In Review: Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop

Jessie Stoolman on the first book ever to be translated to English from Wolof, an indigenous language of Senegal.

Doomi Golo is the first book to be translated into English from Wolof, an indigenous language widely spoken in Senegal. In its interesting linguistic journey, the Francophone author Boubacar Boris Diop has also personally translated the novel from Wolof to French.

The protagonist Nguirane Faye’s six notebooks written for his grandson compose the heft of the novel. One of the many iconic passages in the book tackles a central question facing the decolonizing world:

I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death.  It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing.  Life, after all, is not born out of the void.

Every aspect of Diop’s masterpiece, from its content to choice of language to its translation, addresses this struggle to preserve marginalized identities in a globalized context. It is unsurprising that this pioneering novel was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award 2017, founded by Three Percent.

Interestingly, Diop decided to translate Doomi Golo from Wolof after being “inundated with requests,” according to Vera Wülfing-Leckie, one of the two translators of the English version. Adding intrigue to the situation, Wülfing-Leckie notes in her captivating introduction that some scholars argue that the French version, entitled Les petits de la guenon, “was a new novel that merely bore close similarities to the original.“ As for the English translation, Wülfing-Leckie mainly worked with the French version. However, El Hadji Moustapha Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop’s son and the second person in the translating duo, consulted the Wolof version as well.

Apart from the interest sparked by the novel’s language (and translations), its scope is also awe-inspiring. No rock is left unturned as Diop masterfully weaves through the continuing changes that colonialism (and resistance to it) have engendered in postcolonial Senegal, revealing a multifaceted landscape that defies categorical definitions.

Speaking mostly from the perspective of those left behind, Diop’s novel revolves around the experiences of communities affected by immigration. With his beloved grandson, Badou, gone to find opportunities abroad, Nguirane uses the notebooks as a platform to share the experiences and lessons that he could not impart to Badou in person. Nonetheless, from the outset he makes it clear that the written word was his last resort:

I would have preferred to talk to you face-to-face, of course, like any storyteller worthy of that name. Then I could have made your heart beat faster and challenged you with my perplexing riddles. You would have had to look for clues buried deep under the ocean and spend many nights patiently searching for them to unlock their secrets.

But, I am writing to you, since that’s my only option. I must confess that without that, I wouldn’t give a damn whether I was alive or dead.

For Vera Wülfing-Leckie the novel suggests “that orality and the written word can coexist and even complement each other,” which “is not the only indication that Nguirane Faye is no ordinary African Elder.” Putting aside the archetype of “ordinary African elder,” which requires more unpacking than what was afforded in the introduction to Doomi Golo, it is certainly clear throughout the novel that Diop wants the relationship between orality and the written word to take centerstage. The fact that the text continually engages with this question, just enough to provoke the reader’s curiosity without displaying clear adherence to one definition or another, leaves the space for interpretation wide open.

What remains clear is Nguirane’s belief that oral traditions possess a visceral, literary potential not achievable by the pen, as noted in the citation above. In the same vein, he later argues that the spoken word requires an extra commitment from the storyteller, and thus writing becomes a more accessible platform for revealing certain harsh realities:

“This is the very first time I have told this story to anyone.  Am I doing this because I have sworn to keep nothing hidden from you?  No doubt. But, I also have the feeling it is easier to unburden oneself by means of the pen than through the spoken word.”

The unstable dynamic between orality and the written word is further solidified in the only notebook written “with a single stroke” of Nguirane’s pen, entitled Ninki-Nanka, a Fiction. The story follows Atou Seck, a character invented by Nguirane, as he struggles to survive civil war in Senegal.  Nguirane was inspired to pen this story while watching the fictional president, Daour Diagne (designed to mirror Senegal’s third president, Abdoulaye Wade) “pushing our country to the very edge of the precipice.” Orality’s singularity is again affirmed during one of Atou Seck’s dreams, which follows the relationship between a grocery store owner, Rodrigo Mancera, and Baboon (another mirror character, meant to reorient generic colonial representation of African people), both living on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Baboon recites the great epic of his people and tears well up in his eyes. Soon his feelings of sadness will cause him to shed floods of tears. Down there, the old people never tire of telling the younger generation these stories, he says ecstatically, and Rodrigo Mancera can see in his friend’s eyes how much he is missing the forest all those miles away on the other side of the ocean.

Clearly Diop acknowledges that oral traditions constitute a parallel literary form to the written word. However, here he also emphasizes that the (location-specific) histories responsible for engendering and preserving orality relegate it to a different expressive sphere. Thus, again, Diop opens the possibility for infinite negotiations of the interplay between the spoken and written word as time progresses.

Importantly, Diop does not forget to note the particular contribution of women to oral traditions, which perhaps comes unsurprisingly in a book that begins with and repeatedly insists “shame on the nation that doesn’t listen to its little girls.” On the novel’s first occasion of a change in the narrator, a villager from Nguirane’s hometown, Mbering Saaj, takes over and retells the village’s history, highlighting the role that women played in combating a tyrannical leader:

Only our women dared resist, albeit not openly.  They did this by composing songs with a double meaning – in a slightly altered form, we still hear them today – mocking the cowardice of their brothers and husbands in the fight against the Lion of Mbering-Saaj. Surreptitiously and with great cunning, they also ridiculed the tyrant himself while pretending to extol his courage and integrity.

Whether or not you agree with Wülfing-Leckie’s reading of the relationship between orality and the written word in Doomi Golo, her introduction’s breadth is certainly laudable. Not only does she include critical literary analysis, but she also provides a brief history of literature in African indigenous languages as well as essential background information on the author himself. Of particular interest is the fact that Diop has accepted teaching and residency positions throughout the African continent and regularly spends time in Senegal, which, according to Wülfing-Leckie, makes him unique among other African intellectuals since he “has purposely always kept a foothold on the African content.”

Adding to the comprehensive nature of the introduction, Wülfing-Leckie details the evolution of Doomi Golo, commenting on how Diop has differentiated himself from other authors who write in Wolof, because he “tried to give the contemporary, largely illiterate, Wolof audience access to Doomi Golo by turning it into an audio book, re-oralizing it in a way.” All this despite already taking “the ‘painful, difficult, ambiguous decision’ to write in his own language, perfectly aware he was essentially writing for a future audience.”

In a way, Diop’s insistence on using Wolof and extending his particular usage on as many platforms as possible is a manifestation of Nguirane Faye’s sage advice.  Early on in the novel, Nguirane counsels Badou to “never forget, please, that the present lives in the heart of the past.  If you don’t want time to run away from you again, be sure to catch them both in the palm of your hand and remember to close your fingers very tightly around them.” Meaning, Diop’s reclamation of a particularly marginalized “past,” that of the language before colonization, represents a key step in the declaration of his (and perhaps other community members’) agency and personhood.  Furthermore, Nguirane’s engagement with varying conceptualizations of time, specifically its heterogeneity, reappears consistently throughout the text.  This is a topic not uncommon in postcolonial work, with scholars like Partha Chatterjee arguing in his seminal piece on Benedict Anderson, Anderson’s Utopia, that “[t]he real space of modern life is a heterotopia… Time here is heterogeneous, unevenly dense.”

No passage depicts more viscerally the viciousness of cyclical time than the moment when the witch-doctor, Sinkoun Tiguidé Camara, explains to one of the novel’s main antagonists, Yacine Ndiaye, the consequences of her decision to be converted into a white woman. According to the witch-doctor, since Yacine has “the Lake of Oblivion” to reach “the other side of Life,” she must give up one of her children. Unwilling to accept the exchange, Sinkoun Tiguidé Camara explains:

There are no traces left on the bodies, because all the signs have dissipated. Entire cities are perched on the clouds, and the bottom of the lake is sprinkled with starts. It’s chaos, Yacine Ndiaye. Pure chaos. Yesterday and today never stop chasing each other and time is biting its own tail.  Time has left a trail of blood in its wake.  Can you see it?

Obviously the circularity of time is a curse for Yacine Ndiaye, who lambasts all things associated with her identity in hopes of climbing a manufactured racial hierarchy, placed firmly within a linear understanding of time.

Nguirane Faye, always the astute one, reveals at another moment that there is a way of overcoming the tyranny of circular time. After divulging the shocking revelations of his trip to Mbering-Saaj, where Nguirane hoped to learn more about his ancestor Mame Ngor, he imagines a conversation between himself and Badou, during which Badou insists that he cannot resist the eventuality inherent to cyclical time:

“Nguirane, you love talking to me about mirrors all the time.  Now it’s my turn to tell you that Mbering-Saaj has held up a mirror to you.”

We continue chatting about Mame Ngor for a little longer, and I say to you “The grave I searched for in vain in Mbering-Saaj is somewhere else. When you are back in Niarela, I want you to go and find the place where the ancestor was laid to rest.  That will be the starting point of our family history.”

This seems to give you fright. “What you are asking of me is beyond my strength.’

‘Don’t get me wrong.  Remember that time is circular and the ancestor is not yet born. It’s yourself who have [sic] to give birth to him”

Here Nguirane confirms that if Badou reclaims his past, rather than attempting to ignore its existence, like Yacine, then he will control the beginning of his history—the stories that shape his personhood. Understood in a colonial or postcolonial context, Nguirane affirms that the imposed trajectories of colonial time do not dominate modern time space, as other parallel narratives, shaped by the people themselves, also exist, thus reaffirming Chatterjee’s heterotopia. Here, Badou also notes another reoccurring theme in the novel, the mirror, which serves as a kind of foil, reflecting subtexts not obvious to the naked eye.

In one of the early manifestations of the mirror as man, perhaps Nguirane himself, uncovers “the biggest mirror he has ever seen in his life,” which “throws back at him an entangled mass of bodies, twisted and intertwined like the gnarled branches of the baobab.”  Not wanting to see the dead and adolescent bodies the mirror reproduces, he curses it, to which the mirror replies “He who can satisfy you has yet to be born, Sons of the Earth! You can cope with almost anything except the solitude of the grave, and nothing in the world terrifies you as much as death. So why are you complaining about these flashes of eternity I am offering you?”  The mirror adds, “If I shatter into a million pieces, you won’t just be plunged into death and desolation, but into something infinitely worse: nothingness and everlasting silence.” Not desiring this outcome, the man assures the mirror, “I want to dream. Please let me visit the place where time can neither go forward nor back!”  This takes us back to a central question in Doomi Golo, how to define the Self (Senegal) with many Others vying to dominate? The answer is: look inward—breathing in the winds of the past, so as to exhale a future which is the the Self’s/Senegal’s own making.

Jessie Stoolman is Editor-at-Large, Morocco at Asymptote. She currently works as a language educator in Tetouan, Morocco and intermittently contributes to transnational research projects, when possible.


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