Souleymane Bah, Guinean author exiled in France since 2016, has continually related his country’s suffering since he has been here. This former journalist, who started writing for the theatre late one, won the RFI theatre 2020 prize for his text La Cargaison (The Cargo), about absurd crimes and impossible rest.
Before writing plays, you were a journalist and columnist. What did you find in theatre that you didn't have elsewhere?
Journalism is factual, a place where you have to tell the story as it exists without introducing your own subjectivity. Theatre, like literature in general, falls within sublimation of reality. That’s exactly what I was looking for: the opportunity to reinvent reality, give it the flavour of an emotion. I come from Fulan culture, where there are numerous taboo subjects, where how you express yourself is sometimes monitored. The space of theatre writing allows me to break these chains and generate free speech, independent, through which I draw everything that is forbidden.
Paradoxically, you say that you were afraid of writing for the theatre for a long time. How did you get over this fear?
In the beginning, I concentrated more on the style, how phrases were structured than the playwriting aspect. Some would say I like listening to myself talk. Yet, first of all the theatre rests on a story, action, how it takes place in time and I felt that others did that better than me, which no doubt explains that I limited myself to directing first. The trigger was the urgency to write, a process started in 2015 with Danse avec le diable (Dance with the Devil). It was just after the Presidential elections in Guinea. I was caught in a whirlwind of ploys, suffering, violence that completely exceeded the columnist I was. The pressing need to write in another way broke the fear that prevented me from getting this play down on paper.
Does your situation of being exiled influence your writings?
The Guinean author Williams Sassine said that we write because we are unhappy, because we messed up somewhere or because we have bodies we don’t manage to bury. I think sometimes, with irony, that those who pushed me into exile had good intuition because I have never written as much as I have since I’ve been in France. The fact of being far away from Conakry, not taking part in the combat over there, has allowed me to take a step back and places me in a desire to exorcise this position, to accompany this movement through writing. From Jamais deux sans proie (Never two without prey) to La Cargaison, what I write remains highly worked by the far away presence of Guinea.
The Atelier des artistes en exil (Exiled artists’ workshop) supports you in your projects. What does it bring you?
One of the strengths of this structure is to allow us to cross journeys. We are all exiled, but our paths our different and mixing destinies like this can provide inspiration for our writing. I have had the opportunity to meet Karim Sylla, a young Guinean dancer I didn't know. The discussions we have had about rhythm and the place of the body in the stage space nourish my reflection about how La Cargaison can be staged.
From Danse avec le diable, your texts borrow the form of the fable. What is it that interests you in this genre?
It is not a conscience choice. In general, it’s more the text that guides me, in an intuitive way towards that form. Sometimes I have the impression that the characters decide themselves to go into this world of fables to better express how absurd their life is. The type of narration enables you to break away from reality, to construct a dreamlike space more naturally, where you can shatter social constraints. This joins with what we were talking about at the beginning of this interview: when speech is powerless to describe certain pains, you must follow another way. To become aware of the dehumanisation of the world, the fable seemed like the perfect place to me.
La Cargaison adds a shade close to the macabre farce to this taste for fables. How did you construct this text?
La Cargaison is highly inspired by the assassination of eleven young Guineans following a demonstration of the Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution (National Front for Defending the Constitution, a Guinean civil movement, which notably instigated the demonstrations to fight against the change to the constitution that allowed the president, Alpha Condé, to be elected for a third term in 2020). In a certain way the victims’ bodies have become the hostages of a crazy power struggle opposing the demonstrators, who wanted to make this burial a symbol of the repression, and the State who obviously didn't need this kind of publicity. Starting out from this fact, I said to myself that the only way to summarise how absurd this situation was, was to allow these bodies and these objects to speak, which we don't hear anymore. To broach a subject that’s so difficult, I couldn't just make do with writing that stagnated at the violence of the event. I therefore wanted that the account move between a humour, rather dark, and a certain lyrism of expression. It’s a way to transcend the violence, to not amplify it through any literary artifice.
What does this text tell us about the Guinea of today and the world in which we live?
In Guinea there is a complete lack of respect for human life. Anyone can be killed, at any moment, by any means. On the other hand, the Guinean young people I am talking about, who reject the diktat and oppression, exist everywhere else. I also think that the question of these bodies that become, in spite of themselves, the symbols of a combat, resonate beyond the borders of Conakry, in the destinies of George Floyd or Adama Traoré. These bodies allow other people to exist in the public space, to claim a power, a legitimacy to see themselves “invaded” by a power they didn't have before. But who says that the victims don't just want to simply be buried, to rest in peace? Deep down, La Cargaison tells of the moment where we leave the anecdotal story of eleven kids that we call in Guinea “the Hamdallaye-Bambéto-Coza axis”, to move into the reality of political violence and the resistance of people who fight for freedom everywhere.
La Cargaison won the RFI 2020 prize. What do you expect from this award?
As I came to writing for the theatre by force, I’m lacking in self-confidence. Already, when I gave my texts to young authors and actors in Guinea to read, I had the feeling of not being in a legitimate position. Here, the jury has a professional eye and is certainly not interested in being lenient, saying that my writing is good if it is not. This recognition therefore allows me to have a bit more confidence in myself about the quality of my work. And on a personal level, it is also an honour. Many actors, whom I believe to be more talented than me, have been awarded this prize. I am proud that my text has a place alongside theirs.
For his text La Cargaison, Souleymane Bah won the RFI theatre 2020 prize, in which the Institut français is a partner.
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