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Interview with Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Roof terrace of the Shangri-La hotel, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, USA; late afternoon, 8 October 2015. We ensconce ourselves in the comfortable loungers, half in the shade, gazing out through the heat haze to Santa Monica Pier and the sparkling Pacific, happy to take a load off from our crisscrossing of the country, from our many readings and performances and lectures surrounding Fiston’s début novel, Tram 83. Cool beers are ordered

—R. G.

Q

The White Review

— What did you think the tour would be like before you came? And how did you imagine the United States would be?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— The tour was the great unknown as far as I was concerned. I’ve never been to the United States. It’s my very first time here. The United States that I know is through cinema, through film, and that’s a different thing, it’s not always the true reflection of something, of a reality, a country, a continent. And then there’s another United States that I know, through literature, which is also not necessarily a reality, because literature and cinema are two languages which both use fiction, which employ falseness, lies and the re-creation of reality. So I came to the United States barefoot, I would say; barefoot because I didn’t know the country, I’d never set foot here. I arrived as if I was discovering the United States. ‘Discovering’ is a beautiful expression I think. For example, in the Congo, we were taught in history class that the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão discovered the mouth of the Congo River in 1483, which is quite interesting because this river mouth existed before that guy, Diogo Cão, discovered the Congo. It was there long before his birth! It has always existed.

Q

The White Review

— It’s like Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ America.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Yes, it’s the same thing. We are told that Christopher Columbus discovered America. So I think I can say too, that like Diogo Cão, like Christopher Columbus, I discovered the United States on 19 September, 2015, around 1 or 2 p.m. This country, America, has always existed before me, and so the fact of coming here, to the United States, of arriving at New York airport, is a discovery equal to – and I’m not boasting – that of Christopher Columbus, or Diogo Cão in Africa!

Q

The White Review

— And what about the tour itself? How did you envision it? How did you imagine it would be?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— The tour disillusioned me a bit, in the good sense of the term. I had another image of the United States, that is to say an image of a place, a continent that was more accessible. I realise that everything about the United States is big, huge. We began our tour in New York. We visited Boston, then Providence. We toured the state of Texas: we went to Houston, Dallas and Austin. We visited Seattle, then came back down, to LA, and finally we’ll head to San Francisco. So I am astonished by the vastness of the United States. You can’t do this country by train because it’s all so big, it’s all so vast, and I am fascinated by this hugeness, which actually makes me think of the Congo, a country that is pretty big, vast, spreading, extending into the distance, a monster that soaks its feet in the ocean. The United States is similar. It soaks its head in the Atlantic and its feet in the Pacific. And I think it’s fabulous that a country should have such giganticness, such hugeness, such vastness. It makes me think of what poetry should be, because I envision poetry as being something like the United States, or like the Congo, something huge, vast, flowing, something of the order of a river, of the order of a pregnancy, an eternal pregnancy. What fascinates me so much about this hugeness, this vastness, I think, is how it can be assimilated to what one calls the American Dream. If there is an American Dream, there is also a Congolese Dream, a dream that one might limit to Kinshasa; the dream that drowns. By which I mean that Kinshasa is the kind of city that when you arrive it’s like being in the United States, where there are no limits, there are no barriers, no borders; you can succeed or fail. You hold every possibility in the palm of your hand. You can see beyond the sea, beyond the ocean.

 

But I also wanted to underline something. Since I’ve been in the United States, I have understood that these states are very powerful, through their history, their diversity of population, and all of their potentialities. It’s a country where everyone, in a certain way… there is a certain kind of integration. You can arrive in the United States and not necessarily feel like a foreigner, as you do in certain states where… Even if there is police brutality against certain populations, the black population – and we see this from Europe and Africa – at the same time the United States is the stuff of dreams, and what’s important for me, as a human being, as a Congolese person living in Austria – because Austria is also one of my countries (I have several countries) – is to be able to dream. I think that ‘dream’ is the first word we should teach our children, that we should teach our cousins, our neighbours and the people we mix with, because when you dream you can travel beyond the ocean, beyond the sea, you can enter a fictional world. I don’t think one can make literature without dream; every dreamer is a potential writer.

Q

The White Review

— Would you like to live in the United States? Or spend some more time here? Return to stay a while?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Stay a while, certainly, because something that I regret a little is coming to the United States and, because of our rather heavy schedule, not going to Philadelphia, the cradle of Coltrane, of not doing a jazz… a jazz road, how do you call it? A jazz road movie?

Q

The White Review

— Road trip, a jazz road trip.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— A road trip. Travel to New Orleans by way of some strategic jazz locations. Go and see Coltrane’s house, for example, and the places associated with Ornette Coleman, Louis Armstrong… And I have always been rather in love with female jazz musicians, I don’t know why; a platonic love, they have always enthralled me. But I wasn’t able to go where Billie Holiday went, for example, or Ella, all these great ladies. Or follow in the footsteps of Toni Morrison, Faulkner, Hemingway. There is this literary, cultural United States that I didn’t get to see, but which I’ll certainly return to visit, the United States of Harlem Renaissance – we took just a brief walk through Harlem – the United States of Langston Hughes, who, in a famous poem that we studied at school many years ago, said: ‘I, too, sing America.’ When I landed in the United States, I also said, I said to myself: ‘I, too, sing America,’ just like Langston Hughes, and so that’s the United States I’ll certainly return to discover, to immerse myself in, because it’s part of a story, a personal one involving myself and a continent, myself and the characters who have made an impression on me, who have fascinated me, and who number among my mentors and guides. For example, the spiritual connection I have with poetry owes its development to the figure of John Coltrane (among others), for he also had a certain spiritual connection to music; there are a number of characters like that who have guided me, and guide me still. Some of them are in the United States, some of them are in Germany, and some of them are in Africa. And there is also the recent Congolese diaspora in the United States, a profusion of Congolese artists and intellectuals who lecture in the universities, or exercise their professions all across the country. So I say to myself that if Mvidi Mukulu – that’s one of the names for what we call the ‘elder spirit’ in the Tshiluba language – if Mvidi Mukulu grants me continued life and gives me the strength and the means to return to the United States, I would quite like to meet these people, not for my work but simply out of curiosity, because I am curious by nature.

Q

The White Review

— Although, when you’re a writer, everything is work somehow; I mean in the sense that it’s about curiosity, it’s about discovery.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— No, it’s not a writer’s curiosity, it’s maybe a slacker’s curiosity, the curiosity of someone who loves… I’ve always been fascinated by culture, music, jazz, literature, learning, knowledge.

Q

The White Review

— But all of that melds together, doesn’t it? Fiston the writer, Fiston the curious, Fiston the slacker…

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— No, it’s not quite like that, even if it seems so, because writing involves a kind of work that is perhaps even like that of a mathematician, I would say – because there is a connection between literature and mathematics. There is a connection between the kind of work undertaken by a novelist, or a short story writer, and mathematics. And poetry is something else again.

Q

The White Review

— But doesn’t your writing draw upon these discoveries, these curiosities, these explorations of yours? Of non-writer Fiston?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— No, that’s not quite how I… For example, it’s like someone who goes to the Vatican to visit the churches, not because he is Christian, but because he is curious, and there is a certain spirituality, a certain connection, a certain link between that person and the church in question, the Vatican, or these religious monuments, not necessarily because the person is Christian.

Q

The White Review

— So I imagine that means there are things which you see in your everyday life, or which you discover in your everyday life, which will certainly never find their place in your writing?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Which will never find their place.

Q

The White Review

— Are you sure of that?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— I am sure of that.

Q

The White Review

— But when you return to the United States and you discover all of these places, surely they will influence you somehow? Unconsciously?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Perhaps, perhaps… You know, I’ve always dreamed of writing a jazz opera, and perhaps I’ll only be able to find that particular rhythm by visiting these places of jazz memory. Pierre Nora’s notion of ‘places of memory’ is highly relevant here. These places of jazz memory become extremely important. I would like to write an opera about Queen Nzinga, for example, who was an Angolan queen. I have always been fascinated by great ladies, women musicians, as well as by queens. Also Queen Pokou from Ivory Coast, and Queen Lueji from the Congo. I have always wanted to write an opera that would bring Queen Lueji to the stage, but an opera with lots of saxophones, lots of drums, a jazz opera. And I think that by visiting certain places… These are places which can make us grow, which allow us to question ourselves as humans, as creators, as mortals.

Q

The White Review

— What was it like for you to undertake this tour with me, your translator? And more specifically, to give these quite particular readings/performances featuring your text in both French and English?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— It was quite an interesting process for me, interesting from the human point of view, I would say, the sharing. Because in Austria, I have read with many musicians, such as the excellent saxophonist Patrick Dunst, and I have read a lot with other artists in Austria, and worked with them on various projects. For example: Berndt Luft, the vibraphonist, Michael Lagger, the excellent pianist, and Valentin Czihak, the double bass player. Over time, all these people have become part of my family, by dint of working together, even though I’m not a musician. But it’s interesting to work with someone else, my translator, to do these performances with you, Roland, because it’s another process, one of humility, to see my text read by someone else, to accept that, and to share this pleasure with you on stage, this pleasure of speaking the words, of speaking the text. This has truly been a very beautiful experience for me. It really pleases me to see the way you shift from translator to a… I won’t say actor because what we’ve been doing isn’t acting…

Q

The White Review

— Performer?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Yes, a performer, or even a barker; perhaps that’s the right word, a barker.

Q

The White Review

— You know that in English, ‘barker’ doesn’t just mean someone who barks, it is in fact what we call that guy at a fun fair who draws the crowds by shouting ‘Come along! Come along! Roll up! Roll up!’ to attract people. We call that person a ‘barker’.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Ah, I see. Undertaking this work of a barker reminds me a lot of the work of the Evangelists, of John the Baptist – one of my names, my Christian name, is Jean-Baptiste – those kinds of people who go out and preach the ‘Good News’. And what is quite interesting is that jazz is also a kind of good news – because jazz has been good news for certain countries, such as Germany. Jazz was prohibited during the Nazi period; it was considered to be a degenerate art, but later on this music became part of the denazification process. Yes, jazz is very good news indeed! And so it was nice to share this aspect with you: barker of the good news, of literature, of life, of dreams, barker of poetry, barker of words, barker of illusions, of ideas, of sublime moments, barker of fictions and imaginings.

Q

The White Review

— I too got a lot out of these collaborative moments on stage with you; because while it is true that the translation itself was somehow a kind of collaboration, it was a discrete collaboration, a remote collaboration – except, of course, those moments where we discussed certain questions that I had. But it was quite something to find ourselves actually creating this third thing together. First there was your French text, and then there was my English text, which was also your text, and then there was this third thing composed of both elements.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Yes, I found that when we got here and began our tour, I had to break this author/translator relationship, because it was a relationship where we discussed the words and phrases you didn’t understand; but here we switched into another relationship, one that was more collaborative, but also pleasurable, because we enjoyed ourselves. It didn’t feel like a constraint to speak these texts, to bark these texts. It was a very pleasant experience to bring these texts to life, to portray these characters from Tram 83, to embody these characters, to speak the words, and to take pleasure in doing so, because I think that literature is also about pleasure. I find it very hard to imagine myself speaking my texts as if I had dysentery, or a fever; I always aim to speak my texts like someone who is sated – because it does one good to be sated – and who has something to say. Because that’s important, too. When one has something to say, one speaks with great elegance, great joy. For literature is also about speaking the text, proclaiming the text, singing the text, and also giving the text a little poetry, a little humanity, too, whether the text speaks of war, or violence, or joy, or I don’t know what. I also think one can use intonation, orality, sounds and noises to imbue the text with other illusions, other dreams, and poetry.

Q

The White Review

— Yes, it was the same for me, because I created this English version of the text alone, by myself; I read your text out loud and then I translated it; and then I read my translation out loud, and then reworked it, and so on. As an author, you write a book on your own, the book comes out, then maybe you do a few readings and that’s it. As a translator, it’s the same: you translate a book on your own, the book comes out, and maybe you do a few readings, but it doesn’t go much further than that. So here I really had the rare opportunity of sharing with you my pleasure, my joy, my delight at working with this text, of speaking it, of ‘barking’ it. I was wondering how you felt about being translated, particularly such a long text?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— There are other texts of mine which have already been translated, including long texts, poetry collections, such as Le Fleuve dans le Ventre (The River in the Belly), but this is in fact my first text – my first long text – to be translated into English. It’s my first novel. And it’s also being translated into other languages. I am delighted to know that the Word – we return again to the metaphor of jazz, of the good news – spreads, extends beyond my bedroom, beyond my apartment, beyond Graz, my adopted city that I love very much, and beyond the Congo (because I still abide in the Congo, my roots are there). It does me good to hear this Word spread and to see it translated into other languages, and, if I may set poetics aside, and speak vulgarly, it does me good to know that I am widening my readership.

Q

The White Review

— But how did you experience the process itself?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— The process? I think that translation is not like getting a photocopy, or a printout. The translation of a text involves a process of re-creation. The English version of Tram 83, is not the French version of Tram 83. They’re two different books, because the translator doesn’t translate… Perhaps even the word ‘translator’ is… It always irks me…

Q

The White Review

— ’Adaptor’ maybe?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— I might say ‘re-creator’. Because the word ‘translator’ is like someone who buys beer and then goes and sells it, while the translator does more than buy and sell beer: he buys the beer and then he adapts the beer to the taste of his customers. A person doesn’t translate a text, he re-creates a text. It becomes another text. The English translation will be another text, and the Italian or Swedish or Dutch translation will be yet another text, particularly since this novel is aimed at a wide range of cultures and imaginations; it’s aimed at readers who may or may not have a connection to the Congo. When I wrote my characters, I didn’t think that these characters would one day speak German or English. I think that translation is a precious profession – more than one might think. I myself constantly slalom between languages. I speak several languages, and I myself have had to translate my own poems and texts into German, before I began writing in German too. And so I think that translation is more a work of … perhaps re-writing, but I think that above all we need to find another term instead of translation, or translator, another term that can illuminate all of these energies, because one doesn’t translate sentences, one translates a culture, one translates imaginations, one translates countries, one translates characters, one translates impressions, one translates sounds, smells, the smell of Kinshasa, the smell of Lubumbashi, the atmosphere of the mines, everything that happens around the mines, noises, the sound of glasses… And so a translator is not just somebody who buys beer wholesale and sells it retail, it’s more than the work of a salesman. A translator is like a ferryman, but beyond being a ferryman, a translator is a creator in his own right.

Q

The White Review

— Wow! That’s good. But it was tough going, wasn’t it?

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Well…

Q

The White Review

— It was tough going at first…

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Each to his own task. I never asked the translator to be a translator. If a translator finds translation tough going…

Q

The White Review

— No, but I mean that it was tough going for you because I asked you so many questions.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Yes, it was tough going for me to answer all those questions, but at the same time…

Q

The White Review

— But did you think at the beginning that it was perhaps unnecessary, that I was asking too many questions? Yes, you did think that.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Well, in the beginning I said to myself: ‘This guy is crazy! Who does he think he is, asking me a thousand questions? What have I done to him?! Does he think I’m going to translate everything for him?!’ That was my first impression, but then I realised that it’s more reassuring to have a translator who asks lots of questions, rather than having a translator who doesn’t ask any at all, or very few, and that I would feel uneasy with a translator who feels they understand my text completely, who thinks they understand everything I say… I prefer a translator who asks me questions because I know where I draw my texts from, I know where and how my texts are born. They are not born just like that, on the main square; they come from far away, from my internal village, and not just the Congo, but from deep within myself, from discoveries that reflect several imaginary worlds. When a translator doesn’t ask me any questions, I tell myself that I should be worried. So it was a pleasure for me to be asked these questions, and to answer them, to make myself available. Over time, I realised that it was important, not just for me but for the people who will read the text in English. It was important, I think, to provide a little bit of guidance regarding certain words.

Q

The White Review

— I tend to ask too many questions, but perhaps only ten to fifteen per cent of the questions were unnecessary. I think that the rest were pretty necessary. Maybe I ask too many, but only a few too many. Sometimes I ask a question where I tell myself that it’s not necessary but it’s still something I want to check.

A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— I think we need to bear something in mind: we have the right of – to quote Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, who lives here, in the United States – we have this right of subjectivity, or, to quote Edouard Glissant, the right of opacity, that is to say being opaque, identifying oneself with another culture, another imaginary world. Glissant speaks of the right to opacity, and Mudimbe speaks of African subjectivity. I am African, even though I drink red wine, I listen to Mozart and I am a fervent admirer of Carlos Kleiber and Herbert von Karajan – two major orchestra conductors. I’m a fan of these people; I can’t go without Carlos Kleiber’s interpretations and orchestrations of Beethoven, for example. But at the same time I am a historian of the rumba; I love rumba; I immerse myself in Congolese rumba, the rumba of Tabu Ley, of Franco Luambo Makiadi, of Papa Wemba and Bozi Boziana. That is to say I can identify myself with another culture because I belong to another culture, before I belong to a universal culture. By which I mean that when a translator – when you were asking your questions – I knew that it was important to mention certain things, even apparently trivial things, but which might prove to be important, not just for yourself, not just for Tram 83, but for other texts of mine, because beyond this particular translation project, I would really like it that if I write other texts, that you, Roland, translate them into English. To have found a translator for this language, and not change translators as one would pairs of shoes.

Q

The White Review

— That really touches me, that you would want that. And it’s true that you having answered all these questions, as well as the fact that after doing this tour together, and having heard you talk a lot about certain subjects, I understand much more about you and your literary work, so there will surely be references in things you write in the future that will be familiar to me. I’ll get the hidden references and allusions without needing to ask you the same questions again.
A

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

— Hence the importance of mentioning the right of opacity, and African subjectivity. That means that I am African, that I am Congolese, but also that I am very much my parents’ child. I am marked by my own history, my own culture… I am not the spokesman for a continent, a country, a nationality or even my auntie, even though my remarks may concern the society from which I come. But one should not become blinded by one’s own affiliations and identity. It is always important to reassess oneself. To quote the Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger, I would say: ‘Unserer eigenen Wahrhaftigkeit müssen wir mißtrauen!’ (‘We should always mistrust our own truthfulness!’). To return to opacity, and to African subjectivity, I use the metaphor of the Congo River to define myself. The river has its source in my province, in the south; it crosses the entire country, then flows into the ocean. Every man has a little of the river in him. He has a part of himself and a part of humanity. So the translator’s work should become impregnated by this ‘background’. I think that it would perhaps have been the same thing if you were to translate a French writer, for example, who also has his own whole imaginary world, or even a writer you know in London, because one may live in the same country and yet belong to a different culture, according to one’s tastes and choices. This is why it was important for me to discuss things with you.

 

At the same time, by revealing myself – because that’s the right word – in baring myself to myself, in showing my nakedness – not the nakedness of Adam and Eve in their garden, or the nakedness of porn films… But in showing my nakedness, I rediscover myself, I think. One rediscovers oneself, because there are moments when I say things I have never thought of or pondered, but which are part of a Congolese reality, an African reality, a global reality; and I think that in talking about such things one rediscovers oneself, hence the importance of the Word, and it’s not for nothing that the Bible begins with: ‘In the beginning was the Word…’, because I think that the Word is very important. But also because even in African languages, in Africa, the Word always has its own magic, its own vigour. In Africa, we say that once a person says something, it cannot be taken back. Meaning that the Word, whether in the Bible, or in the belly – when I say ‘belly’ I mean Lubumbashi, where I was born, where I come from – the Word has its own importance. It can be used to bless someone or to curse someone. Every time I return to my country, I always ask my parents to bless me, because I know that their Word is worth all of the possibilities one might command in certain situations. It is worth more than patronage, because their Word does not come from the bush, or from the market, or from beer; rather, their Word invokes existence, it matures a man, it carries a man to something great and valiant, it makes a man dream, and drives a man to much humanity.

 

*

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (tr. Roland Glasser) is published by Deep Vellum in the US and Jacaranda in the UK.

This interview was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in 1981 in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. He now lives in Graz, Austria. Tram 83 is his first novel. It has been shortlisted and won numerous literary prizes in France, Austria, England, and the United States, and is one of three finalists for the pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Roland Glasser translates literary and genre fiction from French, as well as art, travel, and assorted non-fiction. He studied theatre, cinema, and art history in the UK and France, and has worked extensively in the performing arts, chiefly as a lighting designer. He is a French Voices and PEN Translates award winner and serves on the Committee of the UK Translators Association. Having lived in Paris for many years, he is currently based in London.