Could you tell us about your childhood, and how you started writing novels ?
I was born in northern Liberia, in a forest town surrounded by mountains. I was part of a large family, and from the onset I loved reading. One of my brothers had a collection of African Writers Series, and through reading those books I discovered cultures that were African but that were strange to me. My day consisted in going to school, where I learn Arabic and English, and in doing the daily chores, such as helping with sweeping the large compound, drawing water from the communal well. My writing, which began in Kuwait, where I moved later on, consisted of letter writing, letters to the family back home.
What is your point of view on the current situation in your country, Liberia ?
It is terrible what happed in Liberia. Many Liberians, including myself, lost family members in that war. It was a senseless situation, but now we are fortunate that we have a president, the first female elected president in Africa, who’s doing her best.
I met you at the crime litterature festival of Frontignan. You said during a debate that you had met Mr Charles Taylor, could you tell us about this encounter ?
I met Charles in 2000, after the publication of my first novel, The land of the fathers. I had travelled to Liberia with some journalists who want to accompany me during my homecoming. While in Liberia, they expressed their wish to meet Charles Taylor. This meeting took place at the executive mansion, where Taylor was holding an audience with elders from the north of Liberia, from the province where I was born. He had summoned them to come together and expressed their support for him in his war against the north. This meant that those people were forced to go against their children, who were fighting a war of liberation.
What is the situation of litterature in Liberia ?
Literature in Liberia is in a terrible situation. Our writers, who are not many, lack fund. There are no publishing houses in Liberia, and it’s a dream of mine to start one someday. Despite this, the first African novel was written by a Liberian.
In your novel Bound to secrecy, the power of words is really important. Could you tell us how you made yours reseaches to write this novel ?
I did not make any research while writing the novel. The stories that are related in the novel were all parts of my daily life in Liberia, even the secret society. No research was required. What I had to do was dig into myself and come up with the story.
I love this sentence in which you describe the town as a love song the lyrics of which change everyday : one day happy, powerful and strong, the next day sad and nostalgic, breaking his heart, calling for him, wanting to see him. That’s very beautiful. Could you tell us about that town that you descibe ? How did you get the idea to describe it that way ?
The town you refer to doesn’t exist. I think this description is a way of longing for a world that was there before the war, for a Liberia of my childhood, which I long for but which I cannot see, because it has ceased to exist, it has been destroyed. The songs, the sad and mirthful songs, are an expression of my longing.
Do you have an anecdote about your novel Bound to Secrecy ?
Bound to Secrecy was inspired by my meeting with Charles Taylor in 2000, and it opened my eyes to the deep and terrible effect of power on weak people.
The Concierge is curious. Do you have a new novel coming out ?
I’ve just finished a novel called, The Witness. It’s about an old white man, Onno, who leads a carefully crafted and almost monotonous life in a small town close to a large city. At the age of seventy Onno finds love. The love interest is a young and mysterious black girl with a past possibly rooted in a civil war in an African country, a past that haunts her, and into which he is slowly drawn, so much so that his life as he knew it ceases to exit. The girl is a refugee, and lives in a camp tightly held by boredom. To Onno she appears to be afraid of something, but he cannot pinpoint that fear. He suspects it is connected to the brooding and imposing figure of a black man he once encountered at the refugee centre, a man whose presence he feels everywhere. His developing feelings for the girl increasingly put Onno in rather uncomfortable and risky situations. While these events unfold, he discovers that his only son has converted to Islam in the period around 9/11. He wants to save him, because he fears that his son has chosen the wrong side. In the end, he is forced by his love for his son to betray him. Or was the decision prompted by the desire to save his own skin? Meanwhile, in the drama that has become the girl’s life, her true nature is revealed to Onno when he is faced with an incident that will change his life forever. The true face of war reveals itself to him, which is both horrifying and ambiguous, posing difficult questions and offering contradictory answers that compel him to make a choice. Onno must choose what to believe and what not to believe, and must be willing to bear the consequences of his choice. The novel is an attempt to explore the accuracy of memory, the impact of the past on the present, and the decisions which affect our lives.
Who are your favourite writers, and why ?
My favorite writers are Stendhal, whose novel, Scarlet and Black, written so long ago, seems as fresh todays. There’s also Ambigous Adventure by Sekou Hamidou Kanne, which deals with Islam and the West, from the African perspective. Amos Oz, especially his early novels, like My Michael, Elsewhere Perhaps, Orhan Pamuk, especially his novel My Name is Black, Thomas Mann and all his novels, Coetzee and all his novels…
What topic in the international news makes you angry ? Which makes you smile ?
What frustrates me is the lack of peace in Middle-East, especially among the Palestinians and the Israelis. The people have so much in common, their languages, their histories. It’s It’s terrible that the two cannot live side by side. I am angry that the manuscripts and the graves in Timbuktu are being destroyed by ignorant people in the name of Islam. I smile at the fact that my country of birth has not only the first elected female African president, but also two Nobel Peace laureates, Ms. Lemah Gbowee and Mrs. Ellen-Johson Sirleaf. I smile when I see Barack Obama, when I look in the face of a loved one, or when I read a new novel by Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk, J. M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Okri, Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o, Ondaatje…
Which are your favourite movies ?
My favorite movies of all time are The Apu Trilogy, The Godfather Trilogy, the movies of Ousmane Sembene, especially The Black Girl, Moolaade…
Which are your favourite music style and song ?
I love music of all kinds, from Indian music of India, to Arabic music and African music, especially the old masters like Franco Luambo Makiadi, Papa Wemba, Youssou Ndour. I love hip-hop, love classic music, you name it…
Do you have a final word for your french readers ?
I hope that my French readers can continue to read my books, and I promise them that I will continue to write and to get better with every book.