29 November 2004

Exclusive interview with Tijan Sallah

Exclusive interview with Dr Tijan Sallah
By Saihou Bah

Observer Plus: May I start by first of all asking you to introduce yourself.
Tijan Sallah: My name is Tijan Sallah. I am a writer on the side. My formal profession is economics. I have published to date, about eight books: three books of poetry, one book of short stories, a work on ethnography on the Wollof, two anthologies of poetry, one is The New Poets of West Africa, and the second, The New African Poetry, which covers the new poetic voices from all over the continent, from Egypt to South Africa. And most recently, I have published a biography of Africa’s leading novelist, Chinua Achebe. I have also written works of criticism, works on art and the social sciences, economics and so on.
O.P.: From this, we can see that your work is already monumental. Could you briefly explain, to our readers, some of your works and what pushed you into literature?
T.S.: My writing was very much influenced by my experiences in High School. I studied at St. Augustine’s High School. I entered St. Augustine’s when it had just moved from Hagan Street to Box Bar Road and we were the first freshman class there. I studied under a number of teachers ranging from Sait Touray to people like Shola Joiner, Ralphina d’Almeida who used to teach History, Father Gough and quite a number of other good teachers, but the most influential, I would say, was father Gough. I published my first poem, The African redeemer, in Sunu Kibaro, in the early seventies. I cannot remember the exact year.
O.P.: Talking of The African Redeemer, what motivated you to write such a poem?
T.S.: As you know, during that period, there was a lot of fervour about uniting Africa. After independence, it was an opportune moment for Africans to regroup and try to bring the continent together and one of the most influential political thinkers at the time was Nkrumah. He had written a number of political tracts about uniting Africa and also wrote the books: Conscientism and Africa must Unite. He was a very inspirational figure both in terms of his oratorical skills, persuasive speaking skills, and his leadership skills among other African leaders. It was said at the time that he was way before his time. He was not only a leader of Ghana, but was also moving beyond the nation-state as it was then constituted, to a pan-African fraternity where the borders will be relaxed, people can move within countries and infrastructure will include inter-state highways and eventually, his view was to have one President of a United States of Africa. Now Europe is talking of a European Union, but Nkrumah had already spoken of an African Union in his time. But of course, he was dealing with leaders who were more or less trapped in micro-nationalisms. They were obsessed with maintaining power within their tiny little nations.
O.P.: What do you consider yourself, a Gambian or a citizen of Africa?
Tijan Sallah: Well, I am a Gambian. A Gambian in voluntary self-imposed exile, in that I chose to stay and work outside The Gambia. But I am an African in so far as I identify myself with the total continental reality, the geographical reality of Africa, and I see the different strands which identify the African peoples and I also see the differences among African peoples. I see the need for Africans to come together to define and develop a continental culture. But I also see the drawbacks of that, in terms of differences in language, traditions, etc.
O.P.: One thing I have observed among writers is that they pay a lot of attention to detail, to differences. I hope that would not push them to be very narrow-minded?
Tijan Sallah: Well, in a sense, a writer writes out of a particular locality and out of a particular local experience. So much of the detail and that sort of narrow consciousness comes from that. But that is not to say that that is not relevant in terms of the bigger picture. You read all the works of Senghor, Achebe or Ngugi. Ngugi writes out of a Kikuyu culture and tries to depict the struggles between the colonial situation and the natives, so called. Achebe dramatised that conflict between Europe and Africa. Senghor also did it in his own way, through Negritude poetry. So they write out of specific cultures. Senghor uses specific Serere tradition, Achebe out of Ibo culture, but within that, one can draw the universal African experience. I think Achebe’s works are very profound when it comes to dramatising how things fell apart, with the coming of the British, i.e., the disintegration of traditional Ibo society with the coming of what we call the “white man”, the questioning of local beliefs and in some sense, the ridiculing of local beliefs to say that they don’t hold and the introduction of Christianity, the religion of the white man at the time.
O.P.: That means that you look at the specific reality in which you are brought up in order to portray the bigger picture.
Tijan Sallah: Yes. In a sense, reality for most people is a very local reality. What does it mean to talk of globalisation, of African Unity to the man in the street? It’s an empty term. That’s something that is the preoccupation of intellectuals and big policy makers and so on. But what the ‘ordinary’ person knows is that he is a Mandinka, a Fula, a Serere, he eats rice, he has to go out and eke out a living, etc. These are the realities that he lives day to day with. He wants to enjoy his relation of Kal with the different people he lives with. This is what reality for most people consists of. So why should the bigger picture matter to him?
O.P.: One thing I fear is that, especially if these writers are widely read, that their works may not limit the horizon of the ‘ordinary’ person who may not be very familiar with the way the world works.
Tijan Sallah: Well, one has always to read Art in that sense. When an artist paints a picture, he doesn’t paint a world picture. You don’t see an artist go and paint globalisation or African unity. What an artist does is that he sees a tree, a mango tree, a ‘ditax’ tree or ‘kaba nombo’, he sees something very familiar in his local environment and he paints that. And there is a certain specific beauty which has universal appeal. Even a European can come and see this and say “wow!”. Similarly when you invoke certain proverbs, they are very much within a local culture but then they have a big appeal. People read them and say “wow! What wisdom this is!” In a sense, it is the very nature of art that it focuses on the particular, but through the particular, we learn the universal. We draw universal lessons.
What relevance does the works of Shakespeare have today? He wrote about England of a certain period, the Elizabethan age. He wrote about Henry the 8th and his break with the Church of Rome and dramatized that. There he was dealing with a specific monarchical reality in England at the time. He was dealing with the institutions of the monarchy at the time. Now what relevance does that have today? It’s too narrow. He’s dealing with English, Anglo-Saxon realities. But people draw lessons from that. They can see the lessons of power, the drama of power and everything is in the local. Like they say, the devil is in the detail. But people like talking about the general.
O.P.: In this age of globalisation, people tend to be more and more nationalistic and this makes the role of the writer more delicate. He has to strike a balance between avoiding narrow nationalism and not being lost in the wilderness of globalisation. What can you say about that?
Tijan Sallah: It is true that there is a danger of people becoming too narrow and focus too much on ethnicity and narrow nationalism, as they are. But that’s a little bit some form of closed-mindedness. What happens always is that when people are exposed to the big, they tend to go back and seek comfort in the little. Clearly, we are in a world, global culture in which people have to be open and have to accommodate differences. People and nations are different. We come from different families, cultures, religions, etc.. So if each one says that my culture, my language, my religion is first, then the world will not go. So somehow, we have to develop and learn to be open. And I think this phenomenon of ‘Kal’ should be promoted and encouraged. It brings out that rational, mutual co-existence and understanding the other. Now the role of the writer is to try to explain from within his specific culture what one would call trans-ethnic values – values of justice, values of honesty, values of treating the poor and the underprivileged with righteousness. But one has to draw from the resources of one’s particularities. And you are quite right in saying that the role of the writer has become more delicate now given that globalisation is turning some people more inward. Some people are totally rejecting whatever comes from the larger world and they feel that by withdrawing into a little narrow ethnic or religious cave, they would escape outside influences.
O.P.: Already, we are seeing this in Europe, as it is today.
Tijan Sallah: Yes you are right. We are seeing that people are becoming more militant. But Europe today is very interesting because Europe now is talking of a European Union. Europe had gone through its phases of narrow nationalisms a while ago. You had German nationalism under Hitler. But Europe now is looking more towards the bigger picture. But the bigger picture creates reactions because people tend to want to stay with what they know, what is familiar. The unfamiliar, which deals with things that concern the bigger picture, creates fear in them. The French want to preserve French; the British still don’t want to join the Euro. They would rather have what they refer to as English culture. But if you want to recognise that cultural diversity, you have to allay those fears. You are right! People have to move beyond narrow ethnical or religious or linguistic agents.
O.P.: O.K. Coming back to writing as an Art, what tips would you give to a young Gambian who aspires to be a writer?
Tijan Sallah: Writing is a very private and very lonely business. As a young writer, the first thing is to learn your craft well. This means that you have to read and study good writing. It doesn’t just have to be a wish. A writer has to have both a wish and a talent. There is this old adage which says that writers are not made, they are born. I don’t believe in that altogether. Of course, a person must have some innate, natural talents, but even that has to be developed. Because the art of writing, like any other form of art, involves the acquisition of a particular skill. Just like not anybody can go and put flour and water together to make bread, just like not anybody can go and mix concrete and make a bridge. So nobody can just get up and write a novel or a poem. One has to learn the craft. This involves particular disciplines of how to do what constitutes a poem, what constitutes a novel or a short story. Therefore for a young writer, the first lesson is to learn the craft. The second is that one has to find a community of people who are interested in this craft. In other words, you have to seek out for other young writers and you develop a club where you criticise each other’s works. Through this process, you learn and you improve. The third thing is that one should develop outlets. One should look for the newspapers that have a literary column and try to publish an occasional poem, short story and so on because these outlets give you an audience and people begin to react to what you do. You, yourself, you learn from that. Sometimes you publish a poem and somewhere down the road you say, “Why did I publish that?” That’s not bad. It is a sign that one has learnt and improved. Eventually, after you’ve built up sufficient audience, sufficient skill, you can then publish your first book. So I think learning the craft, associating with a community of writers is a good thing. Getting to people who are more knowledgeable to read and criticise your work and giving you advice.
O.P.: When I was on teaching practice at St. Joseph’s High School, Ebou Dibba was once invited to the school and was asked the question, “How does one become a writer?” I can remember, one thing he said was that one has to develop the habit. What do you think of that?
Tijan Sallah: It is true that one has to develop the habit. Even in eating, there is what is called culinary art. There is a way of appreciating food. As with anything in life, you have to build up that habit and appreciate it. Writing is not an easy task. It doesn’t just come, it has to be developed. One has to practice a lot. Practice and learn from the mistakes of the past and never give up. I think that the worst thing for a young writer is to give up. Like a child who is learning to walk. He stands up, he walks a little and he sometimes falls down. But if the child falls down, and doesn’t get up again, he will never learn to walk. But if he gets up again and walks a little and falls down again or hurts himself but still continues walking, so that effort of trying and putting in more effort is the whole idea of habit formation. One develops the habit and eventually, one triumphs.
O.P.: From your experience as a writer, how did you develop that habit or did it come “naturally”?
Tijan Sallah: I started writing in Serrekunda School, with Mrs. Ndow as the headmistress of the school. When we were in the examination class, she used to come in the evenings and spend time with us. We had to write compositions and there was a book we used to use, The Student’s Companion which used to teach us old archaic English and idiomatic expressions such as ‘for all intent and purpose’, ‘it was a red letter day’, ‘it is a cock and bull story’, etc. They used to be called idiomatic expressions and are now called clich├ęs because they are overused, outdated expression.. We used to learn these things and use them in our compositions, essays. So I had developed my writing during those early years and then worked on it further when I went to High School. There I had to study much more and improve my skills in writing. I started publishing in newspapers essays that I used to produce in class. I also had to read a lot. I think that part of the craft of writing is reading a lot. As I mentioned earlier, to be a good writer, one has to learn the craft of how does a great writer write well. If you read Orwell’s Animal farm, or Achebe’s Things fall Apart, you see how the writer wrestles with the craft of writing. How do they express themselves? How do they explore style? How do they invoke images in the work? How do they bring ideas, themes in the images that they work with? Through that, one will be able to see how they weave words into a paragraph, and how they transition from one paragraph to another. And now, how does one make sure that after bringing all these together, there is coherence and there is a message that comes through, which is the big challenge. A writer can write many paragraphs and so on, but what is that links it into coherence? How do we tell when a human being stands that this is the head, these are the ears, these are the hands, these are the feet? So fiction has a certain structure and everything must be in its place. If one puts the ear where the mouth is supposed to be, then one knows that there is something that really is not working in this work. And this one can only do by reading great works and seeing how they work. Creative writing really is the art of Perfection and this is why it is so different from non-fictional, analytical writing. In creative writing, there is this way of trying to imitate God because out of nothing, one creates something. When one writes non-fictional works, one is basically just reporting, analysing facts and figures and so on. But in creative writing or Art, one is imitating creation which is the ultimate form of perfection because it is done by the perfect hand, the perfect mind. What one would call God. So there is that element of, I don’t like the word, ‘playing God’ because one is playing the perfect hand of God.
O.P.: You had earlier talked about some of your works. You mentioned that you had done eight books. Can you elaborate on them, very briefly?
Tijan Sallah: Well if you look at the first collection, When Africa was a young Woman, that work was basically inspired by the Negritude poets. The first poems deal with Africa’s encounter with Europe and a lot of it was about glorifying Africa’s ancient civilisations. The second part aimed at debunking the Tarzan myth of Africa, that Africa is a Darwinian jungle where people run round naked in the bush with their animals which is the image one gets, particularly, in America and the American media. And then there are poems about individual experiences in that world, when Africa was a young woman. In Kora Land, which is a collection of poems, much of the focus is on The Gambia. Here I was trying to move from this negritude obsession with Europe, to trying to document Gambia’s traditions, for example, these superstitions we have that if you eat the head of a fish, you become stupid. If you are learning, you should not drink coconut juice. For example, in traditional Gambian society, how elders use certain taboos to try to defend their privileges. When they want to keep certain things for themselves, they say ‘this is not good for children’. One notices that they drink coconut juice, they eat the heads of fish, etc. When a child demands for an explanation, he is just told that that how it is. There is the poem Bamba, paying tribute to the leader of Mouridism. I am not a Mouride, but when I was young, I used to hear about the struggles of this man and his resistance against the French. There is Yadicone, this child who dies very young and comes back to invade the mother and so on. So the whole collection is about Gambia, Kora Land. Dreams of Dusty Roads is divided into three parts. In the first part, I try to deal with Africa, the other deals with branches, i.e., my experiences in America and the third, deals with the metaphysical, and I came with the myth of Masanneh Ceesay, who was very obsessed with his bride. His story depicts the futility of human existence, how a happy moment can suddenly turn into a tragedy. How does one explain that and so on.
And the short stories, Before the New earth, which deals with how to deal with the current injustices, the strictures in our quest for a better world. I deal with a lot of problems such as rural/urban migration, i.e., people who leave the rural areas to come to the city thinking that they would find better lives, abandoning their farms where at least, they could have satisfied their food needs, live decent lives free from congestion. But they come to the town and find out that there is nothing, but they continue to stay fearing to go back to their villages thinking that they’ve lost ground there. And people will ridicule them saying, ‘Look at him. What has he got?’ So the person is left in a dilemma.
There is also Wollof, which is non-fictional. There is also the new one which is a biography of Chinua Achebe.
O.P.: Thank you very much, Mr. Sallah.

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