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16 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:08pm

David Diop Q&A: “I don’t have a theme tune. I like songs to take me away from me“

The French novelist reflects on the work of Nelson Mandela, being painted by Chagall and 18th century French literature. 

By New Statesman

David Diop was born in Paris in 1966 and grew up in Senegal. He is a professor of literature at the University of Pau. His second novel, “At Night All Blood is Black”, won the 2021 International Booker Prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

My very first memory seems to be in utero. I know it’s impossible. But I remember a dark translucent light, a reddish hue, muffled sounds. I probably reconstructed it later, but even so I like the idea of it.

Who are your heroes?

Nelson Mandela. I thoroughly admire him, how he managed to reconcile people, and help enemies to not kill one another through his simple presence, through his charisma, through his words. I especially admire his power of forgiveness.

What book last changed your thinking?

Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil, or “Travels to the Country of Brazil”, by Jean de Léry. He narrates his arrival in the 1550s in what is known as the Bay of Rio, and his first encounter with the local indigenous population. His description of them, of their ritualistic cannibalism, of this presentation of savagery, constitutes his first encounter with the “other”, and despite his worries initially, when he goes he regrets leaving them. We’ve got to remember that at the time there were the Wars of Religion in France. The book shows the illusion of the progress that is made and our representation of the “other”. At all times, people can and have overcome prejudice. In that sense there has been no progress: every generation is new and must overcome prejudice.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

French literature in the 18th century: it is my domain, my field. I particularly love reading Voltaire and Rousseau.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m fond of the present. I wouldn’t like to live anywhere but on Earth: I couldn’t live on Mars, for instance. If I had to live elsewhere, I’d take everyone with me.

Who would paint your portrait?

If I could have met him, I would have loved to have had my portrait painted by Chagall. I have loved him for a very long time, especially the colours that he uses, the movement in his paintings, and his connection between the earth and the sky.

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[See also: The trials and torments of Domenichino]

What’s your theme tune?

I’m not sure there is a song that defines me. I tend to like songs that help me escape from me. Even if I don’t necessarily understand the lyrics, they feel touching, they feel moving, and they put me in a dream-like state. They are songs that take me away from me.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My father told me: if you have an objective, focus on it without being distracted.

What single thing would make your life better?

In the current state of affairs, I have nothing to ask of life.

When were you happiest?

When we met those very new, small people who are our children. Whenever anyone discovers a child for the first time, those are moments of extreme happiness.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would be a captain on a ship. I absolutely love oceans; they can never be dull.

Are we all doomed?

History has shown that man has always found solutions. 

“At Night All Blood is Black” by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis, is published by Pushkin Press

[See also: David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring is undermined by the artist’s digital medium]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web