David Diop’s guide to writing an award-winning novel
The French author in conversation with his English translator, Anna Moschovakis, and Assistant Professor, UPES, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, talked about his book ‘Frère d’âme’ (‘At Night All Blood Is Black’), which won the International Booker Prize 2021
It is not every day that International Booker Prize winners give a detailed account of their writing process, the techniques they used, why they chose a specific title, and the books that inspired them. UPES in collaboration with the French Institute in India brought French author David Diop and Anna Moschovakis, who translated his book ‘Frère d’âme’ in English (‘At Night All Blood Is Black’), on one platform. The book won the International Booker Prize 2021.
The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book, translated into English, and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The £50,000 prize was split between David and Anna, giving the author and translator equal recognition.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Assistant Professor, UPES School of Modern Media, moderated the event; Uma Sridhar was the translator for David for the session. Excerpts:
Jaya: Literary awards help catapult authors, and in this case, translators in the limelight. They increase discoverability. The Booker Prize holds a special place in readers’ hearts. It not only enables voracious leaders to discover new literature, but it also enables new readers to uncover different kinds of literature. In fact, in the classes that I teach at UPES, I have my students looking for literature in these ways.
What prompted you to write ‘At Night All Blood Is Black’?
David: It was a series of letters by French soldiers, which were collected by historian Jean Pierre Guéno. These letters written by young soldiers from France were touching and poignant. Since I come from two cultures, I wondered if there were any letters written by Senegalese infantrymen.
More than 30,000 Senegalese infantrymen had died on the battlefield in France during the First World War. I looked for letters written by them but found impersonal administrative letters, none of which showed their intimate connection to the war.
So, my first idea was to invent i.e. to write a fictional letter. But, finally, I decided to write a book. I created a person who did not speak French, giving readers a stream of conscious character.
Jaya: Did you choose the ‘stream of consciousness’ as a literary technique because it fitted the war atmosphere the best or did it enable you to inhabit the grey area between the written structured form and the spoken word?
David: I chose the stream of consciousness technique for two reasons: the first was technical, to make my readers understand that the character does not speak French. But I wrote in French.
I chose to find a rhythm to the French language, which would go with the rhythm of the African language, Wolof. The second reason is that the stream of consciousness technique allows readers to be closer to the character in a situation of extreme violence.
Jaya: Ana, you have brought a sensitive understanding to the English translation of the book. For me, this novella is powerful even though it is a fictional construct.
I don’t know whether you did it consciously or not, but I found that some of the adjectives in the opening pages were being mirrored in the penultimate pages, a fascinating way of encasing this powerful story. It was as if it was going back into time; there is a repetitive element.
Anna: One of the things that the book does so well is in the way the structure and form connect to the content using limited vocabulary. A small number of words and phrases are used throughout the book. I certainly paid attention to mirroring as the French do. I did what the book did. The kind of power that comes from the repetition of those metaphors or phrases gives the effect of the inescapability of the reality of the situation.
Jaya: Why did you change the title?
Anna: Frère d’âme contains a pun in French that incorporates the idea of a brother of the soul with a brother of arms or a brother in the war. And both, ‘brother in arms’ and the soul brother exist, but they have specific meanings. You cannot combine them in English in the same way.
Sometimes, for marketing reasons, the publishers will change the title. At times, I have fought to preserve a more literal translation of the title of the original.
But in this case, it seemed like so much would be lost if we did that; it wouldn’t have the poetry of the French title. Hence, in conversation with my editor, I began to keep track of other phrases from the book that we thought might work as a title.
I had a list of the names and one of them was ‘At Night All Blood Is Black’. I felt like it could work even though it was so different from the actual title.
But David has his own story about this. (laughs)
David: Actually, ‘At night All Blood Is Black’ was the title I had thought I would give the book in French. Finally, I decided to keep Frère d’âme. I think the English title is perfect; it suits the book very well.
Jaya: This whole concept of ‘soul brother’ is what you find at the core of many war novels. The book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ published in 1929 is seen by many as a seminal text in the genre of war stories of young soldiers who are voiceless. It also talks about society in normal circumstances, like you have done, but also what happened in the war.
How much do you think has war literature evolved? Were there any war novels that influenced your writing?
David: I was lucky in the sense that I never came to know war or encountered something similar. But war literature, for me, reveals extreme kinds of situations, and it also explains how traumatic incidents affect the young generation.
The book which inspired me was ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ in French by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Another book was ‘The Bloody Hand’ written by Blaise Cendrars, a Swiss poet and writer. He had participated in the first world war, and this book manages to place the reader in a borderline situation. I also think that we can go back to Iliad written by Homer, a poignant text which shows the fine barrier between human and inhuman.
Jaya: Ana, how long did it take you to translate this text from French into English?
Anna: I don’t specifically remember. It is a condensed novel, but there were times when in the quest of the translation, I did feel overwhelmed that maybe I would not get to the end, but that did not happen. I was working on it part-time; I am not a full-time translator. So, probably, over a year.
Jaya: David, for how long did you do the research? And how did you know when to stop and start writing?
David: I had read many historical documents before writing this novel, but I did not take down any notes because I wanted to conserve my effective memory. I read a lot of documentation, but mainly I read a thesis on Senegalese infantrymen written by a historian. After I had finished reading, I let my thoughts rest like dough. But I cannot tell you exactly when my thoughts had ripened enough to start writing.
Jaya: Could you tell us about the repetition of the phrase ‘God’s truth’ when the protagonist utters it?
David: The repetition of this phrase underlines the strong emotional tension which the character is feeling at that moment. It also helps in lending a certain rhythm to the French language.
Excerpts from the book ‘At Night All Blood Is Black’:
…I KNOW, I UNDERSTAND, I shouldn’t have done it.
I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old, old, man I understand, I shouldn’t have. God’s truth, now I know. My thoughts belong to me alone, I can think what I want. But, I won’t tell. The ones I might have told my secret thought to, my brothers-in-arms, who will be left so disfigured, maimed, eviscerated, that God will be ashamed to see them show up in Paradise and the Devil will be happy to welcome them to Hell, will never know who I really am.
Watch the full session here: