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Dispatch from Brazzaville: A Look at Alain Mabanckou’s Etonnants Voyageurs

In piquant fashion, Siddhartha Mitter has written an account of the goings-on at the Brazzaville edition of Etonnants Voyageurs for the New Yorker. He describes the literary and political history of the city of Brazzaville, which sometimes mingled with that of its neighbour across the river, Congo Kinshasa (DRC). Currently, the differences are stark, as recounted by the DRC writers also present at Congo Brazzaville’s French-sponsored literary festival.

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US and France-based Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou is a co-director of the festival and managed to move it from Mali to the capital city of his birth country. Other Congo authors present at the festival included Emmanuel Dongala and Julien Mabiala Bissila. Papy Maurice Mbwiti A Bwanga and Fiston Nasser Mwanza represented Congolese writers from the DRC. Teju Cole, Helon Habila and André Brink were also present, as were a host of other writers, poets and filmmakers from parts of Europe and across Africa.

Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is an agreeable city with a frayed, low-rise commercial downtown, a hilly upscale district of hotels and embassies that stretches to the airport, and, radiating out in three directions, busy working-class quartiers where life goes on out of doors along rutted, unpaved side streets. The Congo River flows along the city’s southern edge, and across it one can see Kinshasa, the famously unruly capital of the separate and much larger Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre. The twin capitals share a great deal, including language and music, but their colonial and modern histories are completely different; as if to underscore this, there is no bridge across the river, only a ferry and smugglers’ canoes.

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