Seynabou Sonko: “We are the white specialists! “

Jinns, the title of Seynabou Sonko’s first novel, can be translated from Arabic as “spirit”. And wit, there is plenty in the book by the author born in 1993. The true meaning of the word is found in an excerpt: “According to sura 51 of the Koran, the jinns, just like men, were created by God to worship him […]. Good or bad, they can take the form of plants or animals, mainly snakes, even mentally or spiritually possessing a human being. »

Djinn and schizophrenia

“Djinns”, by Seynabou Sonko, was published by Grasset editions. © Editions Grasset

A jinn is the trigger of the plot. That of Jimmy, the neighbor of Penda – the narrator –, interned in a psychiatric hospital. Medical diagnosis: schizophrenia. This does not convince Mami Pirate, Shango and a whole gallery of colorful characters who will hatch a plan to get him out of there.

The peculiarity of the jinn of Penda is that he is “white, of the white kind from white”. A choice that Seynabou Sonko, met in Tangier, Morocco, during the Traveling Literature festival, explains to us: “In novels, a character is white by default. One of the questions I asked myself is: how to let it appear that the character is black without saying so? Does it involve using Wolof or Bambara words? Do I have to write a scene where I describe her hair so that people understand that she has an Afro haircut? Then I decided it would be over simple to assert that the other was white. »

To readCarlos Martens Bilongo: “That’s being Black French. No one respects our presumption of innocence”

This jinn is a color marker, but not only: “It’s symbolic, I use it to talk about racism in France. These are intuitions. In everyday life, I don’t rationalize them, or people don’t listen to me, because it comes from a feeling. I wanted to transform it into something indisputable, in such a way that we couldn’t dismiss the experience as paranoia. »

In a comparison with boxing, Seynabou Sonko, who practices the noble art herself, writes that forgetting that you are a black woman is like letting your guard down: “I should be used to racist remarks but, every times, I’m surprised. I can’t understand how anyone can be so stupid. What inspires me in writing is to put myself in the place of the other, whether he is dominant or dominated. ” Which leads her to a disillusioned observation that she draws with humor: ” Racists, I’ve seen so many … I have empathy for them. I know their mechanisms almost better than they do. It is us, the specialists of the Whites, so much they violate us. We know how they think. »

Drugs or iboga root?

To cure Jimmy, two methods oppose each other. The traditional one, using the iboga root offered by Mami Pirate. The other, psychiatry and its chemical drugs: “I wanted to show that the two are not equal. The shrink looks down on Mami Pirate. Beyond medical practice, this divide illustrates the in-between in which Penda navigates, at the origin of a feeling of strangeness that pursues her in France but also in her country of origin, that she visit at the age of 12: “It’s simple, when you’re Senegalese, if you don’t have your hair done, you’re not married, you’re either on drugs or an artist. No Senegalese worthy of the name shaves her hair. »

To readFatou Diome: “I fight identity assignment”

This trip has an initiatory significance for the character: “This time I understood, nothing was more tiring than having to justify one’s existence, whether on one side or the other of the Mediterranean. My ambition was elsewhere, in a place where things would have more importance than beings, where the invisible would be used to imagine a new world, worthy of being made visible. ” Remarks supported by Seynabou Sonko: “The idea, perhaps utopian, is to break down borders. In France, what is expected is to take a stand on questions of identity, where I choose complexity, nuances, a certain form of spirituality. Iboga is also a way to cleanse the soul of resentment. »

Autobiography? No thanks

The question of the autobiographical scope of the first novel inevitably arises, but Seynabou Sonko denies it: “Penda, it’s not me. She borrows certain aspects from me in her way of looking at the other characters, of describing her surroundings rather than talking about herself, of getting to know herself by evoking others. But fiction allows me to have a boldness that I wouldn’t have in life, and to get out of a determinism social, policy. I can create a space of freedom. »

The taste for words, Seynabou Sonko cultivates it in Jinns, his first novel, but also through music, under the stage name of Naboo: “I started writing songs at the same time as I started writing, around the age of 13. Her musical influences come from her older sisters, who “listened to zouk, RnB, American rap on MTV and later watched Star Academy”. At the same time, she read novels at the Documentation and Information Center (CDI) of her school, where she discovered the trilogy Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. And she follows side roads thanks to an encounter: “A supervisor of the college started to lend me books for adults, like The postman, by Charles Bukowski North, by Louis Calaferte, King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes. Full of sulphurous books. I felt like it was forbidden. Bukowski is trash, and although we have nothing in common, I took a big slap. »

To readBernardine Evaristo: “I don’t want to be a slave to history”

This taste for letters guides him in the choice of his higher education. As usual, she goes where you don’t expect her: “I grew up in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, I attended all my schooling, up to high school, in the capital. I decided to go to Saint-Denis, to meet people who looked like me, while all my girlfriends wanted to study at La Sorbonne. »

A course in the suburbs which opens its horizon: “I then discovered Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Sony Labou Tansi, Maryse Condé… Whereas I had spent the majority of my adolescence reading white authors. I realize that there are people who write and who look like me. And yet, she finds herself going against the grain when it comes time to get her master’s degree: “My friends from the suburbs had only one goal in mind, to continue their studies in Paris. They left, mainly to the Sorbonne Nouvelle. »

Between rap and literature

Today, Seynabou Sonko projects himself both in his second novel and in a musical production. His influences can be detected in his opus, which opens with lyrics from PNL, and borrows the title of the chapter “Vréel” from Kekra. She likes “the way they use the language with great freedom”. Rappers inspire him, because listening to rap allows him to “work on his technique”. She immediately clarifies: “But I don’t rap at all, I have a voice, this ability to go into the bass and treble. Right now, I’m composing with a beatmaker and I’ve found the way to make music that suits me best. It looks like futuristic RnB. She concludes with a sentence that Penda could have uttered to describe her relationship to the world: “Musically, I have the impression of being double. And so much the better, because the pleasure of reading and listening to this highly talented author is thus increased tenfold.

Jinns, by Seynabou Sonko, Grasset, 173 pages 18.50 euros

Seynabou Sonko: “We are the white specialists! ” – Young Africa