In 2017, the French publisher Don Quichotte éditions published Véronique Tadjo's In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes), a slim powerhouse of a novel telling the story of West Africa's Ebola crisis from the perspectives of a wide variety of its survivors and victims: doctors and nurses and patients and family members, but also government officials and undertakers, bats and trees, and even the virus itself. This week, a little more than a year after the first case of Covid-19 in the U.S. was confirmed, Other Press published an English-language edition of Tadjo's novel. PW spoke with Tadjo about putting out this novel during a global pandemic, the storytelling traditions behind its structure, and more.
This book was originally published only a year after the Ebola outbreak ended. Now, its English-language edition is coming out in the midst of another pandemic. Has your perspective on this book changed since its original publication? How?
When I first wrote the book in French in 2017, Covid-19 was not in anybody’s mind. The two situations are not comparable. However, while doing research at the time of the Ebola crisis, I came to realize that many aspects of our lives were connected: the degradation of the environment, climate change, and our health. Reading medical experts ‘reports,’ it was easy to see that the threat of more epidemics to come was real unless structural changes were carried out in Africa and in the world in general. I am struck by how close to the bone some of the themes I develop in the book are to the situation we are in at the moment: the isolation and the loneliness; the tearing apart of family ties; the issue of trust in government; the violence and resistance at times; the heavy burden on the medical profession; the economic crisis; and so on.
The big issue today is vaccine equity. Because we are in a pandemic, a global solution needs to be found. Therefore a campaign for vaccines against Covid-19 needs to be put in place and recognized as a global public good. After a period during which vaccine nationalism took over and many governments from rich countries pre-ordered or ordered far too many vaccines for their populations, a system is gradually taking shape. The Covax international system aims to get coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that have been cut out of the vaccine race. Let’s hope that it will be a successful attempt at redressing an imbalance that puts the whole world at risk.
The novel is told from a multitude of voices. How did you come to realize that the novel required so many perspectives? Why did you choose this method of storytelling?
In a way, I have always written in this style. Right from my first novel As The Crow Flies (Heinemann, 2001), first published in French, I have adopted a non-linear approach. I find that it is closer to the way we live. We always have multiple stories in our minds. A soldier can be aiming at an enemy but at the same time wondering when he will ever go back home or if he will ever see his wife and children again. I also believe that we are what we are because of others. So you are never alone when you tell a story. Many voices interact.
The novel, at times, almost reads as if it is made up of first-person, nonfiction accounts of experiencing the Ebola pandemic. What sort of research did you conduct in order to flesh out the details of each character's experiences?
I read a lot in French and in English. I also looked for testimonies of Ebola survivors and medical staff involved in the fight against the disease. I watched television documentaries. I also discussed with doctors as much as I could and went to conferences. I became more and more interested in the social dimension of the epidemic. People had been affected in many different ways and each time I researched one aspect, it led me to another one. It was important for me to get as close as possible to what had happened on the ground. But I had one restriction: it had to be done through the medium of literature.
Some of your characters are not human—the Baobab tree most prominently, but also a bat and even the virus itself. Why did you choose to include these chapters? How did you need to think differently as an author when writing those sections? Were they challenging to get right?
I have been raised in the oral African tradition in which the storyteller can call on many different genres, from poetry, historical narratives, songs, myths to political language. Animals and nature connect with human characters on an equal basis. In many folktales nature speaks. So you could say that it wasn’t that much out of the ordinary for me to make non humans speak. It also suited my purpose very well because I wanted to show human beings as part of nature and not above nature. This way of looking at the world has also appeared in the works of a number of Western authors who influenced me. Jean de La Fontaine, one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century comes to my mind. I read his book of fables when I was young and I remember one in particular entitled “The Animals Stricken by the Plague” (les animaux frappés par la lèpre). I admit that in the case of the virus, it was a bit tricky because I did not want it to be the villain of the story. On the other hand, I wanted him to tell a few truths so I had to get the balance right. The bat attracted me because of its dual nature, mammal and bird. For me she is the symbol of complexity and the diversity of nature.
This novel is very attentive to the intersections of human development and the natural world, and the way human encroachment on nature leads to viral outbreaks. What's an example or two of something you learned while researching what humans can do to avoid, and be prepared for, pandemics that were particularly interesting or surprising for you?
Through my research I learnt how important communication was. Science alone cannot work. People have to feel empowered to fight against diseases. They hold a big part of the solution in their hands. But for this to happen they need to have confidence in their leaders. They need to trust the system. If they feel marginalized or if they do not have a good grasp of what is happening, they may retreat in false beliefs. Without adequate communication there can be resistance and protest.
I was also surprised by the importance that traditional medicine still holds. In fact, the majority of the Africans in rural areas and in many popular areas in big cities still consult a healer. This is because conventional medicine has failed. Big dilapidated hospitals are considered as places where people die. Added to this, medicine is expensive so most of the time people can’t afford the prescriptions they are given. Once scientists observed habits, they were able to seek the collaboration of healers. They trained them so they could influence their patients. They became active actors in the fight to eradicate the disease.
Which was the most difficult chapter for you to write from a technique perspective? From an emotional perspective?
From a technical point of view, the difficulty was to condense information that spanned the three affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I wanted to create a spaceless and timeless territory because viruses know no borders. Emotionally, it was the chapter on the dying mother because it was about religious faith in the face of death. Where was God? The other difficult chapter was the one about the lovers because I had the choice of “saving” the fiancée or not. After reflection I decided that a happy ending would not be appropriate. At times love cannot make miracles. But it certainly makes us more human.
Science and anthropology both inform this book significantly, but so does myth and folklore and music. What do you hope readers take away from the inclusion of oral storytelling and songs in a novel about a contemporary crisis?
Oral storytelling is ancestral and common to all the cultures of the world. This form of narration has the added advantage of touching several generations. For example, most folktales can be understood at different levels of complexity. A young person may grasp only one aspect of a tale whereas a more experienced person will be able to decipher the symbolism behind the story. It is very comforting for a writer to work from the premise of a universal genre. Tales are timeless therefore it is left to the storyteller to adapt them for a new audience. Also human beings’ survival on Earth remains a contemporary theme for literature.
Did any of your own lived experience influence this book? Can you share how?
I was born in Paris and raised in Abidjan. I am familiar with the West African region. It was a miracle that Ebola did not spread to Côte d’Ivoire as the country shares borders with Guinea and Liberia where I have travelled to many times. All the health restrictions were in place and everybody was on high alert. I have friends who are doctors and they were following events closely. We had long discussions. The health systems are more or less in the same dire state in the region. On one of my visits to Abidjan (I was based in Johannesburg at the time), I went to one of the Ebola centers that had been quickly built in the eventuality of an epidemic. It was located within the perimeter of a hospital in a popular area. There was a huge tree casting its shade over the building. I thought to myself, if Ebola had come to this city, what would the tree have witnessed? This is how the idea of Baobab was conceived.