That is how Professor Abdourahman Waberi opened his first session of a three-day training workshop on creative non-fiction. This time, he was not addressing his usual audience; his students of the Georges Washington University in the United States, or of the University of Caen in France.
This lecturer of Djiboutian extraction was sharing his knowledge with about 20 French-speaking journalists and bloggers hailing from three African countries: Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Quoting African writers like Ibn Khaldun, Abdourahman Waberi explained to the journalists from these three countries how the works of fiction of these writers changed how the West perceived Africa. In his opinion, the blog posts and the write-ups for editorial staff that journalists and bloggers produce on a regular basis already constitute a step forward, and there are hundreds of examples where bloggers have helped change the course of things on the continent. During the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, a hashtag (#CivSocial), round which bloggers and other young Ivorians rallied on social networks, helped save 82 lives in 2010 and 2011. Several international media that could not decode the Ivorian crisis turned to these young Ivorians to better grasp the crisis and how it was unfolding in the country. However, the professor said, these all fall within the short term: creative non-fiction can span longer terms, and, obviously, also requires more time. You are journalists already, that’s your job. Let’s say that it is the work you do during the day. At night, you can concentrate on creative fiction!
“One may think that writing long pieces is an uphill task, but there are tips that can make such writing easier. You need to have prompts, small filler phrases that can help you gain a few additional pages; such as the first line of a song or even of another book,” Abdourahman Waberi said reassuringly.
“If that sounds difficult, you can draw inspiration from people who have helped many others to get going, like Raymond Queneau!”
Raymond Queneau, in his very popular book, Exercices de style, published in 1947, told one and the same story 99 times, in as many ways. It is one of his most popular books and has been translated into over 30 foreign languages, and adapted into plays and songs. He was a member and co-founder of OuLiPo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”), an international group of literati and mathematicians who described themselves as “rats who build their own mazes and then have to figure out how to get out of them”. They developed tips and tricks to ease creative writing.
The members of this group met once a month to discuss the notion of “constraints” and to devise new “structures” to further literary activity. It is from this type of narrative style that African journalists could derive that plus that sets the writer apart.
From Theory to Practising Creative Fiction with the Help of Constraints
On the second day of the training, Abdou, as he preferred to be called by the journalists and bloggers during the workshop, proposed a practical exercise. The exercise involved writing a piece in which each paragraph would start with the phrase “I remember (that) …”, followed by a memory.
The method worked: within half an hour, some of Waberi’s trainees had laid down pages and, others, several lines on their computers. This spurred many of them who had stopped writing to decide to take it up again while others, who had gone through months of a writer’s block with a write-up, even succeeded in finishing the pieces. The latter situation was the case with Armel Ras, a Burundian journalist and blogger who had since also got involved in filmmaking.
“I remember this mistake, like it was yesterday, like it had occurred just a minute ago.
I also remember this constant helplessness I’ve felt since, that of feeling so close to that momentous instant, yet being unable to change anything.
I remember this twinge in my heart, and I also remember that suffering greater than this is not possible to the human.
Finally, I remember that, such misfortune, I could never wish upon anyone; that of letting one’s happiness slip away. That of being the only character in the play on one’s own greatest misfortune. But, alas, is this not human nature? This aching misfortune, is it not the only thing that reminds me of the joy that came with that kiss? One can only truly appreciate the taste of honey if they’ve had vinegar. Yet, it is easier if you’d tasted vinegar, before chancing on and coming to appreciate the taste of honey. My wheel spins in the opposite direction; I have just tasted vinegar, whereas the taste of honey is forever stuck in my mind.” – [Translation of an] Excerpt of a piece by one of the journalists at the workshop.
In-class activities were over: the third day was spent immersing in the Ivorian society. The professor and his students of a special kind walked the streets, wandering deep into the Adjamé market, visiting book stalls, haggling over ready-made dresses sold by Nigerien traders in this overpopulated Abidjan market. They discussed several issues concerning African societies, music, art, and love. In these moments, Waberi had ceased to be this professor lecturing at prestigious European and American universities. He was now a friend; one with more experience, of course, but who shared it cheerfully. It was a rather simple visit, but one that yielded a wealth of inspiration.
Thanks to RNW, some bloggers and journalists had come to the realisation that they could go further, become writers. Writers who would tell Africa’s story in the way it deserves to be told.
Recalling the impression these youths had made on him, Abdourahman Waberi, speaking of them in his column in the prestigious Le Monde newspaper, said: “Some of them already have children, they are level-headed. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them in leadership positions in Kivu or elsewhere. I wish them Godspeed.”