Terror Across the River: Letter from a Congo Literary Festival
Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is an agreeable city with a frayed, low-rise commercial downtown, a hilly upscale district of hotels and embassies that stretches to the airport, and, radiating out in three directions, busy working-class quartiers where life goes on out of doors along rutted, unpaved side streets. The Congo River flows along the city’s southern edge, and across it one can see Kinshasa, the famously unruly capital of the separate and much larger Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre. The twin capitals share a great deal, including language and music, but their colonial and modern histories are completely different; as if to underscore this, there is no bridge across the river, only a ferry and smugglers’ canoes.
Whereas Kinshasa, which its Belgian rulers called Léopoldville, has sloughed off its colonial name, Brazzaville remains Brazzaville. At the apogee of the French colonial empire, it was an important place: the capital of French Equatorial Africa, the headquarters of the Free French during the Second World War, and the site of the conference at which de Gaulle formulated France’s assimilationist approach to decolonization. As such, it was also a center of French letters, producing important évolué authors such as Jean Malonga and Tchicaya U Tam’si and the journal Liaison. Like the poet-President Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal, Congo’s first crop of leaders after independence, in 1960, were intellectuals: the theologian Fulbert Youlou, the poet Alphonse Massamba-Débat.
Brazzaville’s literary culture ebbed thereafter, constrained by the country’s small population (fewer than five million people, of whom a third live in the capital), policed by successive authoritarian regimes, and ultimately scattered by a brief but ugly civil war in the late nineteen-nineties. Congo’s most prominent writers today operate from abroad, among them the chemist and novelist Emmanuel Dongala, who teaches at Simon’s Rock, in western Massachusetts, and the novelist Alain Mabanckou, who divides his time between Paris and Los Angeles, where he teaches at U.C.L.A. They are not exiles, however, in that they are free to return home. The Congo Republic is relatively stable now, certainly as compared to the semi-permanent state of crisis across the river in the D.R.C. The military ruler of the nineteen-eighties, Denis Sassou Nguesso, has been back in power in Brazzaville since 1997 under a thin semblance of democracy, and his regime is less concerned with noises from writers than it is with the continued smooth extraction of revenue from oil, minerals, and timber—all of which the country has in abundance.
A few weeks ago, Dongala, Mabanckou, and several other overseas Congolese writers were back in Brazzaville. So were a hundred or so Parisian intellectuals, Belgian essayists, hip Nigerian authors, South African slam poets, and writers and filmmakers from across Africa, especially its French-speaking countries. A special overseas edition of Etonnants Voyageurs, a major French literature and film festival, had landed in Brazzaville like a U.F.O., disgorging these characters into the city, along with a substantial, mostly French, press corps, and assorted international lit-fest habitués. The festival had held previous African editions in Bamako, Mali, but decided to change venue even before the current conflict flared up there, and Mabanckou, its co-director, helped steer it to Brazzaville. The Francophonie organization of French-speaking countries provided support, as did Congo’s government, in part channelled through the semi-official media house that publishes the country’s only daily newspaper, Les Dépêches de Brazzaville.
Etonnants Voyageurs means “surprising travellers.” Perhaps those most surprised in Brazzaville were members of the local hardscrabble writers’ community, who operate with no publishing infrastructure or institutional support, as they watched the festival apparatus spread across the city, with its workshops, readings, screenings, concerts, and parties. Green-and-white minibuses shuttled guests between sessions at the Palais des Congrès, a monumental and somewhat forbidding slab of nineteen-eighties state architecture that also hosts the country’s parliament, and talks at the French cultural center, which sits at a busy intersection near the entrance to the Bacongo district. Hip-hop poets held slams and filmmakers showed documentaries at outreach events in the quartiers. Panelists fled the strictures of hotels and festival halls and drifted into the neighborhoods, making new friends at sidewalk markets and in dank beer bars.
Bridging these worlds better than most was Julien Mabiala Bissila, a playwright who divides his time between Lyon and Brazzaville, where he grew up and where he now runs a theatre company. “It’s amazing to just hear talk of Brazzaville as a literary center again,” Bissila told me. “It’s been years since we’ve had a literary meeting.” Whereas older writers left Congo because of the war, Bissila credits his writing career for having helped him live through the conflict. In 1997, at the age of twenty-one, Bissila left Brazzaville as it descended into mayhem, overtaken by militias. He landed in a camp run by Angolan soldiers. He witnessed many horrors and fled into the forest, where—like many Congolese—he took refuge and spent over a year wandering and dodging armed factions. In 1999, a so-called humanitarian corridor opened to let refugees return to the pacified city. Bissila made it through, but many didn’t: soldiers patrolled the corridor, plucking out men to execute and women to rape. A ferry carrying several hundred returnees from Kinshasa was stopped at Brazzaville’s port, and most of its passengers vanished, allegedly packed into shipping containers and drowned in the river. Later Bissila learned that one of his best friends had been on the ferry and somehow escaped, and was reduced to living in hiding. In 2005, the regime put some officers on trial for the ferry case. The trial was televised, and Bissila watched at a local bar; when it ended in mass acquittal, he went home and began writing in a state of agitation, channelling the whole experience into “Crabe Rouge,” his first play.
One afternoon during the festival, Bissila told some of this story from a stage in the gardens of the Palais des Congrès, where a makeshift restaurant dispensed cold drinks against the sweltering heat. Beside him were two young writers from across the river in the D.R.C., Papy Maurice Mbwiti A Bwanga and Fiston Nasser Mwanza. Their conversation was titled “New Congolese Voices,” but the panelists repudiated this designation, and so did some young Congolese writers in the audience—including several who had come over from Kinshasa—who grumbled that these three, having achieved a foothold in Europe, were now among the anointed and no longer new. Still, all three shared experiences that the crowd could identify with, and when they read from their works—brash, angry, sardonic, hilarious texts about daily life in the face of power and its perversions—each earned a lusty, knowing round of applause.
Afterward, a white-haired gentleman in the audience rose to make a statement. “In the words of my young brothers here, I sense a note of sadness,” he said. “But may I remind them, our continent is only just now being born.” Invoking the ancestors, as well as Victor Hugo, he urged patience with Africa’s inevitable growing pains. After he spoke, there was a beat, and the moderator called for the next question. Later, I asked the writers what they made of the elder’s comment. “It was off topic,” Bissila said. “I understand where he’s coming from, but it doesn’t speak to me.” Mbwiti A Bwanga, too, rejected the idea of a monolithic Africa still finding its way, but expressed some sympathy for the elder. “He himself is in pain,” he said. “The hurt is everywhere. And we’re in a situation where whenever you speak, you are taking a risk.” He went on: “I’m not writing to be writerly. I feel things and I have things to say. We’re in a state of urgency. In Kinshasa, every bottle of beer that you lift in the evening is a trophy for surviving another day.”
Not everyone at the festival shared this sense of impatience. In one room of the Palais des Congrès, an older crowd gathered for something dubbed “Estates General of African Literature,” featuring erudite exchanges on timeless, general themes: the writer’s relationship to political engagement, form versus substance, and the future of the novel. The tenor and pace, at least of the part I heard, felt lifted from Left Bank café society of bygone days. Mbwiti A Bwanga formed a similar impression. “It’s a bubble,” he said. “It feels like people who run into each other all the time. ‘Here we are in Brazza, remember when we met in Bangkok?’ This is my first literary festival, and it’s great to meet all these elders. But it demystifies them, too—and there are some disappointments.” A distance, partly generational, was palpable, between members of a certain establishment published by the right Paris houses and the motley others—the locals, the crime novelists, the filmmakers, the rappers, the English-speakers—who seemed to mingle quite nicely despite their differences.
Etonnants Voyageurs is a French enterprise—the main festival, which forms a network with Edinburgh, Jaipur, PEN World Voices, and others, takes place each year in St.-Malo—and for all the African topics and speakers, this was, in key ways, a French event. Its infrastructure arrived from Paris, including sound equipment and the personnel to run it, interpreters for the English speakers, and a mobile studio for France-Inter, the public-radio station, which devoted a day to live broadcasts. While local volunteers helped with logistics, the radio hosts, technicians, interpreters, and moderators were almost all French, giving many events a peculiar feel, with African panelists questioned and mediated by white people in various capacities. This underscored, almost to the point of caricature, how much France continues to shape arts production in its former colonies. French (and Belgian) publishers dominate the market for Francophone African writing; the books are exported back to African countries, where their price puts them out of most people’s reach. In cinema, both features and documentary, the Francophonie and a host of French regional arts commissions and culture funds select and support Francophone African works, thereby curating the films that make it to the world market. In many Francophone countries, the government is all too happy to outsource basic functions—concerts, plays, a working library—to the local French cultural center. The effect is paradoxical: supportive, but also stifling.
Just how the festival fit in the France-Congo relationship, and possibly burnished the Sassou Nguesso regime, was another inconvenient question humming in the background. Brazzaville shows few remaining traces of civil war. The city does not feel heavily militarized, except late at night, when pickup trucks loaded with armed police roam the deserted main arteries. But no one harbors any illusions about the political system. One day the President made a brief visit to the festival, and some participants attended an impromptu poolside reception at his residence. The next day saw a programmed cocktail party at the riverfront Case de Gaulle, where the French ambassador lives. Before this, however, a young Congolese writer not on the festival program, Gilda Moutsara, had taken advantage of the event’s opening ceremony to grab the microphone—seconds before the culture minister was to give his speech—and make an impassioned declaration on behalf of several hundred families who had been left homeless by floods in Brazzaville’s Makelekele district, last December, and who were still sleeping in squalid conditions in the local town-hall courtyard. (The flooding was the final of three calamities to befall Brazzaville in 2012, along with an airplane crash and the possibly suspicious explosion of an ammunition depot, which sparked fires that killed several hundred people.) “I call on the authorities to do something,” Moutsara said, to applause from the many high-school students in the crowd. “These families are Congolese. We’re an oil country. We have resources!” The next day, France-Inter had placed tape of her remarks online, along with Alain Mabanckou’s carefully phrased endorsement of her right to raise the issue.
The day after the festival, it finally rained, and with most of the day to kill before the night flight to Paris, a number of writers found themselves at a riverside bar on the outskirts of Brazzaville, looking across some impressive rapids to a shore road on the Kinshasa side, and above it, a large building on a verdant hillside. “That’s the defense ministry,” said Jean Bofane, a Kinshasa native. “That’s where they torture people.” Bofane has a well-reviewed recent novel, “Mathématiques Congolaises,” a sardonic panorama of his home city, with its violence, dysfunctions, and humor. He came to writing on the late side; earlier, during a supposed liberalization phase of the Mobutu regime, he had tested the waters as a publisher of political pamphlets and comic strips, buying a portable printing press and moving it every night to stay ahead of the goons with explosives. Now based in Belgium, Bofane was one of the festival’s busiest speakers; and he joined a panel on crime writing, where he traded macabre stories of corruption, torture, ritual killing and other pleasantries with, among others, Janis Otsiemi, who has set several crime novels in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. “Life in Africa is like living in a crime novel everyday,” Otsiemi said. “That’s why I became a novelist,” Bofane answered. “I was tired of living that frisson; I wanted my characters to deal with it instead.”
Siddhartha Mitter is a freelance journalist and consultant in New York City. He is an arts correspondent for the Boston Globe and the former culture reporter for WNYC public radio.
Photograph by Gaël Le Ny.