AiW note: Last year marked the first publication in English translation of Max Lobe’s novel A Long Way from Douala (HopeRoad – Small Axes 2021), translated by Ros Schwartz.
Important issues of violence, terrorism, homosexuality and migration feature in A Long Way From Douala, the first publication in English of a work by Max Lobe…
Through a series of joyful sparky vignettes, Cameroon life is revealed in all its ups and downs. Questions of life and death are raised but the tone remains light and edgy. (HopeRoad Publishing)
To accompany her review of A Long Way from Douala (see the review here), AiW’s Ellen Addis caught up with Lobe by email to ask some questions about the book – the importance of football to the novel, Camfranglais, language, address and translation, writing endings, flashbacks and emotional timescapes, and missing home…
Max Lobe was born in Douala, Cameroon. At eighteen, Lobe moved to Switzerland, where he earned a BA in Communication and Journalism and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration. In 2017, his novel Confidences won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize. Other books by the author include 39 rue de Berne, and the upcoming novel Does Snow Turn A Person White Inside? (coming 25th August 2022, HopeRoad). Lobe lives in Geneva.
(Photo credit: Guillaume Megevand)
Ellen Addis: A Long Way from Douala is a heavy story and yet it is told very lightly with humour and love running through it. I wonder why you chose the comedic tone for a novel that had such moments of darkness in abuse, lost dreams, unfulfilled desires…
Max Lobe: Since my very first steps in literature, I have always made the choice of humour and comedy to make it easier to understand for my readers. In my last novel written in French, La Promesse de Sa Phall’Excellence, I totally chose a burlesque mode. When you read it, you can’t stop laughing. But by the end of the book, you ask yourself: “why was I laughing?” It’s really sad.
I grew up in Douala, Cameroon. I have been living in Switzerland for 18 years – half of my life. Today, I travel a lot in French-speaking Africa. And there, I must say that the situation is very bleak, frustrating, discouraging sometimes. So, what to do? I have already cried too much, for my own life as a young gay man, but also for my country, for my continent… I mean, I’m used to saying: this world is dirty. So I wish to clean it with laughter.
EA: Jean experiences a sexual realisation during the novel that is fed to the reader slowly and brilliantly. This becomes a confrontation with Jean’s companion Simon towards the end of the novel, and also his religious upbringing. In one moment, Jean watches Simon sleep naked while recounting the Lord’s Prayer. What does sexuality in the context of religion and conflict enable within the novel?
ML: As said before, I grew up in Cameroon. I went to Switzerland when I was 18. I was a big boy, yep, but still a child. As a teenager, I was so womanish. I suffered a lot from that. Now that I’m a grown man, I can testify it was really difficult to make it. I had to fight all my life to be accepted, tolerated. All this because of religion – Christianism, Islam, football as well – all three are religions. So I wanted to show how a Christian-raised young boy discovers his sexuality.
EA: What books inspired A Long Way from Douala?
ML: Oh, good question. Domaines hantés by Truman Capote. I think in English the title is Other voices, Other Rooms. Many other books. I forget now… But Truman Capote’s book was a lamp for me.
EA: Football is the joyous escape that runs through the book. The beautiful cover features a football, and it is the dream of football greatness that Roger is willing to risk his life to chase. What does football mean to you?
ML: It’s a religion. LOL! I love football. How could I hate football? I grew up with it as a must. In Cameroon, it’s impossible not to like football. People can fight each other because of Samuel Eto’o Fils. And look, lately, we organized the Africa Cup of Nations. Cameroon lost in the semifinals. I was in Benin for work and my sister called me. She was crying. I swear. She was crying because Cameroon was beaten by Egypt. I didn’t even know what to tell her. I just said: “All what God does is good.” She answered, Amen! (LOL)
EA: Why did you choose to write in Camfranglais? And how was the translation process with Ros Schwartz?
ML: Camfranglais is actually my mother tongue. Like the French from France. It all depends on my characters. A street seller doesn’t speak like a First Lady. A bar owner doesn’t speak like a university teacher. I just try to be close to the reality. I want my reader to be close to what I have in my head. Language is my raw material.
Ros [Schwartz] is the best. We spent a weekend together in Zurich working on my book. It was funny. Translation is a crazy thing. I deeply think she did it in the best way.
EA: The novel deals with themes of displacement, danger, and distrust. Roger leaves in hope of a better life, the threat of Boko Haram hangs over the story, and the authorities that are supposed to protect, like the police, laugh off Jean and Simon’s worry. What do you hope that this novel says about such oppressive issues?
ML: Look at what is happening now in the so-called Sahel in Africa. That’s a shame. Not just for France and the other countries fighting over there for their interests. It’s a shame also for African leaders who can’t defend our African interests. A pity!
I cannot pretend literature can change the world. But it can make a change in people’s minds. The problem for me is that my books aren’t that available in Africa, in Cameroon. How can you write for people who don’t read you, who don’t have that possibility?
I feel so bad because of that. I think of my people when I write. I think of my mothers – I have them plenty – when I write. I thought of them while writing that book. It makes me so sad that my people cannot have access to my reflection about all those horrible things happening in our lands. Hopefully, that will change very soon. There’s a new generation in Francophone Africa. We have the deep desire to make things possible.
EA: As someone who now lives in Switzerland and is a long way from Douala, what did writing the novel ask of you? Did immersing yourself in the smells and sounds of Cameroon again make you miss home?
ML: You are totally right. And this is the saddest thing. Immersing myself, going down deep in myself to connect once again with my childhood is deeply sad for me. With time passing on, I even feel anxiety when I start just thinking about Cameroon. Look at what is now happening in the anglophone region. Please, ask Joe Biden and NATO to go over there and notice what it means to not respect basic human rights. People are being killed, for years; loads of deported people. And yet, western countries don’t do anything. President Biya must protect their interest. It’s so sad, so sorry.
EA: The novel is told through a mix of present tense and flashbacks which are quite disarming and recount a series of abuses and traumas, appearing often in the middle of chapters. What was your thought process in choosing this structure for storytelling?
ML: I like using the present tense for action and then past perfect for flashbacks. I think it’s a way to be closer to the reader. To be there to whisper to them a very personal story. For the rest, it’s my author’s kitchen. I won’t give you the secret of my Ndolè meal. Ooooh! I no fi giv’am! (LOL!)
EA: The end of the novel is quite abrupt and made me want more chapters and a more solid answer to the quest for Roger. Why did you end it like that?
ML: Great question. I read here and there that people feel the end is quite abrupt. Yeah it is. It’s my way of ending my books. It’s on purpose. I want the reader to see all the other possibilities, ramifications. From there, everything is possible. Or actually, just one thing is possible. One, two or three possibilities max. I like people to be close to me. I want them to feel my feelings. And I can tell you, my feelings, no matter what they are, they are always abrupt. Joy. Sadness. Anxiety. Proudness. Etc. All of these, for me, are never stable. They start strongly without warning. And so they leave me. This is my life. Fulgurances in French.
Praise for A Long Way from Douala
‘The sights, sounds and smells of modern Cameroon, this is in fact a classic road trip, a Homeric quest. A jostling, poignant tale, it left me hungry for more’
Michela Wrong, author Borderlines and It’s Our Turn to Eat
‘The stretching Cameroonian roads take on a character of their own. Max Lobe’s style is direct sensual, and wholly unique’
‘One of the remarkable things about this migrant tale is its optimism and humour. Make no mistake it’s a poignant tale, empathetic, at times brutally raw but Max Lobe is a hopeful writer. A Long Way from Douala is stylish and colourful tale, rich and insightful.’
Paul Burke, NewBooks Magazine
‘To a makossa beat, bars in dodgy neighbourhoods, local public transport and street slang, Max Lobe immerses us in the Cameroon of today… All this churns up the daily life of the novel’s characters whose lives are narrated with humour and satire.’
‘His eye is as compassionate as his characterisations are rich. I only wish this novel had been twice the length. You are in for a treat’
Patrick Gale, author Rough Music and Friendly Fire
Copies of A Long Way from Douala can be bought here.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A