We sat down with one of our authors, Dr Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, to ask him about his writing process, his sources of inspiration, and his theories on the interplay between culture and economy.
Hi Daniel. In your book Towards a Responsible Society you talk about the accountability we require of authorities and public bodies, and ask whether the same social accountability should be required of each individual. Could you talk more about that and the benefits it has for society?
Inside organized societies the monopoly of violence is given to the authorities who have the duty to protect each and every person within the society. But authorities are not composed of angels! They are elected by ordinary citizens who are at the end of the day those who, in democracy, detained the power. So, authorities cannot be accountable alone if the accountability is not a shared value within a given society. Because without it, “Common Good” cannot be protected, and the whole society will become a jungle as we see in most African countries. Of course there is a need, in the first place, to educate people about their rights which go along with their own duties. African civil society will not emerge without qualitative changes in behaviour, first in the relationships between Africans and then with respect to behaviour towards foreigners, to whom we generally feel inferior. We must have more self-confidence, more trust in one another and a commitment to progress that benefits all.
You conclude your book Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment? by saying that adjustment is not enough and that what Africa really needs is a cultural revolution. Could you talk more about what you think that should look like?
Yes of course! In my book I even made it clear that the said “revolution” should be carried out in four domains, which are: education, politics, economics, and social behaviour. These domains are still today the ones where we have failed to achieve substantial progress. Education is still lagging behind in Cameroon, my own country; there is no appropriate infrastructure nor teachers to run even primary schools, and in some remote areas all over the country pupils are walking long distances and sitting under an open sky in order to receive a so-called basic education which is leading nowhere! Technical training is still lacking inside a society where basic services (water, energy, health facilities) are not provided. You are well aware of what has happened with the politics of our beloved country since 2016, because of the poor management of the diversity of the population and the quest for a true democracy! Not to mention the bankruptcy of the State itself – which has fallen for years under IMF prescriptions – because of its huge debt due to mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds, and the corruption prevailing within our society. This country is now looking for an urgent change in order to avoid a possible chaos. African nations need to extend the pluralism that already exists in the diversity of their peoples to the political arena. They must cultivate tolerance and emphasize merit. Regional integration must replace nationalism. We need more rigors and a systematic approach to the elaboration of strategies, and the implementation of decisions taken.
How far do you think culture is the determining factor of a country’s economic development?
I think that it is nowadays definitely established that culture is the determining factor of the fate of any given country because as I did suggest inside my book: ‘culture is the mother and institutions are the children.’ More efficient and just African institutions will depend on modifications brought to our culture, as I have spelled out in my previous comments.
What do you think about the progress versus cultural relativism debate – that progress is entirely subjective and one culture should not be judged as better or worse by another’s standards?
To me, it is a real dilemma because, while in absolute terms human cultures in their content deserve respect, on the other hand, economic efficiency as well as technological progress have made it possible for some cultures to provide to their people more “public happiness” as I have called it in another book of mine, entitled Discours sur le Bonheur, propos sur l’insatiable quête de bien-être des humains. Therefore objectively, one cannot avoid looking at the quality of the responses given by our culture to the people in terms of well-being of the citizens. We are living on the same planet and with mass-communication everyone can judge your performance, especially if you have put yourself in a position where you are always looking for assistance from the international community, even if you sitting on fantastic natural resources reserves.
Thank you Daniel – it’s great to hear these debates spoken about by someone with such expertise. We also wanted to ask you some questions about your personal writing process. To start with, what’s the most enjoyable part of the writing process for you?
In fact, to me the writing process is like giving birth to a child! Being a man, it is very hard to appreciate and explain what is enjoyable and what is painful! I have always been, and still am, awed by the process of creating something out of nothing! From where comes the desire to share one’s feelings about the facts of the world? The wish to write, instead of singing a song like birds? And when the decision to write is made, how do you choose the right subject? The first word to put on the blank page? I think that to me, this mystery is probably the most enjoyable part of the process, when after several months or several years the book is finally put down on the table, as I still keep asking myself, ‘where did it come from?’
And what do you find most difficult about the writing process?
A writer is usually acting like a movie director. Whatever he does, he must decide where to start and where to stop. The beginning and the end of a book, meaning the story you are carrying on, are the most difficult part of the writing process to me.
Has your writing process been the same for each book or does it differ wildly?
It has differed from the beginning as I used to handwrite my books before having them typed up by a secretary. So, I had to make sure that he or she could read my handwriting. This process did not permit me to bring any change while the book was not typed. Here comes the personal computer I have started using five years ago with a total different setting. As I can now change my mind about a phrase I have just written, following the pace of my thoughts. I am definitely enjoying this new way of creating characters or spelling out my ideas more than before.
What’s your opinion of the publishing industry in the UK? What would you change about it if you could?
This is a question I am unable to answer, since I have never worked before with the UK publishing industry. As a matter of fact, I have just signed a “Contributing Author Agreement” with Oxford University Press, for the publication of a Handbook of Economy of Cameroon, edited by our renowned compatriot Pr. Monga Celestin from Harvard University. I must say that, for this small contribution, I was really impressed by the high degree of professionalism of the Institution I dealt with. I have published two books with ‘Les éditions L’Harmattan,’ a Paris based publishing company which is quite active in francophone Africa. But it was another story entirely when it came to the books’ distribution. Unfortunately, we are in West and Central Africa, still dependent on the former colonial powers for the publication of our books, since we have failed to create a functional local publishing industry. Worst, we still depend on them for the recognition of the value of our work, as they are the only ones who attribute literary awards, like the ‘Prix Goncourt’ in France which was won last week by a Senegalese novelist: Mohamed Mbougar Sarr! While I congratulate him, I am still of the opinion that we, Africans, should ourselves build up our own publishing industry and be able to promote our values in literature and the Arts.
Which is your favourite book out of the ones you’ve written?
This is a very difficult question to answer, because I do love all my children! But if I had to select five among my books it would be easier because those are the ones carrying important values and ideas I would like Africans to share – because they are the first audience I want my work to reach – I would then select:
- One fiction: Comme c’est beau la nuit une mer déchainée (Editions Clé, Yaoundé, 2013), which stresses the necessity for Africans to unite;
- Four non-fictions: including two books you have selected yourself, L’Afrique a-t-elle besoin d’un programme d’ajustement culturel? and Vers une société responsable, le cas de l’Afrique, and two others: Eloge de la dissidence, propos sur la métaphysique du progrès (Editions Clé Yaoundé, 2013) and the last one about politics: La politique est-elle une science? (Editions Cerap, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, 2020).
What beliefs do you think your books have challenged the most strongly?
I hope that the fatalism of Africans has been challenged the most strongly! The idea that we are fully responsible for what happened to us in the past and now is the most important theme to run through my work. It is a way to address our current weaknesses due to the fact that we are divided. Dr. Kwamé Nkrumah is my prophet: we must be united to become stronger.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
It depends on the subject. Fiction has a ‘soft’ power to lead the readers to the point you’re trying to make; but non-fiction seems better if you need to convince a jury, as you do in the tribunals.
How important is the editor to your process?
So far it has not been relevant as publishing in French seems to be outside of this concern, the writer being asked to review and improve his own work. But my former experience with books published in the USA shows that an editor can drastically improve the process. So, I am open to any possible collaboration.
Are there any other writers who have inspired you?
Yes of course all of them, because I enjoy reading good books. But when it comes to my own work, I think it might unfortunately be a marginal influence, as I cannot relate my writing to a specific author. In my best dreams, I would like to think I am inspired by the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, from whom I have almost borrowed the title of my first essay: ‘Cent ans d’aliénation’ or by the Algerian novelist Yasmine Khadra, as well as by our sister Leonora Miano who is so talented, and by so many others like the Great American Lady Toni Morrison, or the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mafouz. But these are only personal beautiful dreams!
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I cannot really give any advice in this matter, because writing is such a personal act. Every author has his own style! That is why literature is so rich and so diverse. As with music the best inspiration is something coming up from the bottom of your soul; that is where all the talents are dwelling.
What’s your favourite book?
I am currently reading Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel, entitled: La plus secrète mémoire des hommes which has just won the French “Prix Goncourt”, as already mentioned. I have the feeling that it might be among my favourite books, even though I haven’t finish reading it yet. On the list is also Quand saigne le palmier, a Novel by my brother Charly-Gabriel Mbock, as well as La saison de l’ombre by our sister Leonora Miano. As you can see, I enjoy reading a wide variety of authors dedicated to the theme of people facing the drama of human existence.
Do you listen to music while you write, and if so, what do you listen to?
Not at all! I do listen to music separately, but not when I am writing. But I recognize the influence of music in the process of writing as some characters are driven by music which has been a support to their action. For example, in Maîgida ou le chasseur d’illusions, my second novel inspired by the political events in Togo, the hero who has staged a coup d’état, sings all along a song entitled ‘Je marche seul’ by Jean Jacques Goldman, a French singer who is one of my favourites. So, the whole scenery of a novel could be related to a “playlist” which summarizes and supports the actions carried on within the book. Music is a great part of our life especially in Africa, so we cannot be separated from it.
How do you cope with procrastination?
For any artist, procrastination is the worst enemy because it makes you feel like there is no time constraint for what you are doing. There is a sentence in my book Does Africa need a cultural Adjustment program? which says: ‘The African works to live but does not live to work. He demonstrates a propensity to feast that suggests that African societies are structured around pleasure.’ This must sound, to a certain extent, like a severe statement. But there is some truth in it as it is much more difficult for an African living the traditional way to isolate himself for the purpose of writing. Fortunately, this behaviour is changing drastically. Since I have spent a lot of time abroad, I have never had difficulties planning the use of my time. Even by myself, I am used to setting a personal time frame to accomplish certain tasks which makes it easier for me respect my own deadline. I think it is a good way to avoid procrastination.
What is one key lesson you have learned from your writing career?
I have learned mostly “humility”! Because nowadays in Africa writing has not yet entered the mentality of the people, and the publishing industry is not yet perceived, as well, like an economic activity bound to generate revenues. So, usually, an author is expected to offer his book for free, to all potential readers. So, we are really far from writing to make a living, given the small number of readers. Our governments have a tremendous role to play through schools and public libraries in order to change the existing situation because Africa is a large reservoir of talented authors.
How do you celebrate when you finish a book?
Ha ha ha! Nothing special. I just thank the Lord for giving me the chance to complete the task, because even when I was younger, like our ancestors the ancient Egyptians, I knew that I could leave at any time and I would hate leaving behind unfinished work.
Visit the Cornerstone Publications store to browse works by Dr Daniel Etounga-Manguelle.