An Interview with Kai Mikkonen, Author of Narrative Paths: African Travel in Modern Fiction and Nonfiction

In his book Narrative Paths: African Travel in Modern Fiction and Nonfiction (Ohio State University Press, 2015), Professor Kai Mikkonen devotes a whole chapter to a list.[1] Entitled ”Imagerie africaine,” the list appears halfway through Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme (1934), which records Leiris’s two-year journey across sub-Saharan Africa while serving as the secretary-archivist for the Dakar-Djibouti Mission (1931–1933), a project led by pioneering ethnographer Marcel Griaule.[2] Considered a classic work of travel writing, L’Afrique fantôme extends the genre to include, as Mikkonen describes it, “confessional diary entries, travel story, dream journal, self-analysis … ethnographic observations, field notes, and seemingly unmotivated shifts in narration.”[3]

The list Mikkonen analyzes exemplifies those unmotivated shifts in narration. It appears in Leiris’s entry for June 19, 1932, preceded by an account of three shy children approaching his tent that morning.

Imagerie africaine:
L’Africaine, l’opéra de Meyerbeer, avec son fameux « unisson » et le grand air de Vasco de Gama;
la casquette de père Bugeaud et la smalah d’Abd el Kader;
Aïda, que Verdi composa pour les fêtes d’inauguration du Canal de Suez;
l’histoire du prêtre Jean;
la mort de Livingstone;
Arthur Rimbaud vendant des armes à Ménélik;
Savorgnan de Brazza;
le Prince impérial tué par les Zoulous;
les massacreurs Voulet-Chanoine;
les dynamiteurs Gaud-Tocquet;
l’affaire de la N’Goko Sanga;
le scandale du Thiès-Kayes;
le Congo-Océan;
la bataille des Pyramides;
le coup d’Agadir;
la conférence d’Algésiras;
Impressions d’Afrique;
la reine Ranavalo;
les amazones de Béhanzin;
et le sirdar Kitchener, et la guerre du Mahdi, et Samori, etc.[4]

The only comment Leiris offers for this list is a remark about having recently “’plunged himself’ into such a textual ambience.”[5] Mikkonen proposes that this context-less list functions as a palimpsest, collage, ambience, mediator between memory and narrative…and his own list of the list’s features continues. This list of possibilities made us at Listology eager to pursue them further, so we invited Professor Mikkonen to do a Listology interview, to which he kindly agreed.

  • Listology: Building on Leiris’s implication that his list of “Imagerie africaine” functions as an ambience, you remark that the mental images the list evokes are “capable of immersing the mind into a specific ambience.”[6] Would you say that this ambience-creating capacity of the list contributes to the journal’s function as a tool of self-analysis?

KM: Leiris’s list is context-less in the sense that it lacks authorial explanation. We can presume, however, that the items are somehow significant, persistent, and memorable for him, and that their meaning is worth pondering though for the time being their significance is not disclosed. Thus, the list remains in the journal as a kind of raw material, or an inventory of mental images of Africa made in passing, and that is also, potentially, something that the writer could use for self-examination in the future. Embedded in a journal entry, the list poses certain questions for anyone who has the curiosity and the time to take a short break in reading: “What are these list items exactly?” and “What personal significance might they have for Leiris?” One potential meaning of these items, and one that intrigued me in particular in writing Narrative Paths, is that they suggest a kind of inventory of inner landscape, composed of both fictional imagery and factual historical elements. I find the alternations and striking contrasts in this list, between fictional and legendary images on the one hand and atrocities of the French colonial era on the other, to be at once fascinating and unsettling. Still another important aspect of this list is its dramatic or scenic function in the text: the contrast between such cultural givens, or narratives, which allow Leiris to immerse himself, as he explains, in a certain mental “ambience,” and the current, concrete Central and East African reality all around him. Leiris explains how his “plunge” into this ambience was interrupted by an Ethiopian chief called Asfao, who wanted to talk to him about his good relations with the French governor of Somaliland at the time of the battle of Adwa in 1896. Thus, this interruption both adds another image to the list, by way of an Ethiopian’s personal experience and memory, and points out how the surrounding reality can disturb the comfort of self-analysis.

  • Listology: We’re also curious about how Leiris’s list fits with the idea of a narrative “path” in your book’s title. In creating an ambience, perhaps the list is something like a camp-site along the path–in this case, the route across Africa–rather than a part of the path itself? Put another way, how does this literary construction function in a work whose overarching purpose is to narrate progress along a travel route? Is it a moment for rest and reflection along the lines of a campsite? Or does it perhaps have a movement of its own?

KM: Yes, it is a moment for reflection, and for reminiscing, both for the writer and the reader. However, I’m not quite certain that the overarching purpose of Leiris’s travelogue is to narrate progress along the route. I don’t think that it’s wrong to say that; nevertheless, if there is an overarching purpose to this journal, it is to study the changing self in movement and in an estranging context, to investigate the supposed progress of the expedition, and to explore the cultural repertoire of African images and preconceptions. We must remember that Leiris saw the idea of narrative coherence more as a problem than as a solution. These impulses in self-analysis, which paved the way to his future autobiographical project, are not simply, or only, narrative in nature. One meaningful point of comparison here might be the French writer Georges Perec’s inventories of the elements in the surrounding cultural and social milieu, conducted as a kind of sociological performance, as happens for instance in some descriptive passages in the novel Un homme qui dort (1967), and more strikingly in Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (1975).[7] The latter work, as a whole, consists of notes, and is in fact a long list that Perec made during three days that he spent in a café at place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Here, the writer inventories a monotonous, and uneventful, but at once dynamic scene of everyday life from a consciously limited, but immediately recognizable vantage point. Thus, he notes from this café all the letters, words, symbols, and signs that he sees around him, the numbers on the passing buses, colors in objects and things, kinds of interaction between people, objects that people carry with them, and actions of pigeons, and so on—in other words, observations of all kinds of banal everyday things and events that are normally not worth noting or discussing but that “fill in” much time in our lives. Lists, notes, and inventories have a complex relationship with narratives: they can interrupt narrative development or inspire narrativization, and it seems obvious to me that both Leiris and Perec, in their differing ways, were interested in exploring that relationship.

  • Listology: On Listology we’ve touched on the notional materiality of items in lists (in our posts on lists of tools, ivory objects, and hiking essentials, for instance), so our eyes alighted with particular interest on your remark that Leiris’s list preserves “knots of significant but still ‘dormant’ meanings” and that these knots–or “potentially meaningful forms”–are what the mind “takes hold of … before being able to give [an experience] a particular narrative, thematic, or other meaning.”[8] Would you say that the items in the list function as (virtual) tangible objects as well as “imagerie”? Would thinking about Leiris’s list items as objects and as images change anything about how we think about its function for him–either in his autobiographical project or in his work as an ethnographer? Would it change our way of understanding other objects Leiris focuses on in L’Afrique fantôme?     

KM: Yes, Leiris’s list has that potential. I think that the idea that the items on this list could be perceived as objects of some kind, as objects of memory, self-analysis, and persistent images of Africa, is very suggestive. The items on the list might be used as kinds of documents, or as “found objects,” for instance, for a surrealist artistic study or some other form of critical analysis of cultural givens. I’d like to underscore in particular two things about the implications in this list. First, since little or no immediate context is given, it is up to the reader to provide that context, i.e. to stop reading and reflect on the meanings and implications of the items on the list, and perceive the potential relevance of this list for Leiris. Second, due to its embedded and stand-alone quality, the list is only significant to the extent that the reader recognizes the references and considers their historical significance. The background knowledge, in that sense, and the reader’s willingness to take a break from standard linear reading, shapes the understanding of the African imagery and the list’s function in the journal. In other words, the list seems to call for an interpretation, but it is also effective by itself without much explication or systematic interpretation, as a form of openness to the chance associations of one’s mind.

  • Listology: We’d love to know about how your study of Leiris’ “Imagerie africaine” reflects your own history with lists. Had you been interested in the form before discovering this list by Leiris? How do you use lists in your own life and has your study of this one changed it? In particular, would you be inclined now to use more lists in any autobiographical writing you do–in writing a travel journal in particular?

KM: I hadn’t paid that much attention to lists in my previous research. When I was thinking about how to approach L’Afrique fantôme in my monograph, the suggestiveness of this list, and how it had been nearly ignored in earlier research, offered an obvious starting point. All along my research career, I’ve of course read and even studied prose and poetry that includes lists, inventories of things, or takes advantage of list-like protocols and strategies, such as descriptions in the 19th century realist novel or the artistic strategies in John Cage’s experimental poems and performances. However, it wasn’t until I read Leiris’s travelogue and encountered the striking contrast between the reporting and narrative style in his journal entries and the raw-quality of this list that I was prompted to think about lists as a potential form of self-expression.

Personally, I use lists and notes for many practical things and objectives, such as for items to buy, books to read, films to see, questions and topics for research, places to visit, and words to memorize when I brush up my Swedish and French. I don’t really write any autobiographical texts and, in fact, don’t feel that I’ve got a very strong sense of an autobiographical self to begin with. One reason for this predisposition is that while I’m of course very interested in the life that I’ve lived, the many phases that my identity has so-to-say gone through, and the people and places that I’ve known, I feel that it is quite impossible, and even a bit distressing as an idea, to try to reconstruct the past by means of writing. I’m afraid that an autobiographical project would only increase the sense of loss with regard to the richness of what I have experienced in my 54 years on this planet. I much prefer reading and studying other people’s personal histories than writing about my own life!

[1] Professor Mikkonen is the chair of the Master’s Program in Literary Studies at the University of Helsinki.

[2] Editions include Michel Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme, Bibliothèque des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1934); L’Afrique fantôme, Collection Tel 125 (Paris: Gallimard, 1981). English translation by Brent Hayes Edwards, Phantom Africa (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2017).

[3] Editions include Michel Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme, Bibliothèque des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1934); L’Afrique fantôme, Collection Tel 125 (Paris: Gallimard, 1981). English translation by Brent Hayes Edwards, Phantom Africa (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2017).

[4] Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme, 1981, 365–66; qtd. in Mikkonen, Narrative Paths, 241.

[5] Mikkonen, Narrative Paths, 241.

[6] Mikkonen, Narrative Paths, 247.

[7] Translated into English Marc Lowenthal as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Cambridge MA: Wakefield Press, 2010).

[8] Mikkonen, Narrative Paths, 249-250 (emphasis in text).    

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