Nov. 13, 2006
NOTE: This is part of a series of feature articles on some of the writers from around the world who are taking part in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program this fall.
'Unwanted One' Became One Of Africa's Most Influential Writers
Ken Bugul, the pen name of Senegal's Mariètou M'baye Biléoma, means, in the Wolof language, "the person no one wants." That name is increasingly ironic, because she has become one of Africa's most influential literary figures, profiled in "500 Great Books by Women" and an inspiration to a whole new generation of writers - particularly women. And this fall, as a further indication of how much she is wanted, she has represented her country -- flamboyantly with her colorful dress and striking visage - in the University of Iowa International Writing Program.
But the name the she chose for her writing remains close to her heart, because it continuously recalls and represents the defining event of her life. "When I realized that I am a human being, when I started to have consciousness that I exist, maybe it was around 5 or 6 years old," she says. "Because it was at that time that my mother left to go to her own mother's house, and I was the last child.
"When my mother was leaving I was seeing her preparing her luggage, but she did not tell me that she was traveling. And the day before, she put all her luggage, ready, and I did not see my stuff in. So I was taking one of my dresses and putting it in her luggage, and taking my small shoes and trying to find a place."
Still, no explanation was given, and her mother continued to prepare for departure without her.
"I followed her because two or three people were helping her, taking her to the railway station," Ken Bugul explains. "And when we came to the railway station -- 'bye, farewell' -- she enters the train, and I wanted to enter the train. One of my brothers said, 'no, no,' and I started crying.
"And I think the notion of 'space' started when the train was going. And me, I was alongside the track, and in that space you have the sky, big, and then the train was like in a tunnel, but the tunnel is surrounded by all this big sky, and I was seeing that train because I was running on the rails to catch the train, to catch my mother. And then it was disappearing, to a point, vanishing. Then all that was left was the sky and the immensity of the landscape. Starting from that day, I went to solitude.
"It was the departure of the mother that created the emptiness which I changed into a space, as if I am alone in that space -- it is the space in which I write. I am a very solitary person. Even with crowds I am always alone. And I know that it is forever."
Not only did her mother disappear, but also the young girl was left without social mechanism to take over her care and upbringing. "My father was so old - he was almost 90, and he was blind," she explains. "And nobody was taking care of me because I was the youngest. So I could just vanish into the bush. I knew all the animals, and I talked to the trees. I used to hug the trees and say, 'My mother has gone, but I think YOU love me, and because you don't say anything, that means you love me.'"
Then, by sheer chance, Ken Bugul had the opportunity to become the first girl in her family to be educated. During the colonial period, the French established control of four Senegalese coastal towns, which became both the administrative headquarters of their colonial enterprise in West Africa and a major departure point for the slave trade to America.
Unlike the British approach, the French sought to assimilate colonial people, making them part of France. Schools were built in the colonial centers, and the residents were considered French citizens. But Ken Bugul's village was 200 miles inland, where there was no infrastructure, in what was considered an "indigenous" area. "The first time I saw a white person I was maybe 12 years old," she says. "They did not come into our village, because we were 200 miles from Dakar."
She had always been a curious child, so when she learned of the school, she was interested. Although she was not a registered student, she was allowed to attend. "Nobody was caring for me, and I was curious, and so I went," she says. "It was up to me. No one said this is good or this is not good. My father was blind, 90 years old. So when I saw the class, in the bush, I just ran there, and because my father was well-known they said, 'Ah, she is from that house.' So this is how I went to school.
"I was a curious person, and my father was somebody who had a lot of knowledge. But nobody was listening to this old grandfather -- even me, I was calling him 'grandpa' -- but when I was out in the bush, catching the birds and climbing the trees, I would come to him and say, 'Grandpa, I saw this and that.' And he told me so many things. So I was very good at school, because I already knew so much."
School both opened up the world of knowledge to her and deepened her solitude. "It was like something has separated me from the world," she says. "Because when you go to school you can read, and when you read you are alone.
"When I was in high school there was a library and I took out all the books. I remember that in 1962-64 I was learning by heart the dictionary. It was because I was alone, because the emptiness of the departure of my mother had never been filled."
And what she experiences, and what she reads, she remembers - a sort of kinesthetic total recall.
"I have the memory of everything. I remember every detail," she claims. "If I watch something, it is forever. I know that my senses take everything and keep them in something like a hard disk, but fresh. I remember details that other people did not even see. It is very helpful, so I always say I do not have any problem writing. It is quite easy. It just flows, because all the sensations and feelings are stored somewhere. When I write, it is like the present moment."
In fact, when she sat down to write her first book, "The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman," she did not even consider the process to be a literary endeavor. She was simply disgorging the vivid memories in her head, without considerations of craft. "I don't even call it a book," she says.
But when potential publishers encountered the manuscript they were both captivated and astonished by this account, told in vivid detail, of a free spirit who not only raised herself in remote, rural Senegal, but also became a "hippie" in Europe, dropping acid and living communally in the era of peace and free love.
"They were saying, 'Oh, my god, this is the first time a woman in African literature wrote such an autobiography!'" she says. "It is because I dismantled the symbols -- the mother, she is the most beautiful person, the mother cares, the mother loves her children. But for me, my mother did not love me, because she left me. The mother in that story is not the symbol of tenderness, of affection, because I did not know that with my mother.
"And in those days, if you want to get married, you have to come with your virginity. If you don't have virginity you have to get suicidal, or whatever. But I was already a person alone, and I didn't care. Why did my mother, after spending 40 years with my father, go to live in another house? I say, 'What is the meaning of the couple?' You are together and one day you are no longer together. So I say, I don't want marriage.
"And when I wanted to ride horses, they said, 'No, no, that is not good because you are going to lose your virginity. You can't marry somebody if you don't have your virginity.' So I went myself to remove the virginity, with a man I met. I said, 'I love you.' He said, 'What, do you know me?' I said, 'Because I saw you now and I love you.' But I wanted only to use him to remove my virginity."
The story was compelling, unconventional and unprecedented: "Senegalese publishers at that time said, 'Oh my God. You must take a pen name!'
A beautiful young woman in her village -- a person who is still living -- was known as Ken Bugul, so she chose that name. "That name was given to female children whose mother had one, two, three deliveries where the child had died," she explains. "If that woman had another child, a female, the very first day they called her Ken Bugul -- nobody wants her, meaning that even death does not want her."
That pen name, chosen before she even considered herself a writer, has proven to be very comfortable. "When I started to have the pretension of being a writer, I found Ken Bugul VERY good for a pen name," she says. "I can use that name to write as I feel it; to do as I like, about whatever. To denounce whatever I want."
Senegalese society - in a complex nation very unlike what most Americans imagine a predominantly Moslem culture to be like; a place where, for example, what she calls "drag queens" have a time-honored social role - has undergone dramatic changes since the times Ken Bugul described in her iconoclastic autobiography. With independence have come sexual and intellectual revolutions and a focus on new, contemporary issues. But her fearless rejection of convention and sense of unselfconscious honesty continues to resonate.
"Many young writers in their statements, they always say, 'If I have started writing it is because of Ken Bugul,'" she explains. "Even if I don't know them, I read in their statements, 'If I write today, it is because of Ken Bugul.' It is like you can express, really . . . yourself."
Ken Bugul's first book, "Le baobab fou" ('The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman'), investigated post-colonial identity for a young African woman in Belgium. In 1999 her novel "Riwan ou le chemin de sable" (Riwan or the Sandy Track) was awarded the Grand Prix Litteraire de l'Afrique Noire.
From 1986 to 1993, Bugul headed the African region section of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She has also convened writing workshops in underprivileged areas and organized other cultural outreach.
Her participation in the IWP was supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State
Twenty-nine writers, representing 22 countries, have been in residence this fall at the IWP. Biographies of all the writers are accessible on the IWP Web site, http://www.uiowa.edu/~iwp.
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