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Poetry Diplomacy in the Congo
Audre Lorde wrote that “poetry is not a luxury,” a truth that came home to me with a thud recently when I had the amazing experience of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo on a poetry diplomacy trip sponsored by University of Iowa International Programs and the State Department. The DRC is one of the hardest places on the planet to be a woman or a poet. Terrorization through rape, child prostitution, and brutal government repression is routine. Resources are scarce to an extent that, by normal U.S. standards, is literally unbelievable: it is dangerous for a U.S. citizen to walk in most areas of Kinshasa even in daylight; the electricity goes out repeatedly with a loud bang during the most august occasions, such as the opening ceremonies of our visit in Brazzaville presided over by the nation’s Minister of Culture; and poets and writers have scant access to either books or publishers.
And yet the standards and quality of the young writers’ literary culture in these countries puts ours to shame. Young Congolese writers can’t afford to be dilettantes; they know how much is at stake, and their writing is a matter of individual as well as cultural survival. All of them are at least trilingual, speaking a “village language,” Lingala, and French. With every group of writers we spoke to in our varying levels of French expertise, we (Sheryl St. Germain, Laird Hunt, Christopher Merrill, Natasa Durovicova and myself) found the Congolese writers, to a man, articulate, ambitious, deeply informed, and passionately dedicated to literature. Their commitment to art is akin to that of the incredible musicians in the award-winning documentary Kinshasa Symphony, so dedicated to their music that they build their own instruments when necessary.
If you know me at all, you will know that I meant the phrase “to a man” literally. We encountered few female writers. A reception at the wonderful new theater Tarmac des Auteurs had a 1950’s air, with men doing the talking and the female writers and actors serving drinks on trays. At one point when Laird, Sheryl and I were conversing with a large crowd of students, we insisted that women and men alternate their questions to achieve some parity; but many of the gatherings we were part of didn’t include enough women for that to be feastible.
Of course, that will change. The play we saw at Tarmac centered on the triumphant overthrow of outdated village mores, with their sexual double standard enforced by the stoning of the offending girl; it also featured cross-dressing and friendly dancing to excellent Afro-pop. And everywhere I went, the literary girls or women who were there gathered around, eager to talk and have our photo taken together.
And everyone we met, women and men of all ages, was excited to learn about U.S. style creative writing. Whether we were teaching middleschoolers under a huge tree in the embassy courtyard in Brazzaville, or English language students at the University, everyone understood the liberatory nature of the enterprise. I’ll never forget the college student whose ambition was to be a professional wrestler, and how she sought me out at another event, two days after I’d visited her class, to read me a revision of a poem about her dream with more concrete imagery.
Since coming home I have been accompanied constantly by memories of these extraordinarily alive and exciting people, their relaxed French and vibrant eyes. Given a tenth–a hundredth!– of our access to books, bookstores, publishers, internet, and leisure, they would rock the planet with their words, and we’d all learn a lot from them. Meanwhile, I’ll be sending a box of poetry books over to the Embassy in Brazzaville, and keeping an ear out for the writers of DRC and the Republic of the Congo.