A talk with, Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: Olaudah Equiano and descent in hell in the land of human rig
` Flashmag host as guest star this month a talented writer. Régime Mfoumou - Arthur, committed artist has for motto “wobble the world with words." In what follows, she tells us more about her life of her works, while giving her views on current topics.
Flashmag:Hello Ms. Régine Mfoumou Arthur, can you introduce yourself to the public and readership of Flashmag? We would like to know more about your background?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: I was born in Cameroon and I spent my teenage years in Paris where I studied at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, until a doctorate in literature in 2001. In fact, I had an unusual course of study.After a high school diploma in accounting, I started studying English economics and eventually I found myself taking a Master’s degree in American civilization before returning to literature in 1997, after the discovery of an author that would change my destiny and even academic work, Olaudah Equiano. After graduating, I worked many years as a teacher and translator in Paris and in London. I also wrote several books, including a political essay and a novel. Since 2011, I have been the managing director of a publishing house "Rhema Publications."
Flashmag: As a translator you became well known by translating a historical narrative that of Olaudah Equiano (1745? -1797), an autobiographical work written by himself in London in 1789."Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African: the exciting story of my life published in Paris by L'Harmattan in 2002.''Why did you choose this book and author, we remember that it was the subject of your doctoral thesis in English literature in 2001?
Dr. Régime Mfoumou Arthur: As I mentioned earlier, Olaudah Equiano is a character that changed the course of my life. In fact, during my studies, I translated works for a publishing house. One day, I was given an English version of Equiano’s book to prepare a note reading. That was in June 1997. In fact, I wanted to do my PhD in continuity with my DEA (equivalent to Diploma of Advanced Studies), namely, to study the economic situation of the African-Americans in the 1990s. But reading the story of Equiano will totally change my orientation. It was the first time I literally heard a former slave talking about slavery. I was probably going through a phase of questioning in my personal life as well... you know, internal revolts, which we sometimes face when living in a foreign country. In short, the courage to see such a character facing adversity was a bit like a personal response I received from him at that time of my life. I always remember that I was telling myself that: if Equiano was able to escape and move forward despite the horror of slavery, I therefore had no right to give up. So when I was about to start my doctorate thesis, I could not identify a subject. I know this seems paradoxical because in general the topic studied during the year preceding the thesis is the one developed during the years of the thesis. I was so indecisive that the first time I met my future university mentor, Serge Soupel, I told him about this book that I could not take off my mind. He said why not and asked me to make a presentation. At our next meeting he confirmed the account of Equiano as the main subject of my thesis. I remember it like it was yesterday because I was so happy that I left his office so fast that I forgot my umbrella despite the pouring rain, which I noticed only when at home.
Flashmag: The Life of Olaudah Equiano, a contemporary of Soubise, will passion you at the point that you’ll almost make a series out of it, since in 2005 and 2006 will be published the books’’ esclave Olaudah Equiano les chemins de la liberte”(The slave Olaudah Equiano, the paths of freedom )''. Olaudah Equiano la passionante histoire d’un esclave affranchi’’ (Olaudah Equiano and the fascinating story of a freed slave) Why have you focused on his life? Do you think it was a way for you to try to give another ameliorative view of the African different from the general perception of the West?
Dr. Régime Mfoumou Arthur: in fact, between 2002 and 2006 I published three
different versions of Equiano’s account. As you see, my enthusiasm has continued to lead my actions vis-à-vis this exceptional author. The purpose of these publications was simple: the first version translated and published by L'Harmattan (like the other two versions) was a full version of the original story. It’s truly the version I translated for my doctoral thesis with some minor amendments made for the purposes of publication and a long introduction that I wrote using my research. The second version, published three years later, is actually an abstract. Equiano's story has two volumes and parts of the book are redundant. I wanted to give readers a version available to the broad public, shorter and therefore purged of insignificant details. However, for this version, I have tried to keep the message of Equiano. Finally, a year later, at the request of the publishing house I rewrote a version adapted for young readers, which was naturally published in the youth section of L'Harmattan. And the book selling quite well, becoming a French reference of Equiano’s account, my publisher received an offer from Mercure France (that belongs to Gallimard publishing company) to buy the rights to publish my translation. Such an offer could not be refused. That is why a pocket version was published in 2008. Ultimately, circumstances lead me to many publications. Nevertheless, work is performed continuously since the first publication of 2002, as I have always participated in conferences, research, debates on Equiano to date. I am also regularly informed of progress on Equiano through his foundation. I am in regular contact with the president of Equiano Foundation. Finally, the publications that I have produced on Equiano’s book are not intended to provide a different view of the Africans in Europe. No, they were primarily designed to promote the man, his courage and his message. Now I want to believe that these values that I have admired since I discovered him can actually help improve the image of Africans in the West.
Flashmag: How, the saga of Olaudah Equiano can help new generations of African and Afro-descendant throughout the world?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: You know, today we live in a world that has become increasingly cruel. The reality of discrimination or racism should no longer be hidden. However, the message of Equiano gives hope .We must not allow adversity to triumph over us, and we have to believe in ourselves. That’s the reason why I’m attached to this message. We must have faith! Faith that things will always change on our favor. Faith to believe that Africa and the Africans are not cursed as I have often heard. I am an Afro-optimist and nothing will make me doubt that our potential has not yet been expressed and exploited, both materially and intellectually. But in recent years, there has been some improvement! And, like Equiano, we must begin to do ourselves what we let others do for us today. Equiano is the only former slave to have made a speech in front of the Queen of England at his time, despite the fact that slavery was not abolished in England. He certainly suffered, cried, doubted, etc... but above all he knew and believed that by writing his memoirs himself, he could help his generation. It did not only help them, since till today the impact of his action has permitted his work to be studied in the most renowned English and American universities. Furthermore since my French translation some schools in Africa have also introduced the study of Equiano’s account. Lately, I received a message from Burkina Faso reporting that a cyber café bearing his name was built. In short, we must carry the torch and do our part to impact our generation in our turn, like Equiano and many others did before us. For this purpose, we must stop thinking that we are less intelligent, less competent, and lesser than others... I am avoiding the term “inferior” which I find very demeaning. We must believe in ourselves. If you live in a dirty house, you cannot feel at ease, and take the easiest solution which is to spend your time with your neighbor who keeps his clean. We must begin to believe in our values to make them attractive to ourselves first, and then to others. How many Africans and African descendants spend their time criticizing Africa without lifting their thumb to try to change things? And when Westerners try anyway, often to our disadvantage because they do not come to us first for love, but out of interest, the only thing that these Africans will do, is to criticize their actions. It may be time to start investing for future generations. I speak of the intellectual, cultural, social as well as material investments. I know so many people with a PhD in France today who simply do odd jobs to survive, while their knowledge and intellectual ability can help develop their home country, to get things done. There, I can already hear some talk about the political instability and lack of democracy in Africa. Yes, but... talking without trying to do anything cannot move things forward. In 2010, I wrote a political essay in which I denounced the misdeeds of a Cameroonian politician that I took as an example to tell the Cameroonian youth not to vote without knowing who they would vote for and why, and to be especially demanding vis-à-vis their politicians. The book received a wonderful welcome and I was surprised to see people recognize my courage. What courage? For me it was just a citizen action that had no particular merit. I confess that when I met the press in Cameroon, I was surprised to hear some accuse me of having been paid by the Cameroonian government to write this book. Because I do know that my action was constructed for the purpose of public safety, I do not consider unfounded remarks. The most important thing for me was to say what I thought was right, to help the society move forward by educating the youth to whom I ask to take responsibility and begin to make their politicians accountable in this book.
Flashmag: Speaking of your most recent book ’’Descentes aux enfers au pays des droits de l’homme’’ (Descent into Hell in the land of human rights) a metaphoric title if one thinks, what is it about?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: It's a novel I wrote in two years. I thought a lot about the situation of Africans in Europe. The problems associated with immigration are great plagues many suffer from, once in a foreign land without really talking about it. It is a work that breaks taboos and surprises, because people expect pity. Sometimes you have to empower people. They should no longer decide to leave their country to go to another, just because others have done so or feel tempted to. In short, this book is primarily aimed at African youth inclined to immigrate to Europe. Then it is also for those already in the West because they have some responsibility on what happens in the minds of young people back home. In short it is a book that allows you to think about what Europe has become for immigrants ... I won’t tell you the whole story ... (laughs). Flashmag: One would think that France had failed in its civilizing mission, and that it’s trying to give itself a role that it cannot play, since France is not be free of any blame in the domain of human rights? Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: Today, the economic situation throughout the world has made France and other Western countries not to be open as before. It's time to say it openly. We should not continue to pretend that the Western El Dorado is still operational. And before the harshness of life, do not expect compassion neither from France nor from other Western countries. You know, it's human: when one suffers, the other soon becomes the scapegoat. This is where the boundary of human rights can easily be crossed. Watch the news in France, Italy, and England. Immigration (in general, as for England, for example, it is more from Eastern Europe these days) is considered as a source of socio-economic problems. But when you look really closely, are immigrants most likely to cause these problems in the society they are living? Similarly, when they are involved in a case, are they always treated decently according to the code of human rights? I believe that today, the issue of respect for human rights is problematic in the West and I’m not the one who says so, but the facts that we regularly see on television or read in newspapers.
Flashmag: What do you think of the right of humanitarian intervention, which was adopted in the 1990s by the United Nations, some believe that it's just a tool of international policy to which some Western powers have the means to impose their diktat, especially as interventions on the grounds of human rights have often given way to other humanitarian disasters, including the loss of lives such as recently in Libya?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: I usually refuse to talk about politics in interviews, but I will answer in a few sentences. If there is a policy of humanitarian intervention, it is good, because it prevents some leaders to engage uncontrolled actions against the people they are supposed to protect. Now, that this right applies only in certain parts of the world and by some countries only, often for reasons sometimes unjustified, then you are entitled to wonder. While a Nation like Libya sees his leader ousted the way it happened, I find it sad because I am also a historian. What will remain of that leader who was deposed? We all know that the collective memory easily retains failures than successes. While I am for democracy and I think it was time it applies in Libya, I do not think things were done the right way, especially since I do not believe that the bombing of the Libyan by the West was simply motivated for the love and wellbeing of the Libyans. In fact, are strategic and economic interests not the real reasons for this interference? Will the Libyan people really enjoy the benefit of such interference? The future will tell. I honestly hope that the sovereignty of States will come first, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Just look at what happened in Ivory Coast following the last presidential elections. It is outrageous that in the post-colonial period, the issue of a post-election conflict has to be ordered by France. At what cost for Ivory Coast? Again, the future will tell.
Flashmag: You opened your publishing house based in London Rhema Publications. Was it a way to give you more freedom? As to what it would seem some publishers are too creepy about publishing some books have you ever suffered a refusal from a house, or suffered some pressure to water down some of your manuscript? What is the philosophy of your publishing house what kind of authors do you publish?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: Well, Rhema Publications was founded in London and later in Paris, although the publishing world is very difficult and competitive, especially because there are already many "majors" that reduce the visibility of small publishing companies like mine. But I started this venture knowing what I was doing. Being in the publishing industry since 2002, I learned to edit books. Like many writers, I experienced the refusal of manuscripts. Similarly, I went through the pressure to sweeten manuscripts. In 2008, I experienced it with my novel ’’Descentes aux enfers au pays des droits de l’homme’’ (Descent into Hell in the land of human rights), which a Parisian publisher had agreed to publish under a different name at the time, and then wanted to change my text by having it rewritten by an editor. I refused to sign my name on a work entirely written by another person. Three weeks later, the publisher canceled my contract. The case was brought before the courts naturally. And once the trial ended, I resumed writing the novel myself and more than a year after I published it through Rhema Publications, which also allowed me to launch the company. Now, it’s not only to self-publish that I choose to create Rhema Publications, because I could have gone to another publisher, or publish without using that type of structure.
I also have to admit that, because of the difficulties I experienced when I wanted to publish my first book I was encouraged to make this happen. Creating this publishing house is my way to meet the expectations of authors who are struggling to publish their first book. And sometimes when they are able to find a traditional publisher, the company is not always willing to push their work by defending it, giving it a high profile. For me, a publisher must accompany the book, give it a real promotion. But today, the lack of commitment of most publishers unfortunately forced many authors to have to promote their writings themselves, which reduces the margin of appreciation between the authors who are normally supported by a traditional publisher and the self-published authors. To remedy this, the perspective of Rhema Publications is clear: any manuscript accepted by our reading board will be supported, prepared and followed conscientiously, with the active participation of its author. Basically, we want to celebrate the book, encourage writing and promote literature in general. We are ready to work with authors who share our editorial policy. We remain firmly anchored in our slogan: "Let’s wobble the world with words!" This means that we are very selective and are looking for authors who want to impact their environment or the world with ideas and strong messages. However, Rhema Publications is not limited solely to the publication of books: we also organize cultural activities such as the Black History Month Festival that we held in London last October.
Flashmag: From the point of view, have you thought about committing a book on your years of hardship as an African students in the West, because you've worked hard to achieve your goals, so this could become a reference that can benefit generations future of students emigrants? What do you think of the Gueant draft, which intimated foreign students to return to their home country once they graduated?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: At the moment I do not intend to write about my years of struggle. Maybe one day, if I write my memoirs. But I’m always ready to speak about my life experience when I meet young people at my lectures. The Guéant draft has absolutely nothing new. I remember, in the early 2000s, I worked as a translator for a communications company in central Paris. A journalist from Ivory Coast who worked there also, had to leave his position because his student stay permit (valid for one year) had expired. He went to the Prefecture to renew it, but to his greatest surprise he was shown a list of a number of French nationals who were applying for the type of position he held. He was working part time (20 hours per week) to pay for his education and living cost. He was denied his permit and was asked to return home because he had just finished his studies despite the fact that the company was ready to endorse him to obtain a residence permit. Personally, I had to renew my student permit thirteen times, before obtaining a permanent one. Was it normal? Can you imagine the frustration? Sometimes queuing for hours in the cold... and fearful. Why do you think I studied ten years in university? Probably also because by continuing my studies I was guaranteed to have my student permit! And believe me, every year, I used to ask for the permanent permit, but I was always sent back to the students department. If you give up, you're finished... that is France too! What is happening today, as I said before, is nothing new except that some countries have more and more difficulties to conceal certain realities.
Flashmag: as a committed writer what is your philosophy of life? How would you like to help build a better world? What should African and Afro descendants do, so that they can find a place well deserved in the comity of Nations and Peoples?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: I think having gone through all that only made me stronger because now I'm pretty down-to-earth. I lead a simple life without artifice, but I try to project my optimism on the others. Trials can destroy you or build you. The most important thing is to never forget who you are. From the moment you do not let others define you; you will always get back on your feet. From the time I started and finished university, I had never had anyone to tell me to get up and go to class; I had no one to pay for my rent so I was working while studying. I didn’t have predefined objectives that, is why I got out of university with six degrees, including two Masters and a PhD. And... I had a busy social life with people of my age. While I am not asking everyone to do like me, I'm simply trying to state that, I never let the circumstances dictate my behavior, much less undermine my spirits. But my eyes were always set on the tunnel exit. Today, young people can get discouraged so quickly, because when things go against their plans, they look for shortcuts. Shortcuts can extend the journey, unfortunately. That is why, in my writings, I always speak to young people in particular.
For a better world, young people, mostly the Africans and African descendants living in the West should no longer accept being boxed or limited by the society. If it's bad in the West, my friend, go home with pride and see what you can do on site... Let me go back to Equiano who is an undeniable example for his generation. Imagine a slave who manages to make a speech in front of Queen Charlotte of England in the 18th century. Why does his work have a greater influence on people while he was not the only African, slave or not, to write at that time? It’s simply because he was the only writer of African descent to have the courage to tell his white contemporaries: "I do not want you to correct my text, even if it is poorly written. Let me say my message as it is! "Why? Because he knew he could better explain his own experience. My message to the Africans and Afro-descendants is to stop being consumers. Begin to explore around in order to become producers! Flashmag: A word towards the public to close the talk?
Dr. Régine Mfoumou Arthur: To those who are reading me today, I want to say that we have a duty to fulfill for future generations: the change must begin with us. Becoming active players, the builders of our destiny. Let’s firmly believe that Africa and the Africans are not doomed to mediocrity. For this purpose, we need to stop pointing fingers at others and start working constructively for a united Africa, a developed Africa, and a better Africa. In my opinion, it's also how we will make others to change their opinion of us.
Flashmag: Flashmag and its readership, thank you for this talk kindly granted to us.
Note: the book (Descentes aux enfers au pays des droits de l’homme) “Descent into Hell in the land of human rights” is available via, Rhema publications http://www.rhemapublications.com
Interview realized by Hubert Marlin Jr.