Mujila Fiston Mwanza’s Tram 83: Requiem for the African writer, and again, the balance of today’s stories
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.
– Mujila, Fiston Mwanza. Tram 83 (p. 96). Deep Vellum Publishing.
The literary acclaim that Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s 2015 debut book (translated from French to English by Roland Glasser) has garnered world-wide is a new writer’s dream. The reviews are uniform in their praise. The UK Guardian crows with awe, “Acclaimed newcomer Fiston Mwanza Mujila has dazzled the literary world with his debut novel, a riotous look at the underbelly of life rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature.” It is perhaps one of the most highly decorated and acclaimed first novels in the history of “African literature”; it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (2016) and won the 2016 Etisalat Prize for literature,, among other notable awards. It proves that there remains a huge reading and paying market for African literature in English in the West. It is also instructive how the world still views Africa, especially through the eyes of Diaspora “African writers”, those who deign or have been anointed, to speak for Africa.
What is Tram 83 about? After reading it, I really don’t know, to be honest with you, it is innocent of a coherent plot. This is how the book’s blurb describes the experience of reading it:
In an unnamed African city in secession, profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities mix. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealth of the land. Two friends — Lucien, a writer with literary ambitions, home from abroad, and his childhood friend Requiem, who dreams of taking over the seedy underworld of their hometown — gather in the most notorious nightclub in town: the Tram 83. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, soldiers and stowaways, profit-seeking tourists and federal agents of a nonexistent State.
Tram 83 plunges the reader into a modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. A daring feat of narrative imagination and linguistic creativity, Tram 83 uses the rhythms of jazz to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.
The “unnamed African city” is probably a fictionalized Lubumbashi in the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Mujila, who now lives in Austria, hails from. Mujila (who is interviewed here by Roland Glasser, the book’s translator) is the darling of some of the most respected authorities in contemporary African literature. The book’s blurbs, almost all written by Western notables, throb with high praise. The praise is breathless and almost patronizing as if the world is surprised that this black man can string pretty sentences together. Not to be outdone, the Ghanaian scholar Ato Quayson, Chair of the Etisalat Prize panel that awarded Mujila the prize, who lives in Toronto, Canada, writing in BrittlePaper, had great things to say about Tram 83 and shared that the panel “recognized the book for its great humour, its experimental narrative style, its adroit characterization, and for the subtlety of its reflections on the state of African politics today.” It is consistent with the foreword by the acclaimed US-based Congolese scholar, Professor Alain Mabanckou, who crowed thus:
Tram 83 is written with the kind of magic one finds in only the best of storytellers, an astute observer of everyday life and a genuine philosopher. His words bring to life the city of Lubumbashi, filled with a cast of characters, writers, drunkards, drug dealers, dreamers, lost souls, all living side by side in the popular neighborhoods in which all of life’s pleasures are traded. And then there’s also the “trashy side” of life, the drugs and the vodka, a glimpse at the underbelly of life that is so rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature, a world far from the images on the postcards sold to tourists. Fiston’s novel has lifted the veil Africa has been compelled to wear over the years, and she now stands naked before us. His voice is original, a genuine breath of fresh air, and we will surely be following this exciting new voice in the years to come. I can hardly believe Tram 83 is a first novel … So much creativity, linguistic innovation, and such a pleasure to read!”
Clearly, either Mabanckou and I read two different novels with the same title, or he has not been reading a lot of contemporary African literature lately, so the notion that Tram 83 charts new territory in its depiction of “the underbelly of life” that passes for African writers’ image of Africa, is with all due respect, absolute nonsense. There is nothing original in Tram 83, and not much that is creative, sadly. In fact. many African writers should protest such disrespect to their work, which is the propagation of poverty porn as African literature. Chris Abani has done as much harm to Africa’s dignity but with better prose and creativity vision. Indeed, reading Tram 83 filled me with incredible sadness, because I thought we had gone past the notion of African writing as a pejorative, the expectation that the only literature that can come out of Africa is one that reeks of misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, despair, poverty, wars and rapes, with women and children objectified as unthinking sex objects, hewers of wood, and mules.
Mabanckou is dead wrong; Tram 83 breaks no new ground. Let me just say I am yet to read a book written by an African that was more disrespectful to Africans than this book, and I am including Abani’s books. This is clearly how not to write about Africa. You read Tram 83, rub your eyes and ask the question: And why is this unique to Africa? The cynicism and jadedness that Mujila directs at Africa in the name of fiction is nuclear: Mujila’s Africa is all stereotypes and caricature, filled with stick figures fucking mindlessly, defecating, wolfing down “dog cutlets” and “grilled rats” and drinking up a storm under the watchful eyes of a supercilious writer. It is all so annoying. I thought we were past this nonsense.
Tram 83 starts with a promise. And ends right there, dissolving into the detritus of Black Africa’s failures and regurgitating the same old tired stuff about Africa we already know. Tram 83 with its obsessions with women’s breasts and buttocks, rat and dog meat, baby mamas, and unthinking hustlers, is Africa peopled by those who only live to eat, fuck, shit and beg for sex and money. Tram 83 is debauchery always interrupting reasoned thought, because the way African Diaspora writers see it, in Africa, there is no reasoned thought. In Tram 83, Africa’s men doze, wake up, order dog meat and grilled rats and fuck more women, pretend humans with fake buttocks and “melon breasts’ and return to sleep to continue with the misogyny and self-loathing. Africa has suffered.
Tram 83 is a strange, confusing concept; lacking a plot or any discernible vision, the reader is forced to endure a droll roller-coaster that leans on what appears to be an autobiographical dream: Lucien the writer-protagonist has an idea for a novel and he pitches it to a prospective publisher:
I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and …
The prospective publisher is not impressed and brushes him off with a prescription. This is what you should not write about, the publisher says, because the world is tired of it:
I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too! (pp 44-46)
And what does Mujila do? He proceeds to give the world Tram 83, over 200 pages of rancid poverty porn. Re-fried beans as literature. I thought we were past that.
Tram 83 is a strange book. The pace is sometimes maddening, boring in many places. It features mysterious puzzling prose. One sentence can go on for as long as two pages, (yes, two pages of one sentence; midway you are begging for sweet relief or death). Maddening. After pages of this silliness, I understood the problem with the book. The “novel” must have been first conceived as a movie script, hawked around as one and when Mujila could not get a buyer, he convinced a publisher that it would work as a novel. The result is a clumsy novel clutching an essay that waxes incoherent on the looming demise of African literature and the world as Mujila knows it. In a flat one-dimensional medium of the book, Mujila tries using two-page long sentences to create scenes meant for the stage or a movie and he fails spectacularly.
In order to understand the motivation behind Tram 83 and the minds of Glasser (the translator) and Mujila you must read this insightful interview of both in Bomb Magazine by Sophia Samatar. They are both steeped in and passionate about the performance arts; this explains why the book reads like a failed movie script. It is a useful interview and Mujila comes across as a brilliant visionary with profound insights on his world. He says: When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have. And suddenly it occurs to the reader, this is the 21st century, old walls are crumbling around communities and new walls are forming around the individual. Mujila is right: This paradigm shift offers new possibilities – and problems, especially for the artificial nation-states of Africa. Who are we? Who should we be?
Let me recommend Chinua Achebe’s insightful essay, Today, the Balance of Stories (in the book of essays, Home and Exile) to all African writers who wish to reflect on how they portray Africa. His 2000 interview by Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic offers the same profound views:
The Atlantic: In Home and Exile, you talk about the negative ways in which British authors such as Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary portrayed Africans over the centuries. What purpose did that portrayal serve?
Achebe: It was really a straightforward case of setting us up, as it were. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery. The cruelties of this trade gradually began to trouble many people in Europe. Some people began to question it. But it was a profitable business, and so those who were engaged in it began to defend it—a lobby of people supporting it, justifying it, and excusing it. It was difficult to excuse and justify, and so the steps that were taken to justify it were rather extreme. You had people saying, for instance, that these people weren’t really human, they’re not like us. Or, that the slave trade was in fact a good thing for them, because the alternative to it was more brutal by far.
And therefore, describing this fate that the Africans would have had back home became the motive for the literature that was created about Africa. Even after the slave trade was abolished, in the nineteenth century, something like this literature continued, to serve the new imperialistic needs of Europe in relation to Africa. This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.
For me, this is not about prescribing to writers a certain way of writing about Africa, it is about purpose, it is also perhaps about expectations in the face of changing roles and circumstances. It occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of that tribe called “African writers” are misplaced and unrealistic. Certainly, in the 21st century, they do not speak for anyone but themselves. It is however the defining tragedy of Africa that these are the voices that the world hears. For, for as long as the West especially listens to these self-exiles, these Diaspora writers lounging in alien cafes, Africa will be seen as a space for caricatures, pretend-humans, by a self-loathing intellectual class. For as long as we read what passes for African literature in books, we will only read of the Africa of women objectified as merchandise and unthinking creatures, cute dolts only raised to fuck for money, to turn tricks. The unintended consequence of seeing everything written by an African writer as unique to Africa is that the vision is thus dimmed. All the reader sees are vast islands of despair while “African thinkers and writers” drink lattes in soulless places and write gibberish about places they long fled from. Let me repeat myself: Tram 83 is also about who “speaks for Africa” in the 21st century. Imagine an American immersing himself in a pawnshop in the seediest part of Southeast Washington DC, penning drunken prose and declaring it American writing. That would be Tram 83. I daresay that all the voices revered as voices of Africa by the gatekeepers of literature are Diaspora writers pecking away at their laptops in the coffee shops of the West. As the walls come down, in this new intimate global world, perhaps it is time to stop the pretense that these folks are speaking for Africa. The new gentrification makes a mockery of their pretensions. Again, Why do we write? What is the purpose of writing? How does the writing in Tram 83 affect the price of bush meat in the Congo? The truth is absolutely zero. Most of today’s African writers are not only largely indifferent to the social and political challenges of African nations, in some instances they are complicit in the mess. Nigeria is an example of team incompetence, of collaboration between once-dreamers (writers and intellectuals) and ever-thieves (politicians) to plunder and loot a rich to perdition.
By the way, I am tired of Western patrons of the arts infantilizing African writers whose only achievement seems to be that they have written a book. It is affirmative action taken too far. The Western gatekeepers of “African literature” are keeping poverty porn alive by indulging these writers. I can just see your stereotypical “African writer” lounging in the chic cafes of Europe and North America infantilizing the Africa of his or her imagination in the worst possible way as a besotted white critic listens adoringly. I think of a writer playing at the edges, with faux innovation, egged on by a gleeful Western readership.
The self-loathing and the stereotypes in Tram 83 simply grate on the reader’s nerves. It is interesting to me that of all the fawning reviews by the major news outlets, not one of them complained about the horrid misogyny in the book, women objectified beyond belief as if they are one-dimensional simpering sub-humans only good for cheap sex in strange places. An alert reader in Goodreads did complain politely:
An overwhelming tumult of language, something like being pulled under by a big ocean wave and sent tumbling. The story itself was secondary to the feeling. It’s a very male book. Also overwhelming was the endless stream of women’s commodified bodies being described by their parts–women were defined in the story by what men see, what men touch. I was in turn riveted, repulsed, bored, amazed, wrenched around.
The reader put it too politely, Tram 83 is not merely a male book, Tram 83 is a frontal, violent attack on African women. This is not just merely a male book, it reeks of misogyny on each page. In Mujila’s world, in his Congo, women are nothing but mere objects to be used and discarded like used condoms. On every page. Any white writer who dared describe an African this way would be called a racist:
In the meantime, he assessed the curves patrolling the sector. Steatopygia remained the epitome of beauty. All the honeys swore by Brazilian buttocks alone. You had to have those buttocks, or nothing. They would desperately slug a particular soy-based drink, take pills, and swallow food intended for pigs in order to increase the area of their rumps. The results left much to be desired: buttocks shaped like pineapples, avocados, balloons, or baseballs; one buttock excessively more pronounced than the other; oblique, square, or rectangular buttocks; buttocks that pedaled all by themselves, and so on. (p. 18)
What is new here? VS Naipaul would approve.
It also says a lot that none of the reviews that I read could make any connection between Mujila’s humanity (albeit inarticulately expressed) and anywhere else outside of Africa, certainly nowhere near the West. To them, Tram 83 was about Africa, just as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not about a shared humanity, but about a simple yam farmer in Igboland. Africa’s humanity is not of theirs. Perhaps this is what African writers know, and that is why they laze around the cafes of Europe and North America, trying hard not to be invisible people, but looking like what the singer Hugh Masekela says: We are invisible. We are bad imitations of the people who oppressed us. Yes, a close reading of Tram 83 and you will be tempted to be generous to Mujila. You would be tempted to say this is not just about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this is not just about Africa, it is about our humanity, about those that increasingly left behind as the detritus of capitalism and rank bigotry of the moneyed class, Donald Trump’s new victims, the ones that the scholar Amatoritsero Ede worries about:
The core instinct and ethic of this [Donald Trump’s] bi-polar regime is disdain for the Other and an official dissimulation to sustain it. This is in keeping with America’s founding egotism – American interest above all interests. And in that regard, who is defined as ‘American’ is ultimately (de)based on the same Othering disdain and spite, which in its most vitriolic form, escapes out as the murderous actions of an unrepentant Dylan Roof. America’s political death-wish is the result of that unthinking, headless racism. What else could have brought an alt-right-post-truth-alternative-facts-President to power if not an insidious and cancerously benign racism couched in the language of shameless self-interest, rabid nationalism and of ‘securing a homeland’ that is, in reality, only a body of immigrants – except for the indigenous ‘first nation’ native American.
Ede is right. A close reading will show that Tram 83 is perhaps about migration, from place to place, from a certain hell to a new uncertain hell. It is a daily trek through mountains and seas, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised will not stop until relief – or death comes. Ben Taub has a good piece in the New Yorker on the forced migration of thousands of teen-agers from Nigeria who risk death and endure forced labor and the degradation of prostitution work in Europe. You can hardly tell from this mess of an experimental script, but Mujila is probably thinking about them as the narrator mused:
… that a new world was coming, the Railroad Diva, beers were passed around, we trembled from head to toe, we dumped in our pants, we masturbated, we climbed on the tables, we banged our head against the walls, we gathered at the doors to the mixed facilities, that voice, that voice, that voice, it penetrated us, flayed us, trampled us, shredded us, voyage, birth, dream, we thought of those whom the earth had swallowed up, all those whom the trains had taken following a derailment, the bitterness and the eyes riveted on those who’d left to seek new lives across the ocean and who’d never got there betrayed by the wave ….” (pp. 179-180)
Ultimately Tram 83 is about the power of words and of the medium of expression, and what gets lost in translation. In Tram 83, a powerful narrative lumbers through layers of translation and in the wrong media format it becomes a huge canvas for humiliating an already humiliated people. I don’t care what the blurb writers and the reviewers of Tram 83 say, this book should have remained a script, not another ream of poverty porn. How is it that the voices of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are only seen through the eyes of a seedy nightclub? There is no music here, unless when it is mocked, there are no thinkers here, even Lucien the writer is a hustler. And there is the politics of the translation: Why did Alain Mabanckou or any other Congolese scholar not do the translation? He speaks and writes French just as fluently.
Mujila should re-work the novel into the movie script that he probably dreamed of, make a movie, let the world see the people of the Congo dance, let them see that Africans are not drunken monkeys, they think about things too, he should tell the word that he and Naipaul are wrong, real people live in Africa. Indeed, it is the case that the reader will get more from Anthony Bourdain’s television food series’ trip to the Congo, than from Tram 83. You will learn that the worst holocaust in modern history may have happened in the DRC (yes, King Leopold of Belgium is said to have exterminated 10 million Congolese). Google the late Mobutu Sese Seko and you will find out how he looted the DRC to perdition and built decaying monuments to his deadly buffoonery. And yes, with all due respect to Glasser, the translation did little for me. Mujila should give us the movie. Make your script into the movie and let us do the translation. Let me be clear, this is the 21st century, no one should write like this about Africa. There is no compassion, there is no vision.
African literature as exists in books has had the effect of distorting the narrative of Africa, so much is lost in translation as writers and publishers struggle to keep market share by fashioning plots and discourse that appeal to an imagined Western audience. Perhaps it is time to return to the oral tradition of our ancestors. I hope Mujila finds a movie for his book. It would make a great movie. As a work of fiction, it sucks. There, I said it, come and beat me. What gets lost in translation is what one doesn’t, or refuses to see. Tram 83 is not about Africa. It is about us. Ask Trump. The failure to connect it beyond the boundaries of the DRC is more a testament to an ossified mindset than anything else. He should find inspiration from the robust work of Ousmane Sembene (the famed author of God’s Bits of Wood) and his return to the film and the oral tradition as a form of expression. If all else fails, there is always YouTube. There is no excuse for sticking with an inappropriate medium in the 21st century.
I have said it before and I will say it again; What passes for African literature, as determined by the Western gatekeepers of narrative suffers the crushing burden of alienation–from what gets lost in the translation. Who speaks for “Africa”? This question speaks to the growing irrelevance of orthodox African writers and writing to the real narrative about Africa. This is not Africa. The reader would have to go to social media and other outlets on the Internet to see Africa. Over there, Africans are proving that they are the sum of their lived experiences. The growing incoherence and irrelevance of African writers is not all their fault. But as they go to those conferences and fora that only they attend, as they give themselves high-fives over puzzling narrative that only they read, they must ponder these questions that African readers are increasingly asking: What do our writers see? What is their vision? What is their mission? Do they see a world without walls and the implications not just for Africa but for the rest of the world? One last thing: The fiction of the idealistic incorruptible African writer is a silly myth. Those days are gone. Today, the African writer is a hustler, either at home or abroad, his or her muse fueled by loot from the oppressors at home, and/or abroad. Nigeria is a good case. The writers and intellectuals have become the problem. Yet they persist in writing horror stories of Africa that absolve them from blame. They are not to blame, because they have become the problem. A huge problem. Would I read Tram 83 again? No, once is enough. Would I recommend the book to anyone? I would wait for the movie. Tram 83 would make a great movie, I think.