...in conversation with Colombian author Juan Manuel Roca.
We didn't think we'd be able to attend this one since the bookstore in Barranquilla where we bought event tickets said it was sold out. Unbeknownst to us, it was only "sold out" as far as the number of tickets sold at that particular bookstore. So a tip to future festival-goers: try to get tickets the day of, even if they tell you it's sold out. (It still hurts to think that I missed out on seeing Chimamanda Adichie speak due to a technicality, but I'll be much wiser next time.)
What follows is basically a neatened version of my notes. Since the events had simultaneous translation (both in English and in Spanish), it was interesting to watch the exchanges on stage. Both Soyinka and Roca wore headsets. This is the first interview I've witnessed where neither party could speak the other's language. They both did a remarkable job: Roca was very well-informed and perceptive as the interviewer and Soyinka was gracious and nuanced in his responses. (A. had a headset and I listened in on the Spanish translator a bit--she was excellent.)
Soyinka had visited a barrio of Cartagena earlier in the day, and when asked about his experience, he spoke of how much he loved being with the children--how natural it feels to him to enter into their world. He said that it is a big mistake on the part of the Western world to pretend that children are the same as adults. They should be respected for the worlds they create.
He spoke of growing up in a Christian family in Nigeria under colonial rule and how inspired he became by regionalism. He did not find much contradiction between the mix of religions. The religious traditions of Nigeria were seen as "cultural," and so there was not much conflict with the Christianity he was raised with. (This site gives good background.) The role of tribal historians was never questioned--certain individuals able to recite the names of all members of the tribe for up to two generations back. He or she was viewed as the voice of the tribe (and it was a musical one as well).
Roca asked him about the part played by women in the fight for liberation in Nigeria. He talked about how they led open rebellions...how the bearing of breasts was an act of resistance...and how many were shot by colonial officers. In spite of this, the women of his region drove the local monarch off his throne.
Roca then asked about his view of democratic monarchies. (I got the feeling he actually meant democracies that become monarchical in nature--perhaps alluding to the U.S. in Iraq.) Soyinka talked about constitutional monarchies--how in England, Spain, and Sweden, having a king or queen is ok, but that such situations in Africa are seen as examples of feudalism. He said that constitutional monarchy in Africa is actually a controlled system.
Every society has its poets (oral tradition, etc.)... UNESCO's current fight regarding immaterial intellectual property is particularly important for the preservation of oral tradition.
When asked about his connection to Caribbean writers, he launched into an interesting discussion about the terms "blackness" and "negritude" and how they were invented by expatriate intellectuals in Paris as an act of resistance against the cultural colonialism of a specific time and place. (At one point, the exam for citizenship to a French colony required a dinner invitation at the home of a colonial officer. The applicant's table manners were carefully studied and taken into account.) Although the terms helped combat the existing oversimplifications of cultural differences (e.g., "reason" is Greek, "emotion" is African), the term "negritude" came to substitute real ideologies.
A "radicalization of sensibilities" occurred in the U.S. and people were forced to choose sides on issues of "black" and "white." Much of it came down to the correct "look" or style. But exploitation exists on both sides, so Marxism came in. Writers like LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka helped the focus move from race to class. Soon after the advent of groups such as the Black Panthers in the '60s, white and black radicals found themselves on the same side. "Liberation" was defined in different ways by different movements, confusing the original issue.
Roca then asked Soyinka about his thoughts on the humor in African poetry. Soyinka admitted a personal theory that he thinks he'll one day be able to prove: that the humorous archetypes of commedia dell'arte began with the arrival of a certain African slave to Italy. (I wish I could remember more of his examples--it was obvious he's been thinking about this a long time, and there was much encouraging laughter from the audience.)
He observed that many liberation movements (which also included the feminist movement) had no sense of irony...and he loves the idea of the African figure Exu, whose role is to deflate pomposity (quietly laying down banana peels before the self-important).
Roca asked him about his love of film, and he confessed his penchant for the "frailty and tenderness" of Fellini's work.
Soyinka was then asked about his role in the International Parliament of Writers. He explained that during the time of the fatwa against Rushdie, many were finally made aware that his was not a unique situation. Many writers have always been living under these kinds of situations. While Rushdie had asylum in Strausburg, a group of writers worked together so that now, all over the world, there is a network of safe places for writers in exile or in hiding due to political persecution.
During the Q&A, he was asked about the place (or role) of writers in "Third World" countries. He said that more organic development must happen if the effects of colonialism are to be counteracted. Many countries are bedeviled by the East vs. West struggle and that this sort of focus only produces wasted energy. He says we're not looking inward to what we already have and so become surrogates of other blocs. After gaining independence, many African nations became dependencies because they relied on the economic power of others. Civil wars have drained away many countries' own resources--this is a direct result of the insecure foundations built during the original liberations. He declared that what's needed is leadership that is ready to completely break with the past. This is why current efforts are so important: the answers lie in the history of the liberations of these countries.
The last question was asked by a young boy in the balcony who asked, "What can children give to literature?" Soyinka gazed up at him and--without the least bit of hesitation--said, "Write."
He encouraged him to start now and never stop. The packed theatre errupted in hearty applause.
On a related note, this week over at The Litblog Co-op, they've been discussing an absolutely marvelous novel: Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. It was one of the few that I was able to read while up north, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. (I was reminded of it many times while listening to Wole Soyinka. It was the perfect book to have read just before hearing him speak.) Check out the book discussions and interviews with the author. It will be time well-spent.