Writers I Read: In Conversation with Antoinette Tidjani Alou
Africa, the cradle of human civilization, calls to us from deep within our bloodlines.
In East Asia, our response often manifests as a yearning for the continent’s wide-open spaces, it’s hosts of animals, it’s exotic otherness; a romanticized image from which the trauma of the Middle Passage, the pain of colonization and today's diaspora of coloured persons is erased. It is a delusion I only woke from in 2017, when I was brought up close to the lived experience of fellow writers from Africa at the University of Iowa International Writing Program.
Antoinette Tidjani Alou, writer, scholar, translator and Director of Arts & Culture Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey (Niger) is one such writer. Vibrant Antoinette lived four doors down the hall. Like me, she was raised in an ex-British colony, was a Catholic who’d married ‘out’, and had left her husband and grown children to be in Iowa. I connected instantly. Within the fortnight, we were meditating together in the morning, bonding over coffee and swapping books.
Time zone differences put an end to all that. Also, the polyphonic Antoinette has been publishing mostly in French these days. I don’t read French. It has been a while since we sat down together for a good conversation. I’m so thankful for the opportunity today. So, here we go . . .
AC: Hi Antoinette. I really appreciate your setting time aside to tell my readers a little about yourself and your work. Let’s start with the idea of Africa. You live in Niger and have done so for a large part of your life. However, you were born in the Caribbean and educated in many places. In the extract of your book On m’appelle Nina (They Call Me Nina) you write about how your younger Jamaican illusions of a luxuriant Africa were tested upon your arrival in the Sahel. Yet you have now managed to grow a garden in its sands. So, what does Africa now mean to you?
ATA: Oh là là! Audrey, you are really going there. Do you know how deeply that seemingly innocent question resonates in the blood, history and poetry of the historical African Diaspora? It takes me way back to my early teenage years in Jamaica, when Africa was mainly the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay (who is also Jamaican). I’ll go there with you, if you allow, and evoke one particular poem of the Harlem Renaissance that has a Diaspora poetica persona asking (and answering) that very same question: “Heritage” by Countee Cullen. Here’s an extract -
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea, Jungle star or jungle track, Strong bronzed men, or regal black Women from whose loins I sprang When the birds of Eden sang? One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?
I have long worked at answering your question through scholarship and literary writing. I have a whole paper (presented in South Africa, in 2010) on the subject of my life between homes, “Where do African-Caribbeans living in Africa belong?” My autofiction in English, One life is not enough, has a chapter that documents the journey to the answer/the answers and to the 'I' who is answering. Here are some (perhaps contradictory) notes, from where I sit, here-now: I don’t know what Africa is. it’s too vast. I’ve lived in only one part of one country, Niamey in Niger. That is far as geography has taken me. Scholarship has taken me deeper into the interior of Niger, I believe. But as for my mythic imagination, my larger sense of “identity” and my personal commitment - Africa is my past, my present, my future. It is huge, beyond nationality, beyond geography. I claim its immensity as mine, wherever it occurs. It is not one country. It is not a monolith. It assembles huge portions of my sense of self in the world.
AC: And what of Jamaica, your home country?
ATA: As a child I saw Jamaica and Africa as related but distinct. Now, I understand the global connections that circulate among the different parts of Global Africa, that bind them together. Still, for me, Jamaica, and indeed the Caribbean, pulse with seminal blood.
Jamaican poet, playwright and actor, Dennis Scott (1939-1991) wrote about this in a poem, titled “Homecoming”, which I first read in a collection of his that I received as a prize for literature in high school, at Convent of Mercy Academy, Alpha (Kingston, Jamaica). I can’t say it any better about Jamaica, and indeed the entire Caribbean:
“The hearts’ metronome
insists on this arc of islands
This is my heart-land, my blood. It’s my childhood. And the persistent fiery taste of things.
AC: Such eloquent words. Yet, in On m’appelle Nina, you share your hesitancy opening the ‘secret garden’ of your writing. Tell us about the reception . . .
ATA: Varied. Sometimes deeply moving. Sometimes perplexing. Also, silence. The book has received quite a bit of coverage, here and abroad. The bookshop near me runs out of copies frequently and I still get invitations to talk about it.
Some readers identify deeply with this work. One well-known critic in Paris claims to love this work ‘selfishly’. It’s a book he says he would like to have written. He, too lost a child, but has not been able to touch the subject. A journalist on television cried after our recorded interview. She found the book brave. She had lost her father two years before and was still grieving. A friend living in Europe in very comfortable circumstances wrote to say: “I am Nina”.
My in-laws have, however, been consistently silent for the most part (my colleagues, ditto). Except for one brother-in-law, also a scholar, who sees Nina as my 'getting even'. I believe these silences have to do with our traditional societies, which do not always provide the tools to deal with the trauma of bereavement and other types of emotional suffering. My husband, after his first reading found Nina well-written, but sad. He has offered many signed copies to colleagues and friends of his. My two surviving daughters find the work beautiful. Poetic. An eye-opener. A colleague who is also a friend has said the same.
A close friend, married here and living in Niamey for over forty years found the book “pudique”. For her, I hadn’t said the half. I had been kind. Lenient. Recently, an old college friend wrote from Bordeaux to thank and encourage me to keep on writing. She had recognized my soul. She too, found me “pudique” in my expression of bereavement and powerfully poetic in my expression of hope.
Many high school kids here in Niamey love my utopia of a prosperous Niger. Others cannot understand how my love of the country combines with strong criticism. As if love is not love unless it is blind. Well, these are a few of the very varied reactions.
AC: I am caught by the phrase “pudique”. Certainly in your next book, Tina Shot Me Between The Eyes and other stories, the themes raised in On m’appelle have ripened into angry fruit. It’s fiercely feminist and full of angsty women who refuse to allow themselves to be confined inside the small places or relationships they find themselves in. There is also Africa and the Caribbean, the diaspora in North America and Europe, and the various intersections and collisions of faith and practice, in a myriad of voices. To me, it is very much like Terry’s dance in one of the stories, The Dance? Were you nervous that all this energy was going out into the world? What was the reaction to this collection?
ATA: I wasn’t nervous. It wasn’t a first publication and it benefitted from the kind of distancing fiction brings. I am less aware of the reactions to Tina, but there have been published reactions such as Teresa Malinson’s. Except for the 2018 Frankfurt bookfair, presentations in the US (IOWA City, Library of Congress), and a presentation in London (2019) at a conference on Transnational Families, Transnational Novels at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the University of London, I have done little in terms of publicity for this book.
Two reactions stay with me, that of my youngest sibling, who came up from Atlanta to hear me read at the Library of Congress. He cried when I read Granpa Joseph, one of two short stories that have a bearing on our family history. I would never have thought that this fictional working through of the silenced history of Jamaican men, and that of our paternal grandfather, Joseph Titus, whom I reinvented from a scrap or two of family lore and some research in socio-history, would have such a power to move anyone.
The second reaction is that of Olatoun Gabi-Williams who interviewed me in Frankfurt. She couldn’t believe that I was a Christian, a believer. It didn’t tally for her, a Christian writing stories like that.
AC: And yet, you are a practicing Christian woman married to a Muslim, living amongst ‘a people who are Muslim without discarding traditional religion’? Faith, in its many forms, features often in your work. So you are a believer, yes?
ATA: I am Roman Catholic. Greatly impacted by the Charismatic Renewal. My outlook is ecumenical and critical. My love is not blind. I am open to the beauty of other faiths, notably Islam. I am deeply attached to the Bible. I am Charismatic Catholic from a protestant country, and a little bit Muslim, besides.
So yes, I am believer. Even in the driest of times, it just doesn’t go away. I believe in Jesus, in the path to God which is His legacy to the world. I do not believe that there is only one path to God. Jesus never said so, by the way. He proclaims himself as the way to God as father. There are issues with which I struggle : the (physical) resurrection of the dead, which is an article of the faith to the Church to which I belong. I have problems with the patriarchy rife in the church and in the Christian tradition – and present. Patriarchy has made the very word father complicated to say the least. I hate the sexism of the Church. Luckily, there is the wealth of its other traditions. I believe in love, and in the goodness of people. I believe that life is an immense gift and privilege. I strive to enjoy it and to bear fruit.
AC: And all these complexities are beautifully woven into the stories in Tina Shot Me, especially in the wonderful 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which I loved.
On the subject of complexities, I’d like to ask about language. I know you write in French and in English. Would you consider these your native languages? Or, is there a ‘mother tongue’ that you feel has been taken from you by colonization? If so, what would that be?
ATA: I consider English and French to be languages. My mother tongue is Jamaican dialect/creole. I am in full possession of this language. a variant of which I use in my writing, as in the stories Granpa Joseph and Woman to woman. I don’t think about language theft a lot, although I deem it to be real. I am fortunate to speak a few languages, including two African continental ones: Hausa and Songhay-Zarma. We are born into history, of which languages form a hefty portion. I appropriate those at my disposal and am eager to learn new ones.
AC: What are you working on now?
ATA: A novel in French, Au nom de Lava O’mer, based in Niamey, depicting post-colonial love stories and family drama in the age of COVID, while I wait for my two new manuscripts (Mano de l’autre bord and One life is not enough) to land the right publishers.
AC: Thank you Antoinette.
I shall be anticipating One life is not enough and the French books in translation. In the meantime, for those who have not had a taste of Antoinette's words and her stories, do have a go at the following:
- An excerpt from On m’appelle Nina about the growing of a garden in the Sahel,
- The short story collection Tina shot me through the eyes which is for sale on Kindle.