people affected by the Rwandan genocide. Though hundreds of accounts have been penned on the subject, few strike such a deeply personal nerve. The book is less a clinical, factual account than it is a voice for the men and women who survived the genocide, who fled it, who wrote of it and - significantly - who took part in it.
In her preface, Tadjo writes: "Occasionally someone will reveal a secret to you that you have not asked to know. Then you are crushed under a burden of knowledge too heavy to bear. I could no longer keep Rwanda buried inside me. I needed to lance the abscess..."
Tadjo, who's from the Ivory Coast, has lived in South Africa for the past two years - or rather, she has been "observing" the invisible threads between the pasts of this country and Rwanda. She has not been scanning the skies for the signs of genocide, but trying to make sense of what she believes to be far more than mere assumption - "if it could happen there, it could happen again, anywhere else, maybe even here. It was not just one nation lost in the dark heart of Africa that was affected."
This week Tadjo will participate in the publishing forum at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, an annual gathering of some of Africa's top literary minds. The aim of the forum is to examine what 10 years of democracy have meant to publishing and writing in South Africa. It is inevitable that Tadjo will be asked, as she has been in recent radio and newspaper interviews, about the "lessons" South Africa can learn from the Rwandan experience.
Tadjo writes that she had to "go beyond the facts and figures and quick images" of Rwanda to realise that behind every issue, there is a person. "These were people, they had their lives, their loves, their dreams and disappointments. My job is to recreate those lives - to resurrect the dead." Her book cautions against the assumption that a hatred fomented by, and based on, ethnicity or race will never resurface in South Africa. "There will be someone who will think they got away with it in the past, maybe they can get away with it again..."
More implicitly, though, Tadjo warns, we should never assume that our past is dead and buried simply because we, like Rwanda, have had "reconciliation".
When reggae maestro Peter Tosh sang, "Everyone's crying out for peace, none is crying out for justice", his lyrics prophesied a time when a previously unrepresentative government would be replaced by "the government of the people" - but also a time when addressing the hurts of the past would, in some minds, be sacrificed on the altar of reconciliation; of a superficial brotherhood.
In the Shadow of Imana is not only about giving voice to the horror of the genocide; it is also at pains to show how Rwandans have come to grips with their past, trying to rebuild shattered lives in the midst of former oppressors who are not all "the devil incarnate" but "ordinary people, human beings, like you and me".
One of Tadjo's characters laments: "... and we will never have all the answers to our questions. We must punish those who deserve to be punished, those who began the reign of cruelty. But the others must be freed of the burden of guilt."
In post-genocide Rwanda, Tadjo has seen the evils of collective guilt. "You must realise how difficult it must be for someone in the wrong camp [of the same ethnic group as the violators of the past] to be seen always as a suspect," says Tadjo. "It is very difficult to bear, especially for the young ones. It also prevents people from seeing each other as people."
But this does not mean that we should "put a lid on these things too quickly".
In the case of Rwanda, the voices in Imana talk of how important it was for their psychological rebirth not only that justice was done, but that "victims have to feel that justice has taken place".
Though she supports the reconciliation process, Tadjo is not sure whether South Africa has reached a point where victims of apartheid feel that justice has taken place. It is less about punishing those "guilty" than it is about acknowledgement. "It should be recognised [by white South Africans] that they benefited from apartheid, and that they feel bad about it," she argues. Failure to do so brings with it long-term consequences - of a lack of closure; of a state of affairs where people will forever, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once noted, simmer in the maggot broth of memory. Writes Tadjo: "We should not close the door too quickly."
-Tadjo, Helon Habila, Chenjerai Hove, Antjie Krog, Zakes Mda and Gcina Mhlophe will be among those taking part in the Time of The Writer Festival, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban, March 22-27. For more information call the Centre for Creative Arts on (031) 260-2506.