In Patrice Nganang’s trilogy, Cameroon’s past is still very present

Family history reflects a national history of silences and betrayals: the two are inevitably, and tragically, linked. “The Cameroonian soul is a battlefield”, observes a character; another begs God to hear his “prayer from this bloodied land, from this family whose very heart has been caught in the throbbing of a country”. The story also reflects Nganang’s own maturity, he says.

“Families are complicated, and this is a novel I could never have written in my twenties,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let me write a novel about how old I am now.'”

Nganang, who holds the chair of Africana studies at Stony Brook University, borrowed from his own life for the novel – from the daily rituals of the American suburbs to lyrical descriptions of his hometown, Yaoundé, his “landscape mental”. Yaoundé, indeed, offers an evocative leitmotif throughout the trilogy: Nganang lovingly explores the city, district by district, while certain areas flourish and others sink into misery over time. The epitaph of “When the plums are ripe specifies his point of view: “The world is my country, Cameroon is my subject, and Yaoundé my field of definition.

There is also another overlap. The name “Tanou”, he says, means “father of history” or someone “who creates history while telling it”. This happens to be one of many nicknames for Nganang. “Tanou” also refers to a cultural function, the one he assumed on social networks, as the self-proclaimed “Concierge of the Republic” (a nod, he says, to the signature of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Citizen of Geneva”).

“I want never would have written this book if I hadn’t been on social media,” he says, describing the countless testimonies that Cameroonians around the world have shared with him, which fueled his posts and informed his novel. “It changed me and changed the landscape of my writing because it allowed people to actually hear what I wanted to say.”