Opening the Gate

The Ivorian novelist Edwige-Renée DRO talks about the wealth of writing talent and the weakness of Africa’s publishing infrastructure

THOUGH I was already familiar with her work in a variety of venues, I first met Edwige-Renée DRO last June at the Writivism festival in Kampala, Uganda, where—as we joked—she was Writivism’s ambassador from the Francophone world. She spent 10 years in ­England—where she first began writing—but in 2013 she returned to Côte d’Ivoire, and as she launches her own writing career, she is working to build bridges among different writing communities in the Francophone region and across Africa. Along with playing an important part in the Writivism’s expansion into the Francophone world—which just hosted a workshop in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire—Edwige was named one of the Africa39 (39 of the most promising writers under 40 from sub-Saharan Africa), was a PEN International New Voices award judge, and took part in the Jalada “languages” project, not only contributing her own writing but assisting with translating other stories into other languages.

This interview was conducted in English, sitting on the ground in the hotel car park, while buses maneuvered around us.

What is the contemporary literary scene like in Côte d’Ivoire?

Well, the books are not getting sold. There is no excitement. People are quite despondent, and they don’t know where the work is going. They want to write—actually, a lot of people want to write. But where is this work going to go? Our young writers have trouble getting published by the publishing houses that we have in Côte d’Ivoire, and so they resort to self-publishing in France, and then bring the books back. But it’s too expensive for the market. There is also the fact that 50 percent of the population is illiterate. They can speak French, but they cannot read or write it. And there is a big issue with egos. The old writers are not just the gatekeepers; they have entered and they have shut the gate firmly behind them so no one else can enter.

Unless you have other ways … I am in a very privileged position, for example, because I speak English and I write in English first, before translating it.

You write in English first and then translate it into French?

Yes, that is what I do. So I have avenues where my work can get published, and these are the avenues that I want to bring to Côte d’Ivoire. So that these young writers can get their stuff out there, and that the people who are shutting that gate behind them will realize that, actually, things are happening, and maybe they will be willing to open this gate.

What do you think can be done to change that?

These books that we are producing—in this traditional format called “paper”—we could do stage adaptations of them, in open-air places, and maybe even get schoolchildren involved, so that literature can be taken on by the society. And also, since we don’t have literacy projects in our languages—the way you can write in Swahili or Yoruba—we could do audio. We could contact local radio stations, who can read these pieces in the languages of the people, so that everyone is included in this literature project, both those in the villages and our parents who do not speak French well.

Another big problem is that when books are launched, it’s in a gentrified area, so nobody else knows what is happening. Other people in Abidjan don’t know what is happening, let alone people in the other towns. I also want conversation with other Francophone writers. It is a shame that we do not know who is making the news in Guinea, in Burkina Faso, in Mali, or in Senegal. I know that there are publishing houses in Cameroon, and perhaps this could be a way around the big ego problem: If we were having a conversation with our neighbors, we could send our work to a publishing house in Burkina Faso, or in Benin, or in Senegal. But we are not having this conversation, so we do not even know who the publishing houses are, even within our Francophone world.

Why do you think that is? Why are they so ­separate?

I don’t know. Perhaps because we are looking to France. Even self-publishing is based in France, and so everybody is looking to France to publish their stuff. I don’t know if they think there is no publishing market in Africa, but I think the Anglophone scene is more vibrant, where African literature is concerned.

We need to sort things out so that Abidjan is not the only place where things happen. But we also need to speak to the Senegalese publishers and the Guinean publishers. If we get a few translations sorted, and you can see the people I’m reaching with my books, and the money I’m earning, then things start to change. Because yes, it is important to earn money. If I have a book published in Côte d’Ivoire, our rubbish postal system (and the closed-up mentality that makes publishers here think that Abidjan is the whole of Côte d’Ivoire) means there will be a little launch party at Sococe supermarket, I rub shoulders with a few “intellectuals,” and then I go home. I would have given away most of my books free.

It’s funny, in Anglophone spaces, people often think it’s a good thing that France seems interested in literature in Africa and supports it. But you’re saying it can also be a problem.

I don’t think they are that interested, actually. There are the big ones, who are publishing, who get to go to France. But it is a clique. And there is also the problem when a person is not writing in serious French, when he is writing novels based in Côte d’Ivoire. We have various novelists who are realizing some success, with books based in Côte d’Ivoire. Isaie Biton Koulibaly, for example—the great intellectual writers of Côte d’Ivoire don’t consider him a writer because his books appeal to the masses rather than a select few. But that’s like saying Jackie Collins is not a writer. I don’t read a lot of his stuff because it isn’t my kind of writing. He writes about women—it is quite un-feminist, actually—about the travails of men and women, and about polygamy issues, which are the things that people can identify with. But it is what is on the ground. There is also a collection, Claire de Lune, which is our Mills and Boon, and they sell the books for $3, and it is printed nicely, on good paper, and it is Ivorian.

But then, when you are writing a book about a person who is living in France, and … I read a book like this based in France, and the person has never been to France. And the book is $20! Which is too much in Côte d’Ivoire.

Why is literary fiction so expensive compared with those books that can come out for $3?

The publishing house is based in Côte d’Ivoire, but they print the stuff in Mauritius. So that comes out cheaper. When we print the stuff in France, it is too expensive for the Ivorian budget. I would love to see Alain Mabanckou’s stuff printed in Côte d’Ivoire, because it might get people interested. Maybe if it was a bit cheaper. But it is too expensive now, so people don’t buy it. We need to think about printing on the continent.

It seems like these conversations about literature always come back to the publishing infrastructure.

It’s very poor, nonexistent. We are just writing and writing, and I think we are writing enough. Let’s now think of ways of building strong publishing houses on the continent, so our books can get to people. I’m not a big fan of online stuff, because I like books, the physical thing.

The internet can be a place to distribute audio content too. But is “online” a gentrified area of the literary space?

Yes, exactly. People talk about how there is good internet penetration in Africa, but it’s only in the urban ­areas. In Côte d’Ivoire it is in Abidjan. The minibus conductor is not going to be listening to these stories.

However, our biggest reggae star, Alpha Blondy, recently launched a radio station, and he has a literature section, where he reads works of literature. And people love it. I don’t know if it’s because he’s Alpha Blondy, but a radio station is not a gentrified space. People in the streets get to hear works by Ahmadou Kourouma. And they love it! Obviously the books have to be based on the reality of Côte d’Ivoire. There is no point in setting a book in France for a taxi driver to read.

Is the language different?

Yes, and we need to be owning this French of ours … We have our slang, it’s called Nouchi, we need to be writing in Nouchi. There are people in Abidjan who do the news in Nouchi, and I listen to it rather than the proper news.

Tell me about “Africa Rising.”

Ah … Africa! Africa is not rising. Africa is not rising. When I was in England, I thought Africa was rising. And then I returned. And you just see that, no, it isn’t rising. If Africa was really rising, you wouldn’t have so many migrants dying in the Mediterranean seas. So how is it rising?

Yes, we are getting all these high-rise buildings, we are getting these new roads, companies are coming. We are trying to attract investors. But for the majority of youth in Côte d’Ivoire, the official unemployment figure is 5 percent but, whatever, please do not lie to people. It is not 5 percent. The majority of people, they have qualifications, they cannot find a job. It is who you know. So the mentality is still that Europe is best. So as Africans, we need to be questioning ourselves: What is our model of development? Is it having these big buildings and these beautiful wide roads?

I think that is where literature can come in. African writers, Ivorian writers, we need to look at what is on the ground so we can have a conversation about how we want to develop. So that’s my thing. Africa is not rising.

What about the whole Afropolitan narrative?

Eh! It’s the Afropolitan that says, Yeah, we may be born on the continent, but we live in London, and we have friends here and we go on holiday in these European countries. And … I just don’t subscribe to that at all. During a talk, I said this, and there was a lot of clapping, and I think a lot of people believe what I am saying.

We decide we are not political, we are Afropolitan now, so we may be born on the continent, but we live between Paris and London and Abidjan. But we Westernize our clothes, so we have the wax print but instead of the wraps our mothers wear, we are making trousers out of it or little beautiful dresses. We are having nappy hair. And how many of us are doing that? A minority. A minority that has gone abroad, who have had a chance to go abroad, who have had the privilege—and that’s what it is, a privilege.

You may say that you are not interested in the West anymore, everything is in Africa now. But “it is in Africa” when you are being paid in dollars or British pounds. When you are being paid the minimum salary, in CFA francs, you have to do great mathematics about how you are going to eat and pay for things.

We are not Afropolitans. If I was living in England, I’d be writing about this Afropolitan stuff. And my writing when I was in England was a little bit like that. We need to go back. We need to go back.

And then I came back to Côte d’Ivoire, and my writing has changed. Because, yes, we need to come back. I believe very much that we need to come back. But let us not kid ourselves that it is easy. It is not easy at all. The ­Afropolitan narrative is for a minority. For the majority, there is no Afropolitan narrative.

Tell me about what you are writing.

I am writing quite a few things. I am finishing my novel; the French is not proper French from France, it is very Ivorianized. It is about the whole Africa Rising narrative, actually. It is about a man who is in England, he has been there for many years, and he does not believe in the whole Africa Rising narrative. He wants to be a big someone, and he knows for that he needs a big degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. And he needs money for that. And he needs to send money back to his sister and his family. So he decides to get himself a sponsor. He starts to go to big hotels in London where he has heard that the Ivorians go. And then one day he meets this woman, and she is the Africa Rising babe, with the Afro hair to match. She tells him that he needs to come back to Côte d’Ivoire. But when they go, he discovers that she lives in one of the gentrified areas, and she goes to “nappy-meeting,” she goes to African hair meetings, and he realizes that these people, they are so different from me. I am not at that place. So he decides to go back to England.

Why do you write it in English first?

I think because I lived in England for 10 years. It was in England that I developed my writing, where I joined a writers’ group and realized that there was a career called “writing.” Obviously, if you join a writing group in England and you are sending your stuff out, it needs to be written in English. And it just developed from there.

Do you do the translation at the same time? Or do you do it after?

I translate it after, as soon as it is finished. Because I know then what I have written. So as soon as it is finished, I’ll start on a French translation. Maybe if I stayed in ­England, I’d want to stay published in English. But it’s that returning thing, it’s wanting my work to be accessible first of all to Ivorians. So everything I write, I translate.