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The City and the Writer: In Abidjan with Véronique Tadjo

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Abidjan as you feel/see it?

Abidjan is the pulse of Côte d’Ivoire, the barometer of all its energies, dreams, and disappointments. It is an attractive place for some, while others find it has an excessive nature. It is a welcoming city most of the time but it can also be unpredictable and moody. Abidjan hides its true nature in a game of glitter and shine. Many people come from all over West Africa and far abroad to enjoy its economic success—its modern buildings and cosmopolitan look. It has been called “the pearl of the lagoon” and given small affectionate names like “Babi.” But it’s got a mean streak. There are big popular areas where women and children line up to collect water from public pumps, and electricity is connected illegally and dangerously. When the rainy season comes, heavy flooding causes landslides. Nevertheless, it remains a magnet for many because of its nostalgic past and its new possibilities. The moment you think that you know Abidjan, the city escapes your embrace. 


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The civil war and the “battle for Abidjan.” It is estimated that three thousand people were killed. It was sparked by the 2010/2011 postelectoral crisis when Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president, refused to cede power after Alassane Ouattara, his rival, won the vote. The capital was under siege, people were fleeing everywhere. They were displaced to rural areas or became refugees in neighboring countries. Life was upside-down. The city became unrecognizable.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There is a hidden forest on the grounds of the University of Abidjan-Cocody. It is very old. I’ve always known it. When I was a student, I used to go there. It has been left untouched and preserved thanks to the botanical institute. The trees are tall and magnificent. The forest breathes and the scent of the earth mixed with humus is powerful. You are completely immersed in another world.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Among the “classics,” you have Bernard Binlin Dadié, who is considered the first Ivorian writer to attain international recognition at a time when Côte d’Ivoire was still under colonial rule. Then there is Ahmadou Kourouma, whose novel Les soleils des indépendances (The Suns of Independence) has been read by countless students all over Africa and translated into numerous foreign languages. It is about the disillusionment brought by the new elites who imposed the one-party system and were corrupt. In terms of style, Kourouma “revolutionized” the French language by using it in an unconventional and innovative way. As for Hamadou Hampaté Bâ, he was a master storyteller in the ancient tradition and a philosopher. We have great poets like Bottey Zadi Zaourou, Noël Ebony, and Jean-Marie Adiaffi. Thanks to a vibrant publishing scene in the region, there are many talented authors, including women writers like Régina Yao, Fatou Keïta, Tanella Boni, and Werewere Liking. Literature for young people has also developed well.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Vietnamese restaurant called Paradisio in my neighborhood. It was started in a house that used to be La Villa Kiyi, an art center created in the late ’80s by two female artists. It was a great meeting place. That’s where I had the launch of my first book, a collection of poems titled Laterite (Red Earth). I remember the warmth and happiness of the place. After a while, the owners moved to a different area. But I always go back there to have a meal as a kind of pilgrimage.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Le Palais de la Culture—this is where most cultural events take place. The book fair is held there every year in May. Thousands of Abidjanais come to buy books: parents with their kids, schoolchildren, students, ordinary readers, etc. There are also lots of concerts, shows, and exhibitions happening all the time.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The fishermen’s villages dotted along the lagoon. They are inhabited by the Ebrié, known as the first settlers of Abidjan. You can’t really see their communities unless you know where to look because the city has encroached on their territory. Most of the fishermen were forced to find other jobs, but deep down they have kept their cultural identity and way of life. Today you can spot their canoes gliding on the water.


Where does passion live here?

In the open-air restaurants called Maquis. You can eat barbecued fish and chicken, fried plantains, and attieké, a kind of couscous made of cassava. While men drink beer, women take ginger or hibiscus flower juices. Everybody talks freely about politics or the topics of the moment because of the informal setting. That’s where you get the real news and discover what people think.


What is the title of one of your works about Abidjan and what inspired it exactly?

Loin de mon père (Far from My Father, University of Virginia Press, 2014). Nina, the main character, returns to the Côte d’Ivoire after her father’s death. She confronts not only the unresolved family issues that she had left behind but also questions about her own identity. The drama that unfolds tells us much about the evolving role of women, the legacy of polygamy, and the economic challenges of daily life in Abidjan.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Abidjan does an outside exist?”

“Outside” is becoming “inside” as the city expands rapidly and flourishes well beyond its former borders. Sometimes I wonder if its hunger for more will ever be satisfied.


Véronique Tadjo is a writer, academic, artist, and author of books for young people. Born in Paris, she grew up in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), where she attended local schools. She earned a BA in English from the University of Abidjan and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, Paris IV, in African-American literature and civilization. In 1983, she went to Howard University in Washington, DC on a Fulbright research scholarship. She was a lecturer at the English department of the University of Abidjan until 1993, when she took up writing full-time. She began writing and illustrating books for children in 1988 with her first book, Lord of the Dance, an African retelling. She was prompted by the desire to contribute to the emergence of literature for children in Africa. Her second book, Mamy Wata and the Monster, won the UNICEF Award in 1993 and has been published in eight dual-language editions. It is also on the list of the 100 Best African Books of the Century. In the past few years, she has facilitated workshops in writing and illustrating children´s books in Mali, the Benin Republic, Chad, Haiti, Mauritius, French Guyana, Burundi, Rwanda, and South Africa. She has lived in Paris, Lagos, Mexico City, Nairobi, and London. After fourteen years in South Africa, where she was a professor and head of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (2007–15), she now shares her time between London and Abidjan.

Published Oct 21, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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