How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning mean to you?
It is obvious for me to feel a great pride at my inclusion on the shortlist of the International Booker Prize. Especially for my first novel, the one that I think is the most stylistically and politically radical. In the West or elsewhere, when one is a security guard and African, one is made doubly invisible. Such a prestigious victory would be a tribute to all the invisible people in society, those who pedal down in the hold so that the upper decks may peacefully enjoy their champagne and their caviar.
What were the inspirations behind the book? What made you want to tell this particular story?
In this era of extreme capitalism which ever increasingly mocks humanity and nature just for the benefit of the ruling classes, just via the power of money, we need to put our eyes back in their sockets and understand the absolute absurdity of a consumerist society being the only model for life on earth. When I found myself working as a security guard during the sales in a department store in Paris, I immediately understood that this device was ideal for observing without being seen. I was at the very heart of the absurdity of the consumerist society. And as an African, I could finally be a ‘reverse ethnologist’, coolly describing the behaviour of those who had described us as entomologists describe ants. I gave it the distance of laughter, which Africans never abandon, no matter how serious the situation.
How long did it take to write the book, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is the plot and structure intricately mapped out in advance?
In order to write this book, I began by taking notes while I was on duty. It’s a job where there’s nothing to do but watch. So it was ideal. After a few weeks, when I had enough money to buy a plane ticket, I returned to Abidjan where a post-election war was ending. There, I wanted to show that you could write l’histoire (with a capital H) and create les histoires (with a small H) without resorting to Kalashnikovs. This is how the idea of alternating a big story with small stories came to me. I had my notes from the Parisian shops and, even if they were funny, I had to find an original structure so as not to dilute them in a simple queue of anecdotes. I thought about this succession of generations of immigrants in Europe who had practised the profession of security guard in different political and geopolitical contexts. I had my structure (I’m obsessed with structure and language), I could begin.
Where do you write? What does your working space look like?
I don’t have a favourite place to write. Each of my novels is a particular adventure. For Standing Heavy, I needed geographic and critical perspective. I went to Ferkessédougou, a small town 600km from Abidjan, I settled down with Alberto (that was the name of my computer at the time) at the Tchologo Hotel, a somewhat outdated place, and I let my fingers run over the keyboard. For Comrade Papa, the main action took place in the 19th century. I moved to Grand-Bassam (where I still live), the first colonial capital of Ivory Coast. Alberto having passed away, it was with Gustavo that I worked listening to the murmur of the waves from the sandbank in the Gulf of Guinea. For Black Manoo, a book about marginalisation, I wrote mainly in a maquis, these open-air bars in Abidjan. For my last book, Cocoaïans, I wrote in Paris. I was stuck on a red sofa after a ruptured Achilles tendon while playing basketball with my son. I wrote all the time that my leg was in plaster. I don’t know yet where or how I’m going to write my next one. I only know it will be with Estrella, my new computer, because Gustavo died last year (may his microprocessors rest in peace!).