Tadjo, Véronique 1955–
Véronique Tadjo 1955-
Côte d'Ivoirian novelist, poet, short story writer, prose writer, and author and illustrator of children's books.
Considered radical and innovative, Tadjo is a Francophone African writer who has published in a variety of genres, including short stories, poetry, novels, and children's literature. A painter as well, Tadjo often illustrates her children's books and has exhibited her artwork in solo and group exhibitions. Among her writings that have been translated into English are the novel A vol d'oiseau (1986; As the Crow Flies) and L'Ombre d'Imana (2000; The Shadow of Imana), about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 Tadjo was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire (The Grand Prize for African Literature) for Reine Pokou (2005; Queen Pokou), a novel about the legend of the mythical Queen Pokou and the establishment of the Baoulé kingdom, in present-day Côte d'Ivoire.
Born in Paris in 1955, Tadjo was raised in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, by her father, a civil servant, and her mother, a sculptor and painter. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Abidjan, then entered the Sorbonne, earning a doctorate in African American literature and civilization. In 1983 she attended Howard University in Washington D.C. as a Fulbright scholar, then later moved to the University of Abidjan, where she was a lecturer in the English department. In 1993 she became a full-time writer. She has traveled a great deal, including to Europe, the United States, Latin America, and West Africa, and has conducted workshops on such topics as literature for African youth and the illustrating of children's books. In 2000 and 2001 she served as a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing. She resides in South Africa.
In the nonlinear and fragmented As the Crow Flies, the reader is encouraged to interact with the text from the perspective of a bird in flight, which swoops down sporadically into any number of tales, voices, moods, locations, and situations—including world disasters as well as everyday occurrences. Made up of several vignettes and told in a stream-of-consciousness style, the novel imitates the ancient art of storytelling and takes its inspiration from the African oral tradition, which utilizes an assortment of genres. Two main themes prevail throughout the novel: the value of love, and the importance of responding to social concerns, especially the needs of the poor. In one surreal vignette, a man and woman desperately in love conceive a son, whom they lovingly nurture and guide toward a social mission. Having been raised to have faith in himself, the son descends into despondency as he experiences the spiritual, physical, and intellectual desolation of society. While in this state he falls in love with an asexual woman, who has no use for passion and intimacy. Desperate to possess her, he drugs, then sexually assaults her. Her resulting pregnancy triggers an apocalypse in which people become stones, and the world is plunged into darkness. The tale contemplates how human virtue fails even when cultivated under the most ideal of circumstances, and reveals the central role of women in society, suggesting that to betray a woman is to invite destruction. Another vignette centers on the oppressive state of society, focusing on an actor, who represents the populace, and his relationship with the "enlightened" of society, who promote creativity and generosity, and with the repressive political leaders, who dismiss the arts and wield the powerful weapon of censorship. Other tales depict the poor, the "wretched of the earth"; the emotional and physical repercussions of abortion; a failed love affair between an African woman and a married man from America; a young girl who befriends a disabled boy, who then shuns her; the sexual violations of women; and the relationship between an elderly magician and a young woman who craves the gift of everlasting joy. In all, the text calls on individuals—especially women—to examine themselves in order to undergo a personal transformation and thus empower themselves to preserve and protect the moral order of society.
In 1989 Tadjo was invited by Tchadian writer Nocky Djedanoum to join a group of African writers who were to visit Rwanda in order to record their literary responses to the country's 1994 mass murders, in which the government advocated the extermination of almost one million Tutsis. Tadjo details her two trips to Rwanda in the nonfiction The Shadow of Imana, focusing on her encounters with orphans, despondent survivors, and sexual assault victims, and reflects on her witness of the brutalized and tortured remains of the victims. A sense of inquiry pervades the work, as the author contemplates such matters as the notion of man's inhumanity to man, the seemingly insurmountable task of forgiveness among Rwandans, and how to find the appropriate words to describe such atrocities.
Having gained a reputation among French readers as an influential writer in the field of Francophone African literature, Tadjo has received a modest amount of critical attention among English-speaking scholars. Overall, she is recognized for her prose, which has been described as simple, poetic, and impressionistic. She is primarily lauded for the inventiveness of As the Crow Flies, which Irène Assiba D'Almeida called "one of the most original pieces of Francophone writing." Commenting favorably on such structural innovations as the blending together of several genres, the author's use of filmic techniques, and the novel's discontinuity and lack of a "typical" plot, some critics have focused on the sociopolitical criticism contained in the novel, pointing out that the narrator is a firm believer that social change must begin with the self-examination of the individual and that a return to traditional African beliefs and rituals can help cure society's ills. Others have lauded Tadjo's ability to achieve a sense of universality even while depicting individual characters and locations, and have singled out her emphasis on the importance of one's connection to his African culture and ancestry. The nonfiction work The Shadow of Imana has also generated critical discussion. Sonia Lee, for example, classified the book as "highly representative of the kind of Montaignean essay written by African women writers today," based in part on the fact that even though Tadjo visited Rwanda several years after the massacre, she considered herself connected with the tragedy because of the "collective memory" shared by all human beings. Claiming that Tadjo considered the act of writing The Shadow of Imana a political obligation, some critics have contended that the author felt it her duty to write about and thereby preserve the events of the horrific past so as not only to give a voice to the past, but also to combat apathy, and to offer an attempt at comprehending how such inhumane violence could come to pass. Other commentators have assessed Tadjo's literary style in the work, finding it stark and somber, and have speculated that she utilized this spare style in order to deal with the atrocities and cope with her own raw emotional response.
Latérite (poetry) 1984
A vol d'oiseau [As the Crow Flies] (novel) 1986
La Chanson de la vie et autres histoires [and illustrator; The Song of Life and Other Stories] (children's short stories) 1989
Le Seigneur de la danse [and illustrator; Lord of the Dance: An African Retelling] (for children) 1989
Le Royaume aveugle [The Kingdom of the Blind] (novel) 1990
Mamy Wata et le monstre [and illustrator; Mamy Wata and the Monster] (for children) 1993
Grand-mère Nanan [and illustrator] (for children) 1996
Champs de bataille et d'amour: Présence Africaine, Paris, and Les Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes [Battlefields and Love] (novel) 1999
A mi-chemin (poetry) 2000
L'Ombre d'Imana: voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda [The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda] (prose) 2000
Talking Drums: A Selection of Poems from Africa South of the Sahara [editor and illustrator] (children's poetry) 2004
Reine Pokou: Concerto pour un sacrifice [Queen Pokou] (novel) 2005
Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa [editor and illustrator] (short stories) 2008
Irène Assiba D'Almeida (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: D'Almeida, Irène Assiba. "W/Riting Change: Women as Social Critics." In Francophone African Women Writers: Destroying the Emptiness of Silence, pp. 123-68. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.
[In the excerpt that follows, D'Almeida offers a detailed reading of the structure, themes, and subject matter of A vol d'oiseau, commenting specifically on what the critic calls the novel's "femino-centric perspective" on social and political issues.]
Véronique Tadjo, a poet and novelist from Côte d'Ivoire, entered the literary world with Latérite, a book that can be read either as a collection of poems or as a single long poem.1 Her first novel, A Vol d'oiseau [As the Crow Flies ], is one of the most original pieces of Francophone writing, and one that defies easy classification. It is surely a "text" in the primary meaning of the word, that is, "something woven." Tadjo's cloth is patterned from ninety-two independent yet related pieces, most accurately described as vignettes, that can stand on their own or be put together to form an immense appliqué representing an African social reality.2 The vignettes are written mainly in prose, but Tadjo's language is never far from poetry, and here it exhibits her ability to use very simple words to create a superb poetic prose. The book comprises twenty-one chapters, each chapter containing a varied number of vignettes (one to eleven), ranging from one line to several pages in length, with each vignette assigned a roman numeral (I to XCII).
Like Werewere Liking, Véronique Tadjo often blurs the genres, and even within a genre she shows great originality in form and structure. In A Vol d'oiseau, there is no central figure, but a multiplicity of characters in different situations and belonging to different social classes. There is no single setting, but a variety of loci, no conventional plot, no real successiveness; only the main narrator serves as a unifying agent. This narrative technique, reminiscent of "stream of consciousness" and the nouveau roman, makes it possible for the writer to constantly shift directions, to move from one part of the world to another, to speak of the most diverse themes ranging from love and art to social and political issues. In addition, the vignette technique allows Tadjo to disregard the categories of time and space. She does not tell a story but a multitude of stories, some taken from personal life, news items, or reflections, some allegorical, constructed like a legend. Tadjo chooses to disregard chronology, which she views as artificial, distorted linearity and as a rearrangement of reality.3 The reader is given a glimpse of her poetics when she says: "Bien sûr, j'aurais, moi aussi, aimé écrire une histoire sereine avec un début et une fin. Mais tu sais bien qu'il n'en est pas ainsi" [Of course, I too, would have liked to write a peaceful story with a beginning and an end. But you know that it does not work that way] (2). Even though literature is an imaginary construct, it has bearing on a tumultuous reality, and Tadjo uses it as an avenue for social criticism aiming at social change.
Two major themes of A Vol d'oiseau appear on the opening page, which functions as a kind of prologue. The first has to do with the importance and power of love, and the second with commitment to self and society. The prologue commences with a short poem, containing the title of the book, which reads like an epigraph: it urges that love be important enough to warrant total commitment, and that once set on its path, one must go the whole way, straight ahead, as the crow flies. Perhaps the metaphor can be extended to include not only love, but every human action:
Si tu veux aimer
Jusqu'au bout du monde
Sans faire de détours
A vol d'oiseau
[If you want to love
To the end of the world
With no false detours
As the crow flies]
The beginning of the prologue is an invocation addressed to the reader in the second person tu, the informal, friendly form of "you." The usage of tu/you serves the phatic function of discourse by which the narrator maintains a constant contact with the reader, who is addressed directly and so drawn into the narrative.4
The second part of the prologue is written in prose rather than verse. It starts with the first person (je/I), then quickly moves to the second (tu/you), and back again to je/I. The recurrent use of the second person (tu/you) and its alternation with je/I complicates the relation between addresser and addressee. Indeed, according to various contexts, the tu/you refers to either the narrator/protagonist or the reader. The "I" is the producer of discourse, whereas the "you" is the receptor of the same discourse. Yet when the narrator says, "Tu dis en te regardant dans le miroir: ‘Je n'aime pas ce que je vois’" [In looking at the mirror you say, "I don't like what I see"] (2, emphasis added), there seems to be no difference between the "you" and the "I." Lafont and Gardès-Madray note: "Le passage dialectique du je au tu fait que tu est considéré … en je éventuel" [The dialectical passage from I to you results in you being considered … as a possible I] (93).5 This technique of pronominal interpenetration indicates how there can be in Tadjo's text a double addressee; the addresser and the addressee of her own discourse. The narrator/protagonist is speaking to herself even while speaking to the reader.6
The second part of the prologue describes a character looking into a mirror, loathing a self-reflection marked by weaknesses and failures. Tadjo suggests that in order to overcome shortcomings one must be able to imagine one's own decomposition, or to face the idea of being cremated. The word death does not appear in the text, but it is generated connotatively with enough force to become the unspoken presence, the oppositional force against which the narrator sets herself. This resistance requires tremendous courage and strength, qualities necessary to survive in the world and to combat the forces that would thwart her life. And she goes on to prophesy: "Ta force surgira de tes faiblesses éparses et, de ton humanité commune, tu combattras les tares érigées en édifices royaux sur les dunes du silence" [Your strength will come from your scattered weaknesses and with your common humanity you will fight the corruption rising like a royal edifice on the dunes of silence] (2). The eye/I that is looking in the mirror does not settle on an uncritical acceptance of self, but aspires to and works for transcendence and seeks to develop a character strong enough to fight for voice and freedom. The phrase "the dunes of silence" suggests that when people are silenced for too long, that silence, which in principle is an abstraction, an absence, becomes concrete, a presence. It accumulates and solidifies like sand dunes on which the corrupt elements of society can erect their monuments of lies and abuse. Speaking up is a way to end this destructive masquerade and dislodge the abusers from their "royal" authority.7
The two major impulses of the novel announced in the prologue are woven throughout the text, variations on the two significant sentences, "L'histoire de la misère se raconte" [The story of poverty must be told] (22) and "L'amour est une histoire qu'on n'arrête pas de conter" [Love is a story that one never ceases to tell] (53), that summarize the themes. There exists, however, a third dimension, inseparably intermingled with love and social concerns. It is the pervasive inscription of women's experience that signals a female-authored text and a femino-centric perspective on social reality.
Vignette LXIII, which forms the whole of chapter sixteen, beautifully encapsulates A Vol d'oiseau 's tridimensional orientation. Drawing inspiration from the cultural reservoir of orature, Tadjo invents a tale of a man and a woman who love each other so deeply that they decide to have a child. No sooner have they made the decision than the woman becomes pregnant, giving birth to a son before the end of the day. In this legend, the importance of love and the positive impact it can have on individuals is exemplified by the degree of feeling shared by the young man's parents. Their commitment to each other does not undermine their commitment to society, manifested in the way they raise their son, patiently preparing him for a social mission: to travel and to teach. They tell him, "Reconstruis les cités détruites par la violence et l'oppression. Laisse pousser l'herbe folle et n'écrase pas les nuages. Parleleur de l'eau qui ne tarit pas. Plonge ta main dans la terre et respire son odeur et surtout, surtout, crois en toi-même" [Rebuild cities destroyed by violence. Let wild grass grow and do not crush the clouds. Tell them about the water that does not dry up. Dip your hand deep into the soil and inhale its fragrance. Above all, above all, believe in yourself] (69-70).
This is a message of justice, creativity, hope, and self-reliance, all positive values, but difficult to act on in a world whose social fabric has been badly damaged. The young man finds that the city he travels to is a locus of extreme contradictions. Bright lights inundate the rich neighborhoods, and yet close by, there is nothing but mud and filth. People are dressed like royalty and parade their gold jewelry, but not far from them cripples in rags and abandoned children are a common sight. The teachings given by the young man's parents are difficult to pass on because skepticism and despair have settled in the city: "Le plus grave c'était que les habitants avaient perdu la foi. On parlait de liberté et de changement mais c'était des paroles inutiles. Personne n'y croyait" [What was most serious was that the people had lost faith. People talked of freedom and change but these were useless words. Nobody believed in them] (70). Indeed, the people have been deceived so many times with words emptied of meaning that they have lost all hope, becoming utterly apathetic. More devastating than physical destitution is the destitution of mind and spirit that becomes so contagious that the young man must fight to hold on to his own faith. Furthermore, he finds that the fulfillment of his mission is jeopardized by his own inability to establish contact with others, so that he soon feels estranged, suffering at the thought that he who was supposed to make a difference has become despondent like the rest.
He falls in love, but the relationship is very different from that of his parents because he and the woman he loves are very dissimilar people. The woman has a strong sense of who she is and of what she wants. She refuses to fit into accepted women's roles. Believing that what she can accomplish is limitless, she views love as secondary. She only agrees to a relationship with the young man to share a friendship: "Elle savait que ce qu'il disait faisait partie de la vie mais elle n'était pas prête. Il lui fallait encore du temps. Beaucoup de temps. Des années peut-être" [She knew that what he was saying was part of life, but she was not ready. She needed time. A lot of time. Years, perhaps] (71).
The young man does not have that patience. He is so taken by the woman, his desire so overwhelming, that one night he gives her a soporific drink, makes love to her, and conceives a child. The result of this betrayal is an extraordinary apocalypse: the world is plunged into profound darkness and silence, and people are turned into stone. The woman regaining consciousness immediately says: "Cet enfant n'est pas de moi. Il amènera le malheur" [This child is not mine. It will bring misfortune] (72). The young man, now panicked, places his hand on the woman's navel to see if the child is alive, but this touch unleashes a fury suggestive of nuclear disaster across the earth, laying waste the land and its people, as "un énorme nuage-champignon sculpta l'horizon incendié" [an enormous mushroom cloud was sculpted against the blazing horizon] (72).
This story is compelling in its force and effective brevity, and it illustrates some of the main ideological bearings of the novel. It is no accident that the young man was raised in the best possible conditions to fulfill his mission; similarly to Fall's Madiama, his failure indicates that the best conditions may not be sufficient to produce human virtue: something else is required. The young woman attempts to escape the stereotypical notion of womanhood, even disowning the child she is carrying because it was conceived against her will. Before that conception she had decreed that she had no gender, caring neither for skirts nor for breasts, significant symbols of rejection as they involve the semiotics of clothing and of gender difference. Most importantly, the story implies that to betray a woman, even in the name of love, is to risk total destruction, and Tadjo's surreal visions of the world's end emphasizes how the unhindered presence of women is vital to the survival of the cosmos itself. This deliberately grand vision of women's role and place in the world, though located at the phantasmagoric level of the tale, reflects the centrality given women in A Vol d'oiseau.
Tadjo's characters are generally nameless and often defined simply by their actions or function. The only exception to this is Akissi, and this is significant because Akissi is a woman, and she is going through an experience that affects women in the deepest way: an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion.8 Here, the use of a personal name specifies and makes intimate the vignette's action. In less than a page and with the economy of language characteristic of Tadjo's writing, the wide range of feelings agitating Akissi is evoked. Her unwillingness to accept this pregnancy is evident in her reaction to the transformations her body undergoes: "Jour après jour, elle sent ses seins gonfler. Son corps entier se transforme. Ele se voit devenir une autre. Elle ne comprend pas cette vie qui est entrée en elle et qui lui bouffe toutes ses forces. Elle n'est pas prête" [Day after day, she feels the swelling of her breasts. Her entire body is changing. She sees herself become another person. She does not understand the life that has slipped into her and is devouring all of her strength. She is not ready] (12).
In Akissi's case, pregnancy does not mean only a physical burden. It has serious psychological, emotional, and financial ramifications. The decision to terminate the pregnancy is in itself emotionally draining, all the more so because Akissi is forced into the back alleys filled with other women wanting to undergo the same operation. Like Ken Bugul in The Abandoned Baobab, Tadjo shows the common fate shared by all these women patiently waiting for their turn, alone (except for the man performing the abortion, men are conspicuously absent from the scene), turned into masks of stone, walled in by silence. And Tadjo makes this silence resound with unspeakable feelings generated by fear, by the anticipation of pain both physical and psychological, in an indifferent environment where no words are exchanged. Not the slightest sign of caring is shown here. On the contrary, it is a mere financial transaction, quick, cold, impersonal, made even more poignant as Akissi has to borrow the money for the operation. Tadjo does not speak directly for or against abortion. She simply presents a brief dramatization of a woman's experience that works very effectively to indict the laws of the land.
In other vignettes Tadjo describes more aggressively how the female body is constantly violated, even in public places. For the narrator, it happens in a movie theater where a fast and deft hand fondles her, painfully reminding her of a deeper wound—here again described with so few words as to heighten the drama: "Une main dans la pénombre d'un cinéma. Une main que je n'avais pas comprise. Une main qui prend la mienne. Brusquement, avec la musique du film, les paroles et le noir. Un pénis moite. Un homme qui se sauve. Une sensation irréparable" [A hand in the shadowy light of a theater. A hand that I did not understand. A hand taking mine. Suddenly with the music of the film, its words, the darkness. A wet penis. A man running away. An irreparable violation] (61).
The passage is spare but direct, disclosing clearly yet with calculated restraint how subject women are to casual molestation. The end of the vignette pinpoints the consequences of such acts for women: "an irreparable violation"; irreparable in the sense that it remains indelible. It can never be erased, only pushed into the recesses of memory, with the added agony that any similar occurrence may trigger the memory and make the woman live through the experience all over again, in pain and such rage that she is filled with the desire "de frapper, de casser un corps, d'anéantir une tête malade" [to hit, to smash a body, to destroy a sick mind] (61).
Worse still, the female body is violated irrespective of age or social competence. Even female children who are still too innocent to understand what is happening to them are the victims of such defilement, as Tadjo illustrates in the story of an older man and a girl still wearing a white and blue grade school uniform. Tadjo has the man entice the girl with candy, a double symbol of childhood and eroticism that he reinforces with sexual discourse: "Tiens, suce ce bonbon et ensuite embrasse moi" [Here, suck this candy and then kiss me] (32). His words and his actions leave no doubt that he is the seducer, yet in a cowardly reversal, while caressing her hair he compares her to Mamy Wata, the water goddess who in African mythology is the fatal seductress par excellence.9 Identifying her in this way he shifts the responsibility for his actions onto the female child. In the end, however, after he asks her to take her clothes off and as she lies naked, he finds he cannot go through with the act. He redeems himself at least slightly by saying: "Je ne peux pas. Tu es encore trop jeune" [I can't, you are still too young] (32). The girl's innocence is again transparent in her reply: "Trop jeune, pour quoi faire? … Pour quoi faire?" [Too young to do what? To do what?] (32).
Tadjo is clear that women must assert themselves, taking more control over their destiny, instead of being "des femmes repliées sur elles-mêmes, léchant leurs plaies …" [women withdrawn into themselves, licking their wounds …] (54). They must put an end to any relationship that debases and devalues them and refuse to suffer any outrage on account of their gender. Such empowered women will no longer tolerate abuse, be it physical or verbal, and will refuse to understand "ces hommes qui veulent déchirer et qui donnent des coups de pieds dans le ventre des femmes avec des mots méchants, des mots qui blessent en plein coeur" [those men who want to tear and kick women's stomachs with harsh words, wounding words that hurt right into the center of the heart] (54). By using phrases such as "to tear" or "to kick," Tadjo suggests that verbal violence is no less damaging than physical violence. These observations don't mean that Tadjo rejects men entirely: her point finally is to say that love does not need to be hurtful, physically or otherwise.
Véronique Tadjo's treatment of female-male relationships here is closely akin to Werewere Liking's concept of the misovire, who, it must be remembered, is a woman unable to find an admirable man. This theoretical admirable man can only be born out of the transformation of the social self. Indeed, faced with women's formidable determination, men will have to change their behavior, discern the difference between loving and destroying, and realize that destruction is no proof of manhood. To make sure that this metamorphosis takes place, to help men as well as to protect themselves, Tadjo says women must also act: "Il faut leur dire d'arrêter. Les tenir à bout de bras et leur réapprendre l'alphabet" [We must tell them to stop. We must hold them at arm's length and teach them the alphabet all over again] (54). Reteaching the alphabet involves serious work on the part of both the teacher and the learner, but the work holds the promise of a new beginning, a new understanding, a new form of relationship between men and women. Women will not give up on the possibility of love. That is why Tadjo combines a resolute refusal to be abused in the name of love (or for any reason, for that matter) with an ardent desire for love, sensuality, and sexual fulfillment.
Writing has allowed women to speak the unspeakable, to utter words, ideas, concepts that are forbidden to them within the conventions laid out by patriarchal society. Sex, desire, passion, and love are topics that women are expected to pass over in silence. By transgressing these taboos through the medium of literature, writers such as Calixthe Beyala, Ken Bugul, Werewere Liking, and Véronique Tadjo break the unwritten conventions while still accepting, as positive value, the topology that regards women as emotionally sensitive; thus they reclaim the right to express their feelings. In A Vol d'oiseau, the protagonist admits to living through her skin. She does not hesitate to speak of the body as a seat of enjoyable sensations. She talks freely about everything from the tickle of water running on her skin in the shower to the intense pleasures of orgasm. The erotic sensuality of the following passage shows no recognition of the usual taboos that regulate the parameters of African women's discourse: "Je m'enveloppe de son odeur, mouille mon visage de sa sueur, touche sa peau, mords son épaule, avale son désir, ferme les yeux, tends mon corps, l'appelle et le rejette" [I wrap myself in his smell, wet my face with his sweat, touch his skin, bite his shoulder, swallow his desire, close my eyes, stretch my body, call and expel him] (80).
The quest for love is so central for Tadjo that she invents yet another story, which begins realistically and ends as a legend. The opening depicts a love between a sick woman and a man who shares her pain so deeply that "il aurait voulu hurler, transpercer les murs d'un son si puissant que la ville se serait tue et que le temps aurait reculé. Il aurait voulu vivre la même souffrance—dans sa chair, la douleur qui aujourd'hui remplaçait le plaisir" [he wished he could scream, pierce walls with a sound so powerful that the city would become silent and time would recede. He wished he could experience the same pain—in his flesh, experience the pain which today was replacing pleasure] (39). To save his beloved he attempts to pray, but finds he no longer knows how. He then makes the only choice he finds acceptable: "J'irai avec toi jusqu'à la mort … je veux t'aimer jusqu'au bout de ta souffrance" [I will travel with you until death comes…. I want to love you to the limits of your suffering] (40).
At this point the realistic setting is left behind and the story's action is transformed into myth. The lover takes the woman in his arms and crosses thousands of miles, finally arriving at the sea. She expresses the desire to die there and be buried by the waters, but he will not hear of it and resumes his journey, traveling until he reaches a white mountain. She expresses the desire to die there in a place peaceful, cold, and pure. Again he refuses, and resumes his journeying until he reaches a desert, where: "Ils surent … qu'ils avaient atteint le bout du monde et qu'il ne leur restait nulle part où aller" [They realized … that they had reached the end of the earth and there was no place else to go to] (41). The woman expresses her desire to die in the desert; having no choice, the man asks to make love to her for the last time, "et c'est là qu'entre ciel et terre ils s'aimèrent si fort que le soleil fit une éclipse et qu'un vent de fraîcheur balaya leurs corps" [and it is there, between sky and earth, that they loved each other so intensely that the sun was eclipsed and a cool breeze swept over their bodies] (41).10
This sad but beautiful story features a loving, compassionate companion, the very essence of the new man sought for by the misovire. So the greatest love story of the book is in the form of a mythological tale, the most compassionate man is a character in a tale, the woman who enjoys such compassion is on the verge of dying. Tadjo seems to suggest this conjunction of events might be possible only in an imaginary world; or she might mean that the power of imagination can be towering enough to accomplish the miracle of love. Yet love involves a wide array of relationships and the narrator extends it to her country as well as to individuals. She is connected to her country in an intimate manner, her feelings even strengthened by her exile in the "stone country"—an unnamed Western nation. In a three-line vignette (LV), she conveys this attachment with an exquisitely unexpected love metaphor: "Je songe à mon pays qui m'obsède chaque fois. Je le porte en moi, le jour. La nuit, il s'allonge à mes côtés et me fait l'amour" [I think of my country which, for me, has become a constant obsession. In the daytime I carry my country inside me. At night my country lies beside me and makes love to me] (64). It is easy to understand, then, the suffering she feels when confronting the ills of her society. Its problems are so glaringly present that they impose themselves on all the senses: "Faut-il être aveugle pour ne pas voir? / Sourd pour ne pas entendre? / Muet pour ne pas crier?" [Should one be blind not to see? / Deaf not to hear? / Dumb not to shout?] (66).
What the narrator sees is a society characterized by a profound sense of malaise, one she describes with phrases of disjunction: "la vie a dû rater une marche" [Life must have missed one step] (8); "on doit vivre un siècle crasseux" [we must be living in a filthy time] (21); "on doit vivre un monde sans queue ni tête" [we must be living in a senseless world] (29); "c'est vraiment un siècle qui baisse la tête" [it is really a century that walks with its head down] (29). This social malaise needs to be overcome, of course, because there is an enormous amount of work to be done, and her sense of urgency in this is moved by the seriousness of the problems to be dealt with: "Il n'y a pas de quoi avoir la tête en l'air. Il n'y a pas de quoi rire et se croiser les bras" [This is no time to be absentminded. This is no time to laugh and sit around idly] (65). Tadjo's narrator cannot afford to laugh in the face of the social injustice she describes with evocative force: "Je dis les inégalités qui croissent comme des margouillats sous les ruines des taudis" [I speak of the inequalities that grow like lizards under the ruins of slums] (65). Starting her sentence with the declarative "I speak," the narrator performs an act of language that, assuming the responsibility of enunciation, makes the statement stronger and the concern more acute. Describing inequalities as "lizards" emphasizes the proliferation of these inequalities, and the image of the "ruins of slums" conveys the sense of a double destruction.
Even within the fictional mode in which A Vol d'oiseau is cast, there is a dialectical motion between the purely "imaginary" tales, such as the one about the dying woman, and the putatively "real" histoires vécues—stories lived, experienced by a character. Such an histoire vécue forms the background of chapter three, a long, first-person vignette. It tells the story of a young man who is at the same time the protagonist, focalizer, and narrator recounting his experiences as an actor. Within the story lies a depiction of the relationship that exists between intellectuals, politicians, and "ordinary" people. The young man is representative of the majority of the people as indicated by his modest background, his substandard living conditions, his speech patterns, his attitude toward education, and his aspirations. In fact, his representation of the people is doubled by the very role he acts within the play: "Je représente le peuple. Symboliquement. Je fais beaucoup de choses. Je cultive la terre. Je pêche…. Je danse…. Mes pas cadencés. Mon buste raidi. Mon cou cabré. Et puis ‘Stop,’ les bras en croix. Le héros se bat pour moi. Contre le monarque" [I represent the people. Symbolically. I do a lot of things. I till the land. I go fishing…. I dance…. In quick time. My chest stiffened. My neck taut. And then "Cut," arms in the form of the cross. The hero fights for me. Against the monarch] (15).
A variant of this speech is repeated at the end of the vignette: "Je représente le peuple. Symboliquement. J'ai les bras en croix. Le héros se bat pour moi. Contre le monarque" [I represent the people. Symbolically. My arms are in the form of the cross. The hero fights for me. Against the monarch] (20). Between this repeated quotation is Tadjo's generalized depiction of the state of African society. The young man simultaneously a representative of the people and representing them. Furthermore, his summary lines provide the reader with a vision of what life is like for the people he represents, an existence of hard labor that nonetheless finds some release in dance. Even that dance, though, is hampered by the strained positions of his body—positions symbolic of constraint and injustice. The phrase "my arms are in the form of a cross" suggests crucifixion, but the quotation goes on to describe a revolutionary mood personified by the "hero," who sides with the people, fighting with and for them against the monarch.
As there is a correlation between the "people" and the young man, a parallel can be drawn between the "hero" and the director of the theater company. The director represents an enlightened intellectual, one who turns ideas into action, and so commands the young man's admiration. He is intelligent, generous, and helpful in encouraging youngsters to use their creativity in acting. Creating a community of artists who can share all aspects of their lives, he develops a space where their talents can flourish. His home is opened to whoever needs a bed or food, and the visitor who happens to be there at lunch time is undoubtedly invited to share the meal.11
Not fully understanding the intricacies of the repressive system he is living in, the young man's innocent voice continuously makes remarks that are all the more pow- erful as they are understated. He laments the fact that arts are encouraged by neither politicians nor the public. At one performance there are only three rows of spectators, and, as participatory and encouraging as they are, the small audience points up the precariousness of artistic life in Africa. The young man observes: "Le théâtre, c'est pas un travail. Un jour on gagne, demain, on gagne rien. Ça me plaît, mais ce n'est vraiment pas un travail" [Acting is not a job. One day you earn some money, tomorrow, you earn nothing. I like acting, but really it is not a job] (18). In addition, theater is particularly censored because of its perceived potency. The director is constantly harassed by politicians, who see the plays as a threat, as again, the narrator ingenuously notes: "On dit qu'Il est un révolutionaire, que les pièces que nous on joue attaquent le gouvernement. Il y a toujours des problèmes" [They say He is a revolutionary, that the plays we perform are an attack against the government. We are always in trouble] (19).
One understands, then, why the people must have someone to fight for them, against the "monarch"—a living symbol of the oppressive political machinery.12 It seems possible, however, that the people themselves will come to action because oppression cannot last for ever: "On en a tous marre de ce monarque qui s'assoit sur la tête de son peuple" [We are all fed up with this monarch who sits on his people's heads] (29). This image of sitting on someone's head, clearly an African idiom, takes on larger proportions because many African societies hold the belief that the head is the seat of life. Thus, to sit on people's heads is at worse to wish their death and at best to deprive them of all power. In search of inordinate power for himself, the monarch attempts to render his people powerless.
Powerlessness is also a characteristic of the poor, and poverty is personified by the mentally disturbed people who roam the streets, infested with lice, stinking so badly that their smell infests the whole city. The all-pervading stench shows that what happens to the "wretched of the earth" affects everybody. If those who exploit the people with detached indifference are blind to the crucial dimensions of human interdependency, violence will force them into such recognition. There will come a time when it will no longer be possible for them to count on their "lucky star." Their fat bank accounts and the endless privileges they enjoy will collapse with the rebellion of the down-trodden: "Vos jardins seront malmenés, vos autels sacrés assiégés et vos fétiches-idoles décapités. Vos demeures enfoncées. Vos livres jetés, vos maîtres à penser condamnés. Les traces de vos pas s'effaceront et sur une plage abandonnée, on transpercera vos poitrines de flèches empoisonnées" [Your gardens will be wrecked, your sacred shrines besieged and your fetish-idols will be beheaded. Your homes smashed in. Your books thrown away, your intellectual guides condemned. The traces of your steps will disappear and, on abandoned shores, your chests will be pierced with poisoned arrows] (66). If the exploiters retaliate, they will be unmasked by a mass media whose sophistication can now be used to the advantage of the voiceless majority: "Le monde entier verra les bouches tordues, le sang épaix et grotesque des corps aux derniers soubresauts" [The whole world will see the twisted mouths, and the thick, grotesque blood oozing out of bodies in their last convulsions] (66).
If her criticism of the sociopolitical structures and of the so-called leaders who maintain and enforce them is mordant, Tadjo still invites all individuals to work for a loftier ideal. That goal must be approached, not through complacency but through rigorous self-criticism: "Nous devons piétiner les mauvaises habitudes, déraciner les fausses théories et nous regarder face à face" [We must trample on bad habits, uproot false theories and look ourselves in the face] (65). All individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to future generations, who eventually are going to ask: "Qu'avez-vous fait pour changer les choses?" [What have you done to change things?] (29). This is an interrogation that should spur the elders into reevaluating their acts, because "les actions que nous sculptons se cristallisent" [the actions that we take will crystalize] (65). And nothing would be more damaging than to crystallize the status quo for the younger generations.
Like Werewere Liking, Véronique Tadjo makes ancestral beliefs and rituals play an important role in the transformation of self and society. At the personal level, when the narrator cannot make sense of her love life, when the pain of separation is no longer bearable, she longs to go back to her ancestors' belief systems. She would like to call the Gods, say incantations, assemble healers, sorcerers, and spirits, and resort to magic to annihilate her memory. But she strives not for escape, but for empowerment and a new beginning.
At the social level, Tadjo emphasizes the necessity to revive cultural survival rites, and advocates ritual on a large scale, both in the city and in the country: "Il nous faut procéder aux rites de pureté. Faire les sacrifices nécessaires. Il faut replanter nos grands arbres arrachés, nos forêts sacrées décimées" [We must perform cleansing rites. We must make the necessary sacrifices. We must plant again our tall uprooted trees, our decimated sacred forests] (67). Tadjo puts ritual into a twofold play, making it perform its traditional function and serve as a cure for modern problems. The sacrifices refer to both ritual and the renunciation necessary to become agents of change. In the same way, the act of replanting trees constitutes at once a genealogical and ecological symbol, emphasizing a cultural continuum. On the other hand, it serves as a means to solve the urgent problem of deforestation facing the continent.
Also, because ritual valorizes speech and is articulated through speech, however esoteric, it will be possible to rediscover the significance of the word in "la parole complète. Celle qui est à la fois silence et verbe, action et inertie. Celle que seuls les grands initiés possèdent" [the completeness of the word that is both silence and speech, action and inertia. The word that only the great initiates possessed] (67). Thus, ritual can constitute the mediating process for a judicious balance between speech and action.
The novelists studied here [Werewere Liking, Aminata Sow Fall, and Véronique Tadjo] believe in a new sociopolitical order. Mostly, however, their fictions make it clear that a new moral order is desperately needed. Without it all other construction remains without foundation. The fictions also attest to the fact that this new moral order can only be turned into reality through individual commitment.
1. Tadjo's Latérite won the Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique prize in 1983. She wrote Chanson de la vie and Lord of the Dance, self-illustrated books of stories (some in prose, others in poetry) for children, inspired by African orature. Tadjo has also produced two novels: A Vol d'oiseau and Le Royaume aveugle.
2. My comparison of Tadjo's text as texture/textile is not meant to erase the writing subject in order to privilege the process of writing, as Nancy Miller's critique of Barthes's Pleasure of the Text suggests he does. (See "Arachnelogies: The Woman, the Text and the Critic," in Miller, Poetics of Gender.) My comparison is no doubt made in relation to etymology, but more so from a cultural standpoint that does not emphasize gender—the metaphor of weaving has been used by male and female writers alike. Charlotte H. Bruner entitles a book Unwinding Threads, an image borrowed from the Kabyle folk singers in the Algerian mountains who always begin their tales with the following formulaic phrase: "Que mon conte soit beau et se déroule comme un long fil …" [May my story be beautiful and unwind like a long thread …]. Also, in Contes d'Amadou Koumba, Diop describes himself as a weaver using threads to make a pagne, that is, a "cloth" or "wrapper" (12). Using the same metaphor, Dadié entitles his collection of folk stories Le Pagne noir.
3. For a discussion of chronology in fiction and as fiction, see Kermode's masterful analyses in Sense of an Ending.
4. The phatic function is also visible in the narrator's numerous interventions. For instance, after recounting the story of a woman who died in her bathroom because of poor construction caused by a dishonest architect, she says: "On m'a raconté cette histoire et c'est ainsi que je vous la livre" [I was told this story and I am passing it on to you as it was told to me] (22). Further along, making a distinction between the leper who "licks the ground" and the fighter who, instead, has great pride, she tells the reader: "Ce n'est pas moi qui le dis. Je l'ai lu quelque part" [I am not the one who says so. I read that somewhere] (38). Also, speaking of the violence that men inflict on women she says: "Mais oublions tout cela et laissez-moi vous parler d'autre chose" [But let us forget all this and let me tell you about something else] (54).
5. Lafont and Gardès-Madray (Introduction à l'analyse textuelle, 93) analyze the dialectics of the Je/I and the tu/you in terms of temporality, which is not my purpose here. It is interesting, though, that they go on to say: "Il y a donc dans le mouvement par lequel tu devient je … un passage de l'éventualité à la réalité. Mais dans ce même mouvement, le je précédent devient un tu. Si l'on considère ce movement dans la fluence temporelle, on voit que tu est à la fois l'avenir et le passé du je" [Therefore, there exists in the motion through which I becomes you … a passage from a possibility to a reality. Yet, in the same motion, the preceding I becomes a you. If one considers the temporal flow in this motion, one sees that you is at once the future and the past of I].
6. The pronominal interpretation is further extended in the course of the narrative to include the third person, more often "she" than "he," and also a collective "we."
7. This is the only instance in which Tadjo uses the metaphor of silence for an act of "silencing." However, she often explores various aspects of silence, stressing the importance of silence and speech in human relationships. She muses over the potency of the word that, bringing to life that which is not, makes the difference between being and nothingness.
8. The name Akissi must have a special significance for Tadjo: Akissi is found in Latérite and also in Le Royaume aveugle, where she is King Ato V's rebellious daughter.
9. Mamy Wata, or Mami Wata, the water goddess or water spirit, is worshipped by many riverside communities in West Africa. She is said to attract men with her legendary beauty and bury them in the waters. She is mentioned in passing in Achebe's short story "Sacrificial Egg" and in Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood. Mamy Wata is central to Nwapa's Efuru and to Amadi's Concubine.
10. The end of this vignette is very reminiscent of one of the myths of creation among the Fon of Benin: "The Fon of Abomey…. speak of a supreme god (Mawu) and many other beings related to him. But Mawu is sometimes called male and some- times female; Mawu has a partner called Lisa, and they may be spoken of as twins. One myth says that these twins were born from a primordial mother, Nana Buluku, who created the world and then retired. Mawu was the moon and female, controlling the night and dwelling in the west. Lisa was male, the sun, and lived in the east. They had no children when they first took up their stations, but eventually they came together in an eclipse. Whenever there is an eclipse of the sun or moon it is said that Mawu and Lisa are making love" (Parrinder, African Mythology, 23).
11. The description of this director is very reminiscent of Werewere Liking, who is also a theater director and has created a community of artists in her Villa Ki-yi in Abidjan. The artists also share everything and the villa is open to all. I had the good fortune of spending a day in the villa, where, in addition to interviewing Liking, I was invited to share a meal and see the rehearsal of Singue Mura: Considérant que la femme, a play that Liking was preparing for the Congrès de la Francophonie at Limoges, France. I also had the good fortune to see the play in its final form at Limoges in October 1990. It was a true spectacle, impressively presenting acting accompanied with song, dance, a display of living masks, and an epiphany of colorful and daring costume. The artistry of the cast was phenomenal.
12. Political oppression is for Tadjo a major preoccupation. She effectively denounces it in Le Royaume aveugle (meaning both "the kingdom of the blind" and "the blind kingdom"), an allegorical novel describing the iniquities of a totalitarian regime.
Beyala, Calixthe. Tu t'appelleras Tanga [Your name will be Tanga]. Paris: Stock, 1988.
Bugul, Ken. The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. Translated by Marjoliyn de Jager. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991. Originally published as Le Baobab fou (Dakar: NEA, 1983).
Liking, Werewere, and Manuna Ma-Njock. "Orphée-Dafric" roman suivi de "Orphée d'Afrique." Paris: L'Harmattan, 1981.
Tadjo, Véronique. A Vol d'oiseau [As the crow flies]. Paris: Editions Nathan, 1986.
Dadié, Bernard. Le Pagne noir. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955.
Diop, Birago. Tales of Amadou Koumba. Translated by Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Originally published as Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1961).
Liking, Werewere, and Marie-José Hourantier. A la rencontre de … [Meeting with …]. Dakar: NEA, 1980.
———. Contes d'initiation féminine du pays bassa [Tales of female initiation among the Bassa people]. Paris: Editions St. Paul, 1981.
———. Liboy li nkundung. Conte initiatique [Initiation tale]. Paris: Editions St. Paul, 1980.
———. Les Spectacles rituels [Ritual theater]. Dakar: NEA, 1987.
Tadjo, Véronique. La Chanson de la vie et autres histoires [The song of life and other stories]. Paris: Hatier, Collection Monde Noir Jeunesse, 1989.
———. Latérite. Paris: Hatier, 1984.
———. Lord of the Dance: An African Retelling. New York: Lipp Jr. Books (Harper Collins Children's Books), 1989.
———. Le Royaume aveugle [The kingdom of the blind]. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1990.
Bruner, Charlotte H. Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women In Africa. London: Heinemann, 1983.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Lafont, Robert, and Françoise Gardès-Madray. Introduction à l'analyse textuelle. Paris: Larousse, 1976.
Miller, Nancy K., ed. The Poetics of Gender. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Mythology. 1967. Reprint. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987.
Véronique Tadjo with Stephen Gray (interview date 15 March 2002)
SOURCE: Tadjo, Véronique, and Stephen Gray. "Interview: Véronique Tadjo Speaks with Stephen Gray." Research in African Literatures 34, no. 3 (fall 2003): 142-47.
[In the following interview, conducted in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 15, 2002, Tadjo reflects on such subjects as her relocation to South Africa, her work as a painter, her fondness for the short story genre, her thoughts on Western feminism and on censorship, and the genesis of her book The Shadow of Imana.]
In South Africa during the month of March writers are known to migrate to Durban for the annual "Time of the Writer" festival, where a meeting of anglophone and francophone African practitioners is generally an important theme. In 2002, as a spin-off event, the Alliance Française in Johannesburg organized a round-table discussion with several of the visitors from the French-speaking world, and included Véronique Tadjo, a previous guest at the Time of the Writer who recently became a resident of the city.
She was born in Paris in 1955, but she has lived most of her life and completed her studies in Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, where she taught for some years in the National University in Abidjan. Further studies took her to the Sorbonne Paris IV and to Howard University in Washington, DC. Apart from the works for adults mentioned in the following interview, she has recently published an anthology of poems for children with her own illustrations, called Talking Drums (London: A. and C. Black, 2001), and her Mamy Wata and the Monster (in the original French version) has been listed as one of only four works for children chosen as among the best hundred African books of the twentieth century.
The following interchange took place at my home in Johannesburg on 15 March 2002, while preparations for the round-table were in progress.
[Gray]: At the round-table session with francophone writers of Africa, held in Johannesburg's Alliance Française, the issue is to be problems of identity. Would you summarize what you wish to say on that score and about how your seven-month stay in South Africa has affected your sense of self so far?
[Tadjo]: Well, I had always wanted to come to South Africa, and of course especially after those 1994 elections, because as you know we all celebrated—we celebrated something which was so amazing for all of us. So I will say I was happy when at last I was given the opportunity to come, because I must stress that I am absolutely sure that what I am getting here is transforming me and will transform me in many ways: in terms of ideas, debates, and so on, like that session itself at the Alliance Française. Because a lot of what is happening here in South Africa generally is very relevant to the rest of the continent. So I am here to look at how South Africans handle their big questions, try to find similarities with my particular country of Côte d'Ivoire, and try to understand where they're going and, if possible, how this may be applied to other places.
You're still staying "they" and "them," instead of "us."
Yes, but just because I'm so new here and it's only for the moment. I'm sure it will shortly shift to "we"! But also I don't want to presume and pretend I know so much, when in fact I have realized I know so little! There is the South Africa you dream of, when you're bored at home, seeing it through certain images … while there is quite another South Africa that you get to know when you live here. But I didn't come here directly, you follow?
Yes, a long wandering route.
And I'm very happy it went that way, because … well, let's not discuss now my life in the United States, in France, and then for some years in Britain; but within Africa first when I lived out of Côte d'Ivoire I moved to Nigeria, then to Kenya; especially the latter prepared me for South Africa. But I don't want to give the impression I have problems with Côte d'Ivoire as I don't, and I go back there regularly. If ever I think about my old age, well, I see myself probably settling down there finally, because there are a lot of things still to do there and to which I may contribute. Meanwhile I am happy to contribute wherever I find myself, but especially if it's Africa.
Do you find South Africans familiar with the kind of cultural background that you come from?
No, not at all. I'm just learning how big the continent is! With apartheid and having been cut off from the rest of the continent, in South Africa there is still a lot of ignorance and presumption and false ideas about, so it is quite interesting to try in a way to redress the balance a bit.
But during the bad years there were in fact very strong links between the apartheid system and your Côte d'Ivoire.
I know, and I'm not very proud of any of that. I think people at home knew about it somehow, but nobody ever talked about that. But once suddenly I jumped out and queried it—just in a conversational situation with some officials, during that length rule of President Houphouet-Boigny—and they were willing to discuss those links quite openly. But only if I brought it up; otherwise no, it was not an issue for everyone. As you surely know, political decisions have often been taken which do not coincide with what the people themselves would have wanted. But that is part of the dark side of our history, too; we have to understand all of that.
Currently you are engaged in a project to produce children's art at a studio complex called the Bag Factory in central Johannesburg. How do you with your strong French accent come across to them?
Well, I don't hide anything from them when I present my portfolio. For me, though, it has been like coming out a bit, reconciling two distinct aspects of my personality, because I appear before them both as a writer and as an artist. I am grateful for that experience because now I am made also to want to write about art. At the Bag Factory I was resident as a painter, which I have been since 1996, but I was made very welcome just for whatever I am. But it was a turning point for me in the sense that I saw I could work especially well here as a painter-illustrator, exactly because there are less language problems then. You see, I came to painting via illustrations, because I have always illustrated the children's books that I write, and I then needed to escape into bigger sizes. But it is not totally true that art appreciation is language-free, since you need to decipher a piece of art as well. But yes, art is an easier and more international language of its own, because people may just look at it for themselves. As you know, the writing life is quite a solitary one, so I do also enjoy a mode of expression that forces you to go out to people. I also think the writing and the painting are complementary; I may even be a better writer because I paint.
But your reputation does rest upon you as the writer and is well established in the francophone world. In English all we have isAs the Crow Flies, available to us in a complete translation only last year [in the Heinemann African Writers Series]; previously only two short excerpts from it were available in anthologies edited by Larson and by Vera.
Yes, if we say Africa is divided mainly between French and English, without for the moment talking about the many other languages … let's say that there is a big problem between the two, as we are not communicating enough. And therefore, when we are faced with very similar problems, we are not talking about solutions together. With the francophone sphere and the anglophone sphere and rarely a bridge between the two, it is a big shame for the continent. We need to work at it much more.
But, being so bilingual, you are unusual among francophone writers, who are often completely lost here.
Well, speaking for myself, way back I did choose English as my scholarly profession, while keeping French as my creative profession. Everybody has their own reasons for making such choices, but in my case maybe it was that, coming from a mixed family—my mother was French, my father Ivoirien—I've always understood that I do not belong to just one place. And so I felt that English was going to help me understand the world outside the borders of the Ivory Coast, for example. My interest was at first in African American language and literature, and from that I realized I was extremely interested in African literature itself, giving me access to that which alongside French was written in English. So that route gave me a broader insight into what was happening to both sides of the language barrier. I stay in touch with the African American, though, because I see there is still a lot of relevance there for us in what is happening in their black community.
For the first two years of the Caine Prize, based in London, you served as a judge of the award for African writers. Has that proved sympathetic, as your note in front of their first anthology of winners called Tenderfoots would indicate?
Oh yes, because I could bring my side, that francophone world, to their attention. But what I especially like about the Caine Prize is the way it is targeted exclusively on the short story. Short stories in Africa are—how can we say?—a very user-friendly genre, because at heart I am a type of short story writer myself. I like the fact that you can pick up a story, like it or leave it, and it doesn't present for the reader the kind of huge problems novels do. Being so condensed, it is quite amenable to Africans, almost an African type, just as we used to have from the oral tradition. When you're writing a short story you can even bring in poetry, for example, and so on, and I like its freedom. By contrast, the novel has become very hijacked, especially by the West, with the writer having to write only within certain confines. And I don't like the way they are telling you that, if you don't write a novel, you are not a serious writer. The novel has become a bit of a tyrannical genre.
Well, you have made your name with three novels, but we must also note that your debut was as a poet—withLatérite of 1984.
Some critics say that I just write poetic prose anyway, so in a sense it's all the same. But, much to my distress, I have crossed over from poetry into prose, because people have such a bad attitude towards poetry nowadays. Publishing poetry at all is a total, total nightmare, because it has wrongly come to be thought of as such an elitist genre. The educational system perhaps has traumatized people into reading poetry the wrong way and all that. So I turned to using poetry in a fresh way; I still function as a poet, yet within the prose medium, which is a bit more available to people.
That is why the first book which was called a novel, A vol d'oiseau of 1992, which you now have a decade later under the title As the Crow Flies, is a bit unconventional. It isn't an A to Z kind of narrative.
Since it is readily at hand to English speakers now, would you give some guidelines?
For a start the reader should use some imagination—to find the little threads that are running through the different stories within it. People say it is like the nouveau roman, very discontinuous, or consists of the prose-poems going back to Baudelaire and Max Jacob and all that sort of thing, but also it goes back to oral literature, which always used a melange of genres, freely switching from one mode to the other. That's how I view the work, as coming from that tradition rather than from any European one. I'm sorry, I have to resist the French tendency to claim everything that has been invented as their own. But, although I have read many French writers and so on, it is an African work. In reply to them I say I am heavily influenced by the African oral tradition, which has always been very innovative, always looking forward.
The work is extremely explicit on women's intimacies in Africa. How do you relate it to Western feminism?
Only with great, great caution, as I don't really buy into much of what is commonly thought of as orthodox feminism, the theory and the movement, outside Africa. But I think if you take the voices of women in Africa of the new generation, you'll see they express what African women are and like and want. I'm not trying to be provocative or anything, but it's just common sense: if you live in one particular environment, then your demands and needs are not the same as in another. You'll see that in As the Crow Flies, the translator was an African woman too—Wangui wa Goro from Kenya. That is not to say a translator always has to be of the same kind, but it does always have to be somebody with a certain inside knowledge.
Yes, but my question was: aren't you only too readily co-opted by feminists?
If they try to co-opt me I tell them—
I tell them—hold it! I can't just take on all that Eurocentric terminology, no no. That doesn't mean I'm not going to read their material, think about it, etc., but I also have to think about how it's relevant to our situation, you see.
Because … look at As the Crow Flies. The essential thing is that I wanted to tell a story, but if you want to tell one story, you have to tell many stories. We women are not alone; we are made of many people. And you have to read all stories to get a better picture. It's like a puzzle with many pieces, but one where you have to work to put all the different pieces together.
Isn't one of the threads in the weave to do with censorship, as many of the vignettes concern characters confronting prohibitions?
Yes, and that is a general world problem, but also particularly acute in Africa. If you raise important questions, you can be censored and muzzled and all that. But often, as you know very well here in South Africa, you have to work within that context. But I meant especially when referring to censorship to show how a dream may be destroyed, and even how a dreamer who is driven to the wall may become an oppressor in turn. I have never experienced censorship myself directly, but I must say that with this particular novel, which was so obviously outspoken, I did experience the other danger—of being liked too much. They can also try to control you by bringing you in. Sometimes I think that that process can be worse, you know: so you always have to be alert. They gave me a small problem with A vol d'oiseau at the time, because of my not wanting to play their game. I didn't want them to make it a government thing in the end, whereby with speeches and the minister of this and that it could become something totally different. And then there was a big stink in the press from the privileged elite who refused to see what needs to be seen. So I learnt my lesson. Although I was never physically threatened or anything like that, it was then that I thought maybe I should plan to take off, and look at a few things outside Côte d'Ivoire.
Your most powerful recent work has been not about Côte d'Ivoire at all, but about Rwanda—withL'ombre d'Imana, published with Actes Sud in 2000.
There I was a part of a project involving some dozen African writers, initiated by a Chadean friend, Nocky Djedanoum, at Lille's Fest' Africa festival in 1998, when we were to reside in Rwanda and respond to its recent genocide—because he thought not enough had been heard on that topic from Africa. It was something we thought could never happen on the continent and it had shaken us, deep down. We felt it was important to reflect on what had really happened. So we accepted to go there, with the only condition being that we should respond as writers—not like the many journalists or historians who dealt with the genocide, but in our capacity as pure writers. What I liked was that it was a big challenge and each one had an individual way of rendering what he or she saw. So that I think the project was successful for that reason. There wasn't one particular single thing to be said about what happened, but the project became hopeful in what each of us did: you'll find the different aspects which the journalists and historians did not cover, giving maybe a better understanding…. I also think all the writers involved have in one way or another been changed, in the sense in which they view their role as writers and their writing. It gave me a shot of maturity, that's for sure. It came at the right time for me as well, after I had written several books and, in terms of trying to understand life, that visit to Rwanda certainly has added a dark dimension, which was important for me to understand. It's a human problem; you have to prod and prod and prod at a thing like that. We knew of the Holocaust, thought it would never happen again—so it is important for a writer to continue to prod.
Your various publishers include those that specialize in African writers—in France they are L'Harmattan, Présence Africaine, and more. Are you going to go for more mainline publishers?
I'm quite content at the moment. I'll just have to play it as it comes. And I'm pleased to be in Heinemann, even if it's not mainline, because haven't we all read so many African writers thanks to the African Writers Series? But in Côte d'Ivoire I also have NEI—Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes—which gives me an African distribution too. I'm happy like that and I won't compromise in order to go for bigger publishers. That may be a bad career move. But my feeling is that, if you do what you want to do, after a while people will follow and find me.
You've said that in Côte d'Ivoire there is nowhere to hide, and there is still much to be done.
Yes, but that is must my personal statement. I do get very restless when I'm not there, even though I have to be in the West too and resource myself on a regular basis. But how can I leave it, since it is the main source of my writing, my painting, and—well, my creative being?
Sonia Lee (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Lee, Sonia. "The Emergence of the Essayistic Voice in Francophone African Women Writers: Véronique Tadjo's L'Ombre d'Imana." In The Modern Essay in French: Movement, Instability, Performance, edited by Charles Forsdick and Andrew Stafford, pp. 77-86. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005.
[In this essay, Lee classifies Tadjo's L'Ombre d'Imana as a "Montaignean essay"—one influenced by Michel de Montaigne's Essais—in that it reflects Tadjo's subjective point of view and offers no solutions, but instead constantly questions the object of its inquiry.]
What draws me to the essay resides in its paradoxical nature: it escapes any consensual structural definition, while sporting the greatest accountability for its content. Even if literary critics such as Adorno, Lukács, Genette, Barthes and others seem unable to agree on the components of the essay, they are of one mind as to the protean nature and fluidity of its form. It is safe to say that the only certainty of the genre is the undeniable paternity of Montaigne, whose Essais stand as the progenitor of this literary genre. In her excellent study, The Essayistic Spirit, Claire de Obaldia (1995, 40-41) points out that Montaigne's work remained unique and childless, but that it created a lawless genre, which marked French and world literature for ever ‘whereas, England starting with Bacon started a tradition counting a long line of brilliant essayists’ (Routh 1920, 33, quoted in Obaldia 37, n.1). Dudley Marchi (1994) in his analysis of Montaigne Among the Moderns differs on the matter of this childlessness as he demonstrates how the Essais have influenced many modern and postmodern writers. He states that:
If the concepts on non-linearity, instability, and fluctuation, so diffuse today in literary but also scientific and social thinking, have any plausibility at all, then Chaillou, Sollers and others, with Montaigne as one of their guides, have certainly developed these qualities in key places in their work.
In step with Marchi, I, too, am about to differ on the matter of this childlessness: I feel that Montaigne's influence can be traced further in the work of many essays written by Francophone African women writers. It may be true that in inventing a lawless genre Montaigne did not dictate a specific structure that would define it. But in describing the intent of his work, he gave us some clear indications as to what he meant to do, which are tantamount to a series of guidelines that may be applied to categorise as essays diverse contemporary texts not labelled as such by the literary establishment. In stating ‘Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre’, Montaigne characterises his writing as self-referential and it is clear that the narrator's voice is that of the author expressing his subjective vision of reality and his readiness to be accountable for it. The narrator experiences an ever-changing world, through not only his intellect but also his emotions. As a result, the subject of his inquiry is never absolutely defined, there are no definite answers in Montaigne but a perpetual questioning which in turn pluralises the authorial voice. All this being said, it is precisely this Montaignean ‘I’, humanistic, subjective and accountable, that is emerging from several texts written by Francophone women writers, and, in the limited space allotted for this study, I propose to restrict my analysis to Véronique Tadjo's essay L'Ombre d'Imana.
Many prominent Francophone and Anglophone African male writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mongo Beti, Léopold Senghor and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o have all written powerful essays about the many difficulties besieging their continent, and the ambiguous relationship that Africa entertains with the West. But to my knowledge, none of them is yet to write on the essay as a genre and how it can or should be Africanised. Therefore in my ongoing analysis of African women's essays I rely mostly on western methodology. Contrary to those in the West, most African writers started with fiction and produced great novels before engaging in the essay. In the Western literary tradition, it is commonly accepted that the essay preceded the novel and that in fact the novel exists ‘latently in the essay’; Claire de Obaldia remarks (16) that the concept of the Bildungsroman, which explores the relationship between the self and the world in order to discover not only oneself but what one knows, recalling the Montaignean ‘que sçay-je?’, is in fact an essayistic form. It is interesting to note that many Francophone African writers (men and women) started their literary careers with what could be labelled a Bildungsroman, thus skipping a stage of Western literary evolution, a development which I think is directly linked to history. For contemporary African literature is a result of colonialism and its educational system, which in turn is a result of the rise of the bourgeois class and its literary embodiment, the novel. However, one can also argue that in Africa, the novel has borrowed from the folk tale, a prominent genre of oral literature, and thus infused this Western genre in its form and content with an indigenous literary praxis. But the Montaignean essay, whose basic tenet rests in the individual's gaze on the world and its relentless questioning, does not have its equivalent in the African oral tradition. What remains to be seen is how African writers, and in this case women writers, appropriate the genre to suit their needs.
In Africa, women's writing came on the wings of freedom. With the exception of South Africa and the Portuguese colonies, most African countries had liberated themselves from colonialism by the late 1950s or early 60s. A decade later, women writers had started to appear all over the continent, bringing for the first time to the public sphere the African woman's viewpoint, and thus breaking the ancestral custom that barred women from public speaking. Therefore, for African women, writing came as a double liberation, first from the oppression of colonialism, and secondly from the patriarchal imposition of silence. Like their male counterparts, they started mostly with the novelistic form and a few wrote autobiographies—De Tilène au plateau by Nafissatou Diallo (1975) and Les Danseuses d'Impé-Eya by Simone Kaya (1984). In 1979, the Senegalese Mariama Bâ published her watershed novel Une si longue lettre (1980), which represents a turning point in Francophone African literary history. The first person narrative through which a woman tells her personal drama in the form of a letter to a friend was seen as revolutionary because, contrary to the autobiographical ‘I’ that represents only the author's experience, the first-person narrative in this case expressed the anger and the sorrow of many African women and drew attention to the ills of Senegalese society from a woman's viewpoint. Bâ was the first writer to break the silence that tradition imposes on African women. Yet, in the novel the first person narrator is like a mask whose voice speaks from a fictional and unaccountable realm.
At the present time, many of the prominent women novelists have written interesting essays on a variety of subjects. To give a few examples, in Algeria several women, and among them the well-known Assia Djebar, have written courageous essays underlining the political reasons behind the blood bath which has been engulfing this society for the past decade. In Tunisia, Hélé Béji revisits the concept of culture in her post-colonial society. In Cameroon, Axelle Kabou accuses African societies of being mostly responsible for the economic and social chaos besieging their societies. But in Mali, Aminata Traoré, former minister of Culture, denounces the mystification of global economics and its negative effects on African development.
In the essay, the writer writes in her own voice, and therefore takes full responsibility for the opinions expressed, no longer hiding behind the mask of a fictional character. This accountability gives the writer's voice a tangible presence since it allows her to enter directly into the public forum to claim authority on social subjects, not only as a writer but also as a citizen, thus politicising the role of the woman artist. Therefore, the essayistic ‘I’ stands apart from the autobiographical first person narrator in that she does not contemplate only herself, although she does that as well, but more importantly she re-examines and re-negotiates her social position in a modern world that was not intended for her. The existential malaise of the African thrown into an alien world has been a recurrent theme of the African novel of the 1960s. Suffice it to quote Mongo Beti's famous novel Mission terminée (1957) where the young protagonist, after being educated in the French system, feels that the tragedy of his generation was like ‘Celui d'un homme laissé à lui-même dans un monde qui ne lui appartient pas, un monde qu'il n'a pas fait, un monde où il ne comprend rien’ (250-51). As a rule, African women do not resent the cultural interference of the Western school, but rather see education as the only way to free themselves from many of the burdens of tradition. However, they too are aware of having to decipher and appropriate for themselves a new world, ‘a decolonized world’ to quote Hélé Béji (1997), in which, as citizens of this decolonised global village, they must take their legitimate place.
Oral African literatures were the product of societies whose vision of the world corresponded with a way of life believed to be universally true. The moral order was respected and transmitted through the epic, through myths and folk tales. The intrusion of the Western world and its foreign brand of modernity transformed the ancient bard into a writer, as Roland Barthes suggested:
Dès l'instant où l'écrivain a cessé d'être un témoin de l'universel pour devenir une conscience malheureuse (vers 1850), son premier geste a été de choisir l'engagement de sa forme, soit en assumant, soit en refusant l'écriture de son passé.
This tragic awareness, which characterises the modern writer, infuses most masculine African literature, which as a whole can be categorised as ‘engagé’ in the Sartrean sense. However, African women writers' social and political involvement seems closer to what Barthes called literature's ‘engagement manqué’ (1964, 150). In effect, Barthes opposes to the Sartrean assertion the elusiveness of doubt and questioning which in itself is typical of Montaigne.
This political awareness and questioning of the world in which all women writers live results in what could be labelled a historical self-consciousness, in that the first person narrative is not only feminine but overtly African. Therefore, like their male counterparts, African women essayists are politically ‘engagées’ but their political intervention cannot be divorced from the form in which it is expressed. One cannot but be struck by the stylistic heterogeneity of African women essayists and their great preoccupation with language and writing as a means of action. In this regard they seem to partake of the notion espoused by many contemporary French thinkers,
that a revolution can take place within language and consequently catalyze a rebirth of the human subject in its political existence, that significant ideological gestures can occur in discursive acts.
(Marchi 1994, 306)
Marchi remarks (1994, 306) that this is a notion that, according to Sollers, bears the influence of Montaigne.
In the light of the above, in the context of this collective study on the essay, I propose to analyze Véronique Tadjo's text L'Ombre d'Imana: voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda, which in my view is highly representative of the kind of Montaignean essay written by African women writers today. The publisher, as it is often the case for nonfiction texts, did not generically label Véronique Tadjo's work. So, to make my task easier, I will attempt to demonstrate that its proper classification should be that of an essay. Véronique Tadjo, who is from the Ivory Coast, wrote this piece in the context of a collective work on Rwanda called ‘Rwanda: writing as a duty to memory’, initiated by the Tchadian writer Nocky Djedanoum. Many writers from different African countries responded to the challenge and wrote their reactions to the genocide in a variety of forms such as essays, novels or poetry. Through the main title—L'Ombre d'Imana —Tadjo is alluding to the apparent unity between the Tutsis and the Hutus, since they share a common, unique God, Imana, as well as a common language, two powerful and rare assets for an African country. The text's sub-title voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda, which is a reference to Céline's novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (1934), negates the peaceful impression implied by the title to constitute a warning as to the subject of the book. Although her tone and intent differ from Céline's work, the two narratives share a horrific universe where humanity's inhumanity lies just beneath the surface, waiting to spring out at a moment's notice.
The book is dedicated to the memory of the dead ‘but who remain forever in our hearts’. This is a way to involve the reader in a silent dialogue upon what happened in Rwanda:
Je partais avec une hypothèse: ce qui s'était passé nous concernait tous. Ce n'était pas uniquement l'affaire d'un peuple perdu dans le coeur noir de l'Afrique. Oublier le Rwanda après le bruit et la fureur signifiait devenir borgne, aphone, handicappée.
Tadjo's account of what happened is tightly organised as if to attempt to give order to the unimaginable. The text consists of six parts: the first and second voyages, both around forty pages in length, frame four short texts of about ten pages each. Furthermore, these six parts, which can be considered as chapters, are subdivided into shorter units each bearing a title announcing its particular subject. This systematic construct as to the form contrasts with the fluidity of the content whose only organising thread is the author's ambulatory gaze as she visits the sites of the genocide.
As already mentioned, Véronique Tadjo's text is subtitled ‘voyages’ in the plural and it does describe two trips to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide. Yet, it can hardly be categorised as travel literature because the two voyages, which constitute the framework of the narrative, are in fact a long trip to hell written to exorcise horror and evil. How does one write that from April to July 1994 the government of Rwanda promoted genocide against a section of its own population, the Tutsis, which resulted in almost a million victims?
Similarly, it seems that the text distinguishes itself from what is usually referred to as ‘testimonial literature’ by the temporal and emotional distances that exist between the narrator and its subject. Tadjo did not witness the genocide first hand but only its aftermath. This distance makes possible the self-introspection and, paradoxically, the very Montaignean self-implication of the author into a tragedy that she views as an African and as a human being, as part of ‘our collective memory’. Tadjo feels that ‘Le silence est pire que tout. Détruire l'indifférence’ (38). Because of this sense of accountability for what happened, Tadjo suggests that, above all, such crimes must be recorded by the written word in order to remain forever in the collective memory. Confronted with such deeds, the oral tradition will not do. ‘L'oralité de l'Afrique est-elle un handicap pour la mémoire collective? Il faut écrire pour que l'information soit permanente’ (38). To quote Roland Barthes once more ‘l'écriture est un acte de solidarité historique’ (1972, 14), in that it springs from a confrontation between the writer and her society, and for Tadjo this act must be written down, not simply to preserve the accuracy of the deeds—historians will do this—but in order to break the silence, to destroy indifference, to try to understand the emotions behind the massacre. Furthermore, to write, and in this instance to write about History, is to distance herself from the oral tradition and its communal mindset in order to exercise her freedom to think outside the group. Benoît Denis remarks that, in the essay:
Ce qui littérarise ce type de textes, c'est l'importance qu'ils accordent à l'expérience sensible et à l'épaisseur affective du vécu. La subjectivité s'y donne comme fondatrice de la vision du monde proposée et l'énonciateur ne cesse de se mettre en jeu et en scène dans l'écriture.
From the very beginning of the first ‘voyage’, the tone of the first person narrative oscillates between the personal and the interrogative mode without any incursion into indignation or moral judgment. The personal tone is Montaignean in its mundanity, in that Tadjo gives precise details of modern transportation with its escort of foreign airports, flight delays, lost luggage and the consideration that today's tourism can be a dangerous endeavour. Upon arriving in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the narrator is struck by the apparent tranquillity of the city, which goes on with the business of life as if nothing had happened. The physical scars of the city have disappeared, the traces of what took place in these now quiet streets are to be found only in the eyes of its inhabitants. The narrator feels that she is witnessing the realm of ‘absolute evil,’ an untranslatable world that she is paraphrasing for the reader because it must be told. She describes in a simple and sometimes poetic prose her tour of the strategic points of the genocide, which are now guarded by a caretaker who receives visitors and even tips. She cannot help wondering about this man's job; what must he be thinking of her who came from so far away to look at such horrors? She then puts into words the church of Ntarama where 5,000 people were massacred, the skulls and the bones of the victims, the traces of blood still visible on the walls, the tools of the crime, the tortured body of the young woman exposed for all to see, as an obscene reminder of human cruelty. What words should one use to tell such deeds? What is left of the dead is terrifying, but no more so than the testimony of those who survived, of those who managed to depart from the country, leaving loved ones to their death, of those who killed and are waiting to be judged and the knowledge that some of the killers are still at large. What is there to say of the children born of rape, born of hate, unloved and unwanted? The author asks the questions which are always posed after a genocide. How can this be? Who are these ordinary people who killed so willingly? Would I have been one of them? After all, it is ordinary people who commit genocides.
Thus ends the first of the three parts that constitute the first voyage. In the second part, Tadjo breaks with the testimonial mode and suspends the essayistic first person narrative to fantasise and imagine ‘la colère des morts’. She invents a tale where the dead come back to haunt the living. They want to know why they were killed and why the living are unwilling or unable to answer their questions. In fact their anger stems from the apparent forgetfulness of the living. One particular man whose head had been cut off shows great frustration and refuses to leave. A wise man is called to appease the angry spirit. Through prayers, exhortations and sacrificial offerings he succeeds in defusing the desire for revenge of the dead: ‘Nous supplions les morts de ne pas accroître la misère dans laquelle le pays se morfond, de ne pas venir tourmenter les vivants même s'ils ne méritent pas leur pardon’ (59). Then, the sage addresses the living and warns them to rid themselves of the hate still present in their hearts, or else there will be no future for the country. The message of the tale is very clear and the question is: why did Tadjo decide to incorporate fiction into her essay? Before coming up with a possible hypothesis, I would like to point out that Tadjo's fictional tale could be seen as an inter-textual reference to Sartre's Les Mouches and its political implication of the individual as independent thinker. This type of digression was much used by Montaigne whose Essais are full of quotations and references. The other possibility is an Africanisation of the essay through the use of the folktale to convey a message, a stylistic device much appreciated by an African public and used by other African women writers. It is also interesting to note that the tale is clearly didactic whereas the essayistic text is not. To complicate matters, Tadjo keeps the fictional mode for a while longer and the tale is followed by three short fictional narratives which personalise and attempt to understand some facets of the Rwandan drama, in particular the mindset of those who committed the atrocities. To try to enter into the human psyche, fiction is better equipped than rational and philosophical inquiry. The unthinkable can only be imagined. By fictionalising part of her essay, the author is simply enlarging her essayistic inquiry, thus modernising the genre but not betraying it.
Finally, the second voyage, which constitutes the final part of the text, goes back to the first-person narrative and the essayistic mode of commentary, statistical facts, philosophical digression and, in the case of this essay, individual testimony. Throughout the text and its generic lawlessness, Tadjo keeps weaving the same inquiring thread of trying to make sense of this senseless carnage. At the beginning of her essay, she poses the question: ‘Si nous ne sommes absolument rien, pourquoi écrire?’ (28), a question easily answered after reading, in the Human Rights Watch account of the genocide, that no witness was to survive the massacre, that no-one was to be left to testify. In this case, writing becomes an obligation, a political act: ‘Oui, se souvenir. Témoigner. C'est ce qui nous reste pour combattre le passé et restaurer notre humanité’ (97). Tadjo's hope that somehow to come to terms with such senseless cruelty is to write down the events as they were lived and recounted and without judgment. "‘N'aie pas peur de savoir", dit une survivante’ (117). Tadjo wrote this essay as a ‘devoir de mémoire’; but through her travels around the country, her pertinent evaluation of the facts and the numerous encounters with both killers and victims, she concludes: ‘Je ne suis pas guérie du Rwanda. On n'exorcise pas le Rwanda. Le danger est toujours là, tapi dans les mémoires, tapi dans la brousse, aux frontières du pays’ (134). The author realises that Rwanda is part of her and part of us all as human beings, a discovery that Montaigne made four centuries ago: ‘La nature a, je le crains, attaché elle-même à l'homme un instinct qui le porte à l'inhumanité’ (1976, 119).
To conclude, one could argue that to realise the inhumanity of the human race is neither new nor original, and throughout the ages, countless writers have reflected upon it and wondered why. Tadjo brings no solution and no answer as to the reason for Rwanda's senseless massacre, but by refusing to forget, she keeps the question alive and her essay stands as one more warning that ‘Notre humanité est en danger’ (118). We can only hope that her voice will be heard.
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Bâ, Mariama (1980). Une si longue lettre. Dakar: NEA.
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Barthes, Roland (1993-1995). Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Eric Marty, 3 vols. Paris: Seuil.
Béji, Hélé (1997). L'Imposture culturelle. Paris: Stock.
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Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (1934). Voyage au bout de la nuit. Paris: Denoël et Steele.
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Genette, Gérard (1991). Fiction et diction. Paris: Seuil.
Kaya, Simone (1984). Les Danseuses d'Impé-Ya, jeunes filles à Abidjan. Abidjan: CEDA.
Lukács, Georg (1971/1974 ). ‘On the Nature and the Form of the Essay’. In Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; London: Merlin Press; French trans. Guy Haarscher as L'Ame et les formes, Paris: Gallimard.
Marchi, Dudley (1994). Montaigne Among the Moderns. Oxford: Berghahn.
Montaigne, Michel de (1976). Les Essais. Paris: Hachette.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul (1943). Les Mouches. Paris: Gallimard.
Tadjo, Véronique (2000). L'Ombre d'Imana: voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda. Arles: Actes Sud.
Rice-Maximin, Micheline. "‘Nouvelle écriture’ from the Ivory Coast: A Reading of Véronique Tadjo's A vol d'oiseau." In Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, edited by Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager, pp. 157-72. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Focuses on the unconventional narrative structure of A vol d'oiseau, claiming that this fragmented text has revolutionized postcolonial African writing.
Additional coverage of Tadjo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.