Terror Across the River: Letter from a Congo Literary Fest

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Terror Across the River: Letter from a Congo Literary Fest

Postby St John Smythe » Fri Mar 08, 2013 9:55 am

Terror Across the River: Letter from a Congo Literary Festival

Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is an agreeable city with a frayed, low-rise commercial downtown, a hilly upscale district of hotels and embassies that stretches to the airport, and, radiating out in three directions, busy working-class quartiers where life goes on out of doors along rutted, unpaved side streets. The Congo River flows along the city’s southern edge, and across it one can see Kinshasa, the famously unruly capital of the separate and much larger Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre. The twin capitals share a great deal, including language and music, but their colonial and modern histories are completely different; as if to underscore this, there is no bridge across the river, only a ferry and smugglers’ canoes.

Whereas Kinshasa, which its Belgian rulers called Léopoldville, has sloughed off its colonial name, Brazzaville remains Brazzaville. At the apogee of the French colonial empire, it was an important place: the capital of French Equatorial Africa, the headquarters of the Free French during the Second World War, and the site of the conference at which de Gaulle formulated France’s assimilationist approach to decolonization. As such, it was also a center of French letters, producing important évolué authors such as Jean Malonga and Tchicaya U Tam’si and the journal Liaison. Like the poet-President Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal, Congo’s first crop of leaders after independence, in 1960, were intellectuals: the theologian Fulbert Youlou, the poet Alphonse Massamba-Débat.

Brazzaville’s literary culture ebbed thereafter, constrained by the country’s small population (fewer than five million people, of whom a third live in the capital), policed by successive authoritarian regimes, and ultimately scattered by a brief but ugly civil war in the late nineteen-nineties. Congo’s most prominent writers today operate from abroad, among them the chemist and novelist Emmanuel Dongala, who teaches at Simon’s Rock, in western Massachusetts, and the novelist Alain Mabanckou, who divides his time between Paris and Los Angeles, where he teaches at U.C.L.A. They are not exiles, however, in that they are free to return home. The Congo Republic is relatively stable now, certainly as compared to the semi-permanent state of crisis across the river in the D.R.C. The military ruler of the nineteen-eighties, Denis Sassou Nguesso, has been back in power in Brazzaville since 1997 under a thin semblance of democracy, and his regime is less concerned with noises from writers than it is with the continued smooth extraction of revenue from oil, minerals, and timber—all of which the country has in abundance.

A few weeks ago, Dongala, Mabanckou, and several other overseas Congolese writers were back in Brazzaville. So were a hundred or so Parisian intellectuals, Belgian essayists, hip Nigerian authors, South African slam poets, and writers and filmmakers from across Africa, especially its French-speaking countries. A special overseas edition of Etonnants Voyageurs, a major French literature and film festival, had landed in Brazzaville like a U.F.O., disgorging these characters into the city, along with a substantial, mostly French, press corps, and assorted international lit-fest habitués. The festival had held previous African editions in Bamako, Mali, but decided to change venue even before the current conflict flared up there, and Mabanckou, its co-director, helped steer it to Brazzaville. The Francophonie organization of French-speaking countries provided support, as did Congo’s government, in part channelled through the semi-official media house that publishes the country’s only daily newspaper, Les Dépêches de Brazzaville.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/b ... z2MwNqcM9A
St John Smythe
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