Writivism 2016: Interview with Mamadou Diallo

Mamadou Diallo is a Senegalese writer and founder of RECIDIVE, an editor of Vives-Voix, one-time winner of 2015 Ake Prize for Prose and the Francophone facilitator of Writivism’s workshop on fiction and non-fiction in Dakar. He is on Writivism’s 2016 panel of judges for the Short Story Prize. In this conversation, he speaks about himself and his work, the Short Story Prize, Writivism, and literature.

Mary: You’re a writer, journalist, founder and publisher of a cultural litmag, RECIDIVE. These things are artistic. Is there something that thrills you about the art?

Mamadou: It happened quite late in my life. I was going through hard times. I was 19, used to nothing but the comfort of middle class Africa, when I discovered far from home what it means to have no money. I couldn’t go to the cinema, get drinks with friends at bars– those things cost money. Libraries were free though and they had books that interested me. The library turned into a second home and the books transformed me, radically. It still is magical to me. I’m 30 now and all the good things that have happened to me have had something to do with what I found in great works of literature, philosophy, history, and classical essays. My first job as a journalist I got, not because I had a degree from a journalism school, but because I’m quite well read and can craft sentences. I started Recidive because I wanted to write about the things I saw in Dakar– a generation of artists rising, reinventing the city. I felt like it made sense to document these through both creative writing and photography. As Africans I think we need to make sure that what surrounds and constitutes us is more and more the product of our work and imagination. There is a need for us, like for all parts of humanity, to inhabit our spaces and time with our personalities, through art.

Mary: In January, you facilitated Writivism’s 2016 workshop on Fiction and Non-fiction in Dakar. With the writers you worked with, what can you say about the present state of the literary industry in Dakar?

Mamadou: To label what we have as an industry is to go a little too far I think. We have a long tradition of literary fiction in Senegal, starting as early as the 1910s, but we don’t yet have an ecosystem to nurture literature and ensure that every generation of Senegalese produces good fiction work. Every five years or so comes one interesting, noteworthy book, most of the time published in Paris.


Mary: Have you judged a writing prize before? If yes, what was the experience like?

Mamadou: Never. I have won one though, the Ake Prize for Prose. Since I don’t like to picture myself as a judge, I would like to put it, as expressing my enthusiasm or lack of it.

Mary: Generally, are prizes not getting overrated?

Mamadou: They are in the sense that you are an accomplished writer not because you won a prize but because you write good books that entertain readers. Somebody said that competitions are for horses, not artists. That said, I think writing prizes are necessary today in Africa, they can help the literary world notice new voices and provide both confidence and opportunities to those.

Mary: I find your work as an editor with Vives-Voix interesting. How has it been “cross-pollinating” Anglophone and Francophone writers? Any challenges and rewards yet?

Mamadou: It is still a work in progress. We just started with Emmanuel Iduma from Nigeria, founder of Saraba Magazine, novelist and art critic whose work at the Vives Voix residency involves photography, iconographic history, art performance and criticism. I found Emmanuel revealed to me aspects of Senegal and Dakar. I’m curious about the world, but more specifically Africa and its diverse faces. We haven’t been writing and reading on each other’s societies that much and starting to do that might give birth to interesting works of literature. That’s really the idea of the residency.

Mary: What is the importance of indigenous languages in telling communal stories? By “communal,” I mean location, in the sense of stories that are peculiar to a people and/or place.

Mamadou: So many concepts that reside into indigenous languages cannot be translated. I speak Wolof and I know of concepts I can express in Wolof that I can never fully express in French. One of my favourite novels, Doomi Golo, by Boubacar Boris Diop is written in Wolof. No other book gave me, as much as that one did, the sense that its story and characters inhabits Dakar. I think the indigenous language debate has to do with laziness. We’ve learned to write in colonial languages and it’s a lot of work to start doing it in our own languages. I have no doubt that it is a fruitful gait; I’m just lazy to do so for now.

Mary: You know, people sometimes say there are certain things that can only be said properly in the language for which what is being said is situated – where the idea or story or whatever it is originates from. What do you think about the place of translation? Do we not stand the risk of losing important things with the use of translation, as opposed to the benefit of having what has been translated accessible to a wider audience? Or does the benefit outweigh the cost?

Mamadou: I personally always read books originally written in English in their original versions. French is much more comfortable to me, but when I’m interested in a novel and its writer, I want to experience the singular language of the author. I’m happy though that Garcia Marquez has been translated in French and Ngũgĩ in English so I can have an idea of their works in Spanish and Kikuyu. I’d rather read the writer than the translator, but if only the last one is at my reach, I’m glad that I can read him. Literary translation seems a necessity in a globalised world where we almost have a responsibility to know about other people’s stories. We have all those images of people and places that are remote to us, this unending stream of superficial comments in the media that will keep on broadcasting whether they know much or do not. Books alone, and I’m talking literary fiction here, can convey a sense of being a human being in a particular setting.

Mary: As a judge on the panel of this year’s Writivism Short Story Prize, do you have any expectations about the submissions you’ll judge?

Mamadou: In the workshop I was facilitating, I was happy to see that despite the scepticism of some veteran writers when I told them about the program, there are still young people that read a lot and hence develop artistry in writing. I expect to read good stories. I know I will and that those pieces will help me grow as a person and a writer.

Mary: This year, Writivism hopes to “restore connections” – strengthening the existing connection between English and French, and the relationship between Anglophone and Francophone writers. This is a bit similar to your work at Vives-Voix. With literary workshops being hosted in French, and efforts on-going to translate Writivism’s anthology this year into French, what is your take on this?

Mamadou: Interest in building bridges among African countries that goes beyond the linguistic divide is an old story. The linguistic divide is a cultural and political problem and if we are to build creative industries supported by large markets we have to address it. And crossing borders is healthy anyway. I’m happy to see that fellow Africans in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana or Uganda are working on widening the scope of their projects so that we francophones can partake in it. It just so happens that today we have the means to meet online, make plans and things happen; thanks to technology that came to supplement the long existing will. I believe that we are, with programs such as Writivism, partaking in that project which is Africa.

Mary: Thank you for your time, Mamadou.

Mamadou: My pleasure


About the Interviewer

Mary Temiloluwa Ajayi: freelance profiler/interviewer with Centre for African Cultural Excellence and Images and Voices of Hope; 2015 Fellow, Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa; Shaper with World Economic Forum; TEDxBodija LOC; Dreamer by day and night; serial planner; fierce believer in possibilities.