The list of the novels nominated for the Prix Ivoire pour la Littérature d’Expression Francophone 2016 is out. Not one Ivorian writer figures on that list – and this for a prize that is Ivorian-born, so to speak. Since being set up in 2008, the prize has been awarded to two Ivorian writers: Amadou Koné and Tiburce Koffi. Both are writers who no longer need any introduction.

This begs the question: Has no excellent novel been written by a young Ivorian writer since the prize was set up? Or is there something else afoot? Spend enough time in the Ivorian literary milieu and you will hear the term “écrivain de poubelle”, which means “a dustbin writer”. And then there is that eternal refrain about Ivorians not having a reading culture…

So, then, where is Ivorian literature really at?

The heyday of the 1960s

In 1968, the heyday of Ivorian literature was definitely marked on the international literary scene with the publication of The Suns of Independence by Ahmadou Kourouma. The novel was hailed by critics as “one of the most original works of African literature of French expression”. Prior to the publication of Kourouma’s debut novel, in 1960, Aké Loba was awarded the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique noire for his novel Kocumbo, l’étudiant noir.

Novels did not come first

Novels, however, were the last-born in Ivorian literature: Writers from the former French colony preferred the play, a genre that was at first encouraged by the colonial administration. However, it was quickly repressed by that same administration when it noticed that the later plays were becoming more and more critical of colonisation and western civilisation and were less about “indigenous” values.  

Bernard Dadié, a prolific writer who in subsequent years wrote fables, novels, short stories and poems, was the “father” of Ivorian playwriting, being the first one to write the script for his plays, unlike such writers as Coffi Gadeau or Amon d’Aby, who relied on actors’ improvisation. He was also the ringleader of that “théâtre engagé”, which the colonial administration sought to crush in the 1950s by instituting what came to be known as “cultural centre plays”.  

In the words of Barthélemy Kotchy: “Cornut-Gentil, the central governor, seeing the danger, decides to counter-attack with important cultural manifestations. He not only decides to set up cultural centres in every major city of the colonies, but also creates playwriting competitions.”

This action by the colonial administration led writers such as Dadié, Loba and Ossou-Essui Denis to turn to the novel. Although this form does not reach the masses like a play would, it did allow them to continue with their engagement – an engagement focused on criticising the colonial powers.  

A new era breaks down the confines of genre

With Kourouma and Charles Nokan a new theme will start to emerge – one less preoccupied with colonisation  but also a new era, where the confines of genre are broken down. Nokan mixes poetry, play and the essay form in his novels Violent était le vent and Le soleil noir point. It is what Jean Marie Adiaffi, the 1981 laureate of the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire and writer of La carte d’identité calls “the N’zassa roman” or “the patchwork novel”. As for Kourouma, he calls the language used in his writing the “malinkisation” of French, writing mostly in Malinké but using French words.

Despite these new styles, Ivorian literature is dominated by writers who first and foremost identify themselves as écrivains engagés, even if Kourouma rejects that tag, affirming that he writes “things that are true … without taking sides.”

It is in the works of its female writers that Ivorian literature moves away from the strong intellectualisation that characterises it, even if it does not abandon it totally. If writers like Régina Yaou focus more on telling “women’s stories” – inheritance, the place of women in Ivorian society – without any literary tour de force being employed, others like Tanella Boni or Véronique Tadjo play with literary genres but keep the story at the forefront.

Could such literary snobbery be because many members of the Ivorian literati come from the university milieu?

Writers who write for all

Still, in that midst of mostly university professors-writers, writers like Isaie Biton Koulibaly seek to get away from talk about genres and political or social themes to write stories for the masses. Côte d’Ivoire is a country where reading is confined to utilitarian purposes such as schooling, and nothing else. Biton’s writings, however, turn that conception on its head because his novels and short stories follow a clear formula, which the writer explains in the following words:

“Men have always been obsessed with women and writing books on stories experienced by women and having young, beautiful women on the book covers create a buzz.”

His formula works – he is the most popular and most read Ivorian writer. His books have sold in the tens of thousands and fan clubs have sprouted even beyond the borders of Côte d’Ivoire. Yet, for the purists, neither what Biton does, nor what is published by Adoras, the imprint he helped set up in 1998, is literature.

Could such literary snobbery be because many members of the Ivorian literati come from the university milieu? (If only this snobbery were contributing to the promotion of Ivorian literature…!)

Shiny new commissions – without funds

If the eighties were characterised by literary fervour and a plethora of literary programmes on radio, TV, the press and even in public spaces, that is not the case today.

The association of Ivorian writers (AECI) elected a new president last April and set up shiny new commissions, among which is the Commission for Literary Activities and the Promotion of Writers. So far, though, it would seem that the commission, and the association itself, are in search of funds before any activity can take place.

Zaouli is a magazine that could have been classified as a literary magazine since it sometimes touches on matters of literature, but it presents itself as a magazine for professionals of culture. So, no outlet exists for many young writers today to practice their craft.

The impact of this on Ivorian literature is that many–  and, for the most part, newer – writers are turning to self-publishing, which is unfortunately badly done. But what is the alternative when Tiburce Koffi describes Ivorian publishing houses as “manuscript graveyards”?

Young people with new approaches

However, young Ivorian writers and lovers of literature are not giving up and are adopting a new approach. Mireille Tchonté, an Ivorian book lover, recently set up a blog and a vlog, www.leschroniquesdetchonte.com, in which her book critiques rest on whether she liked a book and not on whether the writer showed particular prowess with this or that literary style. In her own words, “I want to make literature fun.”

Another group that is breaking the barriers is the Abidjan Lit Collectif, a group consisting of five lovers of the written word, who organise literary meet-ups where the term “expert in literature” is banned.

The fact remains, however, that a literature that used to be firmly rooted in Ivorian realities, but boldly opened up to the world, has become rather insular of late. That is to the detriment of writers like Armand Gauz, for instance, whose debut novel Debout payé, published in 2014 in France, incidentally, has not had the success it could have had in the writer’s own country. Clearly, this insularity is not benefiting our writers or our readers.