Osvalde Lewat wins the Pan-African Literature Prize with ‘Les Aquatiques’

In her first novel, the documentary filmmaker and photographer Osvalde Lewat attacks social conventions. The Pan-African Literature prize – newly created by the DRC’s President and the African Union’s Chairperson Félix Tshisekedi, and accompanied by $30,000 – will be awarded to her in February in Addis Ababa at the next African Union heads of state summit. I had a chance to meet her shortly before she will receive this award.

Osvalde Lewat can often be found at the Françoise Livinec Gallery, located in a wealthy district of Paris. Director of dozens of documentaries and a photographer, she is currently exhibiting “Lumières Africaines”, an extract from the series Couleurs Nuits, which was first shown in the streets of Kinshasa in 2014. She begins to tell her story through the visual arts: “I devote time to the people I film and photograph, so that we can go beyond the chance encounter. The idea is to decentre the gaze, bring the margin back to the centre and to change our mind about what the margin is.”

Although she has the look of a chic Parisian, it would be unjust to simply place the 45-year-old author in the French capital. A member of the documentary jury at Fespaco, she has just returned from Ouagadougou and will be in South Africa in a few days’ time for a shoot on “the soldiers who joined the ANC’s armed wing”, a film that “is also a documentary on Mandela the warlord.” Just like with her first short film, which she filmed at the age of 23 with marginalised Amerindians in Toronto, Lewat’s directing work has always been driven by social issues and the desire to “give a kick in the pants.”

Family homophobia:

Born in Garoua into a Bamileke family, Lewat studied journalism in Yaoundé before attending Sciences Po Paris and spending time in Canada. She filmed, among others, Au-Delà de la Peine and Les Disparus de Douala in Cameroon, visited Equatorial Guinea and Gabon several times, lived for eight years in Kinshasa, then in Comoros, and now lives between Paris and Burkina, where her husband is a senior French diplomat. These experiences gave rise to Zambuena, where the characters of her first novel, Les Aquatiques, evolve. “I wanted to build a country with common realities: homophobia, the weight of the group on the individual, the injunctions made to women, the world of appearances.” A question weaves itself throughout the book: at what point do we rise up and become ourselves?

“The character of Katmé was inspired by women I have seen kill a part of themselves in order to conform to society’s expectations.” So what is Katmé, the wife of an ambitious nobleman, going to do when her artist friend, Sami, is imprisoned because of his sexual orientation? “I grew up in a homophobic environment, where familial convictions came before those of the state and could lead to your death.”

In response to critics who tell her that Les Aquatiques is a “white man’s novel” that espouses a Western view of sexual identity, she says: “That’s ignorance. In pre-colonial Africa, the community supported same-sex relationships.” The plot centres around this stigma that Sami feels and his friendship with Katmé. “Love is not only expressed through family or in a couple. Strong friendships have built me up and saved me.”

A model child, Lewat describes herself today as “a family UFO.” In her twenties, when a place was waiting for her with a father who was a company director and a clan where “your worth is measured by what you have”, she decided to pursue the arts before settling down to build a “traditional” family in a society where “if you are unmarried and without children, you are an outcast.”

The topic of family seems to be a little difficult for the author: “When you come from a world where the weight of the group weighs so heavily, if you say ‘no’, it means you are choosing a path of solitude.” Before modestly slipping in, with a laugh: “Today, I’m fine, I’m married.” The mother figure, which is “very literary”, is a source of inspiration for her. In Les Aquatiques, the female characters are particularly well developed, with Keuna, the gallery owner and single mother, and Sennke, the little religious sister.

“There is no right way to be, the only way is to be yourself,” says Lewat. “Like my accident, sometimes life forces you to make up your mind.” The first-time novelist explains that a broken ankle and a year’s enforced bed rest triggered her transition to writing. Encouraged by friends, such as Atiq Rahimi, the woman who, as a child, had wanted to be a writer (and psychotherapist), and who, as a teenager, had written “a bad novel”, took the plunge at 39. “I was accepted as a documentary filmmaker and photographer. It was difficult not to question my decision to be a writer, given that I had been rejected by 14 editors. But when I write, I know that’s where I have to be,” she says.

An avid reader, she says that she greatly admires Doris Lessing and her “bold, free-spirited tone” which “liberated my writing.” “American Jewish writers have also been important, like Saul Bellow,” she says. “And I am still impressed by Chinua Achebe and Ahmadou Kourouma’s modern language.” Thanks to the Nimba publishing house’s efforts on Ivorian soil, Les Aquatiques will be available in November for distribution in Africa.

Source: The Africa Report

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