Goncourt winner Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: ‘French is my language too’

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr knew that winning the Prix Goncourt would not just be a literary affair. He had even outlined some of the potential pitfalls in his own book.

In La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men), Diégane Latyr Faye, a young Senegalese author — Mbougar Sarr’s alter-ego, we suspect — is warned by a Parisian friend: “African writers and intellectuals, don’t be fooled. It’s not impossible that you’ll win acclaim from France’s bourgeoisie just so they can ease their conscience . . . But believe me, deep down you are and will remain foreigners, despite the value of your work.”

About 300 pages later, in Dakar, he receives this Facebook message from a Senegalese youth activist: “White people can celebrate you all they want, give you all the prizes they want, talk about you in their big newspapers, but here you are nothing . . . You’re . . . a house negro.”

Now honoured by France’s literary establishment as the first sub-Saharan African to win the prestigious prize, Dakar-born Mbougar Sarr is, for better or worse, navigating these complex times for real.

A few days before our encounter, a stranger embraced him in a hotel lobby in Tours. The woman, a Malian, did not know how to read, she told him, but she was thrilled about an African winning such an award — she had thought it impossible. But his celebration has not pleased everyone: at home, some have deemed him unworthy of representing Senegal because he wrote about homosexuality — still a taboo — in a previous novel, Des hommes purs (Real men).

Africans honoured in Europe are inevitably regarded with suspicion in their home countries, Mbougar Sarr tells me in the offices of his Parisian publisher Philippe Rey. “They are accused of collusion [with the former colonial powers], or of being uprooted,” he says. He adds: “Suspicion is a necessary phase to go through. So that with time, it will cease looking suspicious.”

Mbougar Sarr’s win has been hailed as yet another sign of African literature’s vitality — this year alone, French-Senegalese writer David Diop won the International Booker Prize, South African author Damon Galgut received the Booker Prize and Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel. But this year’s Goncourt has an added layer of significance because so few writers from the Francophonie get to win the top prizes in French writing.

What Mbougar Sarr sees in this rarity is France’s undue influence over its former colonies after the wars of independence. For decades, Paris remained the intellectual “centre” and its former colonies the “peripheries”, a phenomenon less prevalent in the former British empire, he says.

This means that figures such as Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, who won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979, and who died in 1987 from Aids-related illness, have been recognised earlier in the UK, he continues. “A lot of African writers have been published since the early 20th century in France — why aren’t they more recognised? Because they come from the margins. We could be a label, a niche, but there was a glass ceiling, that still exists in the media, commercially, editorially — which doesn’t mean that once in a while there isn’t a singular trajectory of an African author who gets an award.

“But it’s changing. It has to change,” he adds. “This prize would not have been possible 20 years ago.”

The 31-year-old, who lives in Beauvais, north of Paris, says being a symbol can be irksome “if this is the only thing people remember”. In his novel, which sets his protagonist Faye on the trail of a mysterious “black Rimbaud” engulfed in a plagiarism scandal in 1938 colonial France, Mbougar Sarr “seeks to question how a book and its author can be reduced to an identity, a skin colour, an origin,” he says. Turning his gaze to the bookshelves surrounding us, he adds: “That said, I know I can’t escape it — and perhaps I should not try to escape it.”

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, photographed for the FT in Paris by Magali Delporte

Winning the Goncourt has mostly been a positive experience, he says. Describing the moment the award was announced last month, Mbougar Sarr remembers the media frenzy and “inside, a cocoon of deep and simple joy”. Since then, it has been an emotional whirlwind — and a life-changing outcome for his publishers, Philippe Rey and the Dakar-based Jimsaan, who have sold the book’s rights in more than 38 countries (Harvill Secker is expected to release the UK translation at the end of next year, Rey tells me).

“What I can say is that I am a writer first, an African writer who received the Goncourt, that I am very happy, that this forms a whole. But this whole is structured around literature first, not politics.”

And sure enough, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes is also structured around literature — its meaning, its value in society and its demands. The character known as the “black Rimbaud”, the elusive TC Elimane, is based on the life of Yambo Ouologuem, a Malian writer who won the Renaudot prize, another prestigious French award, in 1968, before being accused of plagiarism and disappearing from the literary scene.

Reviews have underlined a rare plume (literally, the nib of a fountain pen) or “voice”, one of the most gratifying literary compliments in France. Adept at mise-en-abîme, Mbougar Sarr is a skilled raconteur — cerebral but never pompous, tortuous but also funny. We gladly follow the peregrinations of Faye, along the trail of dark arts that Elimane has left across three continents and over a century. Along the way, we meet magnificent female literary figures, such as the fearless “mother-spider,” a well-established sixty-something author who becomes a lover and a spiritual guide.

Mbougar Sarr may have succeeded in writing his “essential book”, the one he believes each writer has in themselves and is “about nothing” in particular and “contains everything.”

When it comes to style, Mbougar Sarr is clearly a perfectionist. His plume is sophisticated and refreshing in its boldness at twisting French expressions and overturning metaphors. There are a few linguistic trouvailles that fluent French readers will marvel at — and perhaps that are untranslatable (the ultimate literary compliment, according to one of his characters). Such creativity in French writing — which I have also lately relished in the work of Algerian author Kamel Daoud — is another reason why it is so vital for the Parisian literary world to open up more to francophone writers.

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Mbougar Sarr says anxiety creeps up when he writes because “very rapidly [he] faces his models” — “It’s not that I compare myself. But because they are my standards for literary excellence, it can become agonising. It’s as if all these writers, all these books are with me in the room,” he says.

Winning the Goncourt has not given him more assurance, he says. “It is a bit early to say whether it has changed something in me, as a person or as a writer . . . The anxiety of writing, the bar I set for my writing, will stay the same. At least I hope it will stay the same,” he says with a smile.

Francophone authors are often criticised for writing in the language of the former colonial power, but Mbougar Sarr feels unencumbered. “It’s perhaps a question of generation, but I have no tension with the French language,” he says. “It is my language too. It’s not my mother tongue, it’s a language I learnt at school, a language of the head, but it’s my writing language, for now. It’s one language among others, that carries part of my imaginary world and part of my history.”

He continues: “That doesn’t mean I don’t know that it is a colonial legacy, and that as such it can pose problems. It is not an opinion shared by all the writers, there’s a debate.”

Mbougar Sarr says he dreams “in several languages”. One day, he says, he will write in Wolof and Serer, his first spoken ones, once he masters them in writing to “explore what they have to offer, what parts of me they carry”.

La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Philippe Rey/Editions Jimsaan €22, 448 pages

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s world news editor

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