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Novelist or fable-writer?

Aminata Sow Fall's works talk not just of what sustains Africans amid strife, but what makes us human.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2006 17:33 IST

By Donna Bryson

Senegalese novelist Aminata Sow Fall's prose is unadorned, as if she were recounting a fable. And like the best fables, her novels are universal - compelling, deceptively simple explorations not just of what sustains Africans amid poverty, wars and despots, but of what makes any of us human. In 30 years, seven novels and a long meditation on food and culture, the moral of her fables has been that man can and must resist the forces of the modern world that conspire to strip him of his dignity.

In her latest novel, 2005's Festins de la Detresse, or Feasts of Anguish, she argues that imagination is the indispensable weapon in the battle to remain fully human. "Imagination allows us to create a world in which human dignity is sacred. It is a source of hope, of sustenance for human beings," the Sorbonne-educated Fall said in an interview. She said she was not suggesting that people retreat to imaginary worlds, but that they draw on their dreams and hopes to give them strength to act. "All great works begin in the imagination," she said in her book-cluttered Dakar office, shades drawn against a sun already fierce though it was barely spring. "A human being who does not dream realizes nothing."

 Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall

The heroines and heroes of Festins de la Detresse are dreamers, but also capable of taking control of their lives. Biram finishes his medical studies but can't find a job in his impoverished, unnamed African city. He studies the Hippocratic Oath as if it were a poem, and in it finds the inspiration to ward off depression and a sense of worthlessness. He makes his own career, first as a travelling doctor among the poor who rises to earn international acclaim.

Biram's father Maar also nearly loses himself in despair. For him, the blow is the death of his wife. He finds solace in a collection of essays he has been writing for years that, when published, revives his love of life and family and is celebrated as a tender homage to his beloved.

In her preoccupation with and sympathy for the poor _ and those struggling on the precipice of poverty _ there are parallels between Fall's work and that of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. And like Mahfouz in Egypt, Fall has struck a chord with people of all classes in her homeland, where her books are popular. She also has a following abroad, where she is best known for one of her early novels, 1979's La Greve des Battus, which appeared in English as The Beggars' Strike. A movie version in 2000 by the Malian director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko was an African-American collaboration, with a script by American Joslyn Barnes and a cast that included U.S. star Danny Glover.

Fall's beggars revolt when an overambitious politician tries to drive them from the city _ out of the sight of foreign tourists who might be inconvenienced. The revolt is what Fall describes as an "artistic resistance." The beggars absent themselves until the rich realize they need the poor, particularly in a country like Senegal dominated by Islam, a religion in which charity is a central tenet.

"They need to give to survive, and if we did not exist to whom would they give?" one of Fall's characters asks. "What invalid, even if he's a hypochondriac, doesn't believe that his troubles will disappear the moment his donation leaves his hand? What ambitious man doesn't believe doors will open to him if he gives? Everyone gives for one reason or another. Even relatives of the condemned give, in hopes of getting the judge to change his mind!"

"Everything that wounds human dignity, wounds me," Fall said of the frequency with which such issues as poverty, corruption and the dark side of globalization appear in her work.

 Sow Fall's book The Beggar's Strike

"More and more, man is a victim of progress," she said. "So many people are excluded from a system that allows others to amass so much wealth.

The beggars are led by Salla, a woman whose description might fit Fall. Salla has "learned to understand people," Fall writes. "To pierce their closest kept secrets and take stock of the preoccupations of the rich as well as the hopes of the poor." Salla and Kine, Maar's wife in Festins de la Detresse, are among the many strong women who have peopled Fall's novels. "Women understand the most subtle things - nature, family, children. Beyond that, in my opinion, it was woman who created beauty, an aesthetic sense. She started by looking for ways to embellish her body," Fall said, clinking a ladder of gold and silver bracelets ornamenting her own arm for emphasis. Her earrings, heavy clusters of gold hoops, glinted under a purple headwrap. "I've always felt that there's so much strength in women," she said. "My mother was a very strong woman. In our family, no one ever made us think we were inferior to boys. A woman wasn't someone who had to wait for a man to marry her to give her value. She had her own self-worth."

Fall, 65, was born into a prominent family in Saint-Louis, the former French colonial capital of Senegal. She studied at the Sorbonne and returned to teach French, publishing her first novel only after establishing herself as an academic.

Her work in translation has found a worldwide audience and she has traveled extensively, often as a visiting professor at U.S. universities were her novels are staples of women's studies and African literature curricula.

In addition to novels, she writes essays and lectures. In recent years she founded her own publishing house.

But Fall says she considers herself a novelist first. "In life, you have to make choices. My choice is to write."