When multiple award-winning writer Veronique Tadjo won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction this year with her novel, In the Company of Men, it indeed gave her a sense of fulfilment. However, writing comes naturally to the widely-travelled Cote d’Ivoirien, novelist, poet, painter and academic, who is also known with critically acclaimed works such as Red Earth, As the Crow Flies, The Shadow of Imana, Queen Pokou, Far from my Father, to mention a few.
Tadjo was in Lagos, Nigeria recently, where she headlined the international literary fiesta, Ake Arts and Book Festival, which held between 24 and 26 November 2022. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH she speaks about her life as a writer, what writing does to her, what winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction means to her and the challenges of living as a writer in Cote d’Ivoire.
Your father was a civil servant and your mother a painter and sculptor. How did your parents, especially your mother’s flair for art, influence your writing?
I was born in Paris but was a baby when I went to Cote d’Ivoire. So in fact I was raised in Cote d’Ivoire. My parents influenced me in different ways. My father was kind of geared towards his society. He went into politics. He was trained as an economist. So he was very much on the ground and very much about the community. Whereas my mother was an artist and therefore she opened me up to art. She was a painter and a sculptor. But I chose writing. I’m also a painter. I like painting a lot. I can see those were my major influences. So in my book you will find a lot about politics and the human dimension through art.
What was growing up like in Cote d’Ivoire?
It will tell you my age because when we went to Cote d’Ivoire it was just before independence. And therefore it was like a time of euphoria. Everybody was so full of hope and happy. Ivory Coast, as it was then called, was also a model of economic success. So I can say that those years were the Felix Houphouet Boigny years, when we were full of expectations and the feelings that things were going in the right direction. Which was a bit of illusion because at a certain time we realised that the economic model that had been adopted did not really do much for the majority of the people. So the cracks started to show and by the time Houphouet Biogny died, the country was already going through a very difficult situation.
You were a secondary school teacher. Then you later became a university lecturer. Did you ever leave teaching? Why did you leave?
No, I never left teaching. I’m always teaching, except that I do seminars. I don’t like administration. I like to be my own person. So I like to go to a place, teach a seminar and then go back home. There is freedom of flexibility that I like very much. I enjoy teaching a lot. And it has given me a lot of inspiration. And I enjoy this art of transmission.
How did you start writing? Did you start writing before teaching or you started teaching before taking writing as a career?
I think that teaching has nothing to do with writing in my case. It is just that once I started writing, teaching was a good profession. Because with teaching you can control your time to a certain extent. And because you talk so much with young people, you get some kind of reaction. But I started writing naturally. It’s just that I was inclined towards poetry and I was writing poetry like that just for myself. Then one day I gathered my work to form a collection of poems and then it won a literary prize.
What is the title of your first collection of poems?
The title of the first collection was Red Earth. It was in fact an homage to the people of the north of Cote d’Ivoire, which I was discovering because I had always been raised in Abidjan. Going up north and teaching them for two years in secondary schools, I was perfectly in love with that part of the country.
Why did you fall in love with the north?
Well, first, my father is from the forest area. So I’m used to the forest, green etc. And when you go up north, it becomes more Sahelian. And then you have the savannah. You have the Zenufo people, secret societies. All that was good inspiration for me, because I was discovering it for the first time. I said wow that is my country, it is so diverse and so contrasting. And it was more of a discovery for me than travelling abroad.
You went to Rwanda with a group of writers. What did you do in Rwanda? Could you speak about your experience there, considering the genocide that had happened there? How did that genocide touch you?
I remembered when we learnt about the genocide that had happened in 1994, we were at a festival, a bit like Ake Festival. And we were meeting and talking. We were like devastated to know that a genocide had happened in Rwanda. I didn’t know Rwanda very much. You know because it was far from Cote d’Ivoire I had not paid attention to Rwanda. But we were all kind of heartbroken. How could that happen in a place like that? And we decided that we needed to do something. Because we were writers we thought the best thing we could do was to go to Rwanda, express our sympathy with the Rwandan people, write what we could see in post-genocide Rwanda. We were about 12 writers who said yes. And we were from different countries, mainly Francophone. We went there, observe and all of us came back with a book, in the sense that we went back and wrote a book each about what we saw.
You’ve won so many international awards. What inspires your writing?
There are so many things I could write about. In fact, I never had a problem about what I should write. The problem is work. Do I have several months in front of me to do this thing? I know when I have an idea about a book, how much it is going to cost me. I know sometimes it could occupy me for two years, three years sometimes, depending on how hard the subject is. It is not that the subject is hard but how difficult it is for me to render it in a way I will be satisfied. So it’s just something that is in you. You can’t rationalize it, you know. But it’s the way you have chosen to express yourself. And so you just do it as I said naturally because I started naturally. Sometimes my kids and my husband say, “Veronique is always working.” But I say, “You’re wrong. Yes, I am working but if I don’t work that’s when I will be in trouble (smiles). So don’t prevent me, that’s what keeps me going.”.
In April this year, your 2021 book, In the Company of Men, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. And that is no mean feat. How did you feel when you won the award? What does that prize mean to you?
The best thing about winning an award is de you feel then that what you are doing has caught the attention of people. And that’s important. Because it’s like a car. You need some fuel to keep going. Somebody is saying we’ve noticed what you’re doing. And we encourage you to keep going. That’s what awards are to me.
How has your writing process been? Has there ever been a time you felt discouraged and wanted to stop writing?
Sometimes, as I said, there are subjects that are much more difficult and really give you hard time. You have everything in your head but then to render it is the problem. Sometimes it is not going as you want. You have a few tricks. You can do something else, you can do something which has a different theme or a different genre. For example, I write for young people as well. So I might just decide okay let me clear my mind, then write a book for children. I have also said I paint. So let me do some painting to kind of cleanse my mind until you end up doing it the way you want to do it.
You are widely travelled. You once lived in Lagos for two years. Could you talk about your stay in Lagos? What were your experiences, your impressions like?
It was in the 1990s and you know a lot of things have changed (smiles). But I felt very privileged to be in Nigeria because I made so many friends and I met so many great writers. It was a very good period for me, really. And I can’t even give you a bad story because nothing happened to me during those two years (laughs). It is either I am a very cautious person or a lucky person. But nothing happened. I have always been fascinated by Nigeria because it is our neighbour. And you have so much to offer. I even wrote a book when I was in Nigeria. I tried to discover as much as I could because you are good with all the arts in Nigeria, traditional, modern and contemporary.
What has been your challenge as a writer in Cote d’Ivoire?
I was talking about politics. The challenge is that sometimes if you are a writer you might get completely enmeshed. People want you to take sides. When there is a problem they always want you to take sides. I don’t really like it. Because I’m more of a neutral person and a peace loving person and not violent (smiles). So sometimes it’s a bit of a problem. I like to observe and to render whatever I see, but not necessarily take sides.
Cote d’Ivoire was embroiled in crisis between 2010 and 2011 because of the power tussle between former President Laurent Gbagbo and current President Alassane Quattara. Were you in Cote d’Ivoire then?
Because I travel so much, I come and visit. But I followed the whole thing.
How did you feel at the time?
I felt so bad. I felt really, really terrible. Because I love the north of Cote d’Ivoire so much that I couldn’t understand why there was conflict between the north and the south. And that really broke my heart because a country is rich from its diversity and there is no reason why we can’t work together in our different abilities. And I think that it’s a loss when you kind of exclude one part of the country. It leads to conflict because that is what happened really. Then it leads to a serious backlash because people are resentful, wounds can’t heal and the difficult situation go on and on and on because everybody has something to say about what is happening. They hold grudges. Some people want to take revenge. So when a country explodes like that it’s always very sad because you carry that all the way to the next generations.
How do you feel now that you are in Ake Arts and Book Festival currently holding in Lagos, Nigeria? What has it been like?
I was there in 2015 in Abeokuta. And I loved it. I still like it very much. It is fantastic what Lola Shoneyin is doing to get people together. And that is what is amazing because we are used to meeting abroad, in Paris, London, New York and so on. But to have a festival like that so vibrant in Africa is really great and it’s got that flavour that is particular and specific to Ake Festival. I immediately said yes, yes I’m coming back?
Are you working on any project yet?
Yes, I am. We’re always. That’s what I’m saying. We’re always working on it (smiles).
What are you working on? Is it fiction?
Of course, it is fiction. It’s a style that I like. It’s not a very nice term but it is called faction. So you come from reality and fictionalize it. I like this genre because you recognize reality but even then you give something else to think about.