Women’s political consciousness in Senegal
Rama Salla Dieng talks with a British literature scholar on literary activism in French.
- Interview by
- Rama Salla Dieng
I have known Ruth Bush for many years and we share a passion for reading Francophone literature, especially by African writers. The year I lived in Bristol, where she teaches, Ruth introduced me to AWA: La revue de la femme noire, one of the earliest independent African women’s magazines published between 1964 and 1973. At the time, Ruth was digitizing the magazine into an online archive as part of a fascinating project she started with Dr. Claire Ducournau. We started a conversation on the topic and she later invited me to the exhibition of the project at the Musée de la Femme Henriette Bathily in Dakar, which was co-produced with IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop and launched as part of that year’s Ateliers de la Pensée.
Earlier this year, I had a project that required me to write an article I provocatively titled: “‘The left and its leftovers’: Documenting women’s political activism in Senegal between 1950 and 1979” as part of the Revolutionary Left in Africa Conference. I discussed with Ruth and she shared valuable material with me. I decided to focus not only on AWA’s voice through its editorial choices, but also critically analyze AWA’s silences in what was to become a central period for the revolutionary left in Senegal; from liberation movements and social movements culminating in May 1968, the musings of political pluralism, and last but not least, the rise and rise of a female political consciousness.
Your passion has led you to dedicate a book to analyzing institutions, authors and ideas involved in the complex architecture behind your book, Publishing Africa in French. Can you please tell us more about this research, its motivations and findings?
My research began from a love of work by writers such as Aimé Césaire, James Baldwin, Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Richard Wright, who lived in Paris in the mid-20th century. I was living in Paris and learned a lot about the city and its paradoxes through these writers: its claims to represent freedom and the avant-garde alongside its deeply rooted social and racial inequalities. It was illuminating to connect these writers’ literary work to larger political debates concerning decolonization and tiers-mondisme that came to the surface via journals and publishing houses such as Présence Africaine and Editions Maspero. I spent a lot of time during my PhD working in the archives of publishing houses (many held at the Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine. I looked at readers’ reports on manuscripts submitted by African writers, including Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Malick Fall, in this period. These reveal how these manuscripts were evaluated and according to what notions of aesthetic value they were measured. This led to the central concern of my book, which is to diagnose the structural inequalities and forms of domination that obtained in the French literary field during the period of decolonization (from 1945–1967), and to show how African writers and publishers actively negotiated these contexts. The book shows how the material contexts of literary production and reception (from paper shortages following WWII and anthology culture, to self-publishing and the distribution networks of Présence Africaine on the African continent) were intrinsically linked to ideas of autonomy and aesthetic freedom.
Your analysis takes place in a specific political context: To what extent was the French language a battlefield of literary resistance or revolution between editors and authors? And, what were the roles of literary translation in such a vibrant context?
This is such an important question. The French language has been, and continues to be, a battlefield, shaped by political contexts and institutions such as the Académie Française, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and respective national education systems on the African continent. Senghor acted as a passeur for many African writers in the 1950s and 1950s, given his close friendship with Paul Flamand from Editions du Seuil, we can see his influence too in some relatively conservative decisions about language and genre. Literary prize culture has also been a space for consolidating the status of hegemonic languages, as seen in the institutional history of the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire.
The “language question” continues to spark avid debates concerning the “Africanization” of French (seen in work by Ahmadou Kourouma, Boubacar Boris Diop, and Tobias Warner’s recent book. Overall, it often seems there is less inguistic experimentation in francophone African writing than in anglophone African writing—though this is changing, and partly through contact with other media. Language varies hugely, from the urban Wolof of Dakar, which blends in French and English, to Nouchi in Abidjan to Camfranglais in Yaoundé. There are of course literary works that use these spoken registers in the francophone space, but still relatively few. The arguments made for producing literary texts in African languages also varies widely across francophone sub-Saharan Africa, and there have been important initiatives here. The publishing scene has, I think, been less concerned with material presentational details in publishing such as glossaries, footnotes, and italicization that have attracted widespread polemical comments in the anglophone space.
Literary translation clearly has an important ethical and social role to play in the African publishing landscape, but faces challenges in terms of sustainable funding models and training support. These challenges are structural and political. The final chapter of Publishing Africa in French discusses the French translations of novels by Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, and Peter Abrahams. It shows how translators appropriated these writers’ work in ways that enriched the French language, and in ways (especially in the case of Tutuola, translated by Raymond Queneau) that often marginalized the author’s subjectivity. This is also a structural issue, where translations of African works have continued to be mostly produced by non-African translators based in the global North. There is an urgent imperative to translate and re-translate African literature. This imperative fuels ideological debates concerning pan-African identities. It’s also underpinned by the material realities of the African literary commons (the pool of linguistic and imaginative resources on which writers draw). My current book project explores new archival sources on the translations of early francophone African “classics,” and research on more recent initiatives to build literary translation infrastructure on the African continent through independent publishing, prizes, festivals such as Bakwa, Céytu, Cassava Republic, Writivism, or the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize.
With Claire Ducournau (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3), you led an AHRC-funded project on Popular Print and Reading Cultures in Francophone Africa, which digitized the pioneering francophone African magazine AWA: la revue de la femme noire (1964-1973) can you please tell us more about what inspired you to focus on AWA? Was it a fascination for Annette Mbaye D’Erneville, one of its founders, or the idea of francophone women organizing in the immediate post-independence period?
It was both of these things which inspired this work. This project was a collaboration between myself and Claire Ducournau, alongside the Musée de la Femme-Henriette Bathily and IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Annette Mbaye d’Erneville is very well known in Senegal for her inspiring work as a journalist and former program irector of the national radio, and poet. She had a very popular radio show called Jigeen ñi degluleen (Women, listen!) in the 1970s and 1980s, and is still known as “Tata Annette” by many people today. The digitization of AWA: La revue de la femme noire was accompanied by the production of a multimedia exhibition, held in Dakar, Montpellier and Bordeaux in 2017–19. I became interested during my PhD in print culture that existed on the African continent beyond the contours of the French literary field and its institutions and came across AWA while working in the National Archives in Senegal in 2009. It jumped out as a fiercely independent publication produced in Dakar at the Imprimerie Abdoulaye Diop at a time when most press was dominated by French-owned monopolies.
AWA’s blend of content is very eclectic: political news, profiles of inspiring career women and celebrities (Younousse Seye, Miriam Makeba…), fashion photography, literary texts by writers including Birago Diop, Virginie Camara, Joseph Zobel, and translations of Cuban and American writers. The readers’ letters pages are particularly fascinating and give a glimpse of how the magazine curated correspondence with a network of readers in West Africa, and further afield in Brazil, Martinique, Eastern Europe, and Israel. This was a magazine that was also actively read by women in Senegal, albeit an elite part of the population. The traces of female solidarity across borders are inspiring. AWA’s editorial team were mostly female, though many men contributed to its pages, offering advice and pointers which might be read as mansplaining today, but which were clearly integral to how the magazine’s founders saw the need for collaboration and “complementarity” between genders at this point in history.
You explain in an insightful article titled Mesdames, Il faut Lire! that AWA was more a glossy magazine interested in “re-fashioning” la Femme Noire, and preparing her for the task of nation-building; does this mean that AWA did not have a feminist consciousness?
AWA did not explicitly describe itself as “feminist,” and at times actively rejects the term. But its militancy lies in its form and material history. Retrospectively we might position AWA within the plural feminist movements of the 20th century—especially the idea of the “Modern Girl,” which has been traced in the parallel women’s magazine culture from Japan to Egypt to the United States in this same period. But AWA is not a highly commercialized magazine—it received very limited revenue from advertising, and there are, for example, no adverts for skin-lightening creams found in other magazines of the period. AWA’s contributors wanted a space in which to debate how to combine the pleasures and challenges of womanhood with the task of nation-building, through reproductive labor, and through new career avenues, from politics and law, to being a sports woman, secretary, or radio presenter. It’s also key to situate AWA in relation to women’s associations and women’s local level community organizing across francophone West Africa in this period and to recall again the bias of AWA towards a certain elite segment of the population. This is something the editorial team were clearly AWAre of and attempted to tackle in various ways in response to calls from their readers.
If AWA still existed, what in your opinion, would it look like today?
When the exhibition was launched, there were a couple of people who contacted us to say they were inspired to start a new AWA magazine. I don’t know if those initiatives have yet come to fruition, but it’s exciting to think that historical examples can inspire new incarnations. AWA’s longevity was stalled by a lack of funding and its desire to retain complete autonomy. The editors refused to sell the magazine to French press entrepreneur, Michel de Breteuil; Breteuil subsequently launched his own women’s magazine, Amina, which continues to be produced and widely distributed today. In 2018, an American artist, Fahamu Pecou, made a painting, exhibited in NYC, inspired by AWA. His painting, titled “Jigéén Bu Bés Fenkna,” features AWA’s masthead against the indigo dye found in West African fabrics, superimposed by portraits of two strong and strikingly dressed female figures. One is masked and the other stares directly at the viewer. I think that AWA would exist in the digital realm inhabited by these two women, if it still existed. It would continue to be bold in content, beautiful in aesthetic, and I hope it would retain its founder’s sharp sense of humor!
If you were to cite three lessons from women organizing offline that you learned from your work on AWA, what would those be?
One, retain autonomy and own the means of production (or borrow them from good friends). Two, remember who your readers/public are and listen to them. And, three, keep laughing.
What three recent novels from francophone writers would you recommend? Why?
I’ve been reading lots of African campus fiction recently, in French and in English. I enjoyed Mbougar Sarr’s De purs hommes, François Nkémé’s Le cimetière des bacheliers, and Jérôme Nouhouaï’s Le piment des plus beaux jours. They show—in very different contexts—how fiction can nourish reflection about institutionalized, bureaucratic and dehumanized spaces in the university. I also read Véronique Tadjo’s poetic meditation on the Ebola crisis this summer—En compagnie des hommes—and was once again impressed by her stunning command of narrative voices.
In the context of “fallism” and “decolonial” claims in South Africa, the UK, etcetera, what are your views on the future of “La Francophonie”?
I’m very interested in how these “decolonial” claims are echoing in francophone spaces on the continent—especially in public universities, which are suffering the structural effects of the LMD system, massification and ongoing aftermaths of structural adjustment policies, and which are increasingly multilingual spaces. Colleagues in those universities have suggested that these debates about decolonizing the curriculum and the staff body took place much earlier (e.g. in 1968 student protests. There remains an embedded pedagogical tradition inherited from the French higher education system, but initiatives such as the Ateliers de la Pensée are pushing at the boundaries, rethinking epistemic diversity and the ecology of knowledge production and circulation on the continent. The ways in which epistemic diversity can encompass multilingualism, without reproducing imperial paradigms or hierarchies, is an important next step. I think translation—as a creative practice, an ethic, and writerly craft—has a crucial role to play here. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about this question, Rama!
Are you a feminist yourself?
Yes. I grew up with a feminist historian mother who convened Women’s Studies reading groups in our living room in the 1980s and early 1990s. The matriarchs of my family have been very important figures in my life: one working-class grandmother who grew up in Northern England at a time when women were not encouraged to pursue education, lived through the difficulties of bringing up children during WWII, and retained a strong and intelligent sense of who she was. My other grandmother was from a middle-class background; she did study at university and went on to campaign actively in the peace movement, taking me and my brother on marches when we were small. My mother was never dogmatic about imparting her views, but I see now how much has rubbed off on me, especially since becoming a mother myself last year and facing a new set of challenges defined by this changing aspect of who I am. I enjoy reading feminist writers of fiction and non-fiction—of late books about motherhood (Adrienne Rich, Sheila Heti, Maggie Nelson, Leila Slimani). As a feminist, I try to support women colleagues, students, friends, and strangers whenever needed, and to anticipate situations where gendered injustices (including issues affecting LGBTQ+ communities) might arise. These everyday forms of feminist practice are essential to building a more equal forms of society.
How do you practice self-care?
Self-care very often comes in the form of a piece of cake and a cup of tea. Since having my daughter, I am also much stricter about my working hours. Academic work can easily fill the whole week, but I find I am more relaxed if I spend weekends with friends, at the park, and pottering in the garden, and keep my evenings screen free as far as possible. I am also now trying to reduce my overseas travel for work—this is partly for reasons of self-care and recognizing the benefits of slower modes of thought and reflection, but also due to the unsustainability of long-distance air travel in the context of our shared climate crisis.