By Anote Ajeluorou
French journalist-turned writer couldn’t conceal his excitement at the excellent turn of event in his career by harsh conditions in Nigeria when he was an intern back in the 1990s in Enugu. Unlike Joseph Conrad who saw nothing but heart of darkness, title of his uncanny genius a century ago, Pierre Cherruau saw Nigeria’s difficulties and turned them into enduring fiction that pay tribute to the unflagging spirit of a country in transition.
And, at the recent Port Harcourt UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 opening, where he spoke at the International Authors’ Forum, Cherruau spoke about the warmth and openness of Nigerians and how Nigerians generally endeared themselves to him, taking him as one of their own. He’d barely arrived the Alliance Francaise in Enugu in 1994 when the strikes induced by the June 12, 1993 crisis began to bite real hard. He was stuck, and he couldn’t travel.
According to him, “I didn’t plan to write books. I was a trained journalist. It was during the 1994 strikes. I finished reading all the books I had; I had no money; there were no mobile phones as now; I wasn’t connected to the outside world. Then I began to think, What should I do? I have to say, Thanks to Nigeria. No electric light (NEPA); no fuel. I decided to write, and my first work Nene Rastaqouere came out. Other are Lagos 666 and Chien Fantome.
“Nigerians were very open-minded; they took me to their villages and showed me things”.
Cherruau is a much-travelled journalist and writer in Africa, who has worked and lived in many countries. These experiences, he said, have reshaped his personality and outlook both about himself and the continent usually regarded with mixed feelings back in his native Europe. Now, some 20 odd years since he wrote his first novel set in Nigeria about a hardworking woman who endures so much just to make a living, Cherruau submitted, “The experience in Enugu was very unique. When you are in Africa as a European, you discover so much about yourself. If I write about Nigeria today it will be different because things have changed a lot. There’s no one Africa, or even one Nigeria; there’s diversity and complexity, as expressed in the music, art, dance, lifestyle.
“I try to be objective in my journalistic work, but not necessarily in my novels. My novels are like bridges between Europe and Africa although we have to be modest about our achievements in this regard”.
Florent Couao-Zotti, another of the two international authors and a neighbouring Beninoise, said he came from a family that loves literature and read a lot. While growing up, he said there would be gatherings in the family, and they always discussed foreign authors from France, Russia and other places. But what led him into writing was as dramatic as it was profound.
According to him, “It was raining one day and my mother asked me to leave the rain. I didn’t; it was a thunderclap that scared me out of the rain and I fled into the house. My father asked me if I was afraid; I said, Yes, and thought that I was going to die.
“But I thought that before I die, I must leave something behind, as a legacy. The writers I’d read had already died. So, to escape death and be immortal, I started writing so I could leave my thoughts behind, as my legacy”.
His first novel, Les Fantomes du Bresil (The Ghosts from Brazil), chronicles Brazilian returnees of the 1950s and how they segregated themselves from the local population and married among themselves. Couao-Zotti said they bore a feeling of betrayal against the local population for selling their ancestors into slavery, and kept to themselves. But for once, the unthinkable happened when one of their girls married a local, and all hell seemed to break loose.
However, Couao-Zotti, who has written several other novels in French, couldn’t quite say whether he has succeeded in immortalizing himself the way he’d envisaged it as a small boy with his writings. But he said he derives immense satisfaction from his writings. Although Beninoise reading population is about 40 per cent out of 10 million people, Couao-Zotti’s target audience, as a writer are readers outside of his country, especially everyone speaking French the world over and through translation of his works.