Translation by Sara Hanaburgh.
This interview originally appeared in Slate Afrique, les blogs.
Tall and elegant with a scarf around his neck, Gaston-Paul Effa’s silhouette is a familiar sight under the tents of the biggest book fairs, from Saint-Dié in the Vosges Mountains to Saint-Malo in Brittany to Paris and Bamako. With his composed voice and professorial tone, Gaston-Paul Effa seduces as much with his spirited pen as he does with his wide smile and diverse cultural makeup (Fang, Cameroonian, Alsatian, Francophone). There is some Senghor in Effa, the same concern for words and fine food – and that’s a compliment coming from me. Besides, Je la voulais lointaine* is a very good genealogical novel.
What’s cooking, Gaston-Paul Effa?
I am fortunate enough to need very little sleep. Four hours since I saw the light of day. Add to that my whacky habits, like waking at 4am… This manufacturing defect was a nightmare for my parents who tried to exorcise me when I was six months old, thinking that an evil spirit was keeping me from sleeping. The child that I was then must have already been setting his eyes on books, focusing on the source from where light emerges. Today, it is writing, perhaps, that sets me free and has taught me, finally, to live the life of a man.
Novelist, professor of philosophy and restaurant owner? You succeed in all of these roles. What’s your secret recipe?
My different activities are complementary; each enriches the other. Philosophy was born in the kitchen; the novelist is nourished by words and between fine food and words, the same meat is minced…We don’t cook in a suit and tie; we wear an apron, and we make simple things, basic things. The uniform? A simple apron and rolled-up sleeves…The literary vocabulary is full of culinary terms and the inverse is also true: “devour a book,” “taste the words,” “savor a sentence”… we also say “read a dish,” “decode a wine.”
In several books now, you often evoke the animist beliefs and practices of your Fang ancestors. Is this a late discovery or are you speaking to something that was always present inside of you? Is it a philosophy, a religion or something else entirely?
Everything exacerbates the misunderstanding—one that is so deeply ingrained, almost unanimously in people—that animism today still comes from primitive thought. And the general discussion is about either how to destroy it or bring it back. It is true that when people speak of animism, they privilege a pejorative aspect of it as if talking about a religion that was immature. It wouldn’t occur to anybody to consider it a form of bastardized Shintoism, and yet we’re talking here about the same thing. A return to the source, a philosophy of nature… a return to being… I especially like the expression by the poet, Philippe Jaccottet: “We must seek the god lost in the grass.” Mine is not a late discovery, it’s just more accepted. This return to the simple, to being, is noticeable in poetry, and in a certain literature as well, and even in political ecology. Everything has always been there, and it is nothing but an appropriate return to Tradition.
Animism can make it possible to recognize that hard aspect at the core of you, which has always existed and lives on when all else has disappeared. Verlaine says: “I know every lark that comes and goes.” The animist is he who manages to push this small narrow door that wavers in one’s being and to walk in the garden of things and of beings. The animist writer writes from his gut.
Your last novel Je la voulais lointaine, has a certain sweetness and tenderness. Is it an autobiographical narrative? A roman à clef with recognizable characters like the French philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe?
A novel is always a condensed version of where life meets the imaginary. Obama, a paper character, feeds off of my story, my anguish, my dreams…It’s become a common space to repeat that sentence by Flaubert: “Madam Bovary is me.” But that is true for every writer. We write things and we are born out of them.
A word about the title of your novel, which is rather witty?
For a long time I distanced myself from Africa as if celebrating the European skies would make another man of me. Since, I’ve come to understand that it’s simply about living as a man, accepting one’s differences and contradictions. Perhaps one needs to step away from things in order for them to reassert themselves? Obama, the narrator, states: “Makambo mimbalé na mokiri.” The heart of Africa began beating in me at the very moment when I wanted it to be far away. Now, I am managing to tie the threads of my life together: the black of my origins with the white of my destiny, to celebrate the marriage between two continents.
People had always praised your classical writing, for being well researched, poetic and musically balanced. Do you think that Francophone writers (yourself included) exert a particular effort to write well? Do they prepare the dish that is the French language differently?
Yes, “la francophonie” (being a part of a collective of multiple countries that speak French) means that the French language beats inside the body of a foreigner. Francophone writers’ feelings towards the language are much more honed than the French. They appropriate the language, deconstruct it, undercut it and quite often allow the French to rediscover their so-called mother tongue. The Francophone writer is thus a translator of words, a translator of their meaning.
You go back and forth between Africa, France and the rest of the world. What perspective, new, if possible, do you have on our continent? What is Africa’s place in these worlds?
That is an interesting question, but not an easy one to answer. Africa has a distinctive history. It’s a continent that oscillates between misery and celebration. The role of the writer is to reinvent his earth, to bring back its magic. No one can deny that the future of the human being will be rebuilt from and with Africa. This is already evident in literature in which writers considered of the new generation, like yourself, Waberi, or Mabanckou, have liberated yourself from the old wounds in order to explore a new continent.
* The novel has not been translated into English. An tentative translation for the title would be A Wish to be Far Away.
Abdourahman A. Waberi was born in Djibouti in 1965 and has lived in France since 1985. He is the author of Passage of Tears, In the United States of Africa and The Land Without Shadows amongst numerous other books, articles, and stories. J. M. G. Le Clézio recognized and paid tribute to Waberi in his 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature lecture. He is the recipient of several awards including Stefan-Georg-Preis 2006, Heinrich-Heine-Universität, the Grand prix littéraire d'Afrique noire in 1996 and the Prix biennal « Mandat pour la liberté » - offered by PEN France, 1998. In 2005, he was chosen amongst the “50 Writers of Future” by French literary magazine Lire. Waberi is currently teaching literature and humanities at the Claremont Colleges in California. You can follow him on Twitter @AAWaberi, check out his website and his blog posts in French on Slate.fr.
Sara Hanaburgh is a scholar of African literatures and cinemas. She received her PhD from the City University of New York where she focused on the contemporary African novel and film (1980s to present) from the sub-Saharan Francophone region. Her work argued that as artistic responses to the human effects of economic globalization on the continent, the most extreme effects of the current “global” order reinforce notions of a sexualized, racialized or ethnicized “Other.” In addition to ongoing research, she is presently translating a novel by the late Gabonese author, Angèle Rawiri, into English. She teaches French at Fordham University.