Veronique Tadjo

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Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 3,644 words

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About this Person
Born: July 21, 1955 in Paris, France
Nationality: Ivorian
Occupation: Writer
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Latérite (Paris: Hatier, 1984); translated by Peter S. Thompson as Red Earth/Latérite (Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2006).
  • A vol d'oiseau (Paris: Nathan, 1986); translated by Wangui wa Goro as As the Crow Flies (Oxford: Heinemann, 2001).
  • Lord of the Dance: An African Retelling (London: A. & C. Black, 1988; New York: Lippincott, 1988); French version published as Le seigneur de la danse (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes, 1993).
  • La chanson de la vie: Et autres histoires (Paris: Hatier / Abidjan: CEDA, 1989).
  • Le royaume aveugle (Paris: Harmattan, 1990); translated by Janis A. Mayes as The Blind Kingdom (Banbury, U.K .: Ayebia Clarke, 2008).
  • Mamy Wata et le monstre (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes / Vanves, France: EDICEF, 1993); translated as Mamy Wata and the Monster (London: Milet, 2000).
  • Le grain de maïs magique (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes, 1995); translated as The Lucky Grain of Corn (London: Milet, 2000).
  • Grand-mère Nanan (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes / Vanves, France: EDICEF, 1996); translated as Grandma Nana (London: Milet, 2000).
  • Le bel oiseau et la pluie (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes, 1998).
  • Champs de bataille et d'amour (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1999; Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes, 1999).
  • L'ombre d'Imana: Voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda (Arles: Actes Sud, 2000); translated by Véronique Wakerley as The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda (Oxford: Heinemann, 2002).
  • À mi-chemin: Poèmes (Paris: Harmattan, 2000).
  • Masque, raconte-moi . . . : Une histoire de la Côte d'Ivoire (Abidjan: Nouvelles Éditions Ivoiriennes / Vanves, France: EDICEF, 2002).
  • If I Were a King, If I Were a Queen (London: Milet, 2002).
  • Reine Pokou: Concerto pour un sacrifice (Arles: Actes Sud, 2004); translated by Amy Baram Reid as Queen Pokou: Concert for a Sacrifice (Banbury, U.K .: Ayebia Clarke, 2009).
  • Ne me laisse pas mourir (La Rochelle: Éditions les Arêtes, 2004).
  • Ayanda: La petite fille qui ne voulait pas grandir (Arles: Actes Sud junior, 2007).
  • Loin de mon père: Roman (Arles: Actes Sud, 2010).
  • Nelson Mandela: "Non à l'apartheid" (Arles: Actes Sud, 2010).

OTHER

  • Elechi Amadi, Les grands étangs, translated by Tadjo and Sylvie Tournade (Paris: Hatier, 1993).
  • Vuyokasi Matross, Le géant gourmand, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Amanda Jespersen, La petite chèvre perdue, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Lindi Mahlangu, J'ai peur, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • "La nounou," in Les chaînes de l'esclavage: Archipel de fictions, edited by Daniel Mallerin, Michel Boudon, and others (Paris: Florent-Massot, 1998), pp. 333-346.
  • Mirna Lawrence, Miam-miam, le bon fromage!, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Christopher Hodson, La chanson de Lizo, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Beverley Burkett, Bâiller, c'est contagieux!, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Sally Ward, La visite de Dorothée, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Elizabeth Littlewort, Le matelas magique, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Monika Hollemann, Les bonnes ruses de Caméléon, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Dianne Hofmeyr, Hic . . . hic . . . hoquet!, translated by Tadjo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Talking Drums: A Selection of Poems from Africa South of the Sahara, edited by Tadjo (London: A. & C. Black, 2000; New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2004).
  • Richard Mabala, Fille de lionne, translated by Tadjo (Nairobi: UNICEF-ESARO, 2004).
  • Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa, edited by Tadjo (London: A. & C. Black, 2006).

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

A poet, novelist, and painter, Véronique Tadjo is not only one of the first women from the Ivory Coast to publish poetry in French but also one of the first Francophone African women to write and illustrate books for children, thereby following in the footsteps of traditional female storytellers. She is also one of the first Francophone African women writers to include explicit portrayals of sexuality in her adult poetry and novels, mingling scenes of heterosexual intimacy with references to African and global politics and social issues.

Tadjo was born in Paris on 21 July 1955 to a French mother who was an artist and a father who was a government official in the Ivory Coast. She was raised and educated in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, earning a B.A. from the University of Abidjan. She returned to Paris for her graduate studies and received a maîtrise and a doctorat de troisième cycle in African American literature and civilization from the Sorbonne. In 1979 she began teaching English at the Lycée Moderne de Korhogo in the northern Ivory Coast. In 1983 she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to continue her research in African American studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She returned to the Ivory Coast and taught English until 1993 at the National University in Abidjan. In addition to France and the Ivory Coast, she has lived in Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, and Great Britain; as of late 2010 she resides in South Africa.

If, as Tadjo has stated, Léopold Sédar Senghor can be counted as one of her literary influences, it should be possible to locate traces of this founding father of the Négritude movement in her first work, Latérite (1984; translated as Red Earth/Latérite, 2006), a three-part prose poem that was awarded the Agence de la Coopération Culturelle et Technique (Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation) Literary Prize. But where Senghor's black African woman is a mute mythical figure in his well-known poem "Femme noire" (1945; translated as "Black Woman," 1964), Tadjo's speaker proclaims herself a witch whose words can make rivers flow within. In a prophetic tone conveyed by the exclusive use of capital letters, the speaker addresses a "BUFFALO MAN / DREAM MAN," "PANTHER MAN," "THE STRENGTH OF MY HEALING," capable of "BRINGING FORTH SPRINGS," "INSEMINATING HOPE," and "BREAKING CHAINS." In the second and third parts of the poem, however, the lovers have parted, and despair threatens to reduce the witch to "A FRIGHTENED YOUNG GIRL."

Tadjo continues to innovate in both form and content in her second book, A vol d'oiseau (1986; translated as As the Crow Flies, 2001). The twenty-one chapters of the text comprise ninety-one vignettes and range in length from one line to several pages. The first epigraph to the work exhorts the reader to love "To the ends of the earth / With no shortcuts /. . . as the crow flies," but the first five vignettes tell the story of a "sordid" adulterous affair between the narrator and her lover. The lover's wife sees them leaving a hotel, and his marriage ends in divorce. Although the location of the affair is not specified, vignette 6 places the narrator at Howard University. Vignette 8 associates a ghetto in the American capital with the muddy streets of the Marcory neighborhood of Abidjan, a "city suffering from its ills." This technique of juxtaposing widely divided places is used throughout the work.

Just as the narrative freely traverses space like the flying bird of its title, it also disrupts linear conceptions of time. The second epigraph declares the impossibility of telling the story in a linear manner: "Indeed, I too would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end. But as you know only too well, it is never like that. Lives mingle, people tame one another and part. Destinies are lost." In vignette 19 time "moves counterclockwise and somersaults backwards," allowing a flashback to the memory of a disturbing scene in which a schoolgirl narrowly escapes sexual exploitation by an older man because he decides that she is "too young." Vignettes 20 and 21 portray the death of an older man; the reader is left to speculate as to whether he is the same person as the man in vignette 19.

In addition to crossing temporal and spatial boundaries, A vol d'oiseau also breaches generic ones by including elements of the traditional tale. But the narrator refuses to identify herself with the griot, the customary keeper of oral tradition charged with the transmission of history and literature. In vignette 53 she declares, "Here, there are no longer griots, but poets," thereby emphasizing the mostly nontraditional content of the tales. The vignettes do, however, retain some traditional characteristics, such as compactness, supernatural occurrences, and didactic elements. For instance, in vignette 63 a miraculous child is nourished with his parents' hope that he will rebuild "the cities destroyed by violence and oppression," only to betray that hope in his manhood when he rapes a girl who gives birth to a gigantic mushroom cloud.

This grim allegory about betrayal of trust and abuse of power can be read in the light of the final section of the epigraph, where the narrator addresses those who do not like what they see when they look in the mirror. Those tired of their failings will gather strength from their scattered weaknesses and with their common humanity will combat "the blight raised into royal edifices on the dunes of silence."

The children's book Lord of the Dance (1988) is Tadjo's homage to the art and customs of the Senufo people of the rural northern Ivory Coast. In this recasting of the 1963 English hymn by Sidney Carter, the Lord of the Dance becomes a Senufo mask. The mask exhorts children not to be ashamed of their traditions and promises to guide them if they become lonely in the big city. Tadjo illustrates the prose poem in the style of Senufo art, adding colors to the browns, blacks, and burnt-red vegetable dyes of the traditional Korhogo cloth. In La chanson de la vie: Et autres histoires (1989; The Song of Life: And Other Stories), another work for young people, Tadjo also uses pen-and-ink drawings reminiscent of Senufo art to illustrate tales evocative of the oral tradition.

Le royaume aveugle (1990; translated as The Blind Kingdom, 2008) is an allegorical novel about an abusive monarchy of blind invaders who overrun and occupy an unnamed country. King Ato IV divides the country into a drought-stricken rural north and a prosperous south, locating the seat of the empire in a polluted city. That city is divided between the haves--the blind--and the have-nots, called the "Others," the residents of the shantytowns who have left their villages to find work. Akissi, the king's daughter, falls in love with Karim, who comes from the north and whose efforts to bring about change lead to his execution. Through her love for Karim and the healing powers of the Mask, Akissi gains her sight and gives birth to a new generation who will, perhaps, carry out Karim's dream of a free land no longer divided between opulence and misery. In assigning a Baoulé name to her southern heroine and a Muslim name to her northern hero, Tadjo points to the geographic, ethnic, and religious divisions in the Ivory Coast that led to civil war in 2002.

Tadjo published most of her children's books between 1993 and 1998. In Mamy Wata et le monstre (1993; translated as Mamy Wata and the Monster, 2000) a one-eyed monster is eating the villagers. When Mamy Wata, the queen of all waters, hears him crying in his cave, she sets out to make him happy by inventing games and teaching him to sing and dance. He bursts out laughing and changes back into the young man he was before, and the villagers he had swallowed up reappear and return home safe and sound. The young man decides to live with Mamy Wata forever. In making Mamy Wata a healer, Tadjo rewrites traditional portrayals of the water goddess as a seductive and destructive siren. In 1994 Mamy Wata et le monstre won the UNICEF Prize at the Dakar Biennial of Arts and Letters and received honorable mention for the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa; it has also been listed as one of the one hundred best African books of the twentieth century.

In Le grain de maïs magique (1995; translated as The Lucky Grain of Corn, 2000) Soro's parents give him a lucky grain of corn, but a guinea fowl steals it. As Soro chases the bird, he meets many people and animals who offer to befriend him; but he rejects their overtures. When he catches up with the guinea fowl, she grants him a wish. Soro wishes that he could see all of the people and animals he met while running after her. The guinea fowl cannot stop laughing at the paradox.

The title character of Grand-mère Nanan (1996; translated as Grandma Nana, 2000) loves all children, and they love her. She can relate the family's history, knows all about medicinal plants, and uses a statue to communicate with a spirit in the other world. She has a doll unlike any other, from which she never parts. When night comes, she puts her doll in her lap and watches the sun go down. Grand-mère Nanan combines photography, painting, and textiles. In Le bel oiseau et la pluie (1998, The Beautiful Bird and the Rain) a bird with gorgeous plumage pierces the clouds and ends a drought. "La nounou" (1998, The Nanny) is a short story about a child sold into slavery who runs away from her masters and returns to her village.

Champs de bataille et d'amour (1999, Fields of Love and Battle), like A vol d'oiseau, portrays the successes and failures of love between two people and the difficulties of living in contemporary Africa. It uses a series of tableaux to alternate between the perspectives of Eloka and Aimée; these tableaux are longer and more developed than the vignettes in A vol d'oiseau. While the dust jacket proclaims that Aimée is white and her husband, Eloka, is black, there is little physical description of either character--although Aimée is described as blond; but unlike some other Francophone works that portray mixed couples, Champs de bataille et d'amour does not attribute the difficulties facing Aimée and Eloka to ethnic or cultural differences. Rather, the ills evoked in Tadjo's previous adult works threaten their happiness by psychologically and emotionally exhausting them: "they felt like prisoners in a city that was becoming tyrannical. The streets were dirty, poor, and dangerous. Battalions of street children roamed about, their eyes ablaze"; Eloka is "wounded" by not knowing what to do to change the situation; Aimée is "slowly drowning" in the city, ready to be "swallowed up" by its crowds.

Aimée and Eloka are particularly disturbed by reports of the Rwandan genocide on television and radio and in newspapers. This event situates the narrative in 1994 and constitutes the lone chronological marker in the work. After meeting a Rwandan refugee and listening to her story, Aimée has nightmares. Eloka loses his faith in God when faced with the fanaticism displayed by the Rwandan Hutus and worries that war will break out in his own country, which is not named in the novel. The coarse and broken song of an old Rwandan refugee woman pierces Aimée and Eloka with its intense melancholy. While despair threatens to overwhelm the couple, the final tableau offers the possibility of serenity as Aimée and Eloka decide to redefine their dreams and trace new objectives.

In 1998 Tadjo had participated in a project titled "Rwanda: Écrire par devoir de mémoire" (Rwanda: Writers and the Duty to Remember). Ten African writers were asked to spend two months in Rwanda and write about the aftermath of the genocide. Tadjo's contribution was L'ombre d'Imana: Voyages jusqu'au bout du Rwanda (2000; translated as The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda, 2002). Tadjo argues that "what had happened in Rwanda concerned all of us. It was not solely the problem of a people lost in the dark heart of Africa. To forget Rwanda after the sound and the fury meant to become half blind, mute, handicapped. It was to walk in darkness with outstretched arms so as not to collide with the future." She asks, "Are you ready for this unthinkable rendez-vous with death distorted by cruelty? Because one day, one must look oneself in the face, set out in search of one's own fears buried beneath an apparent tranquility." Tadjo encounters this apparent "tranquility" on her arrival in Kigali, where everything appears to have returned to normal but where, she realizes, the destruction lives on inside the people. Tadjo collects the stories of victims and perpetrators alike. Instead of moralizing, she searches her own conscience and asks, "During the night of total blindness, what would I have done if I had been caught up in the escalating massacre? Would I have stood up to betrayal? Would I have been cowardly or courageous? Would I have killed or would I have allowed myself to be killed?" By posing such questions, Tadjo intends to show the reader that "Rwanda is in me, in you, in us. . . . It is despair and the desire to live again. Death that haunts life. Life that triumphs over death." At the end of the book she reiterates that "hatred sleeps in all of us."

Tadjo published Talking Drums: A Selection of Poems from Africa South of the Sahara in 2000. While ostensibly for children, this anthology, with illustrations by Tadjo, combines traditional and contemporary works that appeal to adults, as well.

In À mi-chemin: Poèmes (2000, Midway: Poems) Tadjo meditates on loneliness, regret, and decay. Loneliness "has no borders"; "childhood goes to waste / runs through the streets / for a few coins /and to rifle through the trash." Midway through the journey of her life, she calls on herself to "Forget the memory / that retains you/and keeps you from going forward," "Forget that yesterday / everything was possible," "Forget / your old ideas / your used shoes. . . . Loneliness has never left you." The speaker's declaration of passion is followed by an image of her lover's coffin being lowered into the ground. Was he one of the nine men whose executions are vividly portrayed in the poem? The speaker does not say. In the final poem in the volume the speaker exhorts readers to live life to the fullest, despite the ills that may afflict them, warning that there is "only one love story that we dress and undress . . . with our words and our hopes . . . only one moment of grace in which to be reborn and rebuild a world against all odds."

In 2002 Tadjo published the children's book If I Were a King, If I Were a Queen, with her own paintings of African royalty from Benin, Congo, the Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda. Accompanying each portrait is a conditional statement that begins "If I were a king [or queen], I would. . . ." While some of the sentences are simple wishes, others appear to admonish African leaders to take action: "If I were a king, I would fight to protect nature and I would respect the animal kingdom," says one king. Another "would abolish poverty. There would be no more street children, no more beggars." The king of Uganda "would immediately stop all wars," while the queen of Madagascar "would abolish North and South, East and West, leaving just one world."

Reine Pokou: Concerto pour un sacrifice (2004; translated as Queen Pokou: Concert for a Sacrifice, 2009) portrays an African queen for a mature readership. The colorful paintings of African royalty that illustrate If I Were a King, If I Were a Queen give way to spare pen-and-ink hieroglyphs that head the chapters of a tale that rewrites the legend of Abraha Pokou, the ancestral queen of the Baoulé people. According to the version of the story made familiar by the Ivory Coast writer Bernard Dadié's Légendes africaines (1954, African Legends), the raging Comoé River impeded the passage "of our brethren" who were fleeing their enemies. After the queen sacrificed her infant son to the waters, a line of enormous hippopotamuses formed a bridge that allowed the people to pass. When the queen reached the other side of the river, she cried "Baouli!" (The child is dead!) and thereby gave the Baoulé people their name.

In an epigraph Tadjo recounts that she first heard the story at age ten and imagined Queen Pokou as a sort of black Madonna. A high-school history textbook explained that the queen and her partisans fled the Ashanti kingdom following a war of succession in the eighteenth century. For Tadjo, Pokou then acquired the traits of a warrior queen leading her people to freedom. Now, writes Tadjo, in a period of violence and war Pokou appears in a more somber light. Hungry for power, the queen will do anything to secure her ascendancy. But Tadjo's revision of the legend revisits the scene of the sacrifice several times to solve "the enigma of this woman." In one version the queen follows her son into the water and becomes a siren who seduces men and women, stealing their will to live. In another Pokou refuses to sacrifice her son, is caught by her enemies, and is sold into slavery in the Americas. In yet another the queen makes the sacrifice and then loses her sanity, which is restored when she is given a sculpture of her son that embodies his spirit. In the final version Pokou willingly throws her son into the river; when the child's father protests, the queen has his throat cut. Despite this grim vision, in the final chapter of the work a bird-child spreads its wings and takes to the sky. Seeing the pain and suffering of the people below, he implores the gods for clemency, dives down from the sky, and destroys a long black serpent that embodies death. The final line of the work reads, "He has vanquished the beast." Reine Pokou thus ends on a hopeful note, as do all of Véronique Tadjo's works.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Interviews:

  • Jean-Marie Volet, "A l'écoute de Véronique Tadjo, écrivaine," Mots Pluriels, 11 (1999) <http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1199tadjo_int.html> [accessed 18 January 2011].
  • Stephen Gray, "Véronique Tadjo Speaks with Stephen Gray," Research in African Literatures, 34, no. 3 (2003): 142-147.

References:

  • Isaac Bazié, "Au seuil du chaos: Devoir de mémoire, indicible et piège du devoir dire," Présence Francophone: Revue Internationale de Langue et de Littérature, 63 (2004): 29-45.
  • Madeleine Borgomano, Voix et visages de femmes dans les livres écrits par des femmes en Afrique francophone (Paris: CEDA, 1989).
  • Odile Cazenave, Rebellious Women: The New Generation of Female African Novelists (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000).
  • Irène Assiba d'Almeida, "L'enfant au coeur des stratégies d'écriture des poétesses africaines," Nottingham French Studies, 40, no. 1 (2001): 63-74.
  • d'Almeida, "Véronique Tadjo: Toward a Loftier Ideal," in her Francophone African Women Writers: Destroying the Emptiness of Silence (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994), pp. 154-168.
  • Georges G. Gnakpa, "Véronique Tadjo, Joachim Bohui Dali, Tanella Boni: Promethées pour une redéfinition de la féminité africaine dans la poésie ivoirienne," dissertation, University of Connecticut, 2004.
  • Cécile Lebon, "Author Spotlight: Véronique Tadjo," Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature, 36, no. 1 (1998): 51-53.
  • Lebon, "Véronique Tadjo: Voyages en tous genres littéraires," Notre Librairie: Revue des Litératures du Sud, 146 (2001): 50-52.
  • Beverley Ormerod and Jean-Marie Volet, Romancières africaines d'expression française: Le sud du Sahara (Paris: Harmattan, 1994).
  • Micheline Rice-Maximin, "'Nouvelle écriture' from the Ivory Coast: A Reading of Véronique Tadjo's A vol d'oiseau," in Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, edited by Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 157-172.
  • Jean-Marie Volet, "Peut-on échapper à son sexe et à ses origines? Le Lecteur africain, australien et européen face au texte littéraire," Nottingham French Studies, 40, no. 1 (2001): 3-12.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200014228