Penda Diouf

It is important for me to visit high schools all over France, and to show that you can be a young black woman who writes plays or opera librettos.

Penda Diouf is a playwright and co-founder of the Textes en liberté imprint, which promotes emerging young contemporary writers and a better representation of diversity in the theatre. She is in the news with Pistes, an autobiographical play, and Sœurs, a spoken word performance alongside Marine Bachelot Nguyen and Karima El Kharraze. 

Published on 15/10/2021

5 min

Penda Diouf
Penda Diouf © Christophe Pean

You started writing and publishing very young, at the age of nineteen. Could you tell us about your career path?

I started writing poetry when I was about fourteen: as time went by, I started writing dialogue, and I thought it sounded like theatre. I decided to go through with it and wrote a play called Poussières, which I sent to reading committees. -I was then awarded a grant from the Centre National du Théâtre, which encouraged and pushed me to write in parallel with my studies and my work as a library director. Two years ago, I took a leave of absence to devote myself entirely to writing. 


Let's go back to the creation, in 2015, of the Jeunes textes en liberté imprint, alongside Anthony Thibault. Could you tell us about the genesis of this project and how it works?

Jeunes textes en liberté was created following a debate on the representation of diversity on theatre stages organised at La Colline, which concluded a series of workshops on this subject called 1er acte. The debate, moderated by Laure Adler, was quite heated, and I was twice prevented from speaking, which upset me. I felt a real gap between what the institution was trying to put in place and the result in the room. Anthony Thibault, who was sitting next to me, and whom I did not know, also interrupted me several times. After an hour of raising my hand, I had not been able to express myself. So I was very angry, and I called Anthony Thibault a 'colonialist dominant white man'. He was very unhappy about this, but the next day he wrote me a very sensible email suggesting a meeting in a less heated context. As we talked, we realised that we wanted to defend the same things: contemporary authors, of course, but above all to tackle the issue of diversity so that the question no longer arises. So we set up a programme of public readings, organised around calls for texts.

I thought about the feeling of courage in my life, and I thought about the trip to Namibia that I took on my own eight years ago. (...) I asked myself: what made me decide to go on this trip?

Your current work is linked to Pistes, a play published in 2017 that is currently on tour. Can you introduce us to this work and talk about the particular resonance of the text in Germany after the recognition, this year, of the Genocide of the Hereros and Namas?

Pistes was commissioned by the SACD (Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques) on the theme of courage, as part of the Les Intrépides project, which aims to give visibility to women authors. This theme, and the fact that I was going to have to bring it to the stage through a public reading, made me want to write in the first person. I thought about the feeling of courage in my life, and I thought about the trip to Namibia that I took on my own eight years ago. During that trip, many people I met said to me: "you are a brave woman", probably because they were not used to seeing a black woman travelling alone. So I asked myself: what made me decide to go on this trip? If the trigger was my discovery of Frankie Fredericks, a Namibian sprinter who won several medals at the Olympic Games and world championships, in this text I also address the question of the genocide of 1875-1915, about which very little has been said, even if the belated recognition of this genocide by Germany this year has brought it back to the fore. I also regularly give readings of Pistesin Germany, which has also been translated into German. It is a history that is not really taught in schools there, and that many people in the audience discover through the play. Germany has done a lot of work on the Holocaust, but much less on colonisation, although this debate is starting to emerge in German society. 


Pistes has been the subject of public readings, notably in the French cultural network abroad, but has also been performed on stage by the actress Nanyadji Kagara. Is it important to you that a text unfolds through several different forms?

Pistes has indeed taken many forms: the first with Aristide Tarnagda, in which I was the actor; a second with Nanyadji Kagara; a third in Berlin, with a German actor and actress; a fourth developed by my translator into German, Anne Bühler-Dietrich; and finally a fifth which will be created at the Auditorium Theatre in Poitiers in March. It is a musical reading that I will perform with the musician and novelist Blick Bassy, who works a lot on colonisation. It all makes sense to me: the idea is to reach different audiences, in different places, with different sensibilities.   

Interview Penda Diouf - Projets Sœurs et Pistes...
Interview Penda Diouf - Projets Sœurs et Pistes...

You are currently appearing on stage in Sœurs, a spoken word performance with playwrights Marine Bachelot Nguyen and Karima El Kharraze.

It was commissioned by the Compagnie Lumière d'août, which brings together authors in Rennes. Marine Bachelot Nguyen, who is a member of the company, took part in one of the recent editions of Les Intrépides, whose theme was "basta". She wrote a text on the history of the women in her family. A festival asked her to do a longer version, but she preferred to ask Karima El Kharraze and me to write on this subject and share the stage with her. There are many echoes between our three texts: we are three women of the same age, three children of colonisation with a strong feminist commitment. 


You like to immerse yourself, to be close to audiences for whom culture is not a given. How do these new generations inspire you in your relationship with writing?

I started my career as a librarian, working directly with the public. It is important for me to visit high schools all over France and show that you can be a young black woman who writes plays or opera librettos. This can perhaps open up perspectives for young girls who dream but don't dare, who think that it's not for them. It also brings me a lot, because they are otherwise anchored in their reality: I am no longer fifteen years old, and what this generation experiences is different from what I experienced. It is important that they can express themselves and describe their world as they live it.

The Institut français and the author

The Institut français supports the project Pistes of the author Penda Diouf. 

L'institut français, LAB