From Oct. 21–26, Vancouver welcomes the Writers Fest, an event that brings people of all backgrounds together to share stories, cultures and languages. One such storyteller is Congo-born, Gibsons-based writer and poet Jean-Pierre Makosso, who readily switches from one language to another as “the griot of human culture.”
The Source : How were you introduced to writing?
Jean-Pierre Makosso : When I was seven, my dad’s employer, who was French, asked him what his children wanted for Christmas because he was going to France. I said to my dad with a smile on my face: books. And his boss brought me books every Christmas for eight years. On my 15th birthday, he brought me a book by Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. When I finished reading Les misérables by Victor Hugo, I said “I have to be the voice of all the miserables.” I started writing plays with my siblings. When I was 20, I wrote a play and sent it to RFI (Radio France International); it was well received and since then I haven’t stopped. I wrote poetry and plays about Mandela and apartheid. I had my own theatre group. I wrote and directed all my plays and played everywhere in Congo and some festivals in other African countries. I even went to the Shanghaï Children Festival in China with my children’s theatre. I wrote and directed plays for Canada World Youth. Since 2001, I’ve been living in Gibsons BC with my own company
Makossovillage. I wrote and directed about 15 plays.
TS : How did you decide to write in French and English?
J-PM : I write in French because it is the official language of the Republic of Congo. I can write in my two national languages, Lingala and Kituba, or in Vili (my mother’s language), but no one will understand me. Even in my country, most of us don’t read in those languages, we read in French. I began to publish in English after doing a school tour in Saskatoon. And at the end of my show, Mark, an eight-year-old boy asked: “My father told me a long time ago, white people, just like us, went to Africa; they destroyed everything, they chased you around, and you ran away because you, black people, did not want to be their slaves. Is this true?”
I said to Mark: “It is a long story, and I’m going to write a book to tell you what my mother told me ok?”
Mark answered: “You come from a French country. I know Canada is bilingual but I don’t understand French.”
I said to him: “I will write it in English for you and all the children who don’t understand French.” And that night in my hotel in Saskatoon I started to write Human Works to answer Mark’s question.
TS : Are these four languages you speak an expression of four different cultures?
J-PM : The four languages I speak are four different people in their ways of speaking, eating, clothing, etc. Knowing another language is embracing another culture: that is why when an African goes back to his country and, without knowing it, acts like a Canadian, elders would say that he has lost his culture.
TS : How do you decide in which language you will write a play or a piece of poetry?
J-PM : A simple word makes me decide in which language I want to write a play or a piece of poetry. People I meet during the day can also make me decide: the language they speak, the words they use, their accents, their voices, their emotions. In that case, I can express exactly the feelings of someone speaking in English or of someone speaking in French. As an example, the book I’m writing right now is called The Voice of the Boy from the Jungle. In June 2001, during one of my shows, I heard a woman say: “we came to hear this boy from the jungle.” That stayed in my mind for years and now I’m writing in the voice of the boy from the jungle. Once I was in Montreal, I was writing my French novel Il était une fois…ce jour-là. But when I went back to B.C., I couldn’t concentrate on it anymore. I missed English so badly that I could hear it whispering in my ears: “write me, write me down, I am the word you need to write.” And at that moment I wrote a poem Love You Yet Again. See, I think I don’t decide. The characters in the story tell me in which language they want to express themselves and in which language they would like people to know them first.
For more information about the 2014 Vancouver Writers Fest, please see www.writersfest.bc.ca.