Q&A with Jama Safari, the author of the novel ‘The great agony and pure laughter of the gods’
Many people hear about the refugees and war in Congo, the child soldiers, the human traffiking issues, but very few get to feel closer to any of this. Jamala’s novel covers this mystery very well. It doesn’t only cover the refugees and the child soldiers but also question the failing governments in our continent.
Q: Give us a short description of your novel.
This book tells the story of the Congo in its innocence and brutality through the eyes of a 15 year-old boy named Risto. His life is the story of thousands of young Congolese, millions of refugees, and thousands of child soldiers around the world whose dreams have been shattered by war. Whilst this book tells the heart-rending story of Risto’s journey, it is ultimate celebration of the triumph of grace in Africa’s killing fields and a testimony to the redemptive power of love.
Q: You are telling a story through a child soldier’s voice. What made you to decide that?
I wouldn’t say it’s through the child soldier’s voice. I’d rather say through the voice of a child. It came naturally. It is a story of a teenager and there was no better way of telling his story than telling it through his own eyes. The voice had to be naïve and innocent to portray the natural view of a child towards life.
Q:Your novelis a hybrid of humour and horror—even as Risto recount the terrible things he has endured and done, he’s still less aggressive. How did you choose his tone?
Even though the story is carried through heartrending events, this is a celebration of Africa in its mysterious ways of existing. Africa is humorous and magical. There is a celebratory energy in Africans; an energy that overpowers even their pain and daily suffering. This is the energy I captured and it balanced the story perfectly, I must say.
Q: As this book is written in English, how are you going to make sure that many Congolese French speakers read your book?
Congolese in the diaspora have been interested in the book. We had many Congolese at the launch of the novel. As the book is written in English, it’s the accessibility of it that will be a problem as Congolese are French speaking. We are looking to sell translation rights which will make the book available in French and many other languages in the future.
Q: Your novel is based on truth, would you perhaps describe your journey to South Africa as similar to that at the centre of Risto?
The journey of a refugee has never been an easy one. One does not choose when, where or how to go. So, this makes everything unpredictable and stressful. My journey through East and Southern Africa was not an easy one but there are those who went through worse experiences. Risto’s journey is a journey of many refugees who have crossed boarders looking for refuge in an unknown land.
Q: Your description of the refugee camp and the journey is vivid. How did you get to those thorough details?
I have seen refugee camps in the DR Congo. I was in a refugee camp in Mozambique and I regularly hear about refugee camps whether in Kenya, Ethiopia or Botswana. The experience in a camp is very transformative in a way that it stays with you for many years. Even just seeing the image of a refugee camp, the pain and suffering, the resilient spirit of refugees that you see remain with you at a point that one can describe with slightest details.
Q: What is your taking on the state of affairs with regard to the refugees in South Africa and other parts of Africa?
We should remember that one is forced to be a refugee; it’s not by choice. Therefore, we should be compassionate and caring to those who have found themselves in these situations.
Q: Most novels ist written in the continent take a swipe at their government leaders. Would you say your novel also aim at that?
The aim of my novel is to tell real stories. It is a novel about people and the context in which they live. Government may feature, which is natural as it forms part of the parameters that define a country, but it’s not my aim. My aim is to tell stories of real people and their real experiences.
Q: What would you say makes your novel more powerful and a must read?
It’s timely and relevant through topics that it covers. It’s unique in a sense that it tells a story of child soldiers through fictions (most child soldiers stories are told as non-fictions). It’s lyrical from start to end. It is metaphoric and humorous. It speaks of love and grace in a context that one can not imagine. It’s a story that will stay with the readers for many years.
Q: Would you name any of the writer/s who inspired you to write?.
Ben Okri; through his fantastical way of telling a story. I love the way the supernatural mingles with the natural. Ousmane Sembene; the subjects he covers and the way he speaks of Africa.
Zamenga Batukezenga; he sees humour in each human being and takes it at funerals and weeding. He is a man who celebrates the beliefs of Africa through simple and easy writing.
Zakes Mda, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafon,…the list is long.
Q: Describe the process of writing a novel. How long did it take?
There is no process. I get a story and write it as it flows. Well, it took me almost three years to complete the book. I wrote while I was resuming my studies at University of the Western Cape. So, I mostly wrote on weekends and during holidays.
Q: Your novel carries a long title, how did you come to it?
Well, I wanted a title meaningful to the book. A kind of hint to the subjects covered in the book; But I wanted it in a metaphoric way. That’s how I came up with the title “the Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods.” I don’t think there is another title that can tell this story better.