Boubacar Boris Diop: Interview

Monday, July 18, 2011

Between April and June of 1994, nearly one million Rwandan citizens were brutally massacred as members of the Hutu tribe murdered members of the Tutsi tribe and moderate members of their own. Most were brutally killed with machetes. Others were blown up in churches where they had taken refuge. The horror lasted for one hundred tragic, bloody days.

Four years later, Senegalese-born writer Boubacar Boris Diop visited Rwanda where he came face-to-face with the haunting aftermath of genocide. To cope with his experiences, Diop wrote Murambi, le livre des ossementsMurambi, The Book of Bones,” a fictional account of the Rwandan genocide that was published in 2000.

Hailed as one of the best African novels of the twentieth century, Murambi was republished in the spring of 2011. Diop, an accomplished journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, discussed the challenging nature of exploring difficult topics and painful emotions through the written word with Triquarterly Online.

TriQuarterly Online:  Your background is in journalism, but when you wrote about the genocide in Rwanda, you chose to write about it as a novel. What can fictional accounts do that journalistic accounts cannot?
Boubacar Boris Diop: I am trained as a journalist, but when I went to Rwanda in 1998, I had already published four novels. So I was familiar with both forms. I was invited to visit Rwanda by some of my friends who live in Northern France. I said, OK, I’ll go, but I won’t write about it.” I just wanted to make a simple report of what I saw and heard. I didn’t want to be involved with all these killings. Maybe I was afraid because I knew it would be very, very hard.

So I went there as a journalist, but after a week, I knew that the only way to deal with the genocide was to write a novel. When you feel such strong emotions, the best way to deal with them is not to pretend like it’s not your business. I had to get involved because of the scale of the killings. About  ten thousand people [were] killed  every day for one hundred days. It was horrible. There were so many different stories I needed to tell. But I wrote the novel as a journalist. It’s not the novel of a novelist. It’s a novel of a journalist.

TQO: How has your work in journalism affected your writing style as a novelist?
BBD: When you are a journalist, you go find [out] what happened and you write your story. The facts command the story. When you are a novelist, it’s exactly the opposite. Your imagination commands the facts. It’s a big difference. When I wrote this novel, I was commanded by the facts. But if I had decided to write a journalistic account, I would have to check everything—numbers, dates, who said what. I wouldn’t be free to tell the story. For me, the most important thing was to underline the human side of the story. After genocide, it is important to give a face, to give a name, to give blood and flesh to the people who were killed. I felt I could do this better as a novelist, but I also wanted to be trusted by my readers. I didn’t want them to see my novel as something fake. I wanted readers to confront reality. The story wasn’t just from my imagination. I wanted people to read the book and know that everything I had to work with in the novel was true. I wanted human beings to ask questions about themselves, about human nature, and about Africa, where there is so much violence.

TQO: When you’re writing about subjects that are so violent in nature, how do you deal with your own emotions?
BBD: It was very difficult. It wasn’t the process of writing that was difficult, but the research was difficult. The most horrible thing for me was to watch documentaries and read histories about Africa. In many of these books, what you see is a universal racism. People don’t want to have to think about Africa. When you have killings in Africa, it’s seen as “business as usual.” It’s considered normal. They are killing each other for tribal reasons, and they will stop, but they will start again. People say, So?

During the Rwandan genocide, the secretary general of the United Nations was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and he said “In Rwanda, Hutu are killing Tutsi, and Tutsi are killing Hutu.” But it wasn’t just tribes; it was individuals. When you see that so many children and innocent people have been killed because of these attitudes, you feel angry.

I also felt a kind of shame. I must confess that when the genocide started in 1994, I didn’t understand what was going on. Even when I visited in 1998, I didn’t understand. In the West, we rely on global media, and that’s not enough. We have to reach deeper to understand what is going on in the rest of the world. I had shame and anger. When I wrote the book, I had to be very careful not to be overshadowed by these emotions.

TQO: Do you hope your writing changes these apathetic attitudes?
BBD: I won’t say that everybody in the West has that attitude. And I won’t say that everybody in Africa has a certain attitude. This feeling about Africans killing each other, it’s also the way people think in Senegal, Gabon, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast. I don’t think it’s changed.

Writing about Africa didn’t used to be very fashionable. Nobody knew what happened there. But books opened the way for artists to talk about Rwanda. Now, even people who don’t know what happened exactly in Rwanda at least know there was genocide. It’s a huge victory for literature, cinema, and theater. Murambi was published in France in 2000. Some people were interested, but there was no media coverage. But it was republished in April, and now there is a lot of interest. In France, unfortunately, the government was deeply involved with the genocide and sided with the killings. The French government supported the killers. So in France, they didn’t want to talk about it, but now they accept it. It’s a big victory for artists.

TQO: In 2003, you published Doomi Golo, which was written in Wolof (the native language of Senegal), and it’s one of the only novels published in that language—
BBD: That’s not true. (Laughs.) I know you read that. People say that everywhere. I would be very proud if it were true. But no, so many novels—and very good novels—were written in Wolof before 2003. The most important poem [in] Wolof was written in 1929. It was about the Wall Street crash of 1929 in America, which affected much of the world. Many, many novels and many, many plays have been written in this language. So, it’s not true.

TQO: Why is there a misconception that it’s rare to write in Wolof?
BBD: I think because, in people’s minds, African languages are not sophisticated enough [for] a novel. People are convinced that it’s impossible to write a whole novel in Wolof. And when you write in French, you have media coverage and visibility everywhere. But when you write in Wolof, nobody cares. People know what’s written in French, but they don’t know what has been written in Wolof. People talk[ed] about my Wolof novel because I was already a known writer internationally. If I had started my career by writing in Wolof, nobody would have cared.

TQO: After writing in French, why did you decide to write in Wolof?
BBD: I wanted to try. I always wanted to do it. It was a personal challenge. I did it after I visited Rwanda, when I could see clearly that France was involved in the genocide. Through disgust for France, I didn’t want to write in that language. I never said that I was giving up writing in French, which I also read on the Internet. I feel we are all obliged to write something in our native tongue.

TQO: What are your favorite books?
BBD: Things Fall Apart [by Chinua Achebe] is a powerful book. I like Ayi Kwei Armah, a writer from Ghana. I especially like his books The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and The Healers. When I was very young, I liked Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Last month, I finished reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was a very powerful book. Now I’m reading Crime and Punishment. People are writing now in so many places around the world, and a lot of it is just rubbish. I don’t like what people are writing now. I prefer classical books. It can be Kafka or Dostoevsky. It can be Things Fall Apart, which was published fifty years ago.

TQO: What don’t you like about current books?
BBD: Many of them are fake. People write to win prizes, and they know how to do it. J.M. Coetzee from South Africa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and he also won the Man Booker Prize twice. He’s an interesting writer, but sometimes he’s boring. It’s just boring. (Laughs.) Some people just sit and look at themselves and write about themselves and pretend like they’re not doing that. But you can tell they are.

Because of new media, the reception of writing has completely changed. Today, when you write a novel, you want it written now. You want it to be read in places you cannot define. It should be read in Sydney, Dakar, and Chicago just because it’s possible. A man like Dostoevsky didn’t care to have readers in France and Italy. He didn’t care if people might not like Crime and Punishment. Now, when people write a book, they are slaves to the public and to the media. If you know the industry, you don’t have to be a great writer anymore.

TQO: What are you working on now?
BBD: I’m trying to write a novel, but I’m not sure if I’ll finish it. I’m working on a second novel about Rwanda. It is a true story of a Blue Beret named Mbaye Diagne who was an assistant to Roméo Dallaire [force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda] during the genocide. The very first day  the genocide began, he decided to save people’s lives without asking any questions. He just couldn’t stand aside and watch people get killed. He took children and hid them and saved many lives. He was killed in May 1994. He happened to be a Senegalese citizen and was a captain. I decided to write a novel about him to tell this story. I met his widow in Dakar. It’s difficult to write about, but I feel I must.