‘Brief and haunting, this makes for a timely testament to the destructive powers of pandemics’ – Publishers Weekly
Véronique Tadjo is a writer and painter from Ivory Coast. This year marks the release of her latest novel in translation, In the Company of Men: the Ebola Tales (first pub. En Compagnie des Hommes 2017), which draws on real accounts of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa of 2014 to weave a moving reflective fable on “both the strength and the fragility of life and humanity’s place in the world”, acutely relevant to our times.
Born in Paris, Tadjo grew up in Abidjan. She has lived in Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg where she was Head of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg until 2015.
Tadjo writes poetry, novels and books for young people. Her work has been translated from the French into several languages including English: As the Crow flies, (2001), The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda, (2002), Queen Pokou (2005) which was awarded Le Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire, Far from my Father (2014) and In the Company of Men (2021). She now shares her time between London and Abidjan.
Ahead of our review, AiW Editor Davina Philomena Kawuma caught up with Tadjo by email to ask some questions about the book, its translation and poetry, being an academic and a fiction and poetry writer, as well as writing for children and YA, and the significance of solidarities in times of pandemics and crises.
Davina Philomena Kawuma for AiW: Congratulations on the publication of the English translation of In the Company of Men. You translated this book with John Cullen. Do translations of your books always assume the form of collaborations, or do you sometimes choose to go at it alone?
Véronique Tadjo: Thank you very much. I am very happy about this English translation of my original book in French. I have lived in Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg where I spent 14 years. I have also lived in the United States and at the moment, I share my time between London and Abidjan. It is great to be able to continue the conversation. With In the Company of Men, it was indeed a collaborative process which took several drafts over time. Because the book is so much about hearing the voices of different characters, John Cullen made a big difference at the final stage because he is a native speaker and has a marvellous ear for language. I am not always that involved. It depends on the topic. I am used to writing short pieces directly in English. I am thinking of bringing out a collection as a next project. I have realised that when I write fiction in English, I enter a different space as if a new door was opening in my mind.
AiW: Writers often worry that, during the movement from language A to language B, some of the poetry of language A is lost. How do you work through and around this?
Véronique Tadjo: This is certainly true. But if you lose some, you gain some. The main thing is to preserve the essence of the work, to understand the motivation behind it. The idea is not to stick too closely to the original text but to create a window into a new linguistic sphere. A good translation gives another life to a text by allowing it to reach a different readership.
For me it is a journey during which new angles will be unveiled. True, we are in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic and this is an added form of interpretation. The narrative has acquired a new urgency because more people are able to see that Ebola wasn’t so far off from their lives. Epidemics are not restricted to the African continent.
Today, we know more about environmental degradation, and this is tied to a strong awareness of the need to change our relationship with nature. We know we have to overcome enormous challenges if we want to survive. All these new dimensions represent forms of translation and interpretation.
AiW: You acknowledge the many scientists, journalists, academic researchers, donors, and survivors that contributed to your knowledge of the Ebola epidemic. How long did it take to collect all the information you felt you needed to write this book?
Véronique Tadjo: It took me several years of research, from the beginning of the Ebola epidemic to its official containment and beyond. In truth, I haven’t left the subject. I am still following the aftermath of the epidemic. For me the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.
However, to go back to Ebola, I must specify that right at the beginning of the epidemic in 2014, I had no idea that I would write a book one day. I was just worried about my family and friends back in West Africa (I was based in Johannesburg at the time). I was scared that the disease would spread to my home country, Côte d’Ivoire, as well. So I started gathering as much information as I could. I looked everywhere: newspapers, scientific writing, television documentaries, etc. I did this in French and in English.
Of course, once I finally sat down to write the book, my research intensified even more in order to fill in the gaps. But, in a way, I already knew what I was looking for. I decided to write the book because I was shocked by the blanket silence that followed the end of the epidemic.
AiW: Some writers speak of “too much research,” of research that detracts from rather than assists the writing process. Did you ever feel as if your research was slowing you down or causing you to get stuck?
Véronique Tadjo: Finding the right balance is a big challenge. As you rightly pointed out, one can literally be buried under too much information. I had to do a lot of pruning and pollarding. I had to make some choices.
My intention was not to be exhaustive. I could have added more “characters” but in the end, I settled on those that spoke the most to me. It was a subjective series of decisions. Sometimes, I have this idea that my readers will want to paint their own “characters”. I believe in the interactive power of literature.
AiW: In the Company of Men is organized into 16 sections that favour different points of view; we get to consider the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the positions of a variety of characters, including trees, nurses, and the Ebola virus itself. What informed your decision to structure the book this way?
Véronique Tadjo: The Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.
I had a Greek chorus in mind and the narrative structure of African oral traditions. I was interested in projecting a more holistic view of the world in which non-humans are on the same par with humans. Men are within nature, not above it. It comes from the acknowledgement of the vulnerability of our existence.
Humans are dependent on non-humans and vice-versa. Imagination becomes one way to come out of the status quo and to reassess the predicament we find ourselves in. I have a natural suspicion towards the linear story. I am more drawn to the complexity of life. We need to listen more to one another.
AiW: One of the narrators is The Baobab Tree, which rues, at length, humanity’s myopia: “If only Man were more clear-sighted! If only he could foresee his own decline, the depletion, the degradation. If only Man could realise how misguided he is, he would surely end the violence and lay down his axes and machetes.”
The Baobab Tree’s elegy recalls The Banality of the Anthropocene, in which Heather Anne Swanson posits that the most troubling thing about the Anthropocene “is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.” She references Donna Haraway’s call for “curiosity as both scholarly method and political practice, as an antidote to these learned blindnesses.”
In what ways has your creative writing and academic scholarship helped you unlearn said blindness?
Véronique Tadjo: Being an academic has helped me tremendously in terms of the methodology to adopt when doing research. It can also be applied in creative writing. However these are two different spheres and they have different objectives. Nevertheless, this conventional separation is shrinking more and more.
With the development of interdisciplinary studies and with creative non-fiction, we have entered a more flexible view of what writing can achieve. When producing an academic article, you have to withdraw behind “neutrality” and stay on the “rational” path. You are addressing yourself to a specific readership. Most people outside academia don’t have access to it.
On the other hand, when you write creatively, you tend to put the emphasis on emotional knowledge. You are appealing to the readers’ sense of identification with the characters because you want to break the cycle of indifference. To a certain extent, creating a hybrid form opens up new possibilities.
AiW: The narration in many sections is posed against a background of continuous deaths. To the local healer, “there are so many deaths, too many – this isn’t normal. Someone is out to get us,” and to the villagers, new deaths must remain unannounced; mourning must unfold in silence – “a thick, threatening silence, auguring even more harrowing days to come.”
The Baobab, who thinks of natural death as renewal—”Death does not frighten me, it is bound up with life”—argues that while in the past the flow of death and rebirth was celebrated (and accepted as a kind of rest that births a new harvest), there was presently a reluctance to speak of death: “They prefer to deny death, because they no longer have the time to think about it. Death is a failing because it disrupts their frenetic lives.”
Our fear of our own mortality, together with our superstitions, often conspire to make it extremely difficult to talk bluntly about dying, and the dead. Did filtering some discussions about death through non-human characters help navigate around this?
Véronique Tadjo: In a way, yes. Death is the only certainty we have – and it is very democratic! Every living creature on earth will die at some point. Insects have a short lifespan, elephants live longer than us, whereas some trees are centuries old. But we will all reach our ends. Therefore, it is not so much death that is the issue but how we die.
It is very soothing to be reminded that it is a natural phenomenon for which we should prepare. But we are obsessed with living fast and forgetting that the earth does not belong to us. We can enjoy it but we can’t waste it because other people will come after us. When we think ourselves immortal, we feel entitled to everything there is.
Animals teach us a lot. They too grow old and die but they don’t have that urge to possess and waste. They don’t even eat more than they need unless we fattened them. We, humans, are not the superior beings we think we are. By giving a voice to non-human characters, the perception changes. How we die and how we inflict death on others becomes our responsibility.
AiW: One of the narrators writes poems they’ve memorized on pages torn out of a notebook, folds the papers, and then gives them to one of the nurses; the poems, left at the foot of the ailing fiancée’s bed, are a way of “being at her side,” and of expressing the narrator’s great love for her.
One of the poems is an extract from Latérite, which is a poem written by you and translated by Peter S. Thompson. The poem is quite tactile; it reads like a fond embrace:
For so long, your smile
has sketched my thoughts
and your nimble fingers
have woven my days.
So long that I’ve known
the rhythm of your heartbeat
and the black velvet
of your shadow skin
You have two volumes of poetry. Could you please tell us a bit more about the kind of poetry you write? Some writers say there are themes and subjects that they can only explore in poetry. Is this true for you?
Véronique Tadjo: I see poetry more as a way of looking at the world and it is not just found in collections of poems. On the contrary it should be free and out there. Spoken poetry, for example, has taken poetry back to where it belongs, that is to say in the public sphere. Suddenly, poetry has regained its orality and its combativeness. It can still be very lyrical but it is less of an intimate and sometimes hermetic genre.
I am drawn to poetic prose as it allows me to write short works that use condensed language and strong imagery. Poetry is another means of expression like painting or music. I am not sure that you can only express certain things poetically. It’s just that poetry urges you to find the most direct route to your thoughts.
AiW: What’s common to the manner in which the Ebola and Covid-19 pandemics are framed is a tendency, of discourse and policies, towards the language of warfare and combat: ordinary humans on “battle fields,” raging “ruthless wars” against viruses that “change tactics.”
In In the Company Of Men, the American President actually proposes the deployment of military troops, the idea being to “beat the virus into retreat,” but the prefect in charge of the outreach teams worries that although “fear can provoke a strong reaction, which will in turn free up enormous resources and placate public opinion,” the outcome will not necessarily be the best in the long run. True solidarity is meant to be durable.”
The prefect’s audience is the international community, which he would like to ask to “…investigate how the aid payments were managed. Have the infrastructure rehabilitation projects actually been implemented?”
Could you speak a bit more about the idea of accountability as solidarity in In the Company Of Men?
Véronique Tadjo: I like this point: “accountability as solidarity”. It is a very sensitive question but a necessary one in my opinion. Sending huge amounts of money to a “poor” country in a burst of humanitarian aid is a way of solving an emergency situation but its impact might not be durable. Too often, there is little accountability.
The idea is not to cut off international aid or any other form of aid for that matter, but to be more careful regarding its use. It takes real solidarity to follow up on where the money goes. You want it to reach as many people as possible and for as long as possible. Solidarity comes from a real desire to see things change, now and in the future.
You know the famous saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. This is the same idea. As for the military vocabulary used when referring to the virus, it comes from this mentality that an onslaught is what is needed. As if we were on a real battleground like in World War II.
AiW: Of African children’s Literature, Ernest Emenyonu said that it is “a very important genre that has consistently been ignored.” He recounted how, after conducting a random survey, he was horrified to discover that books for children were at the bottom of many publishers’ budget lists.
When asked about his hopes for African children’s literature and its publication over the next decade, Emenyonu said he hoped that “universities will recognize that children’s literature is even more important than adult literature in certain areas in terms of particular values that we want to instill in children.”
You are also an author of children’s books; what are your hopes for the publication (and reception) of children’s literature within academic spaces over the next couple of years?
Véronique Tadjo: It is a great idea to open children’s literature – or literature for young people as I prefer to call it – to the university space. Emenyonu is right; for a long time this important literary genre has been neglected and seen as a sub-genre. Yet, it is the foundation of publishing. Why? Because this is the only way you can foster a reading culture. A child who has access to books at a tender age will be a reader later on in his or her life.
Literature for young people has evolved tremendously both in terms of content and illustrations. There is room for a lot of creative freedom. On the African continent, it is becoming one of the most dynamic publishing sectors. The demand is huge for picture books all the way to young adults’ novels. If we want literature in Africa to thrive, then it is a good place to start with.
The themes are rich and diverse and they help young people to open up to the world around them. It can foster change and it’s about time it should be taken seriously. Especially, when we think of all the challenges that young people all over the world are facing today.
Praise for In the Company of Men:
“It is chilling to read Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men when the world trapped by COVID-19 wonders why the numbers on the African continent are still not skyrocketing. The book reminds us that pandemics are world phenomena, and in doing so hits its most lyrical tone. Tadjo lets the virus speak, speak to us, and answer in the face of disaster and community, in the court of the people, animals, and trees. A necessary book today.”
Patrice Nganang, author of Mount Pleasant and When the Plums Are Ripe
“This is an extraordinary novel for our times. Véronique Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken. Lyrical and wrenching at the same time, In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor of English, Princeton University
“Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men is more than a story about Ebola. This novel, elegiac and sorrowful, is also an affirmation of the cycle of life and nature’s important place in it. What do the living owe to the dead? What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes? Tadjo offers us her powerful, luminous answers in this book.”
Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King, short-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize
“I kept talking to my Kenyan father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, about In the Company of Men as I read it because it resonates so deeply with our own familial history. His father left a pandemic in his village in the late 1800s and was cautioned never to talk about it, so we have no history beyond my great-grandfather. Tadjo, writing so urgently and beautifully about Ebola two centuries later at a time of Covid-19, is our witness.”
Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Professor of English at Cornell University, and author of Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi
“Tender and compassionate, this vivid, often heart-wrenching account of the courage of Ebola frontline workers caring for those ravaged by the disease is an important reminder of the human and emotional cost of one of the worst epidemics of our age.”
Elnathan John, author of Born on a Tuesday
With thanks to Véronique Tadjo for her time and the photos included in this Q&A.
For more information about Tadjo’s poetry, fiction, books for young adults, art, translations, and other interviews, visit https://veroniquetadjo.com/en/.
“Books in translation need to circulate more between the two spheres because if you can read me, but I can’t read you, and vice versa, what are our common grounds? Apart from that, there is a need to have better access to classics. I wish organisations like the African Union would recognise the need to share experiences that would strengthen the continent as a whole. I mean, why should you be in your corner working out problems that I have experienced in my corner and not share this knowledge in order [for us] to move forward?” – Véronique Tadjo in conversation with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.
The Toronto Public Library will hold a virtual (French language) Q&A on 22 May, 2021. Register here to attend the online launch of In the Company of Men, on 25 May 2021, with Véronique Tadjo and guest Nii Ayikwei Parkes.
Copies of In the Company of Men can be bought here.