Emmanuel Dongala, Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve, Paris (Actes Sud) 2010

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Being born as a woman, do I always have to write as a woman? Or is it possible to walk in the shoes of a man, feeling, perceiving, writing as a man? Could changing gender roles in writing be, at least, a fruitful experiment in a world that suffers from misunderstandings and struggles between not only women and men, but different people of all sorts who pretend not to be able to leave their own once assumed standpoints?

Of course many writers have accepted the challenge. Yet, Emmanuel Dongala, a Congolese scientist and writer now living in the United States, has done it in a peculiar, politically relevant way. In an interview he says that, in his home country Congo-Brazzaville after the civil war, he suddenly realized that women suffer in a different way and, as he states, “a bit more than men”: they carry heavier loads and, moreover, almost always children on their backs, and they are constantly searching for food and shelter, not only for themselves but for their families, while men tend to choose the easier tasks and treat women as their subordinates.

Based on these observations Dongala has written a novel “Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve” in which he takes the perspective of a young woman, the main character Méréana, who lives in a big African city as a single mother of two boys and adoptive mother of her sister’s baby, after her sister Tamara died of Aids. – Yet, unlike other writers who are convinced to be able to see through women Dongala keeps a certain distance between himself, the writer, and his heroine. To do so he applies a simple, but very convincing trick: He writes the whole novel in the second person singular. So, the text appears to be a dialogue between a female protagonist and a man who comments on the life of this woman with great respect and empathy, but never forgets that there is a space in-between that he will never be able to cross.

The story is simple: a group of about fifteen women of different ages and backgrounds sells sacks filled with stones that they have carved on a riverside site, to building contractors. Knowing that the nearby airport is going to be restored they try to increase their very low income by raising the prices for their product. The dealers, however, refuse and it comes to blows. The police then interfere on the men’s behalf. Some women are wounded, and one of them later dies of her injuries. However, with Méréana becoming their leader, the women are successful at last: holding together, supporting each other, organizing demonstrations and sit-ins, which gets the interest of the First Lady and the TV news. Finally they are allowed to raise their prices and receive compensation for their injuries. So, at the end, they have enough money to hold a dignified burial for their colleague who has been killed, and each of them is able to start a small dream-project: a beauty saloon, a training in computer skills, a small business.

In the mentioned interview Emmanuel Dongala says that women are to take their fate in their own hands and fight for better life conditions. So, the novel can be read as an invitation to women to confront illegitimate power by claiming their rights, beginning with small everyday victories that on a very concrete level improve their often desperate situation. Woven into the narrative of the few days of active resistance are portraits of all the women: for example Batatou who flew from her home village where she had been married against her will to a much older man; Mâ Bileko, the successful businesswoman who, after her husband’s death, had been expelled from her home and robbed of all her property by her in-law family; Anne-Marie who had been comfortably living as the mistress of a rich man that suddenly abandoned her because of his wife’s jealousy, or Méréana herself who was not able to complete her high school diploma because of a premature pregnancy and later got divorced because, in her husband’s view, she cared too much about her deathly ill sister. Far from idealizing the women Dongala shows great respect for the difficulties, contradictions, constraints, prejudices and hopes in their different life stories that all, at least temporarily, end in the hard job of carving stones.

Yes, it seems to be possible for a man to understand women’s sufferings, fights and hopes. And their everyday pleasures, too: a refreshing shower after a hot dusty day, the intimate relationship to an aunt that looks after the children while the mother is fighting for her rights, the first drink with a man who will perhaps become Méréana’s lover, the warm body of a baby on the back… . Yes, it seems to be possible for women and men to walk in one another’s shoes through writing and respectfully describe the OTHER’s life.

Thank you, Emmanuel Dongala, for this true-to-life, promising novel!

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