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Mujila: Etisalat Prize opens great visibility to book, writer




In March this year at a gathering of literary icons from across Africa, DR Congo’s Fiston Mwanza Mujila was declared winner of the third edition of the prestigious Etisalat Prize for Literature for his work, Tram 83. The work was picked ahead of two other books, The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself by Penny Busetto and What Will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw, both South Africans, who made the shortlist for the Prize. In this interview conducted online with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR a few days ago, he talks on the Prize, his award-winning masterpiece, and African literature, among others.

How did you come about the Etisalat Prize for Literature and what motivated your publishers to enter for it?

The African literature isn’t just limited to francophone African writers. Before being an author, I am first an avid reader. I also read the Anglophone African literature for years and I’m interested in what is happening in the Anglophone world in terms of culture. It is natural that I heard about the Prize. I think it was when NoViolet Bulawayo got it.

My editor, Will Evans, of Deep Vellum Publishing, based in Dallas, is a very open person. There are no borders in his head. He publishes writers from geographically different origins such as, Mexico (Carmen Boullosa), Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori), Iceland (Jón Gnarr), Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Chile (Lina Meruane). He likes to go along with his authors and always fights for each book to find a reader. When the book came out in the US, I went on a three-week tour from New York to San Francisco with Roland Glasser. For my editor, it was important that the novel was noticed in Anglophone Africa as well.

That is why he used the services of the excellent translator, Roland Glasser, and subsequently submitted Tram 83 for the Prize. I think Etisalat and my publisher share the same dream: to open literature to the world even when the writer is unknown, build bridges between languages, cultures, countries and open imagination by way of literature.

How do you feel now that you’ve won the Prize?

The Etisalat Prize is the first and most important literature prize with a pan African vocation. I feel really honored. This award rewards not only a novel, but also a journey started many years ago: from Lubumbashi, my hometown to Graz, in Austria, via other countries such as, Germany, France and Belgium where I lived.

Tram 83 was originally written in French; in fact, this is the first time a Francophone African Literature would win the Prize. Is this of any significance to you and other Francophone African writers?

This award is a call to me, but also to writers (Francophone, Anglophone …) and cultural operators to develop the continent beyond linguistic or geographical boundaries. Literature has no face.

In 2006, for example, I was invited by my ‘brother’ Wainaina Binyavanga to Nairobi at the Kwani Literary Festival. It was a great pleasure to discover the Anglophone African literature and to meet writers, who came from Gambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

Being shortlisted allowed me to meet two nice persons and great writers: Penny Busetto and Rehana Rossouw. We had some good times together in Durban (where we were before the Prize’s grand finale) and Lagos.

Why was the book translated to English? Has it been translated to any other language?

That’s a difficult question. The novel was published in English by four publishers (Deep Vellum for USA, Jacaranda for the UK, Scribes Publications and Speaking Tiger Books for Australia) in Italian, Swedish, Dutch and Catalan. It comes out in German in July. I think it was translated into English and other languages, perhaps, because it explores a universal theme. The characters are neither angels nor demons, heroes nor victims.

They are human like us, with their fragility, their desire for freedom, poetry or paradise. They are beings of flesh and blood. In all of us, there is a Lucien, a Requiem, a Diva … Tram 83 is a book of hope in a world where the only remaining language is violence. It is a book of strength, dream (in the positive sense) and insolence against all insolence.

There is a strong influence of music in your book, particularly Jazz. How would you describe the relationship between music and literature?

Roman philosopher, Cicero, wrote that all the arts, which affect the general culture have a common bond and are united as by a certain kinship. I think the writer and musician are working with the same material. The first one with words, and the second with colours. They construct or deconstruct (it depends) the universe with the same energy.

I must confess, I love music. I was inspired by jazz, but also by rumba for creating the musical underground of the novel in which a significant portion takes place in this bar called Tram 83. On the architectural level, the novel appears as a jazz concert, alternating between fast rhythms that correspond to the solo and slow rhythms that could match the choruses where the sax, drums and bass clarinet participate in the same paradise. The novel is written for the eyes and ears. We can read it voice down, speak it, recite it or sing it.

Your popularity is beginning to soar following your being shortlisted and your eventual success. What can you say about that and also the Prize?

Etisalat opens great visibility to both the book and the writer. Many articles have been written on Tram 83. I feel honoured. I take this opportunity to thank the organisers of this great literary prize and Professor Ato Quayson, Zukiswa Wanner and Molara Wood, the jury who “trusted” in the Tram, Will Evans and Roland Glasser. The literary Prize has a financial reward. This allows me to devote myself for some time fully to writing. The prize is also linked to a writing residency of four months. It gives me a great chance to release my time and start a new writing project.

You are going on a Fellowship under the mentorship of a renowned author, Giles Foden. What are your expectations?

Tram 83 is my first novel. Before this text, I wrote plays, short stories and poetry books. There is no age to learn something new. From my stay in England, I hope to get a look (from the outside) on my draft novel, to exchange with Giles Foden on my writing project, but also to devote myself to writing.

Are you currently working on any new book?

Yes. But as you know, writing is a lonely process. The characters need time and space to take shape.

Who inspired you into writing?

All and nothing

Why did you choose writing as a career?

Literature is not a career for me. A career is something you can stop, which has an end, provisional. Writing is part of my existence.

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