The Austrian Riveter: Fiston Mwanza Mujila: An Introduction by J. Bret Maney

Fiston Mwanza Mujila defies tidy description. A poet, novelist, playwright, professor of African literature, anthologist, musician manqué, curator, incurable polyglot and émigré, Mwanza Mujila crosses disciplines, genres, and borders in life and art. Born in Lubumbashi, a mining centre in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1981, Mwanza Mujila has resided in Austria’s second-largest city, Graz, since 2009. A speaker of six languages, he writes his literary works primarily in French and – increasingly – in German, the language of his adopted country.

Mwanza Mujila rose to literary fame with the publication of his first novel, Tram 83, in 2014. Touted by The Guardian as ‘the Congolese novel that’s wowing the literary world’, the French-language work recounts, in rapturous, arpeggio-like prose, the adventures of ‘two friends, one a budding writer home from abroad, the other an ambitious racketeer, [who] meet in a notorious nightclub in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities’. The novel’s fictive city-state is modelled loosely after the history of Mwanza Mujila’s mineral-rich home province, Katanga, whose geological wealth has been disputed and pillaged by local, regional, and international malefactors since independence. Translated into English by Roland Glasser and published by Jacaranda Books in the UK and Deep Vellum in the US, Tram 83 was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize after winning the Etisalat Prize for debut African literature. In 2021, it became the most translated book in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The River in the Belly (Deep Vellum/Phoneme, 2021), his second book to appear in English, is a poetry collection made up of short poems and prose pieces the author calls ‘solitudes’. Originally published in a French-German bilingual edition by the Austrian indie press Thanhäuser, River’s jarring beauty, tonal shifts, and enigmatic politics are often as murky as the sediment-rich waters of the Congo River to which the book’s title refers. The collection explores coming of age in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of the 1980s and ’90s and the subsequent experience, in adulthood, of expatriation and homesickness. ‘I started writing this collection when I decided to resettle in Europe,’ the poet told me. ‘This book was, for me, an ablution, a rite of passage, a way of mourning my origins.’ The Ghanaian intellectual and Fellow of the British Academy Ato Quayson has deemed River, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation, a ‘new and provocative contribution to African Literature’.

While Central Africa undoubtedly serves as the major setting for his fiction, Mwanza Mujila considers himself both Congolese and Austrian. International press accounts sometimes overlook his Austrian-ness, preferring instead to double down on his Congolese roots or the romantic language of exile to describe his location in Europe, yet the writer himself is firmly implanted in the Austrian artistic landscape. He was recently named a finalist for ‘Person of the Year’ by the Kleine Zeitung newspaper and co-organised Graz’s ‘Weltwortreisende’, a trans-national literary festival. Moreover, Mwanza Mujila’s transnational art and perspective resist the fixity of mono-cultural labels. ‘I don’t feel European, nor do I feel African,’ he put it in a recent interview. ‘Being African is vague as an identity. But I do feel Austrian and Congolese, and more. To me, identity is dynamic.’ This distaste for the flattening effects of national labels and single narratives of origin and belonging is characteristic of a writer who regards language as an intemperate river, a site of flux, improvisation, and freedom, and who, in recent texts, such as the play Après les Alpes, has also begun to set his work within Austrian borders.

His second novel, La danse du vilain (‘The Villain’s Dance’), which came out during the pandemic, won the 2021 Prix Littéraire Les Afriques. Described by Roland Glasser as a dazzling follow-up to the ‘madcap world he so poetically depicts in Tram83’, its much-anticipated translation into English is expected in 2023 or 2024. A second volume of his poetry, an English translation of Kasala pourmon Kaku et autres poèmes (‘Kasala for my Kaku and other poems’, 2021), is also forthcoming from Deep Vellum/Phoneme. Translated poetry from other published collections, such as Soleil privé de mazout (‘Sun Low on Fuel’, 2016) and Craquelures (‘Cracks’, 2011), has appeared in anglophone literary journals, while his plays and recent edited book, Kontinentaldrift: Das Schwarze Europa (‘Continental Drift: Black Europe’, 2021), a groundbreaking anthology of Black European poets, are not yet available in English.

In interviews and elsewhere, Mwanza Mujila playfully declares that he originally dreamt of a career in music. ‘My first dream was to play sax,’ reads one of the poems in The River inthe Belly. While his preferred vocation has changed, Mwanza Mujila’s writing remains marked by a durable interest in musicality and the sonic properties of language. An influential early review describes him as ‘le musicien des mots’, or the ‘word-musician’. Less a metaphor than a strict description of his craft, Mwanza Mujila’s rapprochement of words and musical forms is borne out by his many collaborations with jazz musicians and orchestras, from the Berlin Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester to his involvement on the experimental jazz album On boit Lumumba (‘We Drink Lumumba’). Of Graz, his adopted Austrian hometown, which has a well-established music scene, he extols: ‘its concerts – jazz, jazz, jazz, and free jazz!’

By J. Bret Maney

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