Writivism had a conversation with Richard Ali A Mutu, a novelist from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, who organized and facilitated the first Writivism workshop in DRC. Ali discussed his love for Kinshasa and its people as well as his choice to write and publish in Lingala, his mother tongue.
Valérie: Richard, you’re well known for participating in the 2014 Africa39 project in Port Harcourt where you were named one of the 39 most promising writers on the continent. Can you tell us about your trajectory before that moment?
Richard: First of all, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. It’s not every day you get asked to interview for the Writivism blog!
Personally, I don’t think my writing career before that point was all that exceptional. Those who know me might say the contrary, but whatever. I was interested in literature from a young age. I scribbled the odd poem in my student notebooks, the most lyrical stuff ever. And then, wanting to develop my style, I started participating in online writing contests, international ones mostly, and also a few that were organised in my home country. I remember that at the age of 15 and a half, I had written my first novel titled Etike.
I studied law but decided to totally commit to writing at the age of 21. A catalysing moment for me was winning the Mark Twain Literary Prize organized by the American embassy. The Prize is awarded every month to what they judge to be the best short story. To this day, I’m the youngest person ever to have won that competition. This really stayed with me and allowed me to keep pursuing my dream: to write in a country where such a dream was tantamount to pure folly, especially for a young person.
Later on, I started publishing: first, a short story collection which was re-edited by the biggest publishing house in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and then a novel in Lingala, which paved the way to my selection to the Africa39 project.
Valérie: What inspired you to write in Lingala?
Richard: I don’t quite know how to answer that question. I mean, would you ask a francophone Belgian person: “What motivated you to write in French?” or to an American, ‘Why do you write in English?” Alas, this is the type of question that is only directed to an African writer who writes in his or her mother tongue.
But to provide an answer, I would say that it’s simply because I love Lingala more than any other language on earth. There you go! This may come across as surprising or funny to some people, but it’s just that I love that language. Being a writer implies having a relationship to a particular language and that describes me. I love writing but it isn’t the mere fact of writing in English or French that makes me write, I like to give myself the latitude to write in whatever language that pleases me. But for a while now, writing in Lingala– my mother tongue, my favourite language ever, the language of my people, the language of my primary readership– is what interests me the most.
In summary, let’s just say that it was a taste for adventure that drove me to write in Lingala. I live in a country of more than 70 million inhabitants, where almost everyone speaks Lingala, so you have to understand that it would only make sense for me to write in the language that they speak, that I pay tribute to them in their daily language.
Valérie: The anglophone literary communities are becoming more familiar with your work, but tell us about your primary readership?
Richard: It’s a point of pride for me that I’ve always been able to discern this one thing about literature and the stories we tell each other: They are human stories meant to appeal to all members of the human race, whether they live in the US, South Africa, France, Nigeria, Canada, Uganda, etc. It’s just a question of translating them to local languages so that people can discover them.
And to answer your question, I think I mentioned it earlier without anticipating that you would ask me. Yes, as I said, my main readership until now—yes, I say “until now” (laughs)—consists of my compatriots, and perhaps especially those from Kinshasa. The moment I write, I think of Kinshasa, and only of Kinshasa. That city and its people live within me! I’m kind of crazy about Kinshasa and Kinois. You have to visit this city and meet the Kinois.
Valérie: Could you tell us a bit more about the literary scene in DRC?
Richard: ‘In full bloom for a while now’– That’s how I’d sum up the Congolese literary scene. It’s currently rising from the ashes. Congolese literature, at one point in time, dominated the continent’s literary scene; it produced big names and was talked about widely, and then there was nothing for a long time. But now, we’ve made a comeback to the global literary scene with new names like Bofane, Mwanza, Bibish, J-C Ntuala, Parole, Sinzo, Mbwiti, etc.
So, literary activities have resumed, little by little. You have to recognize the dynamism of the newest generation of young people, which really fought for recognition. New publishing houses are popping up, national and international literary events are being organised, conferences and workshops are taking place here and there, we’re seeing new publications every week. So, DRC’s literature (just like its football) is reawakening. Get ready for it!
Valérie: A Writivism workshop took place in Kinshasa at the end of January 2016. How was the event?
Richard: What an event! I think that you have to check out the photos and comments from the participants to judge the impact of the workshop. I really hope that in another blog post, you publish the feedback from participants that we had the privilege of organising with people in this country. It was a pretty unique workshop. Unforgettable! Things went well. We had pleasant exchanges regarding the short story format. Writivism really grew wings!
Valérie: How did the Kinois receive the Writivism concept, particularly the pan-African aspect?
Richard: That’s a great question. In fact, I think the workshop really helped to carry the “Writivism” concept in the francophone Congolese space. That’s what I meant when I used the metaphor, Writivism grew wings! The concept had a certain impact in our region, especially in the DRC. Everyone wanted to learn a bit more about “Writivism.” Each time I would publish something about Writivism it prompted the curiosity of my friends and entourage. The workshop really helped to break the Anglophone-Francophone barrier!
In a way, Writivism helped initiate a certain connection that we would all like to see between linguistic communities. After all, we are first and foremost “African writers.”
Long live Writivism! ‘Writivism wumelaaaa’!