Creative Writing in a Multilingual Landscape: Touring the Two Congos

It's been a while now since our group--the poet Annie Finch, the novelist Laird Hunt, the poet and essayist Sheryl St Germain, poet and IWP director Chris Merrill, plus myself--returned from a working tour to equatorial Africa. The visit took us first to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then, crossing the vast river whose name the two countries share, to the République du Congo (RoC). Still, the afterimage lingers: see Annie’s neat recap of the trip on The Poetry Foundation’s blog.

the poet Annie Finch, the novelist Laird Hunt, the poet and essayist Sheryl St Germain, poet and IWP director Chris Merrill

           Laird Hunt, Sheryl St. Germain, Annie Finch and Christopher Merrill in Brazzaville

Maybe the memories are so vivid because there isn’t very much competition from other sources: central Africa is by and large off the northerners’ radar--unless there’s an acute crisis to cover. And what counts as acute is relative. We knew little about the two Congolese republics before we left (having read Heart of Darkness does not count) so a selection of readings was put up on a shared bookshelf.

The main reason why the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sent us here was, after all, precisely that this region is generally very little known to Americans--as is, in many ways, the United States to the region. Equatorial Africa was colonized to become, and remains, a sturdily Francophone region. With a population estimated by some sources at 10 000 000, the sprawling, complicated and intriguing Kinshasa is, apparently, the world’s largest French-speaking city. The hotel TV might provide a traveler the standard BBC/CNN/24/7 mix, supplemented by some rather evolved American rap, but for regional and local news one needs French and Lingala. The general currency of English seems at best modest in the DRC, and nearly nil in the distinctly France-heliotropic RoC, where Anglo media recede fully in favor of a half-dozen channels in Arabic, ranging from Al Jazeera news through Lebanese soaps to the Morocco-based weather channel. Our job here would be to test the waters for that distinctly American mode of working with (literary) English--a mode in which creative writing springs from practice and pedagogy rather than simply from ‘inspiration’-- and, by extension, to make the case for the very possibility of teaching students to write in an expressive mode. And yes, the case would have to be made in French.

A Brazzaville patisserie

               France's legacy cannot be missed in the many Brazzaville patisseries.

All kinds of cultural tectonic plates underfoot, then. Most Congolese are bi- or trilingual, using Lingala, Kikongo, or another Bantu-family language in their private life, while French is the uncontested lingua franca of the public sphere-- administration, education, commerce. As is the case in western Africa in general, nearly all formal schooling in effect equals learning to think in French, acquiring the language like a second skin--a skin that inevitably dresses its speaker in a full body suit of another, a (post-)colonial, culture, its grammar, its style, its range of voices, its history. At the same time, the vernaculars stream everywhere, overlapping and coloring the French. How then might one clear ground here for creative writing to cajole out an essentially personal voice? This question became one of the red conversational threads of our tour, whether in our daily meetings with Congolese students and writers or amongst ourselves over morning coffee/evening beer.

Another set of questions was posed to us at the roundtable organized by the Public Affairs Office of the US Embassy on the first day of our visit. Here we met with a half-dozen Kinshasa-based writers and academics, most of whom had at some point also been involved with the Embassy’s annual Mark Twain writing contest (held in French!), a forum for maintaining contact with the local literary community. The conversation around the table was most polite and cordial, yet between the lines we could hear a familiar skepticism toward the basic idea of teaching anyone to write. Especially the more senior among our interlocutors countered that the pathway to literary writing really ought to pass through formal critical training. The younger participants seemed, meanwhile, more focused on discussing how to find and address a potential readership—-which, all those present agreed, was the real crux, and the real challenge, in this predominantly oral and increasingly audiovisual-media-driven word culture. In our group those most ready to plunge ahead with practical exercises were indeed a young playwright and a popular TV dramatist.

But right away the American writers saw the work in front of them, and took out the tools of their trade: every session from then on--about a dozen in all, twice-daily on most days--they made their (French) introductory remarks short, and gave the group in front of them a basic writing exercise, one that would tap an immediate and personal experience: “Je crois que……,” “Je sais que …” […]

At the first session with college-age students, at the lively National Institute for the Arts, where young Congolese talent train for careers in music, on stage, or on either side of a camera, the writers took the basic warm-ups in a direction that wanted to lure the students out of their academic French and test the waters with something different. The prompt went roughly: “Ecrivez une scène sur le thème de cuisine ou nourriture, mélangeant le français et votre langue maternelle.” 5 quiet writing minutes later, volunteers in the packed room were delivering micro-dialogues of standup quality, the room howling with laughter at scenes where the cooking, the arguing and the eating was done in two languages, French plus whatever is spoken in the student’s home kitchen.

               A stand-up moment at the National Institute for the Arts (INA) in Kinshasa.

Next day we met a couple of these students again at Tarmac des Auteurs, a lively pocket-sized theatre hidden in a residential neighborhood. The office was inside a discarded container and the stage was rudimentary, but the energy was formidable: the thirty plus young playwrights, actors and arts-sorts that crowded the courtyard wanted to talk about everything and anything, from finding stage-worthy topics though editing strategies or leading a double life between Europe and Congo to writing between French and English. Again, what seemed to be both most enjoyed, and make the most impression, was the Americans’ emphasis on the openness of writing in the exercise mode, its experimental and ‘failure-proof’ nature, and the general collegial and non-hierarchic spirit of the workshop model. Later that warm night we came back to Tarmac again, invited to see a play written by a Togo-based playwright, directed collaboratively, and performed by some of the young actors we had earlier met at the conservatory. Now, in action, the face-off between cultural sensibilities was apparent: on one hand the dialogues were funny, the audience was with the actors all the way, and the comedy hinged on a rather arresting and regionally hot topic: should a straying young wife be punished by public stoning for the affair she is having behind the back of her doddering husband, as the Sharia law demands? Yet for all its West-African premise and values, the structure, the rhyming, the story devices, and even the pacing, the play seemed to have gone to school on Molière, that greatest of all French classics. The history of post-colonialism in a nutshell, then, opening a core question: should artists discard imported forms to fulfill the (Western) modernist requirement of ‘making it new’--or are all forms now equal in 21st century? And, by extension: from and with whom does one learn to write?

Such questions could be set aside in some of our other sessions, for instance at CALI (=Congo-American Language Institute), a well-established English-language school in Kinshasa, where some 80 students, split between several classes, met with us for writing exercises, energetic conversation about ways and uses of creative writing, and a general exchange of ideas about work, daily life, and our distant cultures. At CALI we also had the pleasure of meeting the patient, warm, and thoroughly informed Prof. Ndolo, of the National Pedagogic University, who invited us to visit one of his classes for future English teachers.

Skyline

               Kinshasa seen from Brazzaville, across the great Congo.

A few days later, now across the river in Brazzaville, the much smaller and much more relaxed capital of the RoC, we rehearsed these questions in another range of settings, during a three-day series of writing sessions (coordinated by the RoC Ministries of Culture and Youth and Sports and Université Marien Ngouabi, with the dexterous participation of the Public Affairs Office of the US Embassy). It was fascinating to watch a senior ministry official hesitate briefly, then enter fully into the spirit of a workshop, and share a dream scene with the delighted students.

For this procedure was precisely at the heart of what the American writers had to offer: everyone present at the table writes, everyone present at the table is expected to share from his or her work, everyone’s contribution and feedback is of equal value. It took the students a few minutes, too, to settle comfortably into this distinctly non-hierarchic social arrangement, suspend the pervasive ‘instruction-driven’ voice in their heads, and take the plunge of writing outside the box.

This is not to say that self-expression was the mantra of all our sessions. When appropriate, the writers took turns teaching ground rules of prosody, or plot and character building, or even the process of drafting, editing and second revisions. But there is no doubt that the success of the workshops was the unique occasion to write unjudged, freehand, live. Or, to use Laird Hunt’s basic, wonderful refrain when encouraging his audience to plunge into an exercise: “Pourquoi pas?” why not?

Maybe these observations aren’t ultimately all that different from what CW pedagogy brings into a first-time classroom in the US—-they may simply have seemed radical when delivered in French. But in and of itself, the scrim of another vocabulary does let one glimpse the larger cultural assumptions waiting to be revisited and re-discussed-—not just when and how but what students should, could, be writing about, the strategies, rewards and consequences of a clear voice, the obligations of an assertive self, the advantages and drawbacks of rejecting tradition....all of which ultimately prompted us to think about the winding and uneven paths of literary modernities and post-modernities in the forests of world writing, and in the republic of letters.

After our return Annie and Laird each found and circulated a YouTube clip that inflected our rather limited view of Kinshasa with some music--of hugely different kinds. One is a trailer for a documentary about the traveling band Benda Bilili, the other a trailer for a film about Carmina Burana performed with a Kinois accent. Besides being a joy to watch, these images and sounds make it instantly clear how much we stood, stand, to learn from the people we visited.


Pre-departure Readings

General

  • R. Nzogola-Ntalaja: The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (excerpt)
  • Ph. Reyntjens: The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics 1996-2006 (excerpt)
  • D. Schrank, “Tin Fever,” in Virginia Literary Quarterly (Fall 2010)
  • P. De Boeck and M. Plissart: Kinshasa—Tales of the Invisible City (excerpt)

Literary

  • T. Craig, ed: Writing from the Edge : Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis (excerpt)
  • S. Gehrmann: “Remembering Colonial Violence: Inter/textual Strategies of Congolese Authors.”

Current fiction

  • Alain Mabanckou, excerpts from African Psycho, and “Broken Glass” (in Words Without Borders)

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