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Culture

Thinking and Writing Africa

 

Born in Congo, Alain Mabanckou has written a rich literature in French. The multiple award-winning writer has developed a unique style where social issues in relation with the African continent are always tainted by a touch of self-derision.

 

Talking about Africa with humour

"I don't write for my pleasure, but to talk about the reality of my continent", said Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou. His work is translated in 15 languages and is a harsh description of Africa, often satirical, but always made with fondness. Depending on his mood, the writer prefers to go for poetry, novel, essay or tale for the young. This diversity is a good illustration of his novel "Memoirs of a Porcupine" (Renaudot award 2006), in which Mabanckou restyles with a touch of mockery the narrative codes of the fable to tell the African culture.

The writer, born in Pointe-Noire in 1966, uses literature to reject what he calls "afro-pessimism". The legacy of colonisation, the dictatorships, the Rwanda genocide, the Apartheid... to escape the past, Alain Mabanckou offers to think about the future.

In 2012 he said regarding "Sanglot de lhomme noir" (literally "The sobbing of the black man"), his last work, that the idea of his work is to "refuse to behave as a victim, as I can see among some of my black brothers, and to tell them: 'In order to build the present, stop dreaming of a mythical Africa, try to look at what is going on in front of you, because the world is changing, the world is evolving'".

Beyond identity rifts

Alain Mabanckou arrived in France at 22, after his law studies in Brazzaville. He started as a corporate lawyer before becoming a writer in 1993. Today, the novelist spends his life between France, Africa and the United States, where he teaches in the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).

Alain Mabanckou is often considered as a "writer of black francophonie", a title he strongly rejects. He is one of the issuers of the "Pour une littérature-monde en français" manifesto ("For a world-literature in French") published in 2007 and strives to push the Francophonie beyond identity rifts. "France is still wondering about binationals, but is unable to conceive a world in evolution and imagine itself as diverse, multiple and thus rich and great nation", he said in 2016.

The novelist refused to be published in the collection "Continents noirs" (Black continent) by Gallimard, saying humorously that he preferred the "White" collection, a name due to the colour of the cover. But Alain Mabanckou is neither an ideologist nor an activist. He is simply a storyteller, a lover of language and life hiding behind his quaint and funny characters to ask the social issues of black Africa.

Accepted in the Collège de France

On the 17th of March 2016, Alain Mabanckou opened in Paris the new chair of "Art creation" in the Collège de France. Many media covered the event: he was the first professor to join the Collège de France as writer.

His programme, entitled "Lettres noires : des ténèbres à la lumière" (Black letters: from darkness to light) offers a summary of African literature in French. During the opening event, Alain Mabanckou stressed the absence of African literature in France and oriented his thoughts on the role of the writer in a world tormented by ethnic conflicts. "In 1530, the year of the founding of the Collège de France, I did not exist as human being. By accepting me here, you continue your determination to fight obscurantism and call in the diversity of knowledge. But I would not have accepted the charge if it relied on my African origins".

Open, cosmopolitan, eclectic, skilful storyteller, aware to the most diverse trends of literature, Alain Mabanckou is also a sweet character. He is a critical ambassador to the promotion of French culture, in all its diversity.

 

Photos © Collège de France