Fiston Mwanza Mujila – “Finland was my non-lieu”

Fiston Mwanza Mujila travelled on the OMNIBUS Reading Tour in the very first week from Helsinki across the arctic circle way up into the north. Coming originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, journeying has become a necessary part of Fiston’s life as an author and migrant emplyoing a unique perspective on countries and national borders. I talked with Fiston about travelling, the OMNIBUS Reading Tour, guilt and influences on writing.

Julia Schiefer: You come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, now living in Graz and you have been travelling to America, to France and to Finland – that is what I know. I know that travelling is not significant for your writing from what I have read. But still I want to ask what kind of value it takes for you and your work.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Every human being is a potential traveler. Since the beginning of times people travel. Interior travels through literature, cinema and music as well as exterior travels for instance when you travel by train, or when you take a walk. Traveling modifies the way we perceive our world. I am definitely sure that having travelled a lot, it allowed me to discover the diversity of cultures, languages and religions. It influenced my perception of the world, therefore my writings.

I am currently living in Graz which is the home I chose. I was able to build in Austria my second Congo, my new hometown. My friends live here, it is the place where I write my texts and am a lecturer at the University of Graz, where I teach francophone African literature.

You know, I do not only give out courses regarding African literature, I also have to teach my students the history of the African continent and the socio-political post colonial realities. Unlike countries like Belgium, France and Portugal, Austria doesn’t hold an African colonial past. Its geographic statute didn’t allow it. Austria is located in the center of Europe, Mitteleuropa.

A lot of people don’t know that the Democratic Republic of Congo was a Belgian colony and Congo-Brazzaville was colonized by French, and all the African neighboring countries have a colonial history of their own.

My course is also a travel for my students and myself, it allows me to rediscover Africa and situate myself as an African. First I need my students to understand why there are so many Franco-phone colonies and which of the colonies weren’t French. This is crucial for the understanding of African literature. When you publish your work in Paris, you are more legitimate. However you do not hold much power when publishing in the DR Congo. Paris gives a huge visibility to a text published in French.

Every time I start my lecture with the map of the African continent. I briefly explain the History and geography state of Africa. It is basic, it sets the framework of my course. Literature is in each respective African language. So, to answer your question, Geography bears central points to what I want to say and I want to share my experience as a Congolese writer who is actually writing in French and sometimes in German. As a writer having gone across countries my perspective is strongly connected to travelling.

Let me add, I actually began to travel before I was born. I was born in Lubumbashi, ex-Zaïre (Congo Belge). In colonial times the Belgium administration represented by Leopold II who considered Congo his private property. A country which is 2,345,409 km2 in size. Congolese citizens were taken from the different parts of the country to work (forced labor) in the mines located in Katanga. People who stem from my ethnic tribe came to travel in these exact mining fields during that period. So travelling is inherent in my stories regarding aesthetics and approach to literature. But it is not a motif or theme in my works. I hope I could answer your question.

Julia Schiefer: Would you mind sharing a memorable moment from the tour in Finland? Is was the very first week, travelling with Peter Højrup, Andrea Inglese, Ricardo Domeneck, Alev Adil, Katarzyna Fetlińska, Satu Taskinen, Marko Tomaš, J. K. Ihalainen, Alexandra Salmela, crossing the arctic circle up to the northest part of the journey.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: It was very interesting to go on a journey with other writers. It has induced me with personal valuable memories. For example, Ricardo came from Brazil but is living in Berlin, Andreas is of Italian origins living in Paris, Alev lives in London but has Turkish origins, Katarzyna is Polish, Peter from Denmark… They have all travelled across borders. It was very much a pleasure to discuss writing while being in another country. It struck me being in that kind of place that Marc Augé defined as a non-lieu. Finland was my non-lieu.

Julia Schiefer: This brings me to my next question. Actually it’s never been as easy to travel across countries like nowadays. At the same time fences are in place, real fences and increasingly those in people’s minds. May I ask how you perceive the political situation now in Europe?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: This is a very difficult situation in Europe. Let me ask, where does the world begin to exist? There were no borders many years ago, but now there are borders everywhere, also in my country. We all have travelled in Europe quite safely and without restrictions. If you are Congolese it has become so difficult now to travel to Europe because of visa restrictions, even when you got the money.

If I want to travel to Senegal or to Uganda, I need a visa. I feel that it is like an apology, the real physical border. Everywhere there are boundaries in our lives, everywhere, in public spaces, in the supermarket, the bars – they are like invisible borders. Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, negrophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, colonialism, misogyny and all the isms begins with a border. This is why in one of my poems, I wrote the following: ‘’I am a Jew, I am an Arab, I am black, I am a Muslim, I am a Woman, I am an Albinos, I am a bi-racial, I am a White, I am a human…’’.

Julia Schiefer: In your book „The River In My Stomach“ (Ger.: Der Fluss in meinem Bauch / Fr.: Le Fleuve dans le Ventre) the topic of guilt arising from having left a devastated country called home and living in comfort now in Austria is reappearing numerous times. I read a few articles but never heard why you came to Europe in the first place?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: As a child I always wanted to travel. People from my birthplace Lubumbashi, a mining city, do not travel too much. It is simple. When you finish your studies, you get a job. It is a worker’s city, so you stay and work. But I needed to travel so much, so when I finished my studies I took the opportunity to go to Europe.

Nowadays, travelling has become something affordable. For many years, during the colonial period it was forbidden for Congolese to travel to Belgium. I live now in the post-colonial era. But I am the grand-son of a colonized man, a business man, who owned a bar in Lubumbashi, who was never allowed to travel to Belgium. I narrate this story anew, now, when I travel in Europe I also travel for my grand-pa.

Julia Schiefer: So coming from another continent, do you think something like a European literature is possible after being involved with the OMNIBUS Reading Tour? And if yes, how do you think it could look like?

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: The European literature exists but we must rethink it. Europe is a not an isolated continent, it is a part of the world in the same sense as the American and African continent. Nowadays many non-European writers publish their writings in Europe, they also do live in Europe and write while being here. It is important to conceive the European literature in a national perspective but also in the global one. On this process, we shouldn’t forget transnational and transcontinental writers. For example: I reside in Europe, I have traveled in many European countries. My writings are a part of the Austrian literature ecosystem. I can say, I am a European and African writer. To make myself clearer, literature has a beautiful insolence, it crosses frontiers.

Julia Schiefer: Has the reading tour influenced you as a writer?

There are clichés about Finland and snowy sceneries, people are tall, blond, and blue-eyed. When I arrived in Helsinki I found a world I had a preset design of. It made me realize again that there are clichés about Africa as well. This journey was a good opportunity to discover Finland. We got the chance to travel from a big city to a small city. It was like a transitional ritual that included and changed my experiences and my mind. During this pilgrimage, we were not living in real life, and we lacked communication. This has no visible influence in my work, but it was a great experience.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila, born in 1981 in Lubumbashi, is a Congolese writer. For his text “The Night” he received the gold medal for literature at the 2009 Francophone Games in Lebanon. His debut novel “Tram 83” was on the Longlist of the Man Booker Internatial Prize in 2015 and received the Etisalat Prize for Literature.

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