While many of the students present in Room 100 of Hyer Hall on October 2nd merely came to the “Globalization, Translation, and African Literature” lecture for extra credit, they exited with much more than a few bonus points. Listening to the words of Fiston Mwanza Mujila, everyone quickly realized that his gift for writing has the power to influence peoples and cultures far beyond the individual readers of his novels and poems, and it made for a truly exhilarating experience. Hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mujila at first did not find an encouraging society in which to share his literary works. In order to perform readings of his pieces, he resorted to standing in hair salons, web cafes, and bars. Unfortunately, these places (especially the bars) offered competing attractions: some people came to listen to Mujila speak and others came for music and drinks, so Mujila learned quickly to shout his works into the din so that he would be heard. Interestingly, the bars in which he performed would oftentimes play the famous Congolese Rumba, and Mujila began using the music in his performances, later embedding it directly into his works. Mujila compares his pieces to jazz concerts, each part of the story contributing, like each instrument, to the whole song. He has collaborated with jazz musicians and performed his readings set to music, and his writing has a musical quality rarely seen in contemporary literature. Mujila’s unique fusion of music and language was certainly on display during his reading of a selection from his new novel Tram 83, translated from the French and published by Dallas’s own Deep Vellum. Bellowing loudly, he began with a few bars of singing (to exercise his voice, he claimed). Then he began in earnest, French words pouring quickly from his mouth. His facial expressions at times carried even more meaning than the words, which his translator faithfully echoed. At one point, he began repeating one single word, , over and over, and he began laughing. Lugubre went on for about two full minutes, the laughing continuing sporadically. Those of us who could not understand French waited in anticipation as to what this passage and the laughing meant. When the French translator began speaking, we heard him say, “Mournful,” then again, “Mournful,” and again, “Mournful.” Soon, Mujila joined in, “Mournful,” he would laugh, “Mournful.” And, standing there minutes after his performance, Mujila said one last time, “Mournful,” while still laughing. At the end of his lecture, I realized that his performance gives just as much meaning to the story as the words on the page; the laughing wasn’t just part of the show but also an extension of the text itself. For Mujila, writing does not end with a published, bound book, but continues to evolve and move people with each word spoken at each reading. As a new voice in the young generation of African writers, Mujila holds an interesting position. As he told us in his lecture, African literature consists of both oral and written tradition. The written works fit into two categories: those written in native African languages and those written in a language of Africa’s colonizers (French, German, English, etc.). Written in French and German, Mujila’s works belong to the colonial written tradition, yet his spoken-word performances with strong musical elements speak to an influence of African oral tradition. In this way, Mujila blends the original African literary tradition with the newer colonial influence, creating works that reflect and comment on the larger situation in Africa today and the conflict between the area’s rich cultural traditions and the destructive effects of colonization. Through his writing, Mujila tries to come to terms with this conflict by utilizing his African culture to redefine colonial influences. He truly represents an important and dynamic movement which the literary world will be watching closely in the coming years.
This article was written by Ceci Weigman. Click here to see more of Ceci’s work.