Véronique Tadjo / Interview Olivia Marsaud

« We dissect it and we manipulate the facts. “Everything is true and everything is false,” just like it is said in the book. To be able to write well, you must be completely honest. But often historical facts take over; the text must apply its own truth. It’s not reportage; it’s not a university text. It is literature. You keep the essence of reality, whilst shining light on other aspects. »

– Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo © Odile Motelet

Olivia Marsaud : Throughout your writing career, you have gone from writing poetry, to fiction to children books… In your opinion, what is the link between these different forms of writing?

Véronique Tadjo : These different forms of writing are like different languages. Let’s just say that I’m a polyglot. There is a language that is specific to poetry, to fiction and to children’s literature. I started by writing poetry, and I actually consider myself fundamentally to be a poet. I started fiction work after this, which I would describe as ‘poetic prose’ and which allows me to stray from the classical treatment of poetry. Poetic prose helps me reach a larger audience. With regard to children’s books, and because I had a happy childhood, it is my way of returning to what Senghor refers to as the “Kingdom of childhood.” I would also add painting and illustration to how I express myself creatively.

So you are also a painter. And an illustrator. I have that from my mother who was a painter and sculptress. I became a painter in Kenya, where I lived for four years. I met a group of artists with whom I affiliated myself. One day, as I was in the atelier of one of them, he took down one of his canvasses, turned it around and said, “You can paint on the back of it.” That is what I did. I kept this double-sided canvass! I love the milieu of artists. They are focused outwards; to things outside themselves. Writers are more solitary; people always wonder what we are up to. When you show a canvass, you don’t need to explain it. Painting is more of a physical act, and it complements literature. I have realized that I am a better writer if I can paint, because it makes me much happier. You can summarize all these different activities through the creative process itself; how one can continue to be creative through different means. 

 » Bétail au coucher du soleil  » Acrylique sur toile, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Louis Simone Guirandou
 » Chasing the sun  » Acrylique sur toile. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Louis Simone Guirandou

Do you remember your first written work? 
There is a difference between writing and being published… I know someone who writes beautifully but who has never been published. My first text was poetry, and it came about entirely by chance. I owe the fact that I became a writer to a friend who compiled a collection of all my poems, typed them all out in manuscript format and then entered them for a poetry competition. It was for the literary prize awarded by the Cultural and Technical Cooperation Agency in 1983. It just so happened that this compilation won the first prize, which led it to being published right away. So it happened really smoothly, literally without a hitch! And so this was how Latérite was born. It’s an homage to the Senoufo culture from the great North of the Ivory Coast. It is said that people don’t read poetry, but that’s not true. I think, on the contrary, that there is a great desire to read poetry, which is being lost to the solar system. But which could return. 

What made you want to write?  The thing that brought it on was crossing the desert. It was my road trip from Paris to Abidjan. After a Master’s and PhD in English from the Sorbonne, I decided to return to the Ivory Coast to complete my thesis. I went as far as Korhogo, to the northern part of the Ivory Coast by road. At that time, it was possible to do that. I then spent three years teaching English in one of the high schools in the city. This magnificent trip triggered my need to write unflaggingly, which brought about Latérite. I am in love with the desert. On my father’s side, I am from forestland, but my heart lies with the desert. In Korhogo, the earth is red, it’s the savannah, the climate is Sahelian, and far from the image that one has of the Ivory Coast.

In Loin de mon père (Far from my father) you talk about both personal and universal themes (family, grief). Can writing—like reading actually—be therapeutic? Writing is much more than therapy. In a situation of chaos, the written word brings with it a certain order. It forces us to think about what has happened. It is about remodeling the world. We start from chaos and we end up shaping something into place. We dissect it and we manipulate the facts. “Everything is true and everything is false,” just like it is said in the book. To be able to write well, you must be completely honest. But often historical facts take over; the text must apply its own truth. It’s not reportage; it’s not a university text. It is literature. You keep the essence of reality, whilst shining light on other aspects. Being too close to reality kills the literary form. One must rise above, and look at the bigger picture. 

You have lived in different African countries. Is Panafricanism still alive? From Korhogo to Johannesburg, via Lagos, Nairobi and Abidjan, there is a lot of contrast between them. But first and foremost, it is about Africa. The consciousness about race is very strong and comes before a sense of culture. There is the precept of belonging to the same black race. And within all of these different countries, there remains a common link. For example, that which concerns our ancestry. In Korhogo like in Johannesburg, one senses the weight of this tradition, and its impact on people. The ancestors have something to say. For instance, it is impossible to understand someone like Nelson Mandela without delving into the traditional Xhosa society where he comes from and where he received his training. In his book A long road towards freedom, he actually made many references to this. Loin de mon père also expresses this particular phenomenon of living with this clash between modernity and tradition and this also comes across with the relationship between men and women, family, society… When I was living in Lagos in the 90’s, we were still seeing masks in the street for the Masquerades. Japanese people have been successful in embracing modernity whilst keeping their traditions. They managed to separate the two. We are not there yet.  

You are based between London and Abidjan. We can certainly imagine that the relationship between Great Britain and Africa is probably more straightforward than what one encounters in Paris. Is this true? There is a real difference in perception, in how we are seen, that’s true. It’s tricky to explain this difference without referring to colonialism, either directly or indirectly, the French manner of assimilation versus the English approach, which involves a more managerial approach through local infrastructure. France taught us about our ‘Gallic ancestry.’ England never had this objective. Of course, France and England shared the same goal but they had different strategies: it was all about exploiting the colonies. 

Do you feel the economic and cultural boom in the Côte d’Ivoire ? Regarding the economic boom, I wouldn’t celebrate too soon. The drop in prices for cocoa and coffee has created a real loss in revenue. There are so many things to overcome following a war… However, it’s true that things are moving in terms of art; good galleries have opened up, others have re-opened, and there are some great writers. I have had the pleasure to assemble 30 different writers for a book that will be published this year: Abidjan, City of many facets. Portrait of an African Metropolis, published by Éburnie. It contains archive material and images taken by Ivorian photographers. 

What is your relationship with Côte d’Ivoire today? Biologically speaking, I was born in Paris, but I was brought up in the Ivory Coast with my brother when I was one year old. I only left Abidjan when it was time for me to further my studies and obtain my PhD in Paris. After this, it was my big trip coming back. So my references mostly lie with the Ivory Coast. I have become a woman, a writer and an illustrator in this country. The inspiration that runs through all of my books mainly comes from the Ivory Coast, Africa and then the world. 

In something we Africans got issue 2
Olivia Marsaud 
April 2017