My conversation with a living legend

Back in March 2012, when I posted about my Togolese pick for my year of reading the world, I said that Tété-Michel Kpomassie was the writer I would most like to meet. Little did I know then that, almost exactly a decade later, I would be speaking to him.

Yesterday, however, I got to realise my dream (virtually at least) and spent 40 minutes talking to the intrepid explorer, whose extraordinary journey across the world to live with the Inuit in the 1960s has long been an inspiration for me.

The call came about after I heard the wonderful news that Kpomassie’s groundbreaking memoir, An African in Greenland, translated by James Kirkup, was being reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a new afterword, translated by Ros Schwartz. When Penguin contacted me about it, I seized the opportunity to ask to speak with the great man, who is now 80 and lives in France.

It turned out to be one of the most joyful, thrilling and thought-provoking conversations of my life. I was humbled to hear Kpomassie say that he saw parallels between our quests because they both came out of a desire to push beyond received notions and meet the world on our own terms. And my delight knew no bounds when, holding up the beautiful new English-language edition of his book, I saw Kpomassie raise a copy of my novel, Beside Myself, in reply.

We covered many things. I asked Kpomassie how he maintained so much energy and enthusiasm after living with the aftermath of his life-defining journey for so many decades. ‘It’s easy,’ he told me. ‘I am still the same person.’

He went on to explain that, for him, the extraordinary adventure he began as a teenager has always had the quality of a mission – a calling entrusted to him by the surprising collision of many factors (the appearance of the python that gave him his fear of snakes; the baffling presence of a book about Greenland in a shop in rural Togo; the fact that his six years of education gave him just enough French to understand the text and conceive his ambition to run away to this treeless, snake-free land).

A big part of this mission involves opening up the minds of young Africans to the wider world. ‘I think Africans should learn many languages and travel,’ he told me. But he is clear that this must work both ways. There should be greater prominence for and celebration of African culture internationally.

For Kpomassie, language is central to this. ‘We have more than 100 languages in Togo, yet if a young boy can’t speak French perfectly, he cannot succeed. That’s ridiculous,’ he told me, going on to say that it was similarly outrageous that African nations are among the few that don’t speak their own languages when they go to international conventions such as those at the UN.

He would like to see a Pan-African language chosen as the continent’s lingua franca – whether Swahili, Wolof or another widely spoken tongue. This, he says, would play a powerful role in evening up international relations and cultural exchange: people around the world would learn it in much the same way as many European languages are studied, thereby opening up opportunities for African linguists and translators.

The point, he stressed, was to be respectful and evenhanded. ‘No culture is better than another.’

Kpomassie has seen firsthand the damage favouring one culture over another can do. He still remembers the outrage and confusion the European missionaries caused when they tried to convince his father to abandon seven of his eight wives and marry one in a Christian ceremony, an action that would have spelled disaster for many of his brothers and sisters, and could have started a feud with neighbouring villages.

Yet it wasn’t until he reached Greenland that the extent of the wrongs done by colonial evangelism became clear to Kpomassie. ‘They changed the words [of the Lord’s Prayer] to “Give us this day our daily seal”,’ he told me. ‘But no-one gives you a seal at minus 40 degrees. You have to work really hard for it. I realised then that “Give us this day our daily bread” was a lie used to control us.’

Different though they were in so many ways, Kpomassie found parallels between the animism of the Inuit and the traditional beliefs of his community. There was a respect for nature and a sense of oneness with the environment that he found lacking in many European settlers, who made handbags out of the pythons that were sacred to locals in Togo.

This is one of the reasons that, as he writes in the afterword of the new edition of Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland, on some level, he never really left Greenland. And it is why he will move back there later this year. After a lecture tour, he plans to live out his days reading and writing in the country that won his heart more than 50 years ago. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘I will not return.’

Postcard from my bookshelf #5

Last month, I sent a translated book to someone from the nation that showed most interest in my 2012 Year of Reading the World. This month, I’m giving one to someone from the country that, in many ways, provided me with the biggest challenge during the quest.

While I struggled to find a single translated work from numerous places – many of the lusophone and francophone African nations had no commercially available literature in English, for example – there were some nations that posed the opposite conundrum. These were the countries that had such a wealth of literature available that the idea of choosing a single book seemed ludicrous.

India was by far the trickiest of these. As I recorded in my blog post at the time, I was swamped with recommendations for titles from this vast and diverse nation. And every time I asked someone to help me choose my Indian book, they simply added more suggestions to my list.

Luckily, just as I was beginning to despair of ever finding a satisfactory way of selecting one thing to read, a journalist called Suneetha Balakrishnan came to my rescue. She had noticed that all the titles people had suggested were written in English. To her mind, this was second best when you considered that there was so much Indian literature written in other languages – the subcontinent is home to 22 officially recognised tongues, along with hundreds of others.

One of her favourite writers was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She suggested I try to find a translation of one of his books.

Suneetha’s argument made sense to me. More than that, as happened so often that year, it highlighted a blind spot in my thinking. Despite the quest being driven by my desire to read more diversely, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out Indian literature written in languages other than English.

I followed her suggestion and found a translation of Vasudevan Nair’s novel Kaalam. I enjoyed it very much and it opened the door for me to start exploring numerous other Indian literatures, which I have continued to do over the last five years.

(Incidentally, the exchange provided a lightbulb moment for Suneetha too. Realising how neglected Indian literature in languages other than English often is, she launched her own Reading Across India blog, an idea which she adapted for Mslexia magazine.)

Suneetha applied for a postcard and I was very tempted to choose a book for her. Had I done so, it would probably have been my UK choice, Caryl Lewis’s Martha, Jack and Shanco, or another book translated from Welsh because my discussion with Suneetha also inspired me to think about literature in languages other than English in my home country.

However, this project is about sending books to strangers and, although Suneetha and I have never met in person, I feel we are friends through the exchanges we have had. (Thanks once again for all your interest, support and wise words, Suneetha. I hope we will share many more reading ideas in future.)

As such, I have decided to send a book to one of Suneetha’s compatriots instead as a sort of thank you-by-proxy. After reading through the many Indian entries, I settled on Azfar Zaidi. He told me this:

I’ve been reading the replies to this post, and frankly, I feel a little unqualified. […] I’m nowhere near as “international” as anyone here. I’ve never sat on an airplane, and there are few cities in India that I have explored. But I read, and that breaks borders. Being able to imagine a parallel world through the descriptions and situations in a book is one thing I love to do. However, I believe that every book has a bit of its author’s own world in it. No matter how fictitious a book is, there’s an element of the author in it. It gets reflected by the way he narrates, describes or argues. Exploring parallel worlds through the medium of books somewhat compensates for the (current) limits of my world. I don’t have a specific genre to request. I read what comes my way, and I leave it to your discretion as to which book you’d like to send me (if you do). I’m only looking to widen the horizons of my mind. And I hope you’ll help.

Just as Suneetha’s words did five years ago, Azfar’s comment struck a chord with me. Reading does break borders and expand horizons. That was one of the most powerful things I took away from the project and continue to experience with my literary explorations to this day.

He also made me think almost instantaneously of the book I wanted to send him. It is a memoir by someone who, like Azfar, had never been on a plane, but ended up discovering the world through reading and his own curiosity.

The book in question is An African in Greenland by the Togolese writer and explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie. It was one of the most joyous, funny and heartwarming books I read during 2012.

Azfar, it will shortly be travelling across the world to you. I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on June 15.

Togo story to hit the big screen

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In the 16 months or so since I finished my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to hear how the project continues to generate interest and have unexpected consequences. From booklovers discovering stories they would never have otherwise found to other readers being inspired to take on similar quests, it’s great to know that my little adventure has encouraged people around the planet to engage with books in new ways.

So you can imagine my delight when, a little while ago, I received a message from film producer Genevieve Lemal. Having worked on such notable movies as Coco Before Chanel  and a forthcoming adaptation of Madame Bovary, as well as numerous French-language films, Lemal is always looking for stories that might work well on the big screen.

She’d heard about Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland when she read an article about my project in The Atlantic a few months ago, and decided to take a closer look at the book. Just as I did, she fell in love with the writer’s account of his teenage escape from the clutches of a python cult in rural Togo and amazing journey up through Africa and Europe to live with the Inuit in Greenland.

Lemal liked the story so much, in fact, that she thought it would make a good film and was in talks with Kpomassie’s French publisher to secure the rights. If all went well, she hoped to be able to invite me to the premiere a few years hence.

A month or so later she was back in touch: she’d been to Paris and met Kpomassie, who is now in his seventies and lives just outside the city. He was an astonishing character, she said, full of stories about his adventures – he even recounted an extraordinary conversation he’d had with his grandfather when he returned to Togo, in which he struggled to explain all that he had seen and done because his mother tongue, Mina, has no word for ‘snow’. I was very jealous as, as I mentioned in my post on his book, Kpomassie is the writer I would most like to meet in the world, so Lemal generously said that if I was coming to Paris I should let her know and perhaps we could all meet up.

A few messages further on and a deal has been struck and a scriptwriter engaged, and Lemal is looking forward to going scouting for locations in Greenland. As she warns me, it will be a long time before the film is ready for screening. Nevertheless, I can’t help being very excited. It’s brilliant to think that Kpomassie’s wonderful story has a chance to reach even more of the world. I look forward to shaking his hand on the red carpet when that day comes.

Picture showing Tété-Michel Kpomassie signing a copy of his book at a student event by Stundentersamfunnet Bergen.

Togo: the writer I’d most like to meet

I knew I had to read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book as soon as I saw his Wikipedia entry.  Being forced to join a snake cult after a childhood run-in with a jungle python would be more than enough of a life story for most people. But then to set yourself the goal of running away to Greenland after you found a book on the place and saw that it had no snakes and no trees in which they might hide? And to succeed? I had to find out more.

I was more than a little apprehensive, though. In my experience, people who have extraordinary tales to tell are often terrible at putting them across, the bravado and impulsiveness required for having adventures not usually sitting well with the diligence and reflection required for good writing.

Luckily, Kpomassie proved to be an exception: not only is An African in Greenland, his account of his ten-year odyssey to meet and live with ‘the little men of the North’, told with warmth, humour and humanity, it is also exceptionally skilfully written (it won the 1981 Prix Litteraire Francophone).

Having travelled his way up through Africa and Europe, learning languages as he went by correspondence courses and working in whatever jobs he could find, Kpomassie has the talent for looking at any society he finds himself in with an outsider’s eyes. This pays dividends when it comes to describing the customs of his tribe in Togo — where the second-born twin is considered senior because he or she sends the first one out as a scout, where chickens are used in healing rituals, and where teenage boys find extraordinary uses for desiccated lizards — and in Greenland.

At times, Kpomassie’s descriptions of the widespread promiscuity and alcoholism he discovered in southern Greenland and the reactions of the Inuits to the ‘first black man’ to visit them are startlingly frank. Open and ready to think the best of those he encounters, despite his early traumas with the python worshippers, Kpomassie describes the world with enthusiasm and honesty, revealing many of its marvels and flaws.

Yet the book is a testament not only too Kpomassie’s positivity and determination and the wonder of the world but to the warmth of humankind. In fact, his descriptions of the many spontaneous offers of accommodation, help and support he received during his journey remind me of the generosity I’m repeatedly encountering from book lovers around the globe as I pursue this project to read a book from every country in the world this year. The book and the extraordinary story it tells are proof that with energy, hope and a little bit of luck, almost anything is possible.

Tété-Michel, I don’t know where your travels are taking you now, but if you’re ever passing through south London dinner’s on me.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated from the French by James Kirkup). Publisher (this edition): New York Review Books (2001)