In this interview conducted by Jarmo Pikkujamsa for African Writing Magazine, Mamadou N'Dongo, a Senegalese writer and filmmaker and author of Bridge Road and L’Errance de Sidiki Bâ, talks about the roots of Bridge Road in Black American struggles, the art of film in relation the craft of writing, and much more.
Jarmo Pikkujamsa: What prompted you to write Bridge Road?
Mamadou N’Dongo: There are two elements: Representations of identity and the lynching of James Byrd. For several years I had been writing L’Errance de Sidiki Bâ. I had just finished it and I wanted to carry on exploring a similar theme. What I had in mind this time was not a uniform identity, rather I wanted to approach the question of identity from the perspective of society, and the American society imposed naturally. Before you call yourself American, you are member of an ethnic group, Black, Latino, WASP, Native American, Italian, Polish, Chinese… And even more so I wanted to address the question of one’s own identity in regard with the Other. In other words: What kind of space am I ready to allow to the other so that he can live by my side?
JP: How does the American influence take shape in your novel?
MN: Firstly, the position of the Black Americans was achieved at a price through fights, through combat - from slavery all the way to positive discrimination, and between these two extremes. The civil rights movement made the black people conscious of their identities, which is reflected through the character of Cyrus Carter in my novel. It is about the appropriation of history.
Secondly, in 1999 I saw the documentary Sud by Chantal Akerman. It recounts the lynching of James Byrd. This event evokes my story together with the photographic reportage of Alain Norton, a black man who decides to write a book on a lynching that happened in a town that shares the name with my novel. This town, Bridge Road, has also been the stage of a pogrom in the 20’s. I am of course referring to the event of Tulsa, which took place on the 1st of June 1921 when Oklahoma town witnessed the only pogrom in the history of the US: over three hundred African American citizens were killed then by the white inhabitants of the town. I want to show that there is a genealogy of racial hatred and that in 1998 you simply do not lynch a man without being prepared, without being disposed to commit such an act. Atavistically, it is one of the elements that make up your identity. The constitution of identity is one of the crucial elements in a narrative and this is happening to the narrator-inquirer in the story; he is on the look for Alain Norton because of the disappearance of the latter. This investigation turns into a quest, a quest of his self.
JP: The narrative of Bridge Road is built on fragments. What is it that attracts you to this type of story telling?
MN: My answer to you is spontaneous without being clever: The story decided over the form and style. I quickly realized that I needed witnesses, voices. I wanted to work on restoration and interpretation of collective memory. The history is told by the winners and as a consequence history is often truncated, and I am revealing this with the help of the narrator-inspector of the novel. He works for the secret police who spy on their co-citizens. In France they are called RG (Renseignements Généraux, general inquiries), and the character in my novel is a specialist on tapping conversations. So all the testimonies collected by him constitute only fragments of what has been said. Or, to be more precise: they constitute fragments of what has been overheard by my inspector. Yet I also recognize that indeed this is my writing style: I love to write in scraps, it’s like breathing. Now in Bridge Road, just like in L’histoire du fauteuil qui s’amouracha d’une âme and in L’Errance de Sidiki Bâ, the reader recognizes my style, but I would like to insist on the fact even if I am a stylist, what counts is the story, the unity: without form there is no meaning.
JP: Why do you think this style suits your stories better than a more “traditional” way of describing a series of events?
MN: In Bridge Road the plot is in the first person singular, in a traditional form of enquiry: What happened? Where is this character? Who is the narrator? And so on. In the end of the story you have all the answers, and as far as the form is concerned, I’m coming after the 19th century novel, after Proust, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Zamiatine, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Borges, nouveau roman, Burroughs, Jim Thompson, Gombrowicz, Arénas, Bruno Gay-Lussac, Kourouma, Ted Lewis, Bolaño, Gabrielle Wittkop…These writers have shaken the genre and they did not do so by provocation. Every writer is a contemporary of his own time and in order to have a future, also the past is needed. That’s what Malraux said: “In order to write, one needs a library.” As far as writing is concerned, I am in a well-off situation; I am lucky to come after all these great writers, among whom William S. Burroughs is the most important of all. When I read The Naked Lunch (1959), I knew I could be free. This text emancipated me. Just as did one of my more recent readings: La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Madame de Lafayette is much more modern and humorous than some of the contemporary moral novels.
JP: Bridge Road is currently being adapted to cinema. It will be interesting to see how this novel, inspired by a film, finds its way back to the big screen. How does writing and film making fit together in your professional life?
MN: I am very fond of Maya Deren, Derek Jarman, Jean Cocteau, Tarkovski, Ingmar Bergman, Louis Buñuel, and Patrick Bokanowski. What I like about films is their element of plasticity and I particularly love expressionist and surrealist cinema. My films are different from my books, despite the fact that they are, to some extent, convergent. I certainly do not consider literature and film as art forms that complete each other. For me they are two different types of media, two ways of expression that share writing as a common denominator. The differences are immense. On the one hand you may have a collective work par excellence, and on the other hand you may have a work of art that is the most individual creation ever. I think that Bridge Road, a novel inspired by a documentary, now to be adapted to a film, is an excellent mise en abyme of different art forms.
JP: How are you involved in the film adaptation of Bridge Road?
MN: I am the writer of the novel that inspired the film. I have kept myself at a distance of the project in order to allow both the scenarist and the director to appropriate the work at hand. It is not easy to make an adaptation, especially when the writer is still alive. Film people tend to have a certain inferiority complex towards writers, and there are so many around who have published a book, and keep publishing more. You see, a director always takes the role of a writer, but when two writers share a story in one book, there is always one writer too many. I am of course available for the adaptation of the novel, and at the same time I am aware of the fact that everything depends on the re-interpretation of my novel in the same way that I myself was able to re-interpret Chantal Ackerman’s documentary. And to be honest, everything I wanted to say in this particular case, I have already written in Bridge Road. It took me six years to finish the novel.
JP: What is the symbolism behind the Helium eater, perhaps the most unordinary one of your characters?
MN: It is Ogre, Minotaure, Chronos, who all are anthropophagic. That’s what the Helium eater is about. He does not feed only by the air that we breathe - he suffocates us.
JP: Sidiki Bâ’s memoirs always begin with numbers: what do they stand for? Are they referring to the effacement of the names of individual soldiers?
MN: I had not given it a thought in a similar manner and your idea gives a new approach to the text. For me the symbolism behind the numbers is topography of wandering that is at the same time physical and metaphysical. I would like to call it topography of peregrination into remembering, into memory – topography of one story in History. The numbering system is like memory: it is random because memories come back in a scattered way, and they are rarely in a chronologic order. They relate to kilometres, scales of values, distances, statuses, newspapers, days, persons; they reflect a way of making sense of the world and of oneself. I put this system in line with the military and their strategy, in which everything is figures, everything is mathematics. Incidentally, the numbers also follow the way they were used in the camps where corpses where numbered, it is Shoa.
JP: Has there been more recent (or any) public discussion on the tirailleurs?
MN: When my novel was published it was not put in context with the tirailleurs. It was considered more a sequel of stories of war. As far as the tirailleurs are concerned, it is one of the popular topics that keep appearing in conversations; in the family there is always an elderly man who took part in the war and who tells his memories. Especially, if they find out that you come from France, they show their medals and photographs, and talk to you about the war.
JP: Are Sidiki Bâ’s impressions from the past actually drawn from real combatants?
MN: Yes, these topics appeared very often in the conversation: the cold, the ”funny” way of combating, the digging of holes, the hiding, the racism, the friendships, the violence of the combats, the guns, the shells, the aeroplanes, the amputations, the French landscapes…
JP: Do you consider yourself a Senegalese writer?
MN: I consider myself a writer who writes in French. Yet, I welcome the idea to be considered a Senegalese writer. I spent my early childhood in Pikine in Senegal and I came to Drancy in France at the age of six. I speak my language fluently and I know the history of my country very well because it is tied to my family history. I belong to the caste of the nobles, a fact which from my early childhood onwards has kept me asking from myself: what does the status that has been appointed to us in advance in the Senegalese society mean? To be more precise: I am a Fulani aristocrat with French nationality and I live in Paris and in Amsterdam. The question of belonging is not stupid at all. Look at the case of Edmund White for instance: He is generally categorized as a gay author in book shops. Then there are writers such as Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco who are Irish, Russian, or Romanian and who chose to write in French, yet they are considered French writers, not francophone writers. Isn’t that absurd?