Friday, February 07, 4070

An Interview with Amadou Lamine Sall

[A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared in The Hindu's Sunday magazine supplement; to those already familiar with the poetry of negritude, I apologise for the quick gloss--]

Amadou Lamine Sall (b. 1951) is the best known Senegalese poet after Leopold Senghor, who was both the legendary first president of Senegal, a key African leader, and one of a handful of central and inescapable“father figures” for African and African diasporic poetry.

Senghor’s own poems—as well as his polemic essays on poetry—attempted to make a new visionary and liberatory poetics (dubbed negritude) by fusing together various influences: the surrealist figures in 20th century French poetry (themselves, in turn, influenced by the African art brought to Paris museums) as well as the earlier Parnassians and imagists, in-between figures like the wonderful Malagasy poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo and African folktales and traditions of oral performance. The poetry of negritude, perhaps most famously and impressively in Senghor’s Martiniquan close collaborator Aime Césaire’s brilliant and monumental long poem, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (“Notebook of the Return to my Native Land” – 1939), brought together the rawest of polemic chants with an intense and sometimes moody and obscure lyricism, a sharp-toothed and erudite modernism.

Senghor’s legacy has clearly ensured that poetry continues to be a central, very highly respected, and deeply well-funded part of the lifeblood of the Senegalese nation. At the same time, successive generations of Senegalese (and other African) poets have had to struggle to emerge from out of Senghor’s shadow. Sometimes this has meant an outright and forceful rejection of Senghor’s poetics. At other times, as in Amadou Lamine Sall’s five volumes of poetry so far, this has meant a more subtle modulation outward, an extension of Senghor’s tone and rhythms into a late post-colonial African era where race has become a much less central anxiety and where all ideologies, to one extent or another, have begun to ring hollow. To some degree like both Senghor and Cesaire (not to mention another of his key influences—Neruda), Lamine Sall has been anointed part of a national political machinery, working at a senior level in the Ministry of Culture; yet, at the same time, his poems frequently seem to insist on a profound ambivalence about and mistrust of official politics. Or further— they try to find a more intimate, tentative politics for the self. Despite this, Lamine Sall’s voice as a poet is still a collective voice, grand and large in its address, very far from the small, autobiographical voice, confessional in the Anglo-American sense. It relies less on observed particulars than on intense lyric and parabolic gestures, recurring images and euphonies; this also means it does not translate so easily into no-nonsense English. Given that the poetry takes these particular risks and makes them compelling, it still seems to belong uniquely to Francophone Africa and further, it builds a bridge to the currently emerging more diverse scenario populated by a wide range of poets, novelists, rappers and song lyricists, facing up to the troubled Africa of today. Some excerpts from a recent extended conversation with Lamine Sall, in Chennai for the Prakriti Poetry Festival, co-sponsored by the Alliance Française and Landmark bookstores:

Can you tell us a little about your childhood and school years, your introduction to poetry?

My mother was a poet; that is, she was a well-known oral poet, she never went to school. Among her duties during the day was to look after the cattle, so she composed songs about nature, about cattle, about her family, and so on. As a child, I looked after the cows as well, in a village in the north of Senegal; my early years were spent here with my mother. By this time, my father had already migrated to Kaolack, the second largest city in Senegal. He worked a number of different jobs and eventually became the chauffeur to the governor. At the age of five, I was sent to the Koranic school, which was a good education for a poet— you’re forced to memorise many verses quickly, and you are rapped hard on the knuckles if you don’t! Later, I was sent to school in the city for a French education, and I became a citizen; I read Chateaubriand, Alphonse Daudet, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud. This was crucial because I finally had in my hands a language with which I could express myself in writing. In the 1960s, at university in Dakar, I encountered the new African literature for the first time.

What are your memories of Senegalese independence (in 1960)?

Actually, I don’t really remember independence at all. In the particular case of Senegal, it eventually happened very smoothly, without much of a struggle, in ten minutes or so, partly because Senghor had already been a member of the French national assembly. My mother told me a story that when she was in labour with me (in 1951) that she had heard some loud sounds from the street outside. Risking censure by the nurse, she put a stool under a window and climbed up to look through it—to see a long procession in support of home rule, and Senghor’s election as president. It was then that my mother had a vision, that I too would become a famous man, like him.

Thus, it seemed my fate was linked to Senghor’s at birth. But it was only later that I was to meet him, and Césaire, and all the other writers. That happened in the 1970s, after my first collection of poems was published. Senghor liked the collection very much. He called me to the presidential palace and more or less announced me as his successor—as a poet, that is. He was especially enthusiastic that I wrote poems, since many of our generation’s best writers preferred to write novels. But being so close by his side for many years also handicapped me. Senghor was such a strong and charismatic personality that for many years I stopped writing myself. Eventually, I had to be able to listen to him without obeying him, and find my own, separate voice.

You mentioned that perhaps the largest readership for poetry in Senegal comes from people who work in the customs and in the military. Is this a legacy of Senghor having been the president of the republic?

It’s possible—but I really can’t explain this strange phenomenon! Often I am stopped in Dakar by a member of the police or military who refuses to let me go until I part with a signed copy of my book. So many people in the armed forces read poetry that eventually some are tempted to publish collections of their own—and the first page of these collections inevitably contains a long series of dedications to various army personnel.

How do you see the evolving relationship between poetry and politics in Africa?

There is no such thing as “political poetry”, although politics might be one of the many subjects that poetry engages with. Contemporary African writing has become more intimate. Nevertheless, it is hard for African writers to ignore politics the way French writers might be able to do. For instance, the current generation of Rwandan writers all end up coming back to the genocide in some way; it’s hard for them not to do so.

Who are some of the Senegalese writers, poets and rappers that you would recommend?

I would suggest the rap group, Daara-ji. Also the writers, Boubacar Boris Diop, Marouba Fall, Aminata Sow Fall, Sokhna Benga and Cheick Hamidou Kane, whose most famous novel is L’Aventure Ambiguë (“Ambiguous Adventure”).

Have you ever wanted to write a novel yourself?

Never. Most novels are very boring. I’m incapable of following all those characters and stories for thousands of pages. Poetry quickly distills a sensibility and a sense of the world.

Vivek Narayanan

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