Tahar Ben Jelloun & Edem AwumeyBreaking ground

Published in 2007clockTime to read: 4m55s
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Tahar Ben Jelloun believes that “in a writer you can sense something akin to mystery – that he is capable of inhabiting a world of his own, of creating a work of art, that he can travel the long road”. Ben Jelloun agreed to assist at the birth of such a work, anxious, despite all his talent and past experience, about being up to the task, and ready to be challenged. Thirty years separate him from his disciple Edem, a young author from Togo who has just written his first novel, but a strong rapport has grown between them, based largely on their experience of exile.

by Pierre Assouline 2007
  • Tahar Ben Jelloun
    The Mentor
  • Edem Awumey
    The Protégé

If anyone had told Tahar Ben Jelloun that one day he would become a mentor, he would have burst out laughing. And if anyone had predicted to Edem Awumey that he would have the pleasure of being a protégé some day, he would have scratched his head. Now, their partnership seems so natural they do not even discuss it.

At the beginning, they discovered each other cautiously, that is to say they read each other’s books. Just to get an idea. Then they listened carefully to one another, circling around each other to see where they could push the envelope, one in voicing criticism and the other in accepting it.

Edem began to send Ben Jelloun the first pages of what he was working on, a typed outline that was to become a work in progress before becoming a finished book; then Ben Jelloun sent him his comments. Edem was in Gatineau, in the province of Quebec, Ben Jelloun was in Paris, Tangier or wherever his novels in translation took him. They were planting the seeds of an “e-collaboration” that naturally brought them closer together.

Solid foundations

Edem laid and displayed the foundations for his forthcoming novel based on a year he had spent long ago in Paris, often wandering along the Rue Auguste Comte, near the Luxembourg Gardens, where black people are something of a rarity. “It’s the story of an expatriate chestnut-seller in Paris,” Edem explains. “Chestnuts are his life, his status, his identity. One day, in the square in front of a museum, he meets a white girl – an art student who’s like a younger version of a woman he once loved. She suggests he should transform himself into a black who counts – change his destiny to become a black who succeeds rather than just a black.”

A few months later they met in Tangier, by the fireplace in the sitting room in a house on the mountainside, while, outside, the bricklayer repaired the garden steps. In his hands Ben Jelloun held Edem’s first 110 pages, annotated in his own writing. The rest was in his head. They forgot about the story and talked instead about the structure, construction and architecture of the novel. The Franco-Moroccan writer, an admirer of the great North- and South-American novelists, got Edem to read them, to see what made them tick and how they went about putting some order into their chaos. “You learn to write by reading powerful, difficult texts,” he maintains. Edem, for his part, remained marked by Romain Gary’s novels and by Camus’ The Outsider, which had left a strong impression when he’d read them as a boy at school with the nuns, in Africa. And, at secondary school, This Blinding Absence of Light, written by a certain Tahar Ben Jelloun, also left its mark.

Then they argued about the main character’s credibility in Edem’s novel-in-progress. At the start they were not listening to each other: one insisting that the character wasn’t believable, the other thinking it would be crazy to turn him into a Pakistani. After days and nights of discussion, what emerged was the same book, only different.

Every time Edem began to have doubts about his story, Ben Jelloun gave him a little shove: “Imagine you’re facing the representatives from Gallimard publishing house who’ll be in charge of selling your book to the booksellers: convince them!” Ben Jelloun would not have dreamed of directing Edem – he just wanted to support him.

Structure emerges

In his early days of his writing career, Edem gave absolute priority to his work on the words of his fiction; he later dropped that for work on the story. Ben Jelloun helped him combine the two by showing him that you don’t write a story with ideas, but with words. The deep understanding between them really came into its own when, after deciding that his protégé had started off on the wrong tack, Ben Jelloun realized Edem was now heading off on a very good one.

While Edem’s novel emerges, a lasting relationship has also emerged. Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edem have gone from cautious beginnings through a mentorship period and will continue as friends.

Extracted from an article written by Pierre Assouline for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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