Later this month, Tilted Axis Press will publish Burkinabe novelist Monique Ilboudo’s So Distant from My Life, translated from French by Yarri Kamara. The winner of a PEN/Heim translation grant and one of the Observer’s fiction picks for 2022, the novel tells the story of a young man who leaves his fictional West African city in search of a better life. In this conversation, Ilboudo and Kamara discuss homosexuality and migration, two of the novel’s key themes; the challenges of the translation process; and the international reception of So Distant from My Life.
Yarri Kamara (YK): Few books from Burkina Faso find an international audience. You are one of the few novelists who have broken through. Do you feel the weight of this position when you write? Is it more of a stimulus or a potential blockage?
Monique Ilboudo (MI): It’s neither a stimulus nor a blockage. I just don’t feel the weight. When I write I avoid thinking about who is going to read what I am writing. I don’t even think about the publishing phase, which I dissociate completely from the act of writing. I feel totally free when I write! Any inhibitions appear at the point of making my writing public. If my first readers are positive, I gain confidence and decide to publish. The fate of a book is similar to that of a bottle thrown into the sea. The bottle may be pulled back onto the closest beach or it may travel to the other end of the world. Whatever happens, I will have done my part: write.
YK: Why did you choose to fictionalize the country rather than just set So Distant from My Life in Burkina Faso?
MI: A fictional country allows greater freedom to imagine the setting. Besides, the story could have happened in any other Sahelian country. The name of the town, Ouabany, was actually formed in reference to Ouagadougou, Bamako, and Niamey. A fictional name may also help discourage direct interpretations. You know many readers don’t distinguish between fiction and the life and opinions of the author. Not naming the country reinforces the idea that this is indeed fiction.
YK: Some of the descriptions of secondary characters in the novel are bitingly funny and encapsulate well many Westerners’ attitudes toward Africa. Did you find yourself laughing while drafting your novel? What real-life experiences influenced some of these humorous descriptions?
MI: I am glad to hear that you noticed the humor! I had moments of elation during the writing process. As for my sources of inspiration, just observing things around me is enough to capture a whole range of wacky and dramatic events, of unusual characters, all the theatrical life within our societies. I don’t need to go far to imagine and describe my characters. I find some of these descriptions, some of my “discoveries,” amusing, and hope that they will make the reader smile.
YK: Many readers of the French version of the novel read it as mainly about migration. About the freedom to seek a place where one’s roots can find fertile ground. Yet it is another restricted freedom, that of sexual orientation, that determines the protagonist’s fate. In your book, it is the male characters who get most stirred up about the issue, while the female characters are more willing to live and let live. Is this a reflection of how the issue is debated in some African countries, particularly those that have made or want to make homosexuality illegal?
MI: The initial plan was to write a story about the freedom to migrate. Like many, I was shocked by the images of all those young people going off and dying in the Mediterranean or in the desert. I was dismayed to watch Africa losing its lifeblood. Why were these youths ready to risk their lives for an elsewhere that seemed more promising than their own continent? Why was the world closed off to them?
It was when I started to imagine the characters that the idea of including the theme of homosexuality came to me. I deliberately created an ambiguous, ambivalent situation: is the protagonist really a homosexual (perhaps a homosexual who refuses to admit it to himself until his friend reveals it to him)? Is he bisexual? Or is he opportunistic, using his sexuality as a means to migrate, knowing what the costs of that may be? Taking a boat, like others do, that may collapse in the middle of the sea. It became essential to me to include the theme—which I found important and which is surrounded by even greater taboos than the women’s rights that I am used to defending—so that it would be discussed in a society that denies homosexuality and demonizes people with that orientation.
From what I have observed, women generally are more tolerant than men when it comes to the issue of male homosexuality. For some men, it’s as if homosexuals were an affront to their own virility.
YK: Your novel, which is mainly set between West Africa and France, takes an unexpected side journey to Brazil, where the protagonist finds a kindred soul. From your descriptions of Bahia, the link between the African continent and Brazil appears self-evident. It seems to me that African heritage—religion, food, tradition—is increasingly recognized in South America, but how many Africans do you think are conscious of how much of African culture traveled to the Americas?
MI: In a country like Benin, the links with South America are more concrete because former African enslaved persons were repatriated there. And today their descendants still live in Benin and remember that history. Moreover, there is also the Vodoun religion in Benin. In the Sahel, by contrast, few people are aware of that part of us that is distant from us. I had the opportunity to visit Bahia and I really felt a proximity, in the physiognomy of people and in the streets. It is important that a reconnection be attempted.
YK: So Distant From my Life came out in the original French version four years ago. What have been some of the most unexpected reactions or comments from your readers?
MI: I am no longer surprised by the reactions of readers. Once a book is published, the story no longer belongs to me. But there are some comments that may leave a mark on me. An example: when discussing the book with a group of students, one of them told me the terrible story of a young homosexual who was lynched, in the city center, on the pretext that he was a thief. That story really troubled me.
And now I will ask you some questions, Yarri.
MI: First, I would like to thank you for translating Si loin de ma vie and making it accessible to English-speaking readers. It is often said that translation is treachery. I think, on the contrary, that it takes a great deal of trust on both sides to engage in such an adventure. How did you discover the novel? What made you want to translate it?
YK: I discovered So Distant from My Life through a review in a Burkinabe newspaper by Alceny Barry, who I must say excels at a task that is much neglected in many African circles, that of literary criticism, or more generally art criticism. And then I attended your book launch and saw the enthusiasm with which readers commented on certain parts of the book. I read the novel in one day; some parts made me laugh out loud. When I put it down, I thought, “I want others to be able to read this.” Having lived in both English- and French-speaking Africa, as well as in the US and France, I was aware of the linguistic enclaves that often keep one side ignorant of interesting things on the other side; and that is particularly true for English speakers.
MI: When I was at school, we had two types of English exercises—theme, in which you translated an English text into French, and version, in which you did the opposite—and I preferred theme. It was easier for me to find the words in French once I understood the general idea of the English. As a perfectly bilingual person, do you prefer to translate from French to English or the opposite?
YK: Thanks for the flattery, but I am not perfectly bilingual. My comprehension may be almost perfectly bilingual, but talk to me when I am sleepy and you will get some shaky French. English is the language I am at home in when I write, so my preference is definitely for translating from French to English.
MI: Typical local expressions are used throughout the novel. Was this challenging for you? What were the main difficulties you encountered during your translation work?
YK: The local expressions were exactly the kind of challenge that I enjoy. But the glitch was that I have spoken African English mostly in East Africa, whereas in West Africa I spend much more time in French-speaking countries. I didn’t want to give the novel an East African feel, so I sent off some emails to Nigerian friends, testing different options for the local expressions. One technical difficulty that other translators will perhaps identify with is dealing with tenses. Latin languages, like French and Italian, sometimes use tenses in a way that comes across as stilted or confusing in English. At the same time, in fiction, the choice of tense is often very deliberate. So, there were some passages that I read several times, and also discussed with the editors, before deciding on the final English tense.
MI: Was this your first translation of a novel? If so, would you do it again?
YK: I had been translating for several years but had never taken on a fiction project. And then I started thinking about African works in translation, and it struck me that most sub-Saharan African novels are translated by non-Africans. Of course, many of these translators produce very good translations, and some produce them while living in African countries. But if translation is treachery, not being in tune with the local context and local nuances may increase the level of treachery involved. So, I thought here is somewhere I can make a contribution. And I was excited to choose a Burkinabe project as I had been living in that country for fifteen years, and knew just how much artistic work of exceptional quality is produced there that the rest of the world knows little about.
I absolutely loved the process. As a writer, I write mainly nonfiction, and I think I would make a terrible novelist. But translating fiction allowed me to channel another kind of creativity, to have those voices in my head, to see things through the protagonists’ eyes, without myself having to worry about plots and narrative arcs. I never have writer’s block when I am translating!
MI: You won a prestigious PEN/Heim grant for the translation of So Distant from My Life. Tell me about this: Why did you apply? What did you gain from the grant?
YK: The English-language publishing sector is quite closed off to translations. The figure one hears frequently is that only 3% of books in English are works in translation, whereas in France, for instance, 18% of the book market consists of translations. As an English-language translator, if you wait for a publisher to contact you with a project, you may wait forever. Translators often have to take on the risk themselves, start translating and then in many ways play the role of a literary agent, looking for a publisher for the book they believe in. I think the PEN/Heim grant was established in recognition of that difficulty, to help cushion the risk for translators and get more literature translated into English.
I was in the process of deliberating on how far I could go alone in the translation of So Distant from My Life when I came across the PEN/Heim grant. And I thought, “This is perfect,” and I applied. Without the grant, I may have proceeded regardless, but only because I have the privilege of having other sources of income. With respect to recent debates on diversity in the translation sector, I think that can be a real hindrance. Many translators work other jobs too (often in academia); those without other sources of income can find themselves very restricted in what they are able to do in the literary field.
The grant also gave the project some visibility and helped it eventually find a home at Tilted Axis Press, which is one of the publishing houses working tirelessly to make more great foreign-language literature accessible in English.
Copyright © 2022 by Monique Ilboudo and Yarri Kamara. Translation copyright © Yarri Kamara.