The Work of Boubacar Boris Diop: Three Salient Features
This essay is a stroll through the oeuvre of the 2022 Neustadt Prize winner, Boubacar Boris Diop. It offers a foray into his formative years, followed by an exploration of the most salient aspects of his fictional writing.
There are multiple perspectives from which to explore the multifaceted work of Boubacar Boris Diop, but three main aspects remain essential for understanding his oeuvre and his evolution as a writer. This essay offers a brief foray into his formative years and an exploration of the most salient aspects of his creative work to help us better understand the award-winning writer, the journalist, the playwright, the screenwriter, the essayist, the philosophy and literature professor, the critic, the translator, and the editor he has become.
The first important feature of Diop’s fictional writing is his constant interrogation of the affordances of literature. He uses experimental literary techniques to probe the possibilities and limitations of literature. Diop’s work is also haunted by the question of memory and its stakes for formerly colonized countries—a question that dovetails with his multifaceted approach to time and history. However, the most important aspect of Diop’s contemporary writing remains his work on African languages. Unlike Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who sees African literature in European languages as an Afro-European literature, Diop believes, like Cheikh Anta Diop and David Mandessi Diop, that it is “a literature of transition which corresponds to a given moment of our historical evolution.”[i] Far from being discouraged by the limited number of readers of Wolof, Diop has made it clear that the majority of his readers are in the future.[ii] Such a linguistic wager—that is, writing in a language whose audience has yet to come—is suffused in Diop’s Wolof prose. The three features I have outlined interlock and are, to varying degrees, tied to the intense period of “literary foraging” during which Diop’s militant spirit and sophisticated approach to literature took shape.[iii]
Accounts of Diop’s literary influences usually begin with his absorption of European, mainly nineteenth-century French, literature, which dominated his father’s library.[iv] Alongside his father’s library, which Diop read during the day, stood his mother’s Wolof oral tales, which he would listen to at night. But beyond the dual schema of his father’s library in French and his mother’s oral tales in Wolof, Diop encountered African writers in his teenage years—such authors as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Mongo Beti, Ousmane Sembène, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, David Diop, and Ayi Kwei Armah, among others.[v] These writers would soon spark in him a rebellious and militant spirit.
Diop also became an avid reader of Latin American literature and was particularly influenced by Ernesto Sábato, Juan Rulfo, and Gabriel García Márquez, among others. Beyond Latin America, he remembers being taken with the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and, more importantly, Jean-Paul Sartre. These years of literary foraging, as he calls them, took place in the second half of the twentieth century, during the Cold War, the global 1960s, decolonization, the emergence of a three-world order, and the daunting task of turning newly independent countries into democratic nations in an era of polarizing conflicts.[vi]
Diop was exposed to these influences through book and cinema clubs that he formed with his friends and hosted in his home. It was during this time, and throughout the 1970s, that he learned about local anticolonial unsung heroes, such as Aline Sitoe Diatta, Ndaté Yalla Mbodj, and Sidya Léon Diop, who often appear in his novels alongside African revolutionary leaders assassinated in the 1960s and ’70s, such as Patrice Lumumba and Amílcar Cabral. It was also around that time that his “tormented” and “existential anguish” earned him the moniker “Boris,” after Boris Serguine, a character in Sartre’s three-volume novel Les chemins de la liberté (The Roads to Freedom).[vii] In other words, while his exposure to his parents’ libraries made him believe that he “could create the world with words,” his Marxist, Pan-Africanist, and anticolonial “libraries,” underpinned by Sartrean engagement, shaped his combative spirit.[viii]
While Diop’s exposure to his parents’ libraries made him believe that he “could create the world with words,” his Marxist, Pan-Africanist, and anticolonial “libraries,” underpinned by Sartrean engagement, shaped his combative spirit
Cameroonian author Mongo Beti explains in the preface to Diop’s first published novel, Le temps de Tamango (The time of Tamango), that for African writers, the engagement with committed literature was not a choice but an imperative of the time. Diop’s writing challenges the reductive idea that committed literature diminishes the aesthetic value of a work. A satirical speculative political fiction, Le temps de Tamango (published in 1981), is set in 2063 and recounts events that took place in 1970 and beyond. It is about a clandestine organization called MARS, whose main goal is to overthrow a repressive regime, and includes a rewriting of nineteenth-century French writer Prosper Mérimée’s short story “Tamango.” Beti applauds Diop’s complex structure and narrative techniques and the then-young writer’s decision to turn inward rather than outward to look for answers to the failure of decolonization.[ix] Le temps de Tamango has yet to be translated into English, and yet it is in this novel that Diop first introduces what critics have called a “Borisian” style. These literary techniques were fine-tuned in his subsequent books and became recurring features of his novelistic writing.
The Affordances of Literature
If you are reading a novel by Boubacar Boris Diop, expect one or two of his multiple narrators to call out to you and to reflect on the fraught relationship between fiction and reality or between history and memory. His novels are sites of aesthetic experimentation—with time jumps, fragmented stories interspaced with metafictional concerns of the narrators, and speculative musings about futures past. Often understood as postmodern, his polyphonic texts expose the reader to multiple, often opposing perspectives. The narrative structures are complex and may seem unruly at first, but they abide by a specific logic. Diop explained in an interview that “human consciousness doesn’t move in a straight line.”[x] Indeed, he eschews linear storytelling and instead embraces fragmented and overlapping stories. These entangled temporalities are reflected in his characters’ metaphysical quests.[xi] Along the way, these characters wrestle with some of Diop’s main preoccupations, ranging from the political to the existential: Pan-Africanism, neocolonialism, the figure of the revolutionary intellectual, violence and authoritarian regimes, cultural alienation, identity, the politics of memory, the image of Africa as portrayed in the media, the neocolonial relations between France and its former colonies or Françafrique, and more.[xii]
To explore these complex issues, Diop often blends political fiction with detective fiction. That is the case with his novels Le temps de Tamango, Kaveena, Les traces de la meute (The traces of the pack), and Les tambours de la mémoire (The drums of memory), which all begin with a murder. Diop also blends epics, fables, tales, parables, and proverbs as well as the marvelous and the allegorical, creating characters who wrestle with madness as they attempt to retrieve lost or repressed memories. He uses madness and substories as a device to unsettle linearity and to multiply narrative voices, which Susanne Gehrmann has called “schizophrenic doubling.”[xiii] The same could be said about his use of mirrors, an important device in his work.[xiv] Diop often uses African oral tradition in his novels as a tool of inquiry. As Jonathon Repinecz aptly notes, by subverting proverbs, tales, and epics, “Diop associates oral tradition with the possibility of imagining a more just future” but also “challenges the reification of tradition as backwards or belonging exclusively to the past.”[xv]
Diop’s books are replete with mise en abîme and instances of epistolary embedding. In other words, in his stories there are always books, notes, notebooks, or letters being written to characters that the reader will sometimes never get to meet. For example, in Les tambours de la mémoire, a play, notes, and letters are embedded in the larger narrative surrounding the death of the main protagonist, Fadel. Fadel left notes about his stay in the village of Wissombo and his quest to find Queen Johanna Simentho, who is Diop’s fictional rendering of Aline Sitoe Diatta, a historical figure and symbol of anticolonial resistance. The reader finds out about Fadel’s story through different narrative voices and through a story about Fadel’s life in Wissombo, written by Fadel’s friend and ex-girlfriend using Fadel’s notes.
In Diop’s latest novel in Wolof, Malaanu Lëndëm (literally, “wrapper” or “veil of obscurity,” but which Diop translates as “nighttime stories”), the story reaches us through the mediation of Asta Baldé—the secretary of an elderly man, Sega Touré, for whom she writes the story. Asta also writes letters to her husband, through which we learn about her job writing the very novel we are reading. The overwhelming self-referentiality of Diop’s works points to the constructed nature of the literary text.[xvi] The absent audience and readers of these letters, notebooks, and stories—such as Badou Tall in Doomi Golo, to whom the hidden notebooks are addressed, and Khadidja’s mysterious employer and audience in Le cavalier et son ombre (The Knight and His Shadow)—gesture toward Diop’s linguistic wager to write in Wolof for an audience that has yet to come.[xvii]
The absent audience and readers of these letters, notebooks, and stories gesture toward Diop’s linguistic wager to write in Wolof for an audience that has yet to come.
Diop’s prose is often filled with irony. One of his multiple narrators once defined the novelist as a person “who can say anything in the name of imagination.”[xviii] As Nasrin Qader writes in her foreword to The Knight and His Shadow, Diop has often repeated that he draws from Birago Diop’s use of the old proverb “When memory goes to collect dead wood, it brings back the bundle that pleases it.”[xix] Here, Diop sees the use of memory in storytelling, just like the imagination, as a form of creative freedom through which he can explore and ponder the questions that haunt him.
However, after a transformative experience in Rwanda, Diop took a break from his aesthetic game—a game in which fiction and reality play hide-and-seek—and even criticized his prior representations of the genocide, such as in The Knight and His Shadow. He believed that writing with simplicity about the genocide and maintaining “factual precision” were important for the silenced memories of those who perished.[xx] “I went to Rwanda to write a novel, but history caught up with me,” Diop said a decade after his trip.[xxi]
The Stakes of Memory
Memory has been a centerpiece of Diop’s work, even long before the 1998 “Rwanda: Writing by Duty of Memory” project that came about when Ivorian artist Maïmouna Coulibaly and Chadian writer Nocky Djedanoum invited him and other writers to visit Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. Diop’s trip led to the publication of his famous novel Murambi: The Book of Bones (2000). Rwanda taught Diop that “history repeats itself and most of the time for the worse.”[xxii]
On a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Nuremberg, Diop told his interviewer that “throughout history, the logics of destruction echoed one another,” reminding him of the German priest who translated Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Kinyarwanda and then read it on a Rwandan radio prior to the genocide.[xxiii] The stakes of remembering are high.
Diop first learned about the imperative of memory through Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which he read during his formative years in the aforementioned cultural clubs of the 1960s and ’70s. Fanon’s embedding of Fodéba Keïta’s poem “African Dawn” in his chapter about national literatures led to Diop’s writing of his first play, Thiaroye terre rouge (1981; Thiaroye red earth), which is based on Keïta’s famous poem. The play was followed by an unpublished screenplay entitled “Thiaroye 44,” which Diop authored with filmmaker Ben Diogaye Bèye. In it, they revisit the story of the massacre of African infantrymen who had fought for France during World War II; the men were killed in December 1944 by French forces in the military camp located in Thiaroye, a suburb of Dakar, for protesting over the pay gap vis-à-vis white officers and over back payment for services rendered in 1940.[xxiv] Through the examples of Thiaroye and Rwanda, Diop sounds the alarm about historical amnesia and its impact on the ever-growing rift between Africans and their past.
He does the same in Bammelu Kocc Barma (Kocc Barma’s grave), his second novel in Wolof, which is about the Joola shipwreck. The ferry linking the city of Ziguinchor in Casamance to Dakar capsized during a storm in 2002, leaving only 64 survivors out of 1,900 passengers. Diop has written both journalistic and fictional texts about the tragedy. Using the novel to give a voice to the dead, he pays tribute to those whose bodies lay at the bottom of the ocean and have yet to be retrieved by the authorities. In an important passage of the book, Njéeme Paye, the main protagonist, asks her friend Kinne Gaajo, a famous writer who perished in the shipwreck, “lu la xirr ci dëkke dekkil i néew” (What’s gotten into you? Why do you spend your time resurrecting the dead?); this line, with its evocative alliteration—“dëkke dekkil” (spend your time resurrecting)—poetically describes Diop’s own obsession with memory. To that question, Kinne, who died in the shipwreck, responds with a proverbial interrogation, “Ku sàggane démb, nooy fattalikoo ëllëg?” (How can one remember tomorrow if they neglect the past?).[xxv] Here, Diop reminds the reader that one cannot move forward without having settled one’s debts with the past. For Diop, who came of age as a writer during the era of decolonization—which has, since then, been deemed arrested, failed, or incomplete—the stakes of memory are high.
For Diop, who came of age as a writer during the era of decolonization, the stakes of memory are high.
Thus, beyond the duty of memory, which Diop makes evident in his masterpiece Murambi: The Book of Bones, an implicit call to look at the dire consequences of forgetting runs through his entire oeuvre. Murambi is, to date, Diop’s most widely read and translated work. Toni Morrison famously called this novel “a miracle,” and it was listed among the hundred best African books of the twentieth century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. But Rwanda was transformative for Diop beyond being a significant topic of his award-winning literary works: the genocide transformed him from within and influenced his decision to start writing in Wolof.
The Linguistic Wager
Most contemporary sub-Saharan African authors write in a European language, an issue that has preoccupied the field of African literature since its inception. When Diop realized the extent of France’s involvement in the Rwandan genocide and the genocide’s link to the geopolitics of the French language in France’s former African colonies, his desire to create fiction in French was irrevocably altered.[xxvi] While he did not stop writing in French, he decided to act on Cheikh Anta Diop’s injunction in the 1940s and ’50s for African writers to write in their mother tongue.
Wolof transcends ethnic boundaries in the Senegambian region. It is shared by both Senegal and the Gambia, despite their official languages being French and English, respectively. More than 80 percent of Senegalese speak Wolof as their first or second language, while 32 percent of Senegal’s urban population is fluent in French.[xxvii] And yet French is the official language of government and administration, and it is the main language of official education and print journalism. Thus, Wolof, which dominates in number of speakers, is read and written (in its standardized form in Latin script) by only a small minority. Diop is very conscious of this fact. Therefore, his approach to writing in Wolof took the form of a multifaceted project that involved teaching, writing, translating, and publishing Wolof both in print and online. Diop’s work in Wolof has generated important conversations at the intersection of African and world literatures. Tobias Warner convincingly argues that “vernacular writing and translating . . . opens spaces for interrogating literature itself,” showing how Diop’s translation of Aimé Césaire’s Une saison au Congo into Wolof “asks us to imagine the future of world literature otherwise.”[xxviii] Further, Cullen Goldblatt shows how, in Doomi Golo, Diop offers, through the use of the verb lëndëmtu (or “finding one’s way through the dark”), a mode and an “experience” of reading, which opens up a space for reading and “writing difference” while exploring its possibilities.[xxix] As a metaphor, lëndëmtu could be a way of apprehending Diop’s decision to write in an African language despite the uncertain outcome of his wager.
As a metaphor, lëndëmtu (or “finding one’s way through the dark”) could be a way of apprehending Diop’s decision to write in an African language despite the uncertain outcome of his wager.
Drawing from his experience of translating his own book into French, Diop has noted the untranslatability of what might be called a Wolof cultural imaginary into French, hence his explanatory and free approach to self-translation. In the French version of Doomi Golo, Diop replaces what were short sentences in Wolof with paragraphs in which he unpacks the emotional or cultural charge of an expression that would otherwise not make much sense to a francophone reader. Diop gives the example of the opening sentence of the novel “Àddina. Dund. Dee.”—which, as he notes, would at first glance be translated as “Here on earth. Live. Die.” He then argues that given that “such a translation does not mean anything, it took about two pages to give a bit more substance to these three words filled with meaning and tenderness in Wolof but that became completely petrified and a perfect nonsense in French.”[xxx] Diop’s restitution of the cultural and emotional charge of a three-word expression in two pages is one of the multiple instances through which the exercise of self-translating his novel Doomi Golo reinforces the importance of his linguistic wager.
Another expression, “yal na nga koote,” used by a woman to scold Nguirane Faye, and translated as “may the Almighty fling you into the flames of Hell,” is an expression that, in Wolof, can only be used by women but that, when translated into French or English, loses its gendered specificity.[xxxi] This subtle difference between the Wolof version and its translations points not only to what is lost in translation but also, and more significantly, to the importance of approaching literatures in nondominant languages as archives of other ways of knowing and apprehending the world and thus as alternatives to dominant models. These seemingly banal expressions, as Diop has shown, hark back to how people have imagined and explained the world to themselves. Beyond his ethical and political reasons, then, the process of writing and self-translating Doomi Golo into French made it possible for him “to measure the alarming extent of the loss” of not writing in his own language.[xxxii]
There are manifold aspects of Diop’s body of work. The rich and complex fictional texts he has thus far produced cannot be boiled down to just the three elements I have briefly explored in this essay. These elements—the affordances of literature, the stakes of memory, and the linguistic wager—are, however, essential for understanding his oeuvre and his evolution as a writer. They are also interconnected: Diop’s work on language is intrinsically tied to the stakes of memory, and he emphasizes memory as an imperative through constant interrogation of the affordances of literature. The stakes of remembering Thiaroye, the Rwandan genocide, the Joola shipwreck, and the heroes of anticolonial resistance are tethered to the slower and more pernicious loss of cultural imaginaries and the languages that carry them. Diop’s fictional writing is just one part of his work. The issues identified in this essay are further examined in his journalistic writing, and the ideals he stands for are enacted in his work as a publisher, editor, translator, critic, and scholar.
Author’s note: The author thanks Sarah Derbew and Aileen Robinson for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.