About the Author
Wilfried N’Sondé was born in 1969 in the Congo (Brazzaville) and grew up in France. He is widely considered one of the shining lights of the new generation of African and Afropean writers. His work has received considerable critical attention and been recognized with prestigious literary awards, including the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie and the Prix Senghor de la création littéraire.
Karen Lindo is a scholar of French and Francophone literatures and currently teaches and translates in Paris.
Dominic Thomas is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
The Heart of the Leopard Children
By Wilfried N'Sonde, Karen Lindo
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
From Vancouver to Brasilia, from the gangsters in New York, Bahia, Lagos, behind the bars at the Fleury-Merogis prison, on the benches of the amphitheaters at the Sorbonne, for some of the junkies at the central station in Amsterdam, for the aids orphans of Mombasa, the commuters pressed and packed into the RER train on line A heading into Paris, for the memories of the deceased watching over Kongo, all the faces of voodoo ceremony participants in Haiti, those buried for centuries below the African continent, beneath the uniforms of ear-cutting Senegalese soldiers, the drug addicts, the fanatics, those stuck in the trenches in the Flanders during the Great War, the bones of those scattered at the bottom of the Atlantic, the asylum seekers, the EU authorities, for the female vendors in the Brixton market, the jubilation of the sound systems in Jamaica, and especially for those genocided in Rwanda,
... Africa haunts our black skin.
* * *
Questions, always questions, they'll never stop, will they! I have a hard time figuring out where I am. The captain keeps blaring questions at me and I can't follow what he's saying. It's late. I have had too much to drink and smoked way too much. He needs to cut it out! He probably doesn't even realize that I'm in no condition to answer him. At least open a window, please! No, he persists, telling me to shut up for Christ's sake, reminds me I'm in police custody! I'm in so much pain. In all this confusion, I can see the silhouette of my ancestor, beside himself!
Son, is this why you came to France? I'm afraid of the interrogation. All the years of nonstop questions have encumbered my brain. Who are you? Where do you come from? Did you work hard in school? What's it like where you come from?
I feel like I'm caught up in a whirlwind of chaotic images. Hazy thoughts are coming at me, one after the other in full force. They're like flashes of my life. I glimpse my ancestor rising up. He stands awkwardly. He is surrounded by the glow of the benevolent spirits. Hallucinating, his gaze extends beyond the living, his words, I can still hear them very clearly ...
You must always believe. Stay strong. Faith moves mountains. Don't be a bystander in life. No. Take it by the reins. Lay it down beneath you like a woman, a real woman with curves like a prayer pillow. Embrace it gently, at other times intensely. Seek out the source of life, where it pulsates, where it burns hot and humid, here, there, everywhere. The world is yours for the taking. Learn to feel out the world. Always give the best of yourself. Bite into it and don't hold back. Fear; leave it behind, far away from you. It will pass through you and continue its course. Walk like a God among men. Always consider what your actions say about you. Every step resonates; yours levitate! Be mindful of the way you carry yourself, especially when life punches you right in the heart, your body. Spit violently on the ground if you have to. Turn a deaf ear to the mean-spirited and narrow-minded. They can only drag you into the lair of regrets, jealousy, and resentment.
Aside from the words, there is also this presence that is difficult to describe. When the invisible ones come to me, they deliver each syllable directly into my soul, and this gesture charges them with even graver significance. It's such a powerful sensation that I can feel it under my skin, like the touch of a tender lover. My whole body is taken in by it, enlivened by these words.
Bite your lip when life gets too hard, when it gnaws away at those wounds buried deeply within you. You will never know loneliness. You are a link in the eternal chain, the hyphen without which everything else would fall apart. From time to time, allow yourself to get shaken up a bit, so that you can reconnect with your dreams, to the space of travel, to the immaterial world of those who have gone on before you. This is where you will find the keys to yesterday, today and tomorrow, discover the never-ending source of a good heart that knows how to love, console, and heal. Learn to channel this strength, this energy, because it can overwhelm you, and if you're not careful, lead to insanity. It is like a pool of black light in which images and solemn words dance wildly together.
This is what my ancestor liked to talk about, standing proud and exuberant in his dark blue suit, always barefoot, because there wasn't a pair of shoes in the world that hadn't been scared off by his deformed toes. With his words and deeds, he became, once more, fully alive. He beamed. In fact, long before me, it was probably he who had been in need of these long monologues, this food for the soul.
When you fall, get up again, wipe away your tears. You are a revolutionary. Like the earth, turn, turn, and turn again, never stop turning. Dare to enter into battle, and once you've finally overcome all the obstacles and elegantly eliminated your worst enemies, show yourself a winner. But always remain humble. Don't forget your history, where you come from, where you're going. Don't forget the bush, the jungle, the leopards, and the spirits who call and act above and beyond the chains of servitude. They are great because they have conquered death. Listen with your skin to understand these images, immerse yourself fully into them, they will guide you, like faithful, tireless geometricians.
Solemn and dignified, he picked up his shirt and discovered a light brown spot, imprinted on his skin, in the lower back. A ferocious black leopard had licked him there one day, just as he had done with his father before him. My grandfather, as the story goes, was a legendary hunter whose fury was such that he could make a wild cat urinate from fright. When his wrath thundered throughout the village, the entire region would steer clear of him, animals and White men alike.
Leopards used to rule this country, long before us. First, they chased us out mercilessly and then one day. ... No one really knows anymore. Son, leave behind your logic with your fine suit and well-polished shoes. We haven't found a way to explain it, but one thing is certain, we were discovered, some of us were in the bush and the jungle, others perched in hundred year-old trees. We had all been nursed at the breast of protective wild cats, whose gaze was earnest and gentle, and been caressed by their deadly velvet paws. It was that period that marked the beginning of the history of our country, the Kingdom of Kongo.
Stay fresh. Stay open and awake to the balancing act, the great art, the new adventure that is life, waiting for you. The tightrope walker that you are will have no trouble balancing above continents, worlds, and times. Stand tall, proud, smile and cherish life, it is your singular treasure. Be a craftsman of change for without this we won't amount to much tomorrow. It is time to get back to who we really are, to what we have always been.
Drissa is also here, tears in his eyes, fascinated. He is drinking the words of the ancestor, as though they were finally quenching and unburdening the profound thirst of his soul. I can see on his face a mixture of fear and anxiety. Mireille is here, too. These words have lulled her childhood and perhaps even saved her, brought her closer to whom she really is.
The ancestor continues. What would your grandfather say? Courageous, steadfast in his convictions, he fled the hell of the Congo-Ocean Railway, the bloodbath, every day there were new deaths! Yes Ma'am, dynamite in the anus, at work, nothing but a bunch of lazy black asses! All this so that, one night, you would wind up in a police station, no longer able to speak, your head in your hands. Don't play innocent with me. It's far too late for that!
I have a weird kind of soup in my mouth, a bit of snot, tears. I can't seem to spit it all out. Saliva and blood, running from my lips. The captain hits really hard once he decides to go at it. There must be a mistake, captain. I didn't do anything wrong, I was just partying. Stop treating us like idiots. It was you. Everyone saw you. We have witnesses.
The captain couldn't care less. It must be part of his training. He is scarlet red. I want him to stop. I want to lie down. I had too much to drink. My whole body feels sick. I don't even have it in me to change positions. I just can't. I can't coordinate my movements. A myriad of images are all whirling around, jostling about, creating this huge block between my brain and my eyes. It's been going on for so long now, I just can't keep up. A uniformed officer is trying to calm the captain down. I've seen this in the movies, one plays bad cop, the other good cop. Captain, black cat, slayer or scavenger? She holds him back. He might have killed me. Stop, please, otherwise, I'm going to explode!
Lady officer, you have nothing better to do than torture citizens? She is surprisingly pretty, a bit uptight in her unflattering blue pants. They make her look like a shapeless square, make her ass flat. I am trying to size her up, just like the ancestor taught me to do, trying to see what's in her heart, look beyond whatever it is she is giving off. Come on, lady officer, come out from behind that cruel legal mask you're wearing.... You're not like the captain, rejoicing. His soul is all dried up, all done up in his horrific looking duds. I spit you out officer. Today and tomorrow are like party time for him. He gets to leave his mediocre den. On the streets you don't even exist. I walk right past you and don't even see you. He is holding me up now. He adjusts his tie. He must be all excited. The hour of the wolf has come.
You too, my captain, I manage to get a glimpse of you out there in space. You know, my friend, I do business with the occult powers. I can already imagine you as a child, timid and clumsy. You suffered because of your height, your body and that dull complexion, which has been with you your whole life. Whimpering during those lonely nights, your fingers wedged between your legs, your soiled sheets, and your tears. You were that kind of kid who enjoyed sneakily torturing harmless insects. I can just see your sick jubilation.
I am off the hook. Quick snapshot, your bitterness as you grinded on your vengeance, leaning over protecting your treaties about personal privacy. Unpopular, starved for affection, your cruelty made you ashamed of yourself. It left you isolated, left you with a strange sense of self-satisfaction. Executioner's delight. You have decided that the other is a hateful and cynical pack. You're up in the front row, but you're all alone, the most scathing of the lot. You take off every morning as far away as you can go, secure in the comfort of the cold steel of your weapon, beating against your hip, perfectly following the rhythm of your day.
To be this cruel, this guy really has to be afraid of me! He tries to speak about me or about someone who technically resembles me. He's saying a bunch of things he must have learned by heart. He goes on, spouting off his prejudices, and I don't understand a word he's saying. Leave me alone. I have a headache. Officer, you are boring me to death. You're playing a broken record. The world isn't just about your Penal Code, your Bible, the daily news at 1 o'clock and at cocktail hour, and between football and the weather report, the disturbing brouhaha about the dark-skinned, kinky-haired youth. And let's not even talk about the worst of it, young girls prostituting themselves just about everywhere, which of course we know doesn't prevent you from enjoying your Sunday roast at your mother-in-law's. Look at me, me too, I have a family. Why don't you ask me how it's going sometime with a smile? Life isn't just all about you and your church and your bells ringing in the countryside, all done up in your new outfits, looking all spiffy. I'm the one talking to him now and not so kindly either. Think about your village. I stand up. Don't detain me. Open up your eyes.
This is a one-of-a kind scene, a trembling of humanity because in the quiet of the country everyone knows everyone for generations, everyone says good morning to everyone, baguette under the arm while leaving the bakery owned by the brother-in-law, before going to see your buddies at the counter of the local bar. All of a sudden there comes this hydraulic, metallic monster with breaks, mechanical technology, computing, and all the rest of it. It all culminates in the majestic RER that has essentially forever torn into the tranquility of these parts. This immense mountain of steel shooting into city hall, right at the foot of the blue-white-red flag and just before the monument honoring those who gave their lives for France. It is superbly decorated with obscene graffiti, indecipherable codes, filthy; it delivers its load of faces, of religions, and of colors during your precious campaigns. During business hours, the doors open to the sound of sirens, and quietly pour out their share of an eighteen-hour day. Out come the Rastas, a festival of baseball caps worn backward, all coming to a banquet of couscous and mafé stew, veiled women yelling joyfully, their piercing yoo-hoos, high-pitched guitars releasing diabolical rhythms, Kinshasa style, na lingi yo, a festival of bright-colored boubous doing the ventilator dance, mothers going about in a carefree manner, their horde of noisy, snot-nosed kids, one on each hand, one on their back, pregnant with twins and another one perched on top of their head. Adolescents, dressed in tight short outfits, moving their protruding buttocks; the way they move their curves could destroy a priest's career. Black frizzy hair, all greased up from the government family allowances. Come on captain, why don't you get a ticket and come to my country? Don't worry, I'll show you around the country of the leopard children, where the trees flirt with the sky, so tall they can almost touch it. On the way, we'll stop by my crib where we hang out and goof off in building hallways. I'll take you to a place where we live side by side with the dead. I'll teach you to speak to them, just like they do with me in my head, and you'll close your eyes and see the light, yes, the light before you, a few inches from your forehead! I'll tell you about Mireille and her all-knowing figures in my mouth.
Kamel is one of the last travelers. I've known him since our school-days and time in the sandbox. He shows up all dignified, Koran in hand. He wants to forgive the whole world, a real patriarch under that full beard, as dated as his outfit, because just recently, he rediscovered the road to the mosque. Unsure of his footing, he advances all the same in his babouche slippers. This is a real miracle for someone who, as a child, never imagined that there was any other will in the universe but his own.
Drissa is also coming to city hall, handsome, all smiles. Now he has gone and spoilt the whole picture, showing up in his young-immigrant-inner-city-kid outfit, the social case, psychologically unstable. Drissa, I'm sighing deeply, my friend, my brother, my refuge. The kids in the neighborhood say he's crazy in the head. Ever since the sanitized "white coats" took him away in his camisole while kids were dancing around a gloomy looking cortege, twisting themselves up in a kind of strange dance. Others were clapping in tempo. Today is a big day of celebration. A mother howls her sadness, hysterical, she rips off her outfit, piece by piece, tears, her hairdo a complete mess. Drissa, Drissa! Almost naked, she kneels down, raises her hands to the sky, they fall, she begins again, two times, ten times or more, again and again. In the end, there is only pain and silence. Police officers form a circle securely around his marabout uncle, a powerless witness to the scene. Drissa? Drissa, what happened to you?
Take all of that, all the same, Mister captain. It frightens your catechism to hear all of this, right? You're going on like you don't understand, index on your temple. Take off your uniform, your helmet; let's go party with the devils and Mami Wata, the female spirit of the waters! Shift into a higher gear and let's head to some of the world's more vertiginous heights. Take your courage by the hand and let's go, at least for a short while, get away from all your certainties!
I'm yelling and struggling. There must be at least five of them holding my mouth to the ground, filled with cigarette butts, "this guy is completely crazy" let me talk and scream, I finally have the words for what I want to say. Please, I don't want to hurt anyone. Totally panicked, take this idiot to his cell!
Excerpted from The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N'Sonde, Karen Lindo. Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFOREWORD / Dominic Thomas, xi,
THE HEART OF THE LEOPARD CHILDREN, 1,