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African Writing Archives


Veronique Tadjo


Veronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo was born of an Ivorian father and a French mother in Paris and brought up in Abidjan. She has a doctorate in African American Studies and has travelled extensively in West Africa, Europe and the United States as well in Latin America. She taught at the University of Abidjan for several years and has conducted many workshops on writing (and book illustration for children) in numerous countries. Her novel Reine Pokou (Queen Pokou) was awarded the prestigious literary Prize “Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire” in 2005. She currently lives in South Africa where she is Head of French Studies in the School of Literature and Language Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Photo: P.Searle


 A Conversation with Janis Mayes

JAM: We open the book and are faced immediately with a vivid image of a catastrophic earthquake. There is devastation everywhere. Where does this image come from? Did you have a particular place or happening in mind here?

VT: Prior to the writing of the book, I lived in Mexico City for several months. It was around 1986, right after the big earthquake that destroyed part of the city. You could still see the ruins of many buildings and there were constant references to the earthquake in the news. Later on, when I started to work on the novel, l needed an image which could express the type of devastation that can shake the foundations of a country, a people. The Mexican earthquake came to my mind. I used it as a metaphor of colonization and the traumatizing effects it had  on African societies as a whole. It destroyed the fabric of African life. Already before that, the Atlantic Slave Trade had turned the world upside down for Africans. The novel starts with people trying to salvage what they could after a major earthquake. This for me is an allegory for the years of independence  (1960s) in Africa because for a short while everybody thought that there was an opportunity to turn the tide of history. But this did not happen. African leaders were not able or willing to shake off neo-colonialism. Hence, for the majority of the people, hope for a better future was crushed. In some instances dictatorial governments were established. The BlindPeople stand for an elite blind to inequality.

JAM: Chapter 2 opens with the image of a palace, with a king and royalty... filth is everywhere. I feel the neo-colonial in this image! Is it a reference to some of the “palaces” you find in some African countries under corrupt regimes? Isn’t there also something of the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors?

VT: Absolutely. You are right to bring out the neo-colonial in this image of the palace. The rot and dirt are of course as much physical as they are mental. It is a state of affairs that is unacceptable and no amount of gold and riches can erase this. The squandering of money and the corruption that characterize the way so many heads of states rule our countries is mind-blowing. It seems like we are living in another age. The Versailles Hall of Mirrors? Yes, too many of our rulers behaved like absolute kings from centuries ago. Ahmadou Kourouma captured this craziness in his novels and Sony Labou Tansi dealt with this as well, but with a lot of derision.

JAM: For Akissi, the king’s daughter and for her mother, is blindness a code for something else? Their blindness strikes me as not being a debilitating disability. Both women are seers, no? Where does their power to see and to act come from?

VT: Yes, you are right. Akissi’s blindness is not a debilitating one. But don’t forget that she is living in the Palace which has been custom made for the BlindPeople. In their own environment, blindness is never an issue. But through love, Akissi becomes suddenly aware of her disability and is so dissatisfied that she seeks Karim for answers. Akissi’s uneasiness and inner questioning come from her rebellious mother who did not accept the status quo. But this alone is not sufficient for the two women to “see”. By falling in love and associating herself with Karim, Akissi not only breaks a taboo but also initiates new possibilities. She is a strong woman in the sense that she is not afraid to seek the truth. The power to see comes from within, from the realization that injustice is unacceptable. It also comes from the desire to go towards other people. It comes from a sense of community.

JAM: Karim ... I could picture him right away ... Beautiful ... Tall, dark, handsome, a sensual kind of man, with revolutionary politics... I pictured Kwame Ture ... Stockley Carmichael! Did you have a particular person in mind, or a character which resonates beyond any one national space?

VT: I wanted him to be a real person, somebody likeable and attractive and definitively approachable. I did not want him to be a stereotype but a man of flesh and blood. He has his strong points and his weak ones, like everybody else. What interested me was to show his passionate nature because without passion you can’t achieve anything. He gives himself entirely. Even though he knows by the end of the story that he has failed to achieve what he wanted to do, he is ready to die for his beliefs. It is his unshakeable faith in the future that travels through the crowd outside the gates of the Palace. It is the fuel of change. When you think of revolutionaries like Kwame Ture, Stockley Carmichael, Patrice Lumumba and even Che Guevara, for example, you see that there is something radiant in their personalities. They have an aura that pulls people towards them and this aura can also be charged with sexual energy.

JAM: Akissi, on the other hand, I had a difficult time grasping, at first ... well, even to the end. But, there are women like Akissi, right? Who is this woman?

VT: I guess we are not used to portraying women as revolutionaries. But what is a revolutionary? For me it is someone who rises above his or her circumstances and changes the status quo. You have to understand where Akissi is coming from. As you rightly pointed out, she is the king’s daughter. Now, how do you overcome this and get rid of your shackles – yes, shackles? That’s where the image of the blindness comes from. For me, the problem with our continent resides principally in its blind elite. The bourgeoisie could have been a factor for progress but in fact were rapacious and blind and have failed the majority of the people. If only they had looked at the long term, a lot of innovations and reforms would have happened because, it is obvious that economic and political stability is good for everybody and the precondition for development.

But our elites are often far more interested in accumulating wealth and holding on to power at all costs than in doing what is often common sense. They have a short term vision that leaves little room for improvement. The consequence is that the only way of achieving change is often a violent one: military coups, rebellions and uprisings. Akissi has to dissociate herself from her class, her upbringing, and that is already a big step. She goes in search of another reality, a new truth. It would have been easy for me as a writer to “temper” Akissi’s character. I could have made her this woman of steel capable of overcoming everything. But a character dictates his or her own credibility. I realized early on that she was limited in her political action because she is too attached to life to accept the violence and death that can come with revolution. However, the birth of the twins is a sign of hope, the assumption that a new generation will be born that will carry their parents’ struggle forward.

JAM: What about the sexual attraction between Akissi and Karim? It seems at times that sexuality is all encompassing.

VT: Physical love serves here as a symbol of total commitment For example, it is only by being intimate with Akissi that Karim becomes aware of the distressing emptiness in her eyes. So here and there he decides to free her from her blindness because he now feels that she is part of him. It would be a betrayal to leave her in that state. The love story is the driving force of the novel. It is through the coming together of Karim and Akissi that we realize that there is no intrinsic obstacle that prevents people of different class, gender, or ethnicity from coming together. Love has a redeeming power. I am referring here to a multi-dimensional type of love which paves the way for progress and tolerance.

JAM: To go back to Akissi’s mother, what happens to her?

VT: Akissi’s mother wanted to share power or rather she disagreed with the king on major issues. She tried to oppose him and bring about change. Ato IV felt challenged. Therefore, he chose to “get rid of her”. We don’t know if she was killed or if she was just sent away. But judging by the mystery that surrounds her one can expect the worst.

JAM: What about Karim’s mother? Where does her power come from? She is portrayed as a very, very strong woman.

VT: Yes, indeed, she is strong. She is the bearer of tradition. Her power comes from the land, her culture and her community. She is also highly spiritual having been initiated into the ancestral religion. In matriarchy, power runs through women. Akissi’s gift of life at the end of the story continues this. The birth of the twins may herald a new generation capable of doing better than their predecessors.

JAM: Talking of a better future, what hope is there for our cities? The city represented in The Blind Kingdom could be any city, any Black community where police brutality and violence take place. Pollution fills the air, and Akissi leaves in search of a better life “in the North.” However, birds do manage to survive –  what does their survival signal to you as a writer?

I am appalled at the state of our cities, of the environment in which we live. You can have luxury residences next to shanty towns. Look at Cape Town in South Africa, for example. It is such a beautiful place! Yet as you arrive, and from the airport, you are immediately faced by Khayelitsha, the biggest slum in the whole country. And what about Ajegunle in Lagos? Thousands of rickety shacks vying for space. It is the same in Kenya with the Kibera and Mathare slums which are virtual “no go areas” in the heart of Nairobi. Abidjan’s informal settlements come to my mind, of course. Or Mexico City for that matter, with its slums which must have one of the highest levels of pollution in the world. I am also thinking of many Black neighborhoods in the US. Poverty has no borders. The examples are limitless. The image of birds (as opposed to bats) is one of hope. Hope that cities can be rebuilt on a human scale.

JAM: I see that you make reference to several African countries and even to countries outside the continent. For whom is The Blind Kingdom intended ... did you have a particular audience in mind? The Blind Kingdom requires, or at the very least, calls for a particular kind of literacy, don’t you think –VèVè Clark named this “Diaspora Literacy.”

VT: It is always a difficult question to answer. You don’t write for a whole country or for the whole world. You wouldn’t be able to put down a line! On the contrary, you must try to avoid outside contingencies that might divert you from what you are trying to say. There is a story in you and you have to work hard at bringing it out. But the challenge is that it has to be rooted in the particular, while at the same time, have the potential to become relevant to other people outside this reality. So, in this sense I can say that I had an African audience or even to be more precise an Ivorian audience in mind. Yet, my main interest was to produce a story about some human beings’ struggle to create a better world.

JAM: This book was published in 1990 ... yet it resonates loudly with the political scene in Côte d’Ivoire since 2002 ... the Grand North, the South ... rebels and up-risings. Of your novels, this one and The Shadow of Imana, about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda get to the heart of violence and creativity ... beautiful things can come from violence; does violence necessarily stifle creativity?

VT: Let me take your question from the other end. I am fascinated by beauty. What is its function? Can it help us be better people? If you live in magnificent surroundings will you be more tolerant, less inclined to fight? Not necessarily. It cannot prevent violence or cruelty. Look at Rwanda. They call it, “the country of a thousand hills”. It has a breathtaking countryside. Look at America. When the Red Indians were slaughtered, it was a virgin country full of forests, lakes and wonderful valleys. Through creativity, you attempt to put some order into the chaos. You look beyond the destruction to let life in again. You reaffirm our humanity. And maybe the beauty you are talking about comes from this endeavor.

JAM: The Mask is often seen in ceremonies that takes place almost all over Africa. I want to explore this idea of ritual and spirituality. Which Mask are you talking about?

VT: I was thinking of a Mask from the Poro, the traditional religion of the Senoufo people from the North of Côte d’Ivoire. It is a very complex set of beliefs and rites which has mythical figures and a pantheon of gods. There are all sorts of Masks, virtually for every occasion. But the Mask which appears in the story is sacred and is a symbol of spirituality and creativity. It is highly charged with a significance and power that the elders have bestowed on it. The Poro have initiation rites and Akissi goes through some kind of an initiation herself. She evolves into a more conscious person able to see what is happening around herself.

JAM: This narrative reminds me of innovative creative work done by Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Monifa Love, where the eye remains focused on the community ... the life within the community that can be traced back to moments, places and histories.

VT: Yes, in The Blind kingdom, I wanted to give a sense of community. I have read Morrison’s writing and what I like about her novels is the fact that as a reader you can feel the vibrancy of the community. The community is the main character. It informs all the other protagonists’ actions. Morrison’s immense achievement is that she looks at her society with eyes wide open, scrutinizing every detail, good or bad. But the final image is one of resilience and love.

JAM: The Blind Kingdom is layered ... one image, one story on top of the other, some narratives jutting out, some short, some more vivid than others... Here I see a link between the visual and the literal, too. Why did you choose this particular style?

VT: I have been writing like this ever since my first book. I want to look at life from many different angles, so I use whatever is at my disposal as a writer and as an artist. We live in a community and in trying to tell one story in particular, I have to rely on other stories. Our destinies cross, we meet people, they enter our lives, then exit, to be replaced by others, etc. Our existence is layered by an amazing number of stories. So that’s why I move in and out. Having done some photography, I am keenly aware of the danger of the focused picture. The viewer cannot see everything that happens around the subject while the photo is being taken. Literature in this sense offers more possibilities. Moreover, I wanted the story to have a timeless dimension, especially because I thought that it was very topical. I therefore chose a form that would counter-balance the immediacy of the narrative. Tales are at the same time – ancestral and contemporary. It is all in the way you tell them, re-contextualize them. It is also a literary genre that is known to all cultures and which in a way touches all age groups. When they hear a tale, the listeners can understand it on many different levels, depending on their maturity and grasp of the cultural, historical or political references. But whatever the case they always get something from it. With time and added knowledge they can discover and unlock different keys in the narrative. As a writer, what attracts me to the tale is its freedom of expression. Virtually everything is allowed, even the mixture of genres (poetry, political speech, incantations, etc).

JAM: Artists often live in places like France, US and the UK. I read an interview where you were asked about being a writer in exile because you don’t live in your country at the moment. Do you see yourself as a writer living in exile?

VT: Most of my life has been spent on the African continent but with lots of traveling abroad. When we talk of exile, I guess we talk of nationhood. And I guess that not having lived in Côte d’Ivoire on a permanent basis for a number of years now, makes me some kind of exile. But of course, that is forgetting that I am a Pan-Africanist at heart and as long as I am on the continent, I consider myself at home. And as long as I have free access to my country, I am fine.

JAM: By a ‘Pan-Africanist at heart’ what do you mean? Is there a politics involved or a knowing and feeling of kinship based on shared histories across the African world?

VT: It is important for me to constantly increase my knowledge of Africa. Living in different countries and traveling through the continent is invaluable. I am also interested in the Diaspora.

JAM: How have you connected the visual arts in general and painting in particular to your writing?

VT: Living with a mother who was an artist, a painter and a sculptor showed me that visual art was a very powerful way of expressing oneself. I understood with time that I did not need to feel torn between painting and illustrating and my writing. The most important thing was being in the process of creation. Whether you are a musician, a sculptor or a writer, what counts is creativity. You must choose the medium that best suits your objective at a given moment in your life. Painting came when I was in Kenya. The light there has a magnificent quality and there is a great community of artists. I was able to spend time with them and develop as a self-taught painter. I believe I am a better writer when I can also paint because it is about a different way of saying things, using different kinds of signs but in the end trying to tell a story.

JAM: What comparisons can one draw between then and now? Does The Blind Kingdom contain some predictions that have come true regarding your country?

VT: The parallel between the story and the present situation in Côte d’Ivoire is the South/North divide. The rebellion which took place in September 2002 marked the beginning of a deep political and military crisis. It was waged by rebels coming from the North of the country. They took control of key northern cities (Korhogo and Bouaké), effectively dividing the country into two. After many Peace Agreements and Accords, the line of demarcation has been dismantled. Côte d’Ivoire has regained a level of peace but it is yet to achieve lasting stability. It is important that as a people, we recognize that our cultural diversity is a source of richness. We must work harder at strengthening the concept of nationhood by looking at the country as an economic and social entity.


Janis A. Mayes
Mayes is an Associate
Professor in the
department of African
American Studies at
Syracuse University. Her
books include Mapping
Intersections: African
Literature and Africa's
Development (AWP) (with
Anne Adams). She has
also translated Dadie
Bernard's The City Where
No One Dies.

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