French writer Pierre Cherruau has set some of his novels in Nigeria, drawing from his background as a journalist who worked in Nigeria
during the Abacha days. The author of about 10 novels talks about his experiences in Nigeria, his writing and his long trek from Paris to Dakar with the spirit of his late father. Fascinating interview. Enjoy!
It is interesting that you have a strong background in journalism with both your parents having worked as journalists, did this influence your choice of career?
My parents were journalists and most of their friends were also working in this field too. My father was obsessed with his job as a reporter. He was a very good journalist, spending nights trying to improve his work. His commitment was even threatening his health. When he was doing his investigation I was often following him. I was also spending many weekends in the news room. It was fascinating to see how the front page changed all day long until the deadline. It looked like a very exciting “game” when I was a kid. Then I wanted to become a “paperboy” too.
At that time, newsrooms were very friendly and lively places. The newspapers were very prosperous and influential. Everybody was reading newspapers. Then it was exciting to be part of this adventure, even as a kid.
But my parents never asked me to become a journalist. My father was working for the most famous French newspaper Le Monde. But he advised me to start with a very local newspaper. Because he told me that to know if you really love this job you have to start working with the very local newspaper in a small town.
I did it and I really enjoyed it, because it gave me the opportunity to interact with people I would not have met otherwise. I interacted with so many farmers, fishermen, petty traders. They trusted me to tell their stories properly. Then I didn’t want to disappoint them.
At this time, people spoke very easily to the local journalists because they trusted the local newspaper Sud-Ouest, in South-west of France. Everybody was reading this newspaper in the South west. The circulation was more than 500, 000 copies a day.
I also became a journalist to have the opportunity to communicate with my father. He was so obsessed with his job that it was the only way to really interact with him. It was the only way to share his world and to be part of it.
That is interesting. From a local newspaper man, journalism brought you to Nigeria at a difficult time. What stood out for you the first time you arrived Nigeria?
My first contact with Africa was Lagos by night. The car went from Murtala Muhammed Airport to Ikoyi. On the way, the light was coming from the candles of the small shops. To me it was very mysterious and impressive. Later, I travelled from Lagos to Enugu, a long difficult trip by road with armed robbers on the way. Moshood Abiola had just been sent to jail. In the east, there were many strikes, at some point no water, no electricity, no fuel. It was during the Sani Abacha era. Many people didn’t want to openly express their opinions.
But I was always impressed by the way Nigerian journalists were fighting to practice their job, even when it was so difficult.
I was also impressed by the way the average Nigerian was fighting to make a living. The way some women were travelling all over Nigeria to trade. The way they were risking their lives every day on the road to make a living. They were not complaining. Talking to all this people, I understood the meaning of the expression “Suffering and smiling”.
You have authored many novels, a great number of them are set in Nigeria. What informed the choice of Nigeria as a setting for most of your novels?
I also wrote many stories taking place in France, Spain, Japan, Benin Republic, Togo, Mali or Senegal. But it’s true that my first inspiration came from Nigeria. Because one day in Enugu, during the big strikes in 1994, I had nothing to read. I had finished the last novel I brought from France. There was no NEPA, no water, no fuel, no more cash. Nobody to talk with. So, to keep myself busy, I lighted a candle and started to write a novel with a pen. I wrote all night. At the end of the night, I had finished my first novel that was set in Nigeria. Don’t ask me why ? Maybe because I was alone. Then my plain sheet of white paper was my only confidant.
Once I read a Henning Mankell interview, in which a French newspaper was asking this Swedish writer what he thought about the way the Western media were covering African news. This writer was living part time in Africa (He is sharing his time between Sweden and Mozambique where he is running a theater). He answered that with western media you know everything about the way Africans are dying but nothing about the way they are living.
It is a bit of an exaggeration because we don’t know everything about the way Africans die, but it is true that we don’t know enough about the way they live. Through literature we can say more about the way people live, about their dreams and their mind.
That is incredible. And why did you choose detective novels to showcase how Nigerians live?
I believe Nigeria is a perfect place for detective novels or black novels. I am more interested by black novels than detective novels. I read more James Ellroy than Agatha Christie. I am very interested by the way James Ellroy described America; the way he is showing the dark side of the Kennedy era, more than by the fact of knowing who is the killer at the end of the story.
In Nigeria, you don’t have to use so much of your imagination to write fiction. You just have to open your eyes, to open your ears and also to read the newspapers. It’s strange to notice that so many detective novels or black novels take place in northern Europe. In Norway, Finland, Sweden and Island where there are more violent death in books than in real life. In these novels, the detectives are often depressed, like in the novels of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell. Maybe, their detectives are bored because they have nothing to do.
My first novel on Nigeria was heavily influence by a book I just read about Brazil. The novel I just finished before starting my own writing.
I asked myself : why do we have this kind of book about Brazil and not about Nigeria ? In fact, I wrote the books I wanted to read. But I am more interested by the description of the society than by the detective side.
I also thought fiction was a good way to talk about Nigeria. If I had decided to write a political essays about Nigeria, almost no one would have read it in France. At that time, twenty years ago; very few people in France knew the name of the Nigerian president. And Nigerian politics was sounding very complex for the French. At that time, 1994, it was easier for Europeans to understand what was taking place in South Africa. The fight against apartheid was much easier to understand. The spotlights and the focus were on Mandela, his election as South African president. And also, people were starting to talk a lot about the Rwandan genocide. Now Nigeria is much more in the center of the media’s attention. Nobody can contest the fact that what is affecting Nigeria is affecting the rest of the continent, and of course the rest of the world. The biggest economy; the biggest population in Africa. Nobody can ignore Nigeria. It was a bit different 20 years ago, even if Nigeria was already very powerful. Many people had not noticed it then.
Were there stories you covered as a journalist that you felt needed to be expanded into a novel?
Every time I was covering a story as journalist, I was thinking about the fiction it could become someday. From the beginning, I knew you could tell much more in the fiction than through the media field, or through journalistic work. First, in journalism, you have to write very short pieces, especially when you write for a French newspaper about a faraway place.
When I write a novel, nobody tells me how long it should be. If I want to write about a city or a woman or a painting in 10 or 20 pages I can do it. I am totally free.
And when you write fiction, you can explain freely the way politics or the economy or social classes work in a place. You won’t get brought to court easily, because it is fiction. You don’t have the same freedom with journalism. Fiction is a school of freedom. But journalism is also very important because it’s feeding your imagination. Your fictional characters are influenced by people you meet in real life as a journalist. Some writers can spend their entire life in their bedrooms, I can’t. I need to interact with people.
My books are very visual. My first novels were published in the 90’s. At this time, in Europe very few images where coming from Nigeria. There was no Nollywood. Like many French people, I could have written a fiction taking place in America, because we see so many American movies. But I had very few images about Nigeria. The first time I came to Nigeria, I did not know what to expect at all. The first time, I went to the US, I was not surprised at all. I knew a lot already from the movies I watched as a teenager.
To write my novels taking place in Nigeria, I had to travel extensively in the country. Sometimes, the journey was not an easy one. But it was worth it. Nigeria is never a boring place.
And I have to say that, from my point of view, Nigerians are very friendly people. I always tell this to people who are scared to come to Nigeria that Nigerians are very open minded. They like to share their culture as long as your respect them and their way of life. It’s always very easy to interact with them if you are ready to try to understand their culture.
Clearly there hasn’t been a lot of Nigerian literature or literature on Nigeria that has been accessed by the French. So what has been the reaction to your works back home?
The reaction was very good from the start. Fiction was a good way for people to discover the country. The critics were very good and the sales too. People were surprised to discover a different Africa, a modern Africa and an Anglophone Africa where the way of life is very different compared to the one you will find in Mali or Senegal for example.
At this time, not so many Nigerians writers were translated. But most of Wolé Soyinka’s books were already translated. Most of Chinua Achebe’s novels too. Amos Tutuola had been translated also.
Now 20 years later, so many Nigerian writers are translated in French. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Gallimard. Americana is just out. Wolé Soyinka, Ken Saro Wiwa and Sefi Atta are published in French by one other famous publisher called Actes Sud. Not too long ago, the publisher bought the rights to Lola Shoneyin’s very good novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. In my opinion, it is one of the best contemporary African novels. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives will published in Paris very soon. Chibundo Onuzo (the writer of The Spider King’s Daughter) is also translated into French. Dozens or others Nigerians writers are published in France.
France is one of the countries that publishes the biggest amount of African literature coming from both francophone Africa and Anglophone Africa and even Lusophone Africa. The French are reading a lot of essays and fiction. And the books published in France are also exported all over the francophone world. In France, the publishing industry is quite strong. Not only in Paris but all over the country. We have very good book festivals all over France.
Interestingly, your most successful work La Vacance du Petit Nicolas, happens to be about French politics. Does this imply that the focus of your writing will now shift to your native France?
I was not surprised to notice that my most successful book was the one set in France. Most the readers prefer to read about what they know a bit. Of course French politics is part of their everyday life. Only few French people have the opportunity to travel to Nigeria.
It’s the same phenomena in Nigeria, I guess. If you write fiction set in the local political arena, it will more successful than a novel taking place in a faraway places in Europe, South America or Asia. In literature, with regards to readership, most of the time it is more or less the same rules that apply in journalism. A dog biting a man on the next street will have a bigger impact on your audience than a mass killing on the other side of the planet.
But I will not change my focus. I am not doing “marketing studies” when I choose a topic. By the way, I don’t choose a topic. It’s the topic that chooses me. If a story is coming into my head at some point, I have to write it. I believe it’s the same for many writers. You cannot cheat with your writing, you’ve to speak the truth. If you’re dishonest with yourself and with your story it will be very difficult to write and even your audience will feel it.
You also embarked on an adventurous trek from Paris to Dakar and wrote about this in another book. Why was it important you to undertake that long trek?
Just after my father’s death, I felt I needed to start a long trek to think about the meaning of life. I also wanted to understand where I was coming from and where I was heading. I believe it was some kind of “metaphysical trip”. The French daily newspaper Le Monde was publishing my articles and my pictures. Then I was paid to trek from Dakar to Paris. Somehow it was a great, a great experience. Except it was very exhausting. To run and to trek under the African sun and to write at the end of the day; it‘s not so easy. Sometimes, you feel too tired to write. But you‘ve to do it every day. It is the price I had to pay to feel free and to be on the road every day. But it’s great when you wake up and discover a new landscape every day. You don’t know where you will stop and what will be your experience of the day or who you will meet? Sometimes, I will end the day talking with Fulani shepherds while on other days I could be interacting with some fishermen from the Atlantic coast?
My father was running marathons with me. He was the one giving me the “freedom spirit” and the “fighting spirit”. During the trip from Dakar to Paris, my father’s spirit was with me. One day, I am sure I will do the trip with my son. But I hope I will still be alive when I do it, not just a spirit following my son’s footsteps. My son is just six years old now. But he is already a very good runner. Better than me at the same age, I suspect. Sometimes I have the feeling he is born to travel. Born to run. We are already running together. Slowly because, I want the running and the trekking to be first a pleasure for him.
And we are already talking about the great trip we will be taking together some day, maybe in 10 years. When you travel you learn so much about other people. Most of the time, I was not staying in hotels, I was staying in people’s houses, but you learn also a lot about yourself. You understand more where you are coming from and where you are heading to. It’s exactly the same when you are writing and reading. It is a mental trip and at the end of it, you discover so much about yourself and about other people.