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2016 Man Booker International Q&A: Fiston Mwanza Mujila

By Eric M. B. Becker

Fiston Mwanza Mujila and his translator Roland Glasser were longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for Tram 83. Fiston was born in 1981 in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, where he went to a Catholic school before studying literature and human sciences at Lubumbashi University. He now lives in Graz, Austria and is pursuing a PhD in romance languages. His writing has been awarded the Gold Medal at the 6th Jeux de la Francophonie in Beirut as well as the Best Text for Theater (“Preis für das beste Stück,” State Theater, Mainz) in 2010. He received a 2014 French Voices grant for Tram 83.
(Author photo: © Gaël Turine)

Words Without Borders (WWB): Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?​

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (FMM): Every birth is a question of chance. Every person has innate artistic abilities. All that is required is a triggering factor . . . I never chose the path of a writer, even though I experimented with writing, as did most kids in my town. It was only in 1996–1997, during the so-called “war of liberation” led by Laurent Désiré Kabila, that I realized the power of literature: they could wrest everything from me except that desire to write; literature could allow me to express myself in the face of fear and horror, to dream, to travel without leaving my native Congo, and to manufacture a fictitious country, or a new land, for myself while awaiting the end of hostilities.

My literature was thus forged in violence. I inherited the memory of colonization from my grandfather. I was born and grew up under one of the worst dictatorships in the world. My discourse revolves around violence.

We live with the same body whether we’re ten years old or fifty. We don't change fundamentally. We age, we renew ourselves, we evolve, we try to understand the world through reading, travel, life’s realities . . . My relationship with writing has stayed exactly the same, yet I have also remained open to the world.

I come from a country where, for many years now, violence has been the sole intelligible language. I was conscious of the strength and limits of literature from my very first texts. My aims as a writer retain the same essence. My themes, however, vary according to my migrations, my moods, and what’s going on in the world. For example, since leaving the Congo, I have often written about exile, solitude, memory, and madness, while trying to preserve the same oratorical élan and the same types of characters. 

WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country's/language's literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?​

FMM: My writing very much has its place within the family tree of Congolese literature. I quench my thirst with the literature of my country. When I read I often turn to Congolese classics such as Paul Lomami Tchibamba, the father of narrative fiction in Congo-Kinshasa; Matala Mukadi Tshiakatumba, perhaps the greatest Congolese poet; Valentin Yves Mudimbe, whose literary works are an illustration of his philosophical essays; and Zamenga Batukezanga, the most widely read writer in the Congo, whose prose dissects the everyday lives of the little people, the poor, the wretched, the damned, those forgotten by history—in short all those excluded from the privileges enjoyed in any self-respecting country with proper rule of law. And I am very sensitive to Congolese rumba, the lyrics of which form a literary genre in their own right. I also read plenty of contemporary authors. But I couldn’t tell you to what extent the classics influence me, or have influenced me. Somebody other than me would be better placed to tell you that, for I cannot read my own work with the necessary distance. 

WWB: What's your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?​

FMM: I wrote in a poetry collection that I am the child of several mothers. I think that I have been influenced not by one single author, but by dozens. And I wouldn’t be able to list them, since I couldn’t measure the space that such or such an author fills in my literary memory. I am therefore extremely fortunate to be able to identify myself with all literatures, all rivers, all solitudes . . . But let that not obscure my humanity. I was born in Lubumbashi (the right leg of the DRC, which plunges into the heart of Rhodesia, otherwise known as Zambia), I am the eldest son of the mine, I am my parents’ fourth son, I write from the Congo, but my writing is also affected by my wanderings. 

I was born outside . . . as many of us are. For some years now, I’ve been based in Austria. I have also lived in Germany, and I have traveled throughout Europe and spent time in cities such as Brussels, Vienna, and Paris, or little villages such as Brandenbourg, in the Luxembourg Ardennes. My writing also follows my peregrinations. Whenever I arrive in a town or country, I find out about the literary history of the place. But already in the Congo, when I was still in high school, I was beginning to widen my cultural horizons through French literature (the classics) and African literature; and, much later, I started to dissect any good books I came across, whether the author was Russian, such as Dostoyevsky or Marina Tsvetaeva; Mozambican, such as Mia Couto; or American, such as Faulkner. Indeed, when I peruse a novel, I always consider the writer to be “stateless,” for literature scoffs at nationality, at borders, and at all the red tape the world imposes on us

Since settling in the German-speaking sphere, I have become extremely interested in Germanophone writers because the literary focus (in Austria) is primarily on authors writing in German (one always starts with one's own literature, as is the case everywhere) and then on other literatures. This allows me to position myself as a writer, intellectual, and citizen in the country where I reside. But the principle reasons for my interest in Germanophone literature are authors such as Siegfried Lenz, Heinrich von Kleist, Elias Canetti, Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, and Ingebord Bachmann, who all speak to me and my consciousness. Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen (The Suppliants), for example, is one of the most earth-shattering texts about migration to have been written these past few years.

I of course read literature from other countries and cultures (as I have always done): Péter Nádas, Chinua Achebe, Aimé Césaire, José Eduardo Agualusa, Toni Morrison, László Krasznahorkai, Alaa Al-Aswany (and his beautiful novel The Yacoubian Building), and János Pilinszky, a magnificent Hungarian poet whom I have just discovered and whose poetry dazzles me. 

Inspiration or influence can also come from chance, almost magical, sources. Music (jazz and rumba), cinema and painting, family history, but also the Congo (with its perpetual contractions and contradictions of a paradise deprived of fuel oil) allow my imagination to unfold. The world is vast, and it is filled with such unbelievable beauty and ugliness that drives the creation of literature . . . 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila​'s responses translated by Roland Glasser. 

Read WWB's MBIP Interview with Fiston Mwanza Mujila's translator Roland Glasser

More interviews with 2016 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 6, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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