Interview with Fiston Mwanza Mujila on his novel ‘Tram 83’

Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Upon winning the 2015 Etisalat prize for literature, for his novel Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila has been on the lips of many literary pundits and enthusiasts as a rising star. As we impatiently await the announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist 2016, many speculate whether the name Fiston Mwanza Mujila will once again emerge out of the judges’ hat. In spite of this, it is best to remind ourselves that it is not so much the prizes that defines a good piece of literature, but the originality of form and ingenuity. In Tram 83, the writer works into his novel the rhythm of jazz and soul, with tenors of thrilling fast pace Afro beat like action, sketching a captivating portrait of the human landscape. In the words of the famous novelist Alain Mabanckou, “When I turned the last page, I exclaimed: This is a masterpiece!”

Enchanted by this literary virtuoso, Afrikult. caught up with him  to shake off the spell of his charm. Least to the say, he rose to the occasion with the majesty of a griot, delicately strumming an intimate account of the painful labours of his people.

A. Is it safe to assume that in writing Tram 83, you hoped to represent a side of modern Congo not captured in international media headlines? 

F.M.M Tram 83 is not a geography or anthropology textbook. It is not an essay or a piece of fiction about the Congo. I was inspired by the country of my birth, but the novel’s reality embraces the world. Tram 83 lifts the veil on mining work, which is a universal phenomenon.

A. In an interview with Africa Is A Country, you mentioned “I wanted Tram 83 to be able to represent a form of exploitation and neo-colonialism that happens throughout Africa, not just in the Congo”. Therefore, are “exploitation and neo-colonialism” the central themes?

F.M.M There are always several readings or interpretations of a literary text. Where I see water, someone else might see beer or palm wine. I don’t have the monopoly on knowledge, just as I don’t hold the key to my novel. I would like to paraphrase the Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger, who wrote in her essay Aufruf zum Misstrauen (A Call for Mistrust): “We should mistrust ourselves. We should mistrust the clarity of our convictions, the profundity of our thoughts, the kindness of our actions, and our own truthfulness!” There is no absolute truth. Everything is a question of perspective. One reader might consider “exploitation and neo-colonialism” as major themes, another might find that the novel’s main theme lies in the musicality of the text.

A. You write in the avant-garde mode, thus privileging aesthetics over narrative development, is this deliberate, and how does the narrative style influence characterisation?

F.M.M Aesthetics and narrative have equal importance in the novel. The aesthetic is formed through the narrative. The narrative follows the rhythm… We are in 2016. Ours is a very fast world. I needed a language that was flexible enough to rethink a world that has become a global village.

The style allows the characters to possess a soul, to move, express themselves, to be truthful, to resemble us, to carry our questionings, our doubts, our fears, our desires for debauchery, our shame and our dissolution. The character of Requiem manages to occupy the entire novel, since the textual arrangement allows him to express himself at length. Lucien is also present throughout the text by way of what he doesn’t say. Then again, to return to Ilse Aichinger, I mistrust my own truthfulness; it’s up to the reader to find their own central themes in it.

A. Given that Lucien and Requiem are juxtaposed (good and evil), are they to be read as national allegories or do they simply represent the human condition?

F.M.M Lucien and Requiem are people like you and me. They aspire to something better despite the fragility that characterizes us. That is why they remain touching characters, honest (in their torments), for despite their diverging points of view, they carry within them our own obsessions.

A. There are those who find the representation of women in Tram 83 difficult to digest, claiming that women play marginal roles in the narrative as chattels of desire, lust and beauty. What is your response to such criticisms that consider depictions of women in Tram 83 to be ‘sexist’?

F.M.M  The world is not limited to the edges of our cities, to Europe or to our dreams. We should learn to turn towards the world, for the West is no longer the world but a part of the world. The novel sheds light on the business of artisanal mining. Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women.

But this does not mean that the women who work in the mines, or who ply various trades there (restaurants, etc.) are not in control of their own destiny or remain passive amid all this wheeling and dealing. For example, in my novel the fall of the dissident General is orchestrated by a woman, while the Diva plays one of the finest roles…

To return to the human condition in the mines, is it my fault that with the twenty-first century in full swing, women and children work in the mines in the most inhuman conditions? Those who feel that the novel has a sexist component are right, because they have the barest knowledge of the twists and turns of the artisanal mining business. When I travelled to the Congo for the publication of my novel, nobody voiced these kinds of criticisms. We are not speaking of the same woman. I don’t think we inhabit the same world. In writing this text, I carried within me, in my belly, the suffering of all these women and children seeking to scratch a living in the mining zones. I was obliged to use fiction in order to say (with elegance) the unsayable.

Are you aware that for ten years now, rape has been used in the Congo as a weapon of war? Are you aware that over the past ten years, the country has racked up five million dead from rebellions and so on? Do you know how many children (girls and boys) work in mining, not only in the Congo but throughout the world? I take these sad realities as inspiration and I put the world to rights with much compassion, light and beauty. Women have a certain dignity in my novel… And they always retain their dignity, even in real life.

It is important to remember that the condition of women and children in the world of artisanal mining leaves a lot to be desired. Hence the importance of opening ourselves up to the world and realizing that texts such as Tram 83 play their part, in their own way, in raising awareness of modern slavery. Read any document about artisanal mining and you’ll read Tram 83 differently. Moreover, in this novel, everyone wears themselves out, even the men, despite their excessive desire to hold tight to life.

With such creative exuberance and post-modernist Je ne sais quoi, Tram 83 incessantly eludes convenient categorization, inviting the reader to interpret and identify with it as he/she sees fit. BIG UP to Roland Glasser, for translating the novel from French to English.

© Fiston Mwanza Mujila / Roland Glasser 2016
All rights reserved



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