Alain Mabanckou on his profound connection to the Republic of the Congo
Alain Mabanckou was born in Pointe-Noire, the principal port of the Republic of the Congo, in 1966 — just six years after the country achieved independence from France. He moved to France and later to the United States, writing poetry, six novels and several collections of essays. Mabanckou's recent books are charming explorations of childhood, family and country. His memoir The Lights of Pointe-Noire relates the experience of returning to his hometown, and his novel, Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty, captures his childhood spirit in the character of his 10-year-old alter ego, a boy named Michel.
Mabanckou's latest novel in English, Black Moses, was published in 2017.
Mabanckou spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on stage at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2016.
Why he dedicates all his books to his mother
"My mother didn't go to school, so she couldn't read and could barely speak French. At the time people thought it was a waste of time to send a woman to school. For me, it was a real sadness to see that she wanted to go to school and she couldn't. She spent all her money on me, in order to make sure I would have a good education. She wanted me to go to France, because Congolese people dream of going to France to succeed, even though she wanted me to stay because I was her only kid. I went to France when I was 20, and when I was 25, she died. So she didn't see me come back to Congo. All my books are dedicated to her — maybe I'm trying to make her one of the most famous mothers in African literature."
On finding comfort in Congolese culture
"When I left Congo, it was the '90s and my country was facing two civil wars. They were fighting about oil, as usual. The country did suffer a lot. Each time I wanted to come back, my mother would say no, don't come, they could kill you. In 1995 she disappeared, and I couldn't even go there. I explain in The Lights of Pointe-Noire why I didn't go to the funeral.
"Thanks to my Congolese culture, people never die. In Europe when someone dies, it's okay, you go to a cemetery, you put flowers, you cry. But in Congo you live with all those shadows, all those ancestors. If I want to do something big, instead of asking God to help me, I ask the person I know the best — I know my mother better than God, and I think that it's important for me to keep in mind that even though I'm living in Western civilization, it's important to me to keep those beliefs."
On returning home, and finding it changed
"Pointe-Noire is a small city. The book about my childhood, Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty, I wrote from France and from America. But I wrote The Lights of Pointe-Noire in Congo, because I went back to my city 23 years later. I didn't feel, by going there, that I was going somewhere dangerous. I was sad that what I saw was not the image I had from my childhood. I was very shocked to see how people were living, without taking care of the spirit of the city. I wanted in the book to point out the spirit of the city, the beliefs, the fact that Pointe-Noire is still a place to visit and be. If I can't find what to write, I just have to think about my childhood there, and then everything comes."
Alain Mabanckou's comments have been edited and condensed.
Music to close the interview: "Ba Kristo," composed and performed by Kékélé.