African Writers’ Evening: Point of Protest

Southbank Centre 05/09/2013

Najat el Hachmi. Photo: lettera27 on Flickr
Najat el Hachmi. Photo: lettera27 on Flickr

As the first in a series of African Writers’ Evenings to take place at the Southbank Centre, this event explored a range of different cultural backgrounds that both complemented and transcended its African billing. Set against an iconic backdrop of the Thames, the London Eye and the new Star Flyer fairground ride, the first writer to read from her work was Najat El Hachmi, who writes in Catalan but is Moroccan in origin.

Najat read an extract from each of her novels which have been translated into English, ‘The Last Patriarch’ and ‘The Body Hunter’. It was surprising to be hearing about Catalan culture at an African Writer’s Evening since the title promised something more in the vein of Chinua Achebe. As it was, it was fascinating to hear about juggling a European identity with an African one, speaking both Arabic and Spanish and also belonging to a strong linguistic community in Catalonia.

Having lived in Nador, Morocco until the age of 8, her family immigrated to Spain, and as this came post-Franco, pride in Catalan culture was stronger than ever – meaning that Catalan was the language in which Najat was educated. Compared to the generation before her who could only speak Catalan in their homes, this is an unusually full immersion into the language.

Despite this, people often expect her to be unable to speak Catalan (and even Spanish) because of her appearance. Now having won the Ramon Llul prize for Catalan literature, her identity has been cemented, despite the challenge of entering as a foreigner into a fairly insular community who are so proud of their language, and so afraid of it being endangered and engulfed by the cultures and ethnicities jostling for a place in expanding Europe.

The second writer, Jean-Luc Raharimanana of Madagascar spoke in French, and read from his work before the same passage was read in English by the translator. As he read, it became gradually more difficult to understand what he was saying. When the translator stood up to the microphone and explained her interpretation of the words, it became clear that this was because he had been speaking in very broken French – reflecting a tortured delivery from the character. When she read her translation in English, it was similarly broken and difficult to understand.

The idea behind the talk was to look at writing as a form of protest, and for Jean-Luc, writing provides a voice which he can use to communicate with the global community about the problems faced by the Madagascan people. The government is run by a number of different global superpowers, meaning that people within the country have no power to change their situation, the consequences being a high rate of illiteracy in adults and poverty. According to Jean-Luc, the current government is only interested in ‘business, business, business’, leaving the Arts out in the cold.

Yet, Jean Luc continues to work with young people to improve literacy and raise awareness through theatre, dance and poetry. This is something which he wouldn’t have been able to do under the previous government, something he is constantly reminded of through the imprisonment of his father. Even now Jean-Luc has to remain relatively inconspicuous when visiting Madagascar (he currently resides in France).

When asked if he was writing for the Madagascan people, and whether he was trying to start a revolution, he replied ‘no, I am just a writer, not Che Guevera’. He said that it is not his place to tell people to take up arms, and that there are already plenty of people protesting on the streets. What he tries to do with his writing is to reach a wider community and to raise awareness of what is happening. This is his form of protest, and a form of protest which the evening showed was reaching far and wide to multiple other countries, including our own.

This event provided insight into African writing and the ways in which it differs from being a writer in the UK, and successfully illustrated the ways in which it can be used as a means of protest. It also raised awareness about some of the issues which face African writers today. The next African Writers’ Evening at the Southbank Centre will take place on the 7thNovember and will focus on the idea of ‘reconfiguring truth’. If it’s anything like the last talk, it promises to be thoroughly interesting and politically engaging.

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