[This acceptance speech appeared originally in French in the African Literature Association Bulletin 18,3 (Summer, 1992), pp. 25-26. It has been translated by Ahmed Sheikh Bangura of the University of Alberta. –ED.]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me personally and for the journal, Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains to receive the Fonlon-Nichols Prize awarded by the Research Institute of Comparative Literature of the University of Alberta.
I surmise that by choosing me the jury wished to remind us all that one of the fundamental objectives of literature is to ensure and safeguard freedom of expression. And this has been my vocation as a writer and editor. Indeed, every writer must personally strive to secure this freedom against the backdrop of inhibiting traditions and political pressure, which continue to place great obstacles in the way of writing in order to control and tame it. Of course, to say that man is born free could be no more than a beautiful lyrical illusion.
At any rate, we, Africans, have not had to part with this illusion since history deprived us of the control of our destiny some centuries ago. The task of our writers is therefore clear, simple and urgent because the forces working against their freedom are clearly less from within themselves than from outside. They do not have to free themselves from their masters, but from political tyranny; they are not toiling to be recognized by a mundane club, but rather to foil the vulgar traps placed along the path of their quest for freedom of expression
This fact, which is above all political and which is definitely that of the literature of oppressed people – and probably deep down that of any literature - is one the writer cannot choose to accept or reject as one would a principle; it imposes itself on him in all its reality. To dodge it is to close all doors to authenticity, to condemn oneself to complacency, parody and servility, literature’s fatal diseases. As a matter of fact, if the writer fails to ask the mother of all questions, the one which determines existence itself, his work will be trivial and anecdotal and a passing fad regardless of its formal qualities. The only writers whose works pass the test of time are those who go beyond the incidental to capture the essential.
However, the essential is not abstract. Nor is it nebulous or altogether elusive. One can always bring it to bear on the question of freedom. Call him the great writer who can ask this question correctly, who can identify the chains that really bind him, who knows who obstructs life and by what means. A work is apposite if it fulfils its mission. It touches the heart, the heart of things as well as that of the reader thanks to the insight of the author and the sharpness of his vision. To truly consider the issue of freedom, it is not enough to make speeches on themes such as: “we who are free,” or “alas we are not free” or “one ought to be free,” because freedom is not a matter of incantations or lamentations or proclamations. This time is not for making speeches on freedom but for making freedom itself. And this is a totally different matter; Literature frees the spirit that is its mission.
Since this recognition comes to us from Canada, I will, with your permission, recall what André Breton wrote on the subject of freedom in Arcane 17, musings inspired by his first visit to the island of Bonaventure in Gaspesia in 1943: “Freedom can only thrive in a state of constant dynamism, it is perverted and negated as soon as one attempts to convert it into a museum item…. It should be considered not as a state but as a living force.” The political character of literature manifests itself in this enchanting work in all its aspects, free as it is from myopic utilitarianism and shameful opportunism. André Breton makes the distinction between “the liberation effort” and “the struggle for freedom,” between “the natural need for freedom,” which is a necessity, and “the passion for freedom” which, in his estimation, is “elective, contingent,” analogous to poetic passion, in other words rare and sublime. Breton says regarding this freedom which some people want passionately while others have the illusion of having it, that as it has thrived among certain people and can be held up as a model for all men, it must prelude all notions of static equilibrium. Freedom is a poetic ideal. It is neither a passing fad nor a mystifying slogan.
It is thus easy to imagine how basic the role of literature is in an oppressed community where, by the force of circumstance, the need for freedom and the passion for freedom are bound to merge into each other and become indistinguishable. In such a situation, which is at once misleading and propitious, literature is no longer a luxury but an indisputable asset. It is enough in the first instance to be able to express oneself, that is to voice oppression. But all the malignant forces will plot together to frustrate obscenely that voice or divert it stealthily and by all other means. The role of a writer is at once heroic and easy, he simply has to articulate oppression. Indeed, any oppression that is seen, said and understood has been undermined right at its roots. That is the magical power of literature. Who has read or written for any purpose other than to heal. However, the more just the cause is, the more tenacious the chains to be broken. The power of the work should match the strength of the chains. But the obstacles are so great, the courage required so wanting and mediocrity so pervasive that one is tempted to sigh in despair ¨what is the use”?
This is when encouragement becomes invaluable. It makes us realize that we were after all not as horribly alone as we thought. The friendship that is symbolized by this Fonlon-Nichols award, in recognition of our work, exhorts us to do our best to keep the struggle alive. The struggle must continue! A single note well executed, because one listens to it, is better than a deafening cacophony of false voices to which no one listens any more. Thank you ladies and gentlemen for this token of support and solidarity.
Mongo BETI and the journal
Peuples Noirs/Peuples Africains
Rouen - France