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Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: Reinventing Africa

November 29, 2021

The winner of the prestigious 2021 Prix Goncourt award, young Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr tells DW about the future he envisions for Africa.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is the Prix Goncourt laureateImage: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is the first author from sub-Saharan Africa to be awarded France's most important literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

The 31-year-old Senegalese author's literary thriller La plus secrete memoire des homes ("The Most Secret Memory of Men") tells the story of a young Senegalese writer who discovers a legendary book from 1938 in Paris. He sets out on the trail of the author, who has mysteriously vanished.

La plus secrete memoire des hommes is Sarr's fourth novel. He is well-known to French readers, having won several literary prizes in recent years for books that deal with contemporary issues such as racism, discrimination and Africa's relationship with Europe — and with France in particular.

DW spoke with Sarr about his current book, African literature and French-African relations.

DW: What does winning the Prix Goncourt mean to you? 

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: It is a great pleasure to receive a literary award that is one of the most prestigious not only in the French-speaking world, but also in the world.

 Mohamed Mbougar Sarr and Senegal's President Macky Sall (R)
Senegal's President Macky Sall presented Sarr with the L'ordre national du Lion du Senegal (National Order of the Lion), which is Senegal's highest order, in November 2021Image: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

People underline the fact that I am the first prize winner from sub-Saharan Africa and, on top of that, one of the youngest ever. There is a lot of talk about this being a signal for the Francophone region, which is true, they have a point — or will have a point in the years to come.

However, I think you have to ask literary questions first: that is, read the book, talk about it, and find out what the literary value of this book is.

What are the issues you deal with in this novel? 

First of all, there is the question of writing, the mystery of writing. Then, of course, there is the question of the silence of the writer and the question of the reception of African writers in the Western world.

I deal with all these issues in the framework of a real story about a young Senegalese writer, Diegane Latyr Faye, who sets out on the trail of a disappeared writer, TC Elimane. All his books revolve around his search for this legendary writer who disappeared 80 years ago. He delves deep into history, searching for him on three continents, dealing with colonialism, asking questions about the Holocaust, and questioning the position of writing in the first half of the 20th century.

This year, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Abdulrazak Gurnah from Tanzania. Is African literature experiencing a renaissance?

Abdulrazak Gurnah  
Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for LiteratureImage: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/picture alliance

I think that literature in Africa has never stopped living and spreading. It may not have always been easy, but it has always been there. What can be noted at this point, however, is the lack of a strong cultural policy that could promote literature more, and reinforce the importance of reading and culture.

Africa's writers have never stopped writing and producing important works. One should not fall into the trap of thinking that just because it is suddenly recognized internationally, African literature has suddenly begun to exist and is experiencing a renaissance. Perhaps the [African] continent should also have international literary awards that recognize not only African writers, but writers from all over the world.

Concerning developments in Africa, is there anything in particular that interests you?

I was very interested in the events surrounding this year's Africa-France summit. I was part of the commission that looked into the case of Achille Mbembe. [Editor's note: Cameroonian historian accused of anti-Semitism and relativizing the Holocaust, he is also said to question Israel's right to exist.]

I generally follow the developments between France and its former French colonies. They are getting off to a slow start. They are now independent states, they have to gain sovereignty, power and also dignity.

With regard to Franco-African relations, some people urge cutting the "umbilical cord" to France. What is your stance?

I listen to all these voices, even those who call for radically questioning these relationships. You have to listen to them. But there are others who urge rather redefining Africa's relationship with the world.

The African continent is part of this world, we should not fixate only on France, but focus on the whole world. This is the fight I take on, advocating more sovereignty for our countries.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr posing with a copy of his award-winning book
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr poses with a copy of his book 'La plus secrete memoire des hommes'Image: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP

There are several ways to approach the struggle. Some seek dialogue to rebalance relations. Others say we should end the dialogue. There are also intermediate positions that must be respected. I believe that we can only achieve anything at all if we reconcile all these voices.

You will always find more radical groups alongside more moderate ones in a struggle — they may well be enemies, but they basically pursue the same goals.

I would like to add that Africa must respect Africans, no matter where they live. Our political elites must be more courageous and more humane toward their people. Then the rest of the world will also treat the African continent with more respect. We must do something about the corrupt political elites who do little for their populations, who just want to stay in power. And about those who kill. All of this must be taken into account.

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This interview was originally conducted by Georges Ibrahim Tounkara in French. 

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