share


Interview with Ondjaki

Ondjaki is the most prominent African writer of Portuguese from the generations born after Portugal’s five former colonies on the continent achieved independence in 1975. His most recent novel, Transparent People, is a sometimes comic, often wrenching, depiction of the city of Luanda, Angola. Now in its seventh printing in Portugal, Transparent People was awarded the 2013 José Saramago Prize, and, in French translation, the 2015 Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman Africain, as well as a Prix Littérature-Monde at the 2016 St. Malo literary festival. In addition to French, Transparent People has been translated into Spanish and German and is forthcoming in English from Biblioasis. This interview was conducted by email in late 2016.

— S. H.

 

Q

The White Review

Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret have first-person child narrators, the untranslated How Many Dawns Has the Night has a first-person adult narrator, and The Whistler has a third-person narrator but is very short. What was your most difficult technical or artistic challenge in writing a large, sprawling novel like Transparent People, with multiple characters and plotlines?

 

A

Ondjaki

— They’re very different books. They have very different voices because they grew out of very different literary projects. The main challenge I faced in writing Transparent People was to create something similar to what I had imagined. And, in that sense, I’m the only one who may be aware that perhaps I haven’t achieved my objective. There are lots of people who like the book, I realise that. But I had that book in my head for nine years, it accumulated in my mind, my dreams, my waking hours, my moments of bitterness, it even got mixed up with my real life. I needed to write that book to get it out of me. And also because Luanda deserved to be the subject of another book. I did struggle with having so many characters and so many little worlds to keep tabs on and describe. At heart it’s a book about Luanda. About ‘one’ Luanda. I think that each Luandan has a Luanda inside and outside of themselves. Luanda now has around seven million inhabitants, so we still need lots more books in order to better understand the puzzle of the big picture.

 

Q

The White Review

Transparent People is set in the contemporary world of globalisation. The Cubans and Soviets who appeared in Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret have been replaced by American oil consultants and Brazilian preachers, and all politicians seem to be corrupt. Alongside the contemporary themes, the novel contains a strong thread of nostalgia for the years of Angolan socialism (1975-1990), which is evoked by Odonato’s memories of his youth, and by the scene in which the death of ‘the Lady Ideology’ is announced. Is the socialist past a necessary point of reference for criticising the globalised present?

A

Ondjaki

— Let me begin by saying that some people, either in books or in life, don’t replace others. I understand what you mean, but I don’t like the idea of replacements. And I’d like to say this: there’s nobody who can replace the Cubans, or what some Cubans did for Angola.

 

On the other hand, I think that there are good and bad things about socialism. But what I think doesn’t matter, since what’s in the book, so far as this subject goes, are the opinions of Odonato and the Leftist. And I have a pronounced tendency to understand and respect my characters’ opinions. There is a more or less explicit debate throughout the work about a globalised Angolan present. The comparison with the era of ‘scientific socialism’ only accentuates this contrast. The problem with the end of socialism, and the transformation of the systems that came from socialism, is the lack of any transitional phase to prepare the ground for the new political phase. And I feel that the highest price is paid by those sectors of the population which have the least access to ‘capitalist schemes.’ Because capitalism is full of schemes, obviously. Or, as we say in Portuguese, the flies change.

 

Q

The White Review

— Ah, yes, the flies change, but the shit stays the same! Transparent People contains large amounts of punning and wordplay. When other writers of Portuguese from Africa, such as Mia Couto and José Luandino Vieira, made use of wordplay, they seemed to be trying to change the Portuguese language in order to write a new national reality into existence. Yet in Transparent People the punning felt to me like a defence, on the part of the characters, against corruption and poverty and violence. Do you agree with this? Or do you see your wordplay as serving a different purpose?

 

A

Ondjaki

— I change my literary language with each book I write. It depends on the tale I want to tell, the era it belongs to, the style and who the characters are. I don’t need to use my Portuguese language to defend something or take action against something. I was born into a Portuguese language which was, and is, Angolan. But many Portuguese languages exist in Angola. It’s not just the difference between Luanda and other places. The way of speaking varies according to social class, also, or according to place, or according to the personal interpretation that each person makes of their language. The Portuguese language in Angola, whether used by a citizen in daily life, by a child, by a woman who sells things in the street, by a sea-shell seller, a politician or a writer, is a singular instrument of self-expression and creation. It’s even each person’s private theatre.

 

I think that this book’s language helps us understand the people. Who these characters are. Who this city of Luanda is, with so many languages and ways of speaking. Who is the Angolan Portuguese language in the midst of the daily carnival of personal interests. But, on top of all that, I think that words and wordplay are, for me, as an author, a delicate tool of my work: it helps me put together the puzzle, it allows me to speak about the characters, it allows me to show who speaks how–but literary language is always also a way of describing people or places. Of course, in a book, the word choices are mine and form part of what’s going to be called the ‘literary style.’ I make my books with the language that works best to tell the tale. In this sense, my choices are aesthetic rather than political or sociological.

Q

The White Review

Transparent People contains savage satire of all of the worst social consequences of dependence on oil for national development. Do you feel that your criticisms have been justified by the economic crisis that gripped Angola when oil prices dropped?

 

A

Ondjaki

— I have to say that I wrote the book in 2009, even though it was published only in 2012. Crises are cyclical, and I don’t spend my life looking for things that justify my criticisms. I feel that the management practice in Angola, and in the world, that’s based on oil, is wrong. From an ecological point of view, obviously, but above all from a human point of view. The way in which oil exploration is done is wrong, the world of corruption that surrounds oil, the failure to equitably distribute the revenues, etc. It’s more and more feasible to prepare ourselves for a transition to the production of non-fossil-fuel energy. The money that comes from oil should be used for that. All that happens as a result of oil crises is that they throw into relief some countries’ dependence on oil. Angola is one of those countries, and there are even some positive aspects to the crisis. I think people will start to look for other, non-petroleum solutions. But it’s an old, vicious cycle. It’s not just a question of oil, it’s about the country and the African continent: we’re in urgent need of another type of leader. I hope to be alive to witness the appearance not of one, but of a set of leaders, who deal with the continent’s people with respect and human consideration. Who deal with their countries as a group of cities full of people. A nation cannot be seen as a private yard available to be ransacked by the president or the party. A country is a yard full of children, adults, the elderly, dreams and embraces.

 

Q

The White Review

— In 2016, seventeen young men were arrested in Luanda, fifteen of them at a book club meeting and two in subsequent days. They were charged with attempting to overthrow the government. After months of imprisonment, hunger strikes and a farcical trial, they were condemned to long prison sentences, then suddenly released. The best-known of the accused, the rapper Luaty Beirão, belongs to your generation and his father, like yours, was a member of the upper echelons of the governing party, the MPLA. Now that President José Eduardo dos Santos (who has been in power since 1979) has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2017, is there a sense of a disagreement, or even open division, between the older and younger generations of people from MPLA families?

 

A

Ondjaki

— This depends on which families we’re talking about. I’m familiar with various cases of people whose parents were members of the MPLA and the children aren’t any more. So it’s not just a generational question. The problem is much more complex and would have to involve a historical analysis that we don’t have space for here.

 

But to give you the response that is possible, I’d have to say that there are numerous divisions between the most diverse sectors of Angolan society. There are people who are fed up with what they see, even though they belong to the MPLA. There are people who have been fed up for longer, and the fact of not belonging to the MPLA may help them see things from a different perspective. And there are people of my father’s generation who may agree with the MPLA on certain topics, but who neither like nor agree with the procedures of the Party, or the President, in relation to freedom of speech.

 

The case of the ‘fifteen plus two,’ beyond its other merits, also has this one: it brought debate to Angolan society, and in particular it touched the Angolan elite. It touched not only the hoary old dinosaurs of the Party through news and actions, but also adults and young people via the internet, Facebook, Whatsapp. And I saw ‘new’ positions among the youngest people: they didn’t agree with what the young prisoners were saying; but they didn’t agree with their detention. From my point of view, this was a big forward step. And these forward steps—the generalised debate, the internationalisation of the question of freedom of expression in Angola among those who don’t support the MPLA, how the justice system relates (or doesn’t) to the president’s office—we owe this whole debate to the courage and persistence of these young people who spent a year in jail paying an extremely high price for their convictions. They taught Angolan society a great lesson: they believe in their convictions and they’re still defending them today. Regardless of one’s own political position, we must thank these young intellectuals for this. I think that they are exercising now what will be Angola’s future. The country should be proud of these young people’s intelligence and abilities. Not to be afraid. I think this is young Angolans’ dream: that we no longer need to be afraid and that we no longer need to almost always self-censor our opinions. The day we can do that, we’ll have a prettier country.

Q

The White Review

— In a recent interview, another younger Angolan artist, the world music singer and journalist Aline Frazão, warned outsiders looking for a conflict between the government and a clearly defined opposition that, ‘I don’t have a Manichean vision… Everything’s more complex and subtle than that, and for that reason it’s more difficult to solve.’ Is the lack of a clear alternative to the MPLA, and to President Dos Santos (or his anointed successor, João Lourenço), one of the obstacles to action for younger generations of Angolans?

 

A

Ondjaki

— That could be one way of seeing things. The alternatives, in democracies, continue to receive the title of ‘opposition.’ Ask any minimally lucid person in Angola if they feel that the opposition to the MPLA works well. And they’re going to see that there’s this void, obviously.

 

On the other hand, and this is another ‘void’ that is sometimes promoted by the Party in power, civil society actions are rarely promoted. Or permitted. Politics, obviously, isn’t simply a question of parties. Unions, associations, marches, demonstrations, debates, are also ways of doing politics in a democratic context. Much of this is missing in what’s known as ‘Angolan democracy.’

 

Of course it’s going to be necessary for the younger generations to face up to this challenge: what are the goals of the new generations? What political changes do they want? How are they going to vote? To get a sense of this, it’s sufficient to go and see the extent to which information circulates, the levels of schooling, how much of the national territory is reached by the media, and you’ll see that we’re still far from the democratic standards that people from the Party say we’ve already achieved. In summary: is there a lack of an alternative to the MPLA? Yes. Without a doubt.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve spent fifteen years writing fiction set in Angola, while often doing your writing in other countries, such as Brazil and Portugal. The book you published after Transparent People, the untranslated short story collection Blue Dreams on the Corners, even though it concludes with three stories set in Angola, is your first work of fiction set mainly outside Angola. Should readers expect more fiction with international settings from you in the future? Or will your fiction return to Angola?
A

Ondjaki

— I understand the question, but sometimes I just feel that everything comes from inside. Especially in the short stories. In Blue Dreams on the Corners I decided to give the name of a city to each story. It appears as if the events took place in those cities, but it’s not actually like that. It’s never really like that with writers. Those are cities that are inside me, between the labyrinth of dreams and, above all, the desire to tell stories, little tales about people or moments in time. My fiction is still going to go back to Angola a lot. You’ll be able to see this very soon. And I still haven’t gone into Angola’s past, I think that I’d like to do that one of these days. But, really, I don’t have anything against writing about other locations in the world. It just doesn’t happen to me very often. I need the echoes of Angola, of Luanda, a great deal in order to write. And to dream, too.

 

 

 

*

 

This interview was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Ondjaki, born in Luanda, Angola in 1977, is the author of nearly twenty books, including novels, collections of short stories and poems, and children’s literature. His work has been translated into nine languages, and has won major literary prizes in Angola, Brazil, Portugal and France.

Stephen Henighan is the English translator of Transparent People, as well as of two of Ondjaki’s earlier novels, Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. He is General Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series. His most recent novels are The Path of the Jaguar (2016) and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (2017).

READ NEXT

poetry

February 2013

Social Contract

Les Kay

poetry

February 2013

Formally, I and the undersigned— What? Use, like Mama said, your imagination if you still have one where scripts...

poetry

August 2016

No Holds Barred

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

TR. Brian Hagenbuch

poetry

August 2016

Hello. Dr Rivers’ clinic? Thank you. Yes. Yes, doctor, I would like to be your patient. With your permission,...

fiction

March 2017

A Table is a Table

Peter Bichsel

TR. Lydia Davis

fiction

March 2017

I want to tell a story about an old man, a man who no longer says a word, has...