Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Suffer the Child

Just a half hour after listening to the well-honed and comforting words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the Writerfest audience was confronted with a real and relevant illustration of “when bad things happen to good people,” to borrow from Rabbi Kushner’s famous book. We encountered three novels about the suffering of children in Africa. But these novels and their authors – like Rabbi Kushner – are seeking to explore not merely suffering on its own, but rather the miraculous ability of humans to be resilient in the face of mass repression.


Host Steven Hayward – author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke – told us we were in for an “amazing night” and then suggested a unifying theme for the discussion: to imagine the future, we must reimagine the idea of the child.


Meanwhile, I had not read the three featured novels nor had I previously encountered these authors (to my own embarrassment). Fortunately, they read selected passages and then engaged in a dynamic discussion.


First, Emmanuel Dongala read from Johnny Mad Dog (an English translation from the original Johnny Chien Méchant ). Dongala, a chemist and academic who fled Congo in the late 1990’s, writes of gross inhumanity – expressed through the rampages of a militiaman – and, in the same stroke, of the kindness of humanity. We begin to sense the fog of war, the chaotic clashes between White soldiers and indigenous rebels, and the sense of abandonment felt by locals when these soldiers save elites and their puppies, but leave innocent civilians – babies among them – to die. The second excerpt centers around the interaction between a refugee and a foreign journalist. We sense the refugee holding onto her hope of escaping the country that killed her father and raped her, and we come to terms with the preference of the international media for stories about Africa that display maximal gore. She reflects, “I don’t know if [my interview] was good television.” Overshadowing this uncomfortable exchange between foreigner and sufferer is the empathy evoked by Dongala, who explained that every human has the capacity to understand another’s pain if we so choose.


Secondly, Kenneth Bonert read from The Lion Seeker, his debut novel about a Jewish family in South Africa during the apartheid years. The community where the Helger family lives is multi-ethnic, with a large Jewish population – mostly Lithuanians who fled the Nazis. Here, in a profound refutation of the system of separateness and official racism, languages are intermixed; Yiddish and Afrikaans are tossed into the vernacular. The Lion Seeker, the object of considerable buzz in the literary circuit, is told through the perspective of a young Jewish immigrant, Isaac. As someone who is Jewish as well, and fascinated by Jewish life in South Africa, this is a novel I look forward to reading.


Finally, a jetlagged Mia Couto  – in his first English-language live reading – read from The Tuner of Silences , the story of an eleven-year-old boy from Mozambique, Mwanito, who has a “talent for perfecting silences.” He recounts growing up in an isolated enclave named “Jezoosalem” by his father, who has “forsaken civilization,” as Couto put it. The English translation of the book is so evocative, and I imagine the original Portuguese is even more engaging for those who speak the language.


Having been offered a teaser of the three writers’ unique styles, the discussion period proved fascinating. Most resonant for me was the (albeit unresolved and mostly implicit) notion that those writing about Africa have some sort of a moral responsibility to represent the society and ‘values’ of the region with a measure of accuracy in order to combat the terrible insensitivities of the mass media in their depictions of African conflict and poverty. Yet this is of course a large burden to place on a novelist, and indeed these writers seem most concerned with remaining true to their characters’ journeys. Dongala emphasized that today’s African youth are tech-savvy and very much aware of current events. They are – like all of us – bombarded with information, but a lack of education leaves many unable to analyze and decode reality from fiction – video game violence from normative behaviour. (Here I was surprised to see Dongala make some sweeping generalizations about young people across an entire continent).


Through their awareness and connectivity, African youth are embracing the 21st century, however structural difficulties, including poverty, limit their participation in globalized networks. These tensions conjure intriguing characters, as youth negotiate so many influences and possibilities. The child suffers at times, but is also full of life, kindness, and happiness, as Couto sought to emphasize (and which Rabbi Kushner might explain as an indication of God’s presence – that is, the ability of the child to emerge from the horrors of tribal violence and maintain their will to meaning). Wise words to end a riveting conversation with three remarkable and unique novelists.