[Conversation Issue] Using language without restraint to show the energy of the ‘wretched of the earth’—Fiston Mwanza Mujila chats to Bongani Kona

As part of our January Conversation Issue, Bongani Kona interviews award-winning Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.

Tram 83
Fiston Mwanza Mujila (translated by Roland Glasser)
Jacaranda Books, 2015

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in 1981 in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, where he went to a Catholic school before studying literature and human sciences at the University of Lubumbashi. He now lives in Graz, Austria, and is pursuing a PhD in Romance Languages.

His ambitious debut novel, Tram 83, published in French by Éditions Métailié in 2014, was longlisted for the 2016 International Man Booker Prize, and won the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Belles-Lettres category of the 2015 Grand Prix des Associations Littéraires, and the 2017 German International Literature Award.

Mujila sat down with The JRB at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town to chat about, among other things, his love of jazz and how ‘his desire to write finds its foundation in the Congolese tragedy’.

Bongani Kona for The JRB: I’d like to begin by asking you about where you grew up. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: I grew up in Lubumbashi, in the mining province of Katanga. During the Mobutu era, this province went by the name of Shaba. However, since 2015, following the decentralisation policy, my hometown now belongs to the province of Haut-Katanga. Katanga was even a country at one point, and Lubumbashi its capital during the Katangan secession (1960–1963). The Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe uses the term conflit de mémoires to qualify this policy of changing the names of a city, a province … with each new regime, there is a resumption or an attempt to remove the previous memory. I started writing in Lubumbashi. And this city remains, for me, a landmark. It is from there, even if I don’t live in the country, that I analyse the world.

Bongani Kona: Had you always wanted to be a writer?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: We are not born writers, we become writers. I became a writer because, maybe, I was born in Lubumbashi. If I was born in another city or country, I might be a musician, a prophet or a soldier. Among my childhood and teenage dreams, I wanted to become a jazz musician. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Although I read a lot in my adolescence, I must admit that my desire to write finds its foundation in the Congolese tragedy. Writing was for me a way to capture the world but also my country. I am part of this generation that was born and grew up under a dictatorship and whose parents and grandparents lived in the colonial era. Beyond this motive, literature remains for me a possibility of creation, enjoyment and pleasure.

Bongani Kona: Who are some of the writers you looked up to when you were growing up?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Growing up it was easier in my hometown to find French literature—at the French Cultural Institute and in the libraries in our schools—than it was to find African writers. Of these authors I remember Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Guillaume Apollinaire, Balzac … so I came into contact with African literature a little late, and it was thanks to my brother who read a lot. It was a great discovery to read Sony Lab’ou Tansi, Ahmadou Kourouma, the poet Tchicaya U Tam’si, Mudimbe … When I was eighteen or nineteen, I opened my horizons to other geographies, languages, literatures: Achebe, Grass, Márquez, Langston Hughes …

Bongani Kona: When did you start on Tram 83?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: I wrote the first lines of the novel in 2009 or 2010. Then I devoted myself to other literary projects—I also write poetry, short stories and plays—before taking up the text again in 2013 and publishing it in 2014. The novel came out of the desire to tell about mining’s realities.

Bongani Kona: The novel is set in an unnamed city known to the reader as the ‘City-State’. What freedoms did that allow you, the refusal to locate the place you were writing about on any of the maps we possess?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: I didn’t want to limit the novel to a Congolese paradigm. This text deals with a global experience, which is mining’s artisanal work. We are in the fiction and the fiction allows the writer to move the boundaries and play with the imaginary. Tram 83 could be a South African, Congolese or Angolan novel. Literature must remain a place of possibility, dream, extravagance, freedom and excess.

Bongani Kona: In his essay ‘Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds’, Achille Mbembe writes that ‘throughout the second half of the twentieth century … Congolese rumba and its offshoots … exercised an intimate power over the African imaginary’. Because of this intimate power, it’s difficult to think of Congo without thinking of rumba. Music runs throughout your book—rap, salsa, dance hall, and so on—but you’ve spoken of Tram 83 as being a jazz novel. Why jazz instead of rumba?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Like the rumba that Achille Mbembe refers to, jazz is a music of resistance, not only in the United States but also in South Africa or even during the Third Reich, where it was prohibited and considered as degenerate.

I was inspired by jazz in the construction of my characters. From the beginning, I decided to organise my characters as jazz musicians on the stage. Jazz, it seems to me, is a musical genre that allows a certain freedom and mobility of musicians in the group. Each musician plays his score for himself but also for the band. There is also, for each musician, the possibility of improvisation and the expression of personality.

In a piece of rumba, individualities are erased for the sake of the orchestra, that is to say, they play for the voices or the leader of the group. If I ask you the name of Tabu Ley’s [l’Orchestre Afrisa International] drummer, I don’t know if you would be able to answer me. We can remember bandleaders Luambo Makiadi, Tabu Ley or Papa Wemba but we will not always remember such a drummer or guitarist except, perhaps, the virtuoso soloist Docteur Nico, who was called the ‘god of the guitar’. But if I ask the same question about the South African Blue Notes jazz orchestra, you’ll answer me easily. In Tram 83, each character corresponds to a musical instrument. He plays for himself but also for the group.

I am a lover of music and listen to rumba and jazz with the same ardour, the same passion and the same joy. When I was writing this novel, I often listened to Coltrane, Gillespie, Max Roach but also Hugh Masekela, The Blue Notes …

Bongani Kona: Cecil Taylor offers the following formulation concerning jazz and improvisation: ‘The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole through self-analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material …’ Can you describe how improvisation functions in your work as a writer?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: When I write, I give a lot of freedom to the characters and to myself. I don’t try to control their madness, deliquescence or their ardour. The characters must be or are beings in their own right that should not depend exclusively on me. It is only after writing that I try to structure the textual world. A second level of improvisation takes place when reading the text. I sometimes perform my own lyrics with a jazz band. In this case, I improvise from the finished text.

Bongani Kona: The novel depicts the City-State as a place where, as Requiem says, ‘the mightier crush the mighty, the mighty defecate in the mouths of the weak, the weak sequestrate the weaker, the weaker do each other in, and then split for elsewhere’. Despite its dark themes, Tram 83 remains an exhilarating read, yet liberation manifests in its pages through style and form rather than content. Can you say more about the relation between content and style in the book?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: The characters in the novel know that life is a big propaganda. They know that nothing will change even in fifty years. They know that hunger will follow disease, that the disease will follow the dependence on alcohol, that addiction to alcohol will follow the depression, and so on. They prefer therefore to enjoy life, with dignity, despite debts and other problems. It was important to use language without restraint to show the energy of the ‘wretched of the earth’ … and jazz was helpful in this regard.

Bongani Kona: The characters in the book also seem to reject both the past and the future—everything happens in a perpetual present. Can you expand on this?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: The political discourse in a banana republic works the same way. They say that people must forget the past and strive for a better future. I think this is pure propaganda for people who live in hardship day to day. They want to do everything here and now. They are hungry, unemployed, and so on, and cannot wait forever for a hypothetical future or take refuge in a past that does not allow them to respond to daily concerns. We can’t eat the past. It serves to guide the present and the future but we can’t fill the belly with it. In the mining territories, for example, people organise their life according to their daily income. The characters of the novel know that the country will not change, so they prefer to live every day in the present instead of fantasising about the future. They want to live today, they want to dance their rumba today, they want to smoke their diamba today, they want to have sex today, they want to buy beautiful clothes today, they want to drink their beer or their rotten alcohol today …

Bongani Kona: From Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, the West has endlessly attempted to write the Congo, yet something always seems to escape this writing. What is it that ‘objective knowledge’ fails to capture?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: I think between Joseph Conrad and David Van Reybrouck, the Western discourse on Africa has radically changed. Each text reflects an era. Conrad’s writings on Africa or Congo are part of a colonial period dominated by a colonial ideology. The problem with Western discourses on Africa is related to the point of enunciation, the place from which these discourses are elaborated.

If I write about the Congo, I will write from a subjectivity, a sensitivity and a personal truth. I was born and raised in the dictatorship. My grandparents and my parents are former colonised peoples. There is, beyond rationality, a personal, family history, but also a point of view from within. But, I know that my family’s story did not start with Leopold II or Mobutu or Stanley or David Livingston. The problem that affects Western discourse on Africa is a place of enunciation, even though some texts such as David Van Reybrouck’s are characterised by great objectivity.

We return to the eternal question: who should write about Africa and who shouldn’t write about Africa? The risk of such an approach is to fall into an Afrocentrism. The African discourse must avoid being always in reaction to the European discourse on Africa. When I return to the Congo and I leave the big agglomerations, it is always interesting to discuss these things with people. I have the impression that most don’t care what the West thinks about them or about Africa. This was also the case with my grandmother. For her, what was important wasn’t the Western discourse on Africa but her own perception of Africa and Europe. For me this was a great lesson.

Bongani Kona: Lastly, Lucien, the novel’s central character, has just completed half of a ‘stage-tale’ entitled The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years: ‘Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King’ but also Ceauşescu (and ‘not forgetting the dissident General’). To what extent do you think the utopian dreams of the heroes of the revolution are still viable? Is there still a space for utopian dreaming?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: In response, I will say ‘yes’, the dreams of Lumumba and Martin Luther King are still alive. I firmly believe in the porosity, the permeability and the transversality of historical phenomena. It is often forgotten that the historical weight of a country is also part of an international system. And Lucien is aware of the necessity of an artificial memory, especially for places said to be without history. He tries to write the story of a country that does not exist. Therefore, he turns to fiction for writing a new memorial map. For countries like Congo, characterised for years by policies of censorship and amnesia, we need a lot of poetry, a lot of dreams, a lot of utopia, a lot of jazz.

  • Bongani Kona is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. He is Contributing Editor at Chimurenga Chronic, a pan-African quarterly gazette. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize and contributed to Safe House, an anthology of narrative non-fiction from Africa. Follow him on Twitter
Author image: Philippe Matsas

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