Commitment to Timeless Values

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Camara Laye
Commitment to timeless values

Interview by J. Steven Rubin
Africa Report, May 1972

Camara Laye was born in 1924 in Kouroussa, Upper Guinea. He received his early education in his native village berore entering technical school in Conakry, the nation’s capital. Later he studied automobile mechanics in France and then continued his studies in Paris, working nights and taking courses at the National Conservatory during the day.
It was during his stay in Paris that he wrote his first novel, L’Enfant noir (The Dark Child), in 1953. An instant success, the novel was awarded the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954. His first work has since been followed by Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the Ying), 1954, and Dramouss (A Dream of Africa), 1967. His latest novel, L’Exile, is scheduled for publication in the near future.
In 1956 Camara Laye returned to Guinea. Two years later, after his country’s independence, he was appointed to the diplomatic corps and occupied several important government Positions in Conakry until 1965. Since that date, in disagreement with the Guinean regime, he has lived in Senegal.

Rubin: You have occasionally been criticized on the, grounds that your novels are not “committed,” are not truly political, in a time that calls perhaps for a political commitment. Does this imply that you are not concerned with the issue of neocolonialism and its implications ?

Laye: The critics you mention are interested in specific topical issues. Before independence, the prime issue was colonialism; what I wrote then would have little interest or influence now that independence is a reality, and colonialism, on an international level, is no longer a prominent issue. What concerns me most is the timeless quality of the specific values of our culture. And because of this, my book L’Enfant noix still interests people and will, hopefully, continue to do so for some time to come.
It seems to me that L’Enfant noir is actually quite progressive because it affirms the greatness of our black civilization. Because of that I am, in a sense, a true revolutionary. The people who are so vocal in their protest against neo-colonialism are also the people who have adopted European habits and customs, but neocolonialism as a way of life will cease to exist only when all Africans become totally aware of their own great civilization and no longer adopt French or English ways.

Laye: Racism is one of the most important and pressing themes in the works of most black writers, but in your novels black-white confrontation does not become an issue. Do you feel that race is not the essential question?

Laye: I think it is a false problem. One can successfully write about the African experience without creating a conflict between the races. When Beethoven, for example, wrote his First Symphony, or his Fifth, or the “Pastoral,” his work itself established the value of German culture. Similarly, an African work of art itself stands for the values of the black man and of African civilization. I believe this type of aesthetic commitment is more valuable to our civilization than a specific protest on racial grounds. I also believe that it counters any theory of the superiority of other cultures in a very practical way.
Take L’Enfant noir. At a time when African civilization was under discussion in Europe and America, it spoke not only about colonization and its effects but also about African traditions, laws, customs and religion. In showing the beauty of this culture, my novel testifies to its greatness. People who had not been aware that Africa had its own culture were able to grasp the significance of our past and of our civilization. I believe that this understanding is the most meaningful contribution of African literature.
One does not have to talk about specific political problems in order to be political. All literature is, in a sense, “committed” in the way in which it asserts the style of a particular culture and way of life, and a writer who deals with his culture and history for the purpose of bearing witness to its greatness is certainly a committed writer. I find it meaningless to create a fictional dramatization of racial tension or to talk, for example, of racial discrimination in a restaurant. This is a purely political issue. When an author deals with his civilization, and can demonstrate how that culture is different from that of America or Europe, and can show that it has its own specific value and merit, then I believe that he is involved in a work of greater lasting significance.

Rubin: What do you believe are the future possibilities of a literature written in African languages?

Laye: Obviously this is a very complicated question. For the next 10, or perhaps 20 or 30 years, the influence of the colonial powers will remain in the arts, for one cannot deny history. Besides, it is to our advantage not to cut ourselves off from the outside world, but to continue to speak, and to create literature, in French and in English, in order to help bridge the cultural, as well as political, gap between Africa and Europe. French and English are also important to the unity of the African continent.
At the same time, people who are discovering their national identity must obviously also discover the basis of their original civilization. One of the basic elements of African culture is languages. Our people must learn to read and write their own languages, and increasingly in a to tally and uniquely African way.
Then our literature will have something truly new to offer the world.

“An African writer should write like an African”

Rubin: What have been your experiences with writing in an adopted language?

Laye: Naturally, it is very hard work, and there are many nuances one wants to convey to one’s readers that are often lost.

Rubin: Are you familiar with the works of writers like Amos Tutuola of Nigeria who have experimented with adapting English or French to a particular African usage?

Laye: Yes. I think that an African writer should write like an African and not like a Frenchman; he must modify the language to express his personal experiences and cultural background, and even at times take liberties with the language he is working with. As Victor Hugo said: “Language is like a woman, and men must violate her.” Many African writers, Leopold Senghor, for example, do break with many traditions and rules in their writing.

Rubin: Does the concept of Négritude, as you understand it, play an important role in your work?

Laye: There is a good deal of argument over the concept of Négritude and what it means. The important point is that its basis is an affirmation of black culture and civilization. I agree with this definition and believe that all my work reflects this view of black civilization.

Rubin: What do you think of the concept, which is becoming more and more common among black intellectuals elsewhere, of returning to Africa, or at least of affirming what comes from Africa as a part of their true heritage?

Laye: It is based on nostalgia, which is very natural, and stems from the f act that the black man has never really felt secure in America. Never having been totally accepted into the framework of American society, he has had to search elsewhere for a definite identity.

Rubin: The autobiographical form, which you have used in most of your own books, seems very popular with both African, and black American, authors: Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Malcolm X are obvious American examples. Do you feel that a need to affirm a personal sense of identity is the reason why this form is perhaps more common in black writing than in the writing of any other group?

Laye: No, not when you consider the black man’s experience. Take Richard Wright’s youth as he describes it in Black Boy. His experiences were shared by many other black children growing up in Mississippi, and throughout the South. As a result, Wright is giving the American reading public an example of the life led by millions of black children in America. He achieves a dual purpose: while describing his personal experiences, he is also writing the autobiography of millions and defining the racial experience.

Rubin: Your own L’Enfant noir, on the other hand, is more concerned with particular and unique experiences. Your latest novel, Dramouss, is, in part, a continuation of L’Enfant noir. L’Exile would seem, at least from the title, to continue the story of your life. Does this indleate a definite commitment to the autobiographical novel as the most valid form for you?

Laye: Yes, but in L’Enfant noir I am describing the life of a young African boy, many of whose experiences would be shared by others, whether they came from Senegal, Ivory Coast or Guinea. In a certain sense, L’Enfant noir translates the common life of African children, just as Black Boy relates what is collective in the black American experience.
Similarly, though my adult life has been rather unusual and often difficult, it is not totally unique. Like the lives of thousands of other Malinke who are living outside Guinea, it has been one of exile, which is not only my experience but also that of many Guineans who have been forced to flee. I felt the need to translate that experience into literature, to bring it into the open.

Rubin: It has been pointed out that in L’Enfant noir everything is idealized. Did you purposely choose to tell only the good and to ignore the bad?

Laye: Yes, that was natural. I wrote L’Enfant noir when I was a student in Paris. And life was enormously difficult for African students there, away from our homes in a totally foreign culture, barely making ends meet. So in order to maintain some sort of inner peace, every evening I would write; and what I wrote about was childhood memories.

Rubin: Your second novel, Le regard du roi, appears more philosophical and at times surrealistic. It seems to me that you went much further in it, that you approached an entirely new level.

Laye: It wasn’t a question of a new level, but a normal development of thought. One cannot always be writing about one’s own experiences. When I wrote my autobiography, which covers my life from infancy to age 20, I had exhausted the subject for the time being. A year later, when I felt the need to express myself in literature again, my personal life was finished as subject matter, so I had to turn to a pure fiction. Ten years later I could return to autobiography in order to give literary expression to the many things that have happened to me since; when I finish L’Exile, however, I shall have exhausted the subject and I shall look for a totally new fictional form.

Rubin: To return to your one “fictional” work, it seems apparent that Le regard du roi was meant to be a highly symbolic novel. Each African character seems to represent a different aspect of black society. What does Clarence, the white man, represent, and why was it necessary to make him white within a totally black society ?

Laye: Clarence is a man with many problems. He is in a nev, and totally strange country with a different civilization. He comes to this country with his Cartesian logic and finds that the African mentality is not at all Cartesian. He is totally out of his element. I created this situation because it gives greater symbolic expression to the difficulty of a man who wants to reach God. If I had chosen a black man for the role, he would not have had the sense of being completely uprooted and would have had less difficulty.

Rubin: I know you met Richard Wright on several occasions. Did you ever discuss some of the works he wrote after he became involved in the African situation?

Laye: Yes, we talked together in Paris, after he had just returned from Ghana with his new book, Black Power (1954). After it was translated he called me and asked me to give my view of it, which I did. My conclusion was that there were certain uniquely African problems that escaped Wright, not because of any failure in perception, but because, coming from America, he had not lived the African experience, despite the fact that he was a black man.
Within this context, I talked about Wright’s concept of the African “revolution,” if you want to call it that. He believed that Africa, and the black man throughout the world, should form a sort of philosophical unity, and we were in agreement on this. But he did not fully understand the African experience and African civilization.
In the same way, if you were to take me to the United States and ask me to evaluate the black movement in America, I would be unable to do so because I have not lived in that context. The problems are peculiar to America and different from ours. In Africa the issue is not our achieving equality or our civil rights.
We are not concerned with any sort of integration with a white society. Although we aspire toward modernity, we do not want to become Europeanized, or white, and risk losing what is typically African.

Dr. J. Steven Rubin is an assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida Tampa. In 1971 he was the recipient of a Faculty Grant to study in French West Africa.

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