I worked for the Dutch publishing house De Arbeiderspers for a number of years and during that time the husband of translator Liz Waters, Rowan Hewison, would periodically turn up at the office to collect (rejected) foreign titles on behalf of the non-fiction writer Lieve Joris, who spends much of her time travelling. I never found out what she did with them - until now. I also now discover what Lieve has been up to in China and about her next book.
MH: Lieve, what did you do with all those foreign books we gave you, instead of sending them back to the publishers?
LJ: I took most of them to Congo. All the books in French went there; I took the books in other languages to other countries, but in Congo they can’t read English, for example, only French. I’d travel with two large suitcases and choose an airline that didn’t worry too much about excess baggage. If they complained I’d spin a story about being a writer and needing all my books, travelling with my library. They usually let me through.
MH: How did you distribute the books?
LJ: Last time I went I made a selection beforehand and knew which people I was going to give what to. I took a copy of my own book The Leopard’s Dance for the manager of a textile company I know. I’d written the book in his complex in Kinshasa. There is very little access to books in Congo, only through bookshops attached to churches really. I lay out a table with the books for whom I didn’t have specific people in mind and let my friends choose what they wanted. They put together a waiting list so you could sign up to for the books which are circulating.
MH: So there really are very few books there?
LJ: There is not a real reading culture in Congo anymore, former President Mobutu destroyed that. I was shocked at first by the way they’d pick up the books, crack open the spine and write all over them. They’d come back to me with lists of questions about the book’s contents and I realised they were studying them the same way they’d learned to study the bible, the only book they knew. They wouldn’t read from beginning to end but open pages at random.
MH: What did you gain from the book-giving?
LJ: It was a good way of forming a connection, something outside of us that we would have in common. I have often given people copies of Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium. They knew us from the outside, as colonialists, but not on the inside. That book was an eye-opener for people like my friend Kabongo who is the head of the French national broadcasting service. I also introduced the Congolese to Ryzsard Kapuscinski. Books show that moral dilemmas are universal.
MH: Lieve, your approach to travel writing is to use other people’s experiences as a kind of mirror. For example, you discover Belgians through Congolese eyes and in your new book you are looking at China through African eyes and vice versa. Can you tell me more about that?
LJ: I became interested in the Africans living in China. It was richer way of looking at the country, of broadening my perspective. When I integrated their gaze into my own it was a relief, it gave me the new project I was looking for, since I’d come to the end of a story in Congo and I felt that the sequel would be in Asia. The relationship between the Africans and the Chinese is still so fresh, and not tainted by colonialism. Some Africans heard from their grandparents stories about the Chinese being so poor that they were forced to eat each other; so they are amazed by what they have achieved over the past fifty years. Especially if you compare it to where they are themselves fifty years after independence.
MH: Which location do you set off from in the new book?
I start in Dubai since that is the first place the Congolese come in contact with Asia through trade. It’s a tax haven and the gate to Asia. The biggest traders and factories are in China so that’s where they go next. Many go to Guangzhou in the south so I went there first and talked to the small businessmen doing things like having ten thousand t-shirts printed and flying back and forth. They go there to buy and end up staying and learning the language. Next I went to the cities where there are African students. I also talked to middlemen, a successful martial arts champion, African actors in Chinese films, an African who became good at speaking Chinese at high speed. They have a quiz show where you have to do that and he’s one of its stars. In Jinhua I met Shudi, one of the main characters in the book. One of the other characters is Cheikhna, a Malinese who lives in Congo-Brazzaville. I visited him in Brazzaville where the book ends.
MH: Are the Chinese actually colonising Africa, as some people say?
No, that’s a European take on it, we still feel competitive, like we missed a trick. It’s a complex development, all that’s happening there with the building of roads and infrastructure, and the export of essential resources. There are certain dangers but the Chinese see Africa as a business opportunity and that’s a healthier and more respectful relationship than the aid industry we Europeans set up.
THANK YOU LIEVE JORIS!