Fiction and reality collide in the works Véronique Tadjo discusses on campus

Photo by Ashlen Sepulverda
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

Véronique Tadjo, pioneering francophone author, spoke of her work in various French classes and in a lecture held on Tuesday October 21. She discussed various works of hers, both in French and in translation, over the course of these events.

Véronique Tadjo, pioneering francophone author, spoke of her work in various French classes and in a lecture held on Tuesday October 21. She discussed various works of hers, both in French and in translation, over the course of these events.

Tadjo, born to an Ivorian father and a French mother, is currently based in Johannesburg. She has been publishing poetry, adult and children’s literature for the past 30 years. Her oeuvre merited her the major literary prize of Black Africa in 2005. She writes in the intrinsically French genre “autofiction,” in which fictionalized accounts of the writer’s life weld the factual to the reimagined, to try to reconcile lost narratives with incomplete sources and memory. Her works are targeted to diverse audiences, making her work appropriate to all kinds of French learners.

Her first appearance was in French 001, early Tuesday morning. Although they had only been studying the language for a few months, they were able to work through one of her children’s books, “Grand-Mère Nanan” (Grandmother Nanan in French). She wrote it upon the death of her own.

“It’s an homage to my grandmother, an homage to all grandmothers,” Tadjo said.*

“Grand-Mère Nanan” is also a multimedia work: Tadjo illustrated it herself with a combination of drawings and pictures of her grandmother and her village. Her portrayal of happy children and traditional lifestyle aimed to explore this murky distinction between tradition and modernity, as it exists in her country and abroad.

In other ways, the reach of this story is broad, and tries to breach tough issues relevant to all children.

“How does one explain to children that death exists?” she said.* In the book, it is approached as a fact of life, unnamed but ever-present.

Since she’s writing to a diverse audience, Tadjo wanted to showcase some elements of Ivorian culture to a broader audience. Most notably, the doll she describes is a religious artifact that represents a dead person.

“It’s as if it was a portrait. Instead of drawing him, we

sculpt him,” she said.* The doll referenced is real, and currently in Tadjo’s possession. This demonstrates the extent to which she works the historical into her narratives, rewrites the stories of her surroundings for solace.

But really, Tadjo aims to have as large an audience as possible, and for her the key to achieving this is focused writing.

“It’s… When we want to speak to several people, we must focus on something,” she said. “The character of the grandmother is universal. After that, it’s all a question of context.”*

Most of the questions and elements discussed in relation to this children’s novel are directly relevant to her more complex material. Her most recent novel “Loin de mon père” (Far from my father in French) traces Nina’s ordeal organizing her father’s funeral in Abidjan, and draws on these tensions between tradition and modernity, death and memory, archive and rewriting.

“Loin de mon père” was discussed both in the aforementioned lecture and in French class French 43 (Écrire le Moi, or Writing the self in French) on Wednesday, October 22. The lecture was comprised of a reading and discussion of the novel by the author in English, followed by a Q&A.

In her description, Tadjo drew out the major narrative threads and themes of the novel: Nina’s alienation in her home country, confusion about whether she should return to Côte d’Ivoire, struggles with her absent sister Gabrielle. The questions, however, brought out a broader discussion of Tadjo’s thoughts on home, place and memory.

She characterizes national attachment as being inherently irrational, and uses this to justify Gabrielle’s departure from the home.

“You need to look at the place without emotion to be rational. What does this place have to offer? What does the other place have?” she said.  “Health structure? Terrible. Education? Terrible. Then why should you go back? Rationally, only if you get better x, y or z.”

Memory is further tied to this as the irrational reason why you would return; exile ends as a means of recapturing this memory. Remembrance is inaccurate, and from some perspectives misguided.

Tadjo herself is a travelled writer, a “product of travelling.” Her thoughts on the interrelation of location and creation intrinsically link the two.

“I can almost put a little flag on each of my books,” she said amused.

We could see this with “Grand-mère Nanan,” written in the wake of her grandmother’s death when she was visiting her native village. Tadjo revealed that she was in Côte d’Ivoire as she wrote the novel at hand.

The bonds between her craft and environment do not limit themselves to locale. Her work is rooted in archive, such as real letters, legal contracts of passages from books that belonged to her father. The artifacts are a means of grounding and structuring her fiction. The boundary between the two is fine, and hard to place.

“It’s all about cohesion,” she said. “That’s why when you’re writing a story, you throw things out the window. Is it ever finished? That’s something I will never know.”

Describing her work as a perpetual work in progress, we see how in her work memory and rewriting are perpetually in flux, superimposed on the base of the real that she cites. This discussion was furthered the following day in the aforementioned class.

“It’s how life is made,” she said. “There are many types of documents that influence us, that have their own lives. It is these documents that inform reality, and help us understand by indirect means what happened.”*

She thus emphasized the importance of this archival work: it shapes not only lived experience but our recollecting of it.

Tadjo named the main character, Nina, after a poem by her good friend Noël Ebony.

She said, “[This way] Nina already had a story.”*

Tadjo only creates an extension to what is real; her fiction fills the gaps left by the irrational memory and incomplete sources she has access to. When asked, in English, to try and identify her craft in a word familiar to the audience, she was only able to respond:

“I would use ‘autofiction.’”

A word she will not have lost in translation.

*Marked quotes have been translated from French by the Editor.


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