The other Afropolitans
What it means to be a man and a feminist.
- Interview by
- Rama Salla Dieng
Born in Senegal in 1990, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is the winner of the Stéphane Hessel Prize for his short story “La Cale” (2014), the Ahmadou Kourouma Award and the Grand Prix du Roman Métis for his novel Terre Ceinte (2015), and the Littérature-Monde Prize (2018) for his novel Silence du Coeur. Here Rama Salla Dieng discusses with him his last novel, De Purs Hommes, which explores homosexuality, what it means to be an “intellectual,” and what it means to be “humane.”
Does the term “Afropolitan” resonate with you, Mbougar?
If it does, it would be purely at an intellectual level. The notion interests me insofar as it interrogates a tensed identity between at least two poles: one African and the other, generally Western. This is a situation, or a condition close to mine, in appearance. However, when I dig further into the implications of the “Afropolitan” concept to consider Taiye Selasie’s meaning, for example, then I would not exactly define myself as such. The understanding that I have of the term is that of a plural identity of course (which is how all identities are), but also a circulatory one, perhaps even claimed in the multiplicity of cultural anchors between which one navigates. My deep cultural roots, even though I now have others that I care about, remain deeply African. As a writer, as a man simply, I have the impression that childhood is fundamental in the substance and texture of the imaginary. My childhood is deeply Senegalese. I feel Senegalese, African, and I know this first identity better. I am happy that it has met other identities, other spaces, and that it has evolved at their contact. But I do not think I’m in a quest for identity. I do not feel this tension. What interests me are the people, how they relate to each other, wherever they come from. What they bring. What they say. Ultimately, this is what reveals the most about them. I find, in my particular case, that “Afropolitan” is a pleonasm, a redundancy. I am African, so I am from the whole world, of course. This kind of aesthetics and ethics of the “here” and the “there”, the near and the far away, is right. But I do not want to prove it. I sometimes find it strange that “the African” must still have to specify that they are de facto (not always de jure, alas, but it is on this point that one must work) of the world. I question all the suffixes that we associate with “Afro,” in general. But I admit that trajectories and experiences differ. I am not unaware of the political balance of power either. One must also have the means to be “Afropolitan.”
Why do you write?
Dreadful question. Reasons for writing do not always appear clearly to a writer. Let’s also not forget that these reasons may change with time, age, situation … But today, I believe that the reasons I have to write are the same as those which make me read: on the one hand, to mitigate temporarily the fundamental loneliness that I believe to be at the heart of our condition; and, on the other hand, to try to go further in understanding human experience in all its forms. But I could, more pithily, say, like Beckett that I am “only good at that!”
Would you say that your location, and your gender have an influence on your artistic choices?
I cannot be blind to the fact that writing as a black man from France is anything close to writing as a white woman living in Sine-Saloum. To be aware of this configuration, of the place from which one speaks, their positionality, as one says, is important. But that does not mean that I’m forced to do what society, or the air of the times, expect from the “identity structure” that is mine. I believe, as a writer, that we must always go to the source of the universal, of what makes us human beings beyond our particularities. But the source of the universal is never more than the bottom of the singularity. It is therefore in this singularity that one must drill to reach it. The work of imagination and fiction allows me to project myself into singularities that are not exactly mine. I put myself in the head of women, in the skin of “travestis,” in the heart of bisexual, in the eyes of jihadist executioners. These are points of view from which I seek to uncover only one thing: the human condition.
Let’s talk about the human condition that you tell with realism and nuances through the voices of the ragazzi in Silence du Chœur. You came to France as a student, what are your thoughts on the rise of university enrollment fees in this country, the surprising decision of England to extend student visas to two years (instead of four months) in the context of Brexit, and the situation of higher education in Senegal?
There would be so much to say about this rise in registration fees for foreign students (outside the EU) in France! I find it scandalous, discriminatory, cynical, stupid and sad. But it only confirms the terrible and wild power of liberalism, which reigns today at the heart of the public university. All its merit so far was to put knowledge within the reach of all. By this measure, it promotes a differential access to knowledge, an economic inequality, created, thought, wanted, supported by a policy. I find it awful. I have the impression that France sometimes forgets that its influence, its soft-power, also passes through all the students who have been trained in its universities and who promote its training in other countries. Great Britain seems to have understood that foreign students almost always represent an opportunity for the country, whether they stay there or leave after their studies. As for higher education in Senegal, I have long been very critical of it. I still am, but I also understand that it is dragging a structural problem of 30 years. And this problem is simple: teachers can no longer teach; they have almost become social workers. I feel that they are a little left to themselves. And in these conditions, the intellectual stimulation that must be the natural atmosphere of the university does not seem possible to me: teachers and students have their minds elsewhere than to sustaining it, if the very basic material conditions of work are yet to be met.
Your first novel, Terre Ceinte, and your last, De Purs Hommes (published in English as Real Men), explore themes that one could call feminist: the right to self-determination, and to individual and sexual freedoms, among other themes. In the first, two young people convicted of adultery and for their political ideas and in the latter, the main characters are worried about their sexual practices and personal convictions. But much more than that, your novels ask the question: “What is being a human and being humane (beyond our gender)?” “What is an intellectual and what are the perils of being one?” Are you a feminist? Or do you just happen to write feminist novels?
I think a lot about this question: what is being an intellectual? I do not think, as some people do, that it is an outdated or irrelevant question. There are days when I wonder if a writer can be considered an intellectual. It depends, I think, on the form and the framework of their literary production, the order of their speech, in a way. A writer who writes a novel can make people think about a given issue, but I will not call them intellectual. For me the novel must also be a place of thought, but the thought of the novel is very different from philosophical, sociological, or historical thought, whose canonical form is the essay. But a writer can intervene, outside the novel, in the public debate, by an essay, a tribune, an interview. At that moment, he has intellectual pretensions and he must assume them. All that I am saying here is my very personal definition of the intellectual: any individual who, starting from a discipline or a field of knowledge, participates by writing or orally, within the framework academic or not, to the intelligence of a collective subject. That means three things to me: first, that the word of an intellectual is a little more dense and sought after than a mere weekly market opinion; secondly—it is obvious—that there are as many types of intellectuals and interventions as there are of intellectuals (I refer here to Foucault’s reflections on the question); finally, that the word of an intellectual commits them entirely, and alone, on the path of the search for truth, which is the ultimate goal. The perils that lie from there, are those to which any search for truth exposes: to have adversaries and sometimes enemies, to have some friends but to be most often alone, to doubt, to be denied (but it is not exactly a danger), to be misunderstood. But being ready for all of this is part of the “courage of truth.”
I’ll be quicker on your second question. Yes, I’m a feminist, that is, I feel (watch out, I’m going to press open doors) that women are human beings in their own right, and as such are entitled to the same dignity, the same freedom, the same rights. This minimal definition of feminism as I see it is found in my novels. I try in any case to put women who have chosen to follow their desire wherever it may lead them. As a writer, my thinking about feminism has been changing. At first, I thought it always meant building positive, almost ideal female characters. This is no longer the case. I think we have to show female characters who are free to go against the ideal figures, who are often ideal figures just as men dream of. I am now trying to paint more complex female figures, more mixed, less stereotyped. I am looking for their deep humanity. It is also that, I believe, to be feminist.
How do contemporary feminisms inspire you? The notions of masculinity, femininity? Gender?
The bottom line for me is that these are not dogmatic chapels, or abstract frozen terms behind which there are only theories. I believe that any discourse on gender, whatever its situation, must first start from the real, the real and the experience. This is the only way, in my opinion, we can maintain relevance and vitality in these debates—by accepting that they are complex, not systematically transposable, structural, moving and long to take root in the spirits and imaginations. All these notions (masculinity, femininity, gender), in my opinion, put the issue of identity less at stake than that of power. Is domination (economic, physical, symbolic) exercised over a human being? Is this human being belittled because they are a woman, because they do not correspond to what we expect a man to be, because their sexual orientation is not heterosexual? I think it would be much better to have a more sensitive approach to these issues, starting from vulnerability, or embrittlement. But I’m under the impression that we are sometimes confronted with war-like political speeches and all-encompassing pretensions. It would almost be forgotten that no sensible life corresponds to a slogan. But we live in a time when slogans are more effective than the exploration of a sensitive life.
Family and parenthood also occupy a central place in your writings. Is this a fascination for you?
I do not have children. My thoughts or assumptions about being a parent come mainly from my observations, not from personal experience. I watched my parents very much in the way they had to assume this status. And more generally, through the question of parenthood, it is especially that of the transmission that interests me. I’m not always sure what a parent has to pass on—do the parents themselves really know it? What is the limit between transmitting values and projecting oneself into a being that one can be tempted to educate by thinking not of one’s life, but of the regrets of ours? What freedom is left to the child not to receive our legacy, or to use it against us? The verb “to reproduce” is sometimes used. In the literal sense, I find the expression sometimes frightening: Do I want to “reproduce” myself? This questions me, although I am convinced that it is an experience that can also be very happy and harmonious.
If the chosen themes seem to suggest that you are a writer with (a) cause(s), in your writings you seem to make the choice to let all voices resonate at equal intensity. Without judgement. Are you of those who think that the color of the writer is to have none? Why?
I will take the excuse of this question to return to the thought of the novel, which I mentioned above. I am a novelist. And for me, a novelist, in their work, must always try to suspend their judgment—especially their moral judgment—which does not mean that they do not have one. But the romantic space must first be an open space, where, hypothetically, all choices are possible. I believe that all the art of the novelist is there, in their capacity to be not necessarily absent, but erased, ambiguous. The fiction must give several tracks, open several paths (through characters, situations, dialogues, reflections), and allow the reader to survey them and make their own idea of things. To questions, the novelist is to be adding more. And, to do so, they must be able to hear forcefully ideas opposed to theirs, which no one, by the way, asks them. I will overturn your proposal: the color of the writer is to be able to have them all. In his work, anyway.
Where would you place inner exploration in your academic writings?
My academic writings are oriented toward literature, or literary theory, more precisely, even if they have a great deal of dialogue with the major disciplines of the human and social sciences. The university does not always allow, except in a few disciplines, the latitude to get involved inward more deeply than the academic rules allow. This is slowly changing, however. I always thought that approaching literature through research was deepening one’s way of reading the texts. Nothing could be more personal. To read a text is to let it unfold several senses within oneself. The polysemy of a text never appears in itself; it always needs a subjectivity that reveals it. Reading and interpreting remain first personal gestures. That’s what I’m trying to put forward, respecting the academic foundation, of course. It’s an equilibrium that’s complicated. But being a novelist, at the same time, helps me a lot in reading other authors. I feel a deeper connivance, I am more attentive to the movements of the writing. Finally, in my own academic writing, I try more and more to be a writer. To have a kind of “erotic writing” that simply means this: Do not forget the pleasure of the text, the sensuality of writing, which is a component of the pleasure of knowledge. I’m not sure that was the meaning of your question, but in any case, I interpreted it this way.
Which woman has had the most impact on you, and for what reason?
Simple and classic answer: my mother. We were talking about transmission earlier. She transmitted to me one of her qualities, precious and indispensable when one is a writer: patience. But there is another reason: It is by observing her that I began to have my first reflections on what it meant to be a woman in Senegalese society.
If you were a woman, who would you be?
There are so many of them. I keep most of them secret, out of pure jealousy.
But I gladly cite some, heroines of literature, as writers or characters: Antigone, Ken Bugul, The Marquise de Merteuil, La Grande Royale, Nedjma, Anais Nin, La Sanseverrina, Anna Karenina, Marie-Vieux Chauvet, Foedora de Malicante, Madame de Mortsauf. I would have also loved to be Nina Simone, who is romantic at will. And Toni Morrison, the great and late Toni Morrison who will be missed. And Angela Davis too. If there some small place left, it would be for Suzanne Césaire.