L’Oiseau Indigo distributes, in France, many publishers from Africa and Arab countries. Isabelle, why did you launch this project? What about poetry in this project?
The lack of distribution of the publishers of the Arab and African worlds in Europe is a long-known reality for professionals. It seemed important to initiate a "re-balancing" of the circulation of ideas and creation, by building this circuit. At the time of baptizing this project, born at the end of 2009, we were looking for a name that could evoke both the abolition of borders and the African anchorage: indigo being one of the continent's emblematic colors, it became L'Oiseau Indigo…
Poetry is present in some of the publishing houses we represent, with great figures such as Ouled Ahmed or Abu-L Qasim al-Shebbi in Tunisia (Nirvana and Arabesques editions), Adonis in Lebanon (Mona Saudi editions), Henri-Michel Yéré José Guebo in Côte d'Ivoire (Panafrika editions) and the presentation of urban forms of expression: Wala Bok, an oral history of hip hop in Senegal (Amalion editions) and Jil Lklam, urban poets (Sirocco editions, Morocco). What is striking is the presence of poetry in a way very more close and alive than in Europe.
In 2012 you created the festival “Paroles Indigo.” Can you tell me more about its genesis?
As a follow-up to our distribution work, it soon became necessary to create a meeting place and a visibility occasion for the publishers and authors that we represent, also a meeting place with the public, The Paroles Indigo Festival, with the wish to propose "other ways of articulating the world." The fact that this festival was born in Arles allowed us to inscribe it in the beautiful patrimonial places of this city. Publishers, writers and artists are welcomed in the environment and invited to share three days with other guests and the public. The program is organized around readings, literary meetings, conferences, exhibitions, cinema, shows and workshops.
Aurélia Lassaque, one of the French Versopolis poets, is also a literary advisor for your festival, with Boubacar Boris Diop. How did you meet and what is her role in the festival?
It is Boubacar Boris Diop (whom I have known for a long time and who is a great promoter of the Wolof language) who introduced me to Aurélia Lassaque for a literary co-direction. One of the major axes of the festival is the presence of languages, to be heard in their rich diversity, and as a vector of construction of thought and creation. Aurélia, by her mastery of Oc language, makes the link between this language, spoken in Arles alongside French, and the multiple languages of our guests: Arabic literary or dialectal and African languages.
Aurélia, you have a special status in French poetry, since you write both in French and Occitan, a language which has become quite rare now. Do you feel like the owner and warrant of a certain memory? Does it make you more sensible to African vernacular and oral poetry?
For Isabelle, it was important to connect the festival with Arles’ cultural heritage and illustrate its own linguistic diversity. I speak and write both in French and Occitan. Arles dialect is Provençal, my dialect is Languedocian but they are, among others, parts of the Occitan language which crosses actual states' borders and is spoken in the South of France, in Spain (Val d’Aran) and Italy (in the western side of Piedmont).
Boris suggested including me in the adventure at the very beginning of the festival’s creation, so our guests from the Middle East and Africa could discover our linguistic diversity and its actual issues, so we could share our experiences and think together about the questions it opens. We both met around that topic of endangered and minority languages in Italy at a conference called “Giornate dei Diritti Linguistici” (Days of Linguistics Rights), organized by Giovanni Agresti at Teramo University.
Boris created a Chair of Wolof Literature at St Louis University in Senegal.
His goal was double: Educating the post 80s generation about Wolof literature, which is quite important and totally unknown of the youth, and creating a new movement of young writers using Wolof language.
Yet, to return to your specific question. In my opinion, the fact that a text is written in this or that language doesn’t give it more value. A text (poetry or else) has to be estimated with the same exigency, whatever its language situation. As an Occitan writer I don't really care to play the “Last of the Mohicans” game... I consider that we have to illustrate our minority languages the best way possible, lead our texts through readings, festivals and translations to the best events and publishing houses in the world for their literary qualities, and not because of their linguistic exception.
However, I feel very curious each time I meet another endangered language. I’m always much interested to know its history, its actual status, how people and governments deals with it; also curious to hear the sound, know more about its literary or oral tradition, etc. And I think that there is much to do in Comparative Literature studies on this topic. I’m also a literary adviser of an award dedicated to less-used and minority languages of the world, called “Premio Ostana - Scritture in lingua madre” rewarding writers, also song writers and movie makers, who chose to illustrate their language, while this language is in danger (I say “while,” not necessary “because.”)
This year, the festival went to Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast. Was it the first time you went there? What were your impressions? And what came out of this visit?
Yes, for me this was the first time. First time in West Africa. For involuntary reasons, our choice became symbolically stronger because, a few months before the festival began, Grand Bassam was a target of a terrorist attack. The festival’s project was much older and this terrible event didn’t change our determination to give voice to books and literature in this city. This event has been co-organized by the crew of Bookwitty (an international, multilingual book retail platform), Paroles Indigo (festival from France) and the crew of Classiques Ivoiriens (publishing house and book distributor from Ivory Coast). This partnership gave an incredible dimension to the event.
We gathered hundreds of young pupils around workshops to encourage their awareness of books, reading and writing. This, and all the conferences with a majority of Ivorian writers, has been a strong experiment, and I’m incredibly happy to know that this will continue. It could have been a single event, but everybody there wants to keep going, which is the best gift we could imagine.