I have very eclectic tastes in reading because I switch from French to English, and from fiction to nonfiction. My own writing has therefore been influenced by a broad range of experiences.
In the process of writing In the Company of Men (Other Press, 2021) a novel on the subject of the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone), I did a lot of research on the virus and the fight to eradicate the disease. I immersed myself in the medical sphere. As I read about the epidemic, it became more and more evident that it had emerged in great part from an environmental crisis caused by massive deforestation and illegal mining. Unable to find their usual diet, bats for example had to come closer to human beings to feed on fruit trees in villages. I therefore wanted to locate the narrative in a natural environment.
There were several “silent” killers in West Africa, namely malaria, tuberculosis and Aids. Ebola wasn’t one of them, as it had been extensively covered in the media all over the world. It had the potential to become a wakeup call for governments. A catastrophe remains a catastrophe if it doesn’t lead to major qualitative changes. But if I wanted to address such a difficult and traumatic subject, I had to think hard about the form. In the end I turned to oral literature for inspiration. It is a genre that is well known on the African continent—and in all cultures for that matter. It allows the storyteller to call on prose, poetry, history, political speech, and even music. In oral literature, nature, animals and human beings are on equal footing. Men are not above nature but part of nature.
Not surprisingly, the book that I am reading at the moment is a nonfiction book by Marie-Monique Robin called La fabrique des pandémies: Préserver la biodiversité, un impératif pour la santé planétaire (La Découverte, 2021), roughly translated as A factory of pandemics: Preserving biodiversity, an imperative for planetary health. Robin is a French TV journalist and documentary filmmaker, and interviewed a great number of scientific experts who all seem to agree that global warming, the degradation of the environment, the ill-treatment of non-humans and our health crisis are all linked. To view epidemics/pandemics in isolation is to completely miss the point. They occur at the end of a chain of events. In a new multidisciplinary research path, it is important to take into account environmental transformations and the evolution of lifestyles to better understand the emergence of pathologies. This is a radical approach. Politicians and governments would be under more pressure to deal effectively with climate change if it were clearly established that epidemics/pandemics are the result of a profound climate and ecological crisis. Vaccines alone cannot solve the problem. And even herd immunity is only good until a brand new virus comes along.
We, as writers, can also play a role by using our imagination as a weapon of change. Economists must try to understand the place that the economy has in a system that engenders poverty and insalubrity. Talking about the economy, I recently finished reading Assembly by Natasha Brown, (Hamish Hamilton, 2021), an innovative and clear-sighted novel. It is a story about assimilation though the author never names her heroine or states her skin color. This is because, paradoxically, her subject is race. Is it possible for a Black British person in today’s (Great) Britain to be viewed just like any other individual? The answer is no because racism informs so many aspects of society. Brown’s style is concise almost to the point of being clinical. The narrator has done everything to be successful: she has worked hard for a big promotion at her finance firm and her white boyfriend has taken her into his world of white, old-money privilege. But she’s also been diagnosed with cancer and her achievement ultimately feels hollow. Britain’s colonial legacy is hidden in every corner blatantly showing the inequalities it creates. Although the character is looking at her life and the world around her with a certain amount of distance, emotion slips through her reserve. What I liked most in the book is the narrator’s ability to change the racial gaze. She is the one who observes and analyses the white world in minute details. It is Brown’s debut novel but her text reads like the work of a confident author or rather, the work of someone with a vision.
I found this feeling of estrangement in North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah (Riverhead Books, 2019). It is his 13th novel and it also tells a story of assimilation, but through the prism of immigration. A Somali couple’s tranquil life in Norway is turned upside down by the arrival of their son’s widow and children. For decades, Gacalo and Mugdi have lived in Oslo, where they have led a peaceful life and raised two children. Yet assimilation is never complete, and the couple find themselves living in a world where extremists on both sides—Muslim and Norwegian nationalists—threaten the way of life. The book is also a very striking account of Somali diaspora who are still influenced by the war and terrorism in their native country (the son dies in a suicide bombing). It is a story full of grief; about a traumatic past and how it invades the present preventing some of the characters from starting a new life. The wounds resurface and while young people have a better ability to adapt and merge in their adopted land, others like the widow cannot envisage life far from Somalia even though she is engulfed in violence and political trouble. Farah’s uncompromising observation resonated with me because of the post electoral war that took place in my own country, Côte d’Ivoire, in 2010 and 2011. It also made me ask myself: what is national identity abroad? Is it an obstacle to starting afresh? And is it possible to give up on one’s country as some of the characters seem to do in the book?
I discovered Bel abîme by Yamen Manai (Beautiful abyss, Elizad, 2021) as the chair of a literary prize for publishing in Francophone Africa (POLA). It was chosen by the jury as the winner of this year. In many ways, it is about extremism, too. A young man speaks in turn to his lawyer and to a psychiatrist who has come to visit him in prison. The narrator, a boy of fifteen years old, takes his interlocutors to task. The charges against him are serious, but he says he has no regrets. The reasons that drove him to crime are revealed: a father who always humiliated him; a society governed by appearances; the unchallenged domination of the strongest. To this he adds poverty and the contempt for animals and the environment. The only affection that the teenager knew was from Bella, the puppy he took in. But in Tunisia, dogs are killed “so that rabies does not spread among the people.” But the rage is already there. So when Bella was killed, it was time to avenge her. This is a harsh look at Tunisian society, 10 years after its revolution. It is a short work and is permeated with rage and passion.
As for Madame Hayat by Ahmet Altan (Actes Sud, 2021), it is my bedside table book. Here is a Turkish author who has deeply touched me thanks to a magnificent translation into French by Julien Lapeyre de Cabanes. For me it is the quintessential novel since personal history merges beautifully with big history. Fazil, a young man, leaves to study literature far from home. Having been awarded a scholarship after the death of his father, he rents a room in a modest boarding house, where he lives with poets, unforgettable characters, and rebels. To make some money, he works as an extra on a television show. On the set, he meets the voluptuous Madame Hayat with whom he becomes completely obsessed in spite of the fact that she is much older than him. Later on, he meets the young and beautiful Sila, a student of literature with whom he starts a relationship. The character of Madame Hayat, solar, full of life contrasts with that of Sila, who is more literary, more ambitious. It makes a fascinating triangle of love against the background of rising authoritarianism in Turkey. An aspiration to absolute freedom. I was particularly touched to know that Ahmet Altan wrote this book while in prison.