Dongala’s Work Fuses Science and Art

Sarah Finn

On Thursday, November 19, professor and novelist Emmanuel Dongala came to Colgate to speak for the Living Writers series. Dongala was born and grew up in the Republic of the Congo, attended a French School and writes his novels in French, which are then translated into English.

“I’m in a funny position,” Dongala said, in reference to his uncharacteristic background.

Even more remarkable might be his two passions, which are wider in scope than some attendees realized. Dongala is both a novelist, as the attendees all knew, but also a chemist and the Chair of Natural Sciences Department at Bard University. With such investment in natural sciences, it seems amazing that this Congolese chemist has been able to achieve popularity as a writer, as well.

“Writing is an art. In science, all you need is the correct information to do the experiment. In writing, in art, you can have all the information you need, but that is not enough. Anyone can have that, you need artistic skill,” Dongala said of his diverse interests.

From both his credentials and Thursday’s reading, Dongala is evidently talented in both subject matters.

“It’s rare to find someone who can excel in both the scientific and literary world,” senior and member of the Living Writers course Dave Clark felt.

In his reading of four separate excerpts from Little Boys Come from the Stars, the novel that the Living Writers students read, Dongala proved to be a dynamic reader, acting out each characters’ respective voice. In the past, he once ran an acting troupe, a fact that became apparent once he settled into his reading.

Readers of Little Boys Come from the Stars grow up and learn about the historical and political context of the Republic of the Congo along with the narrator, Matapari, whose name signifies ‘trouble’ in Congolese.

“He [Dongala] lost everything he knew, witnessed the murder of friends and family and the fall of his state, yet maintained his contagious sense of humor. His stories are infused with optimism, despite the seriousness of the subject matter,” Clark said.

His optimism was certainly contagious throughout the reading, heightened by the humor of the young male narrator. In one excerpt Dongala read, he reinforced the political suppression in schools. It described a conversation where Matapari does not understand the words freedom and democracy. In response to a student’s question after the reading, Dongala spoke about the importance of this conversation in the novel as well as in global struggles.

“Democracy is a universal idea, but it is har to make people understand it. Voting is natural here – you are born with that right – but it his hard to educate children on something that is not natural for them,” Dongala explained.

This novel was distinctive from other works chosen by Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin and Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice for inclusion in the Living Writers curriculum.

“Little Boys Come from the Stars uses comedy in a way none of the other novels quite do, yet it touches upon disaster of a sort that is also astonishing,” Pinchin said, explaining why they chose to include Dongala’s work. “It is in tone different, and we like that kind of variety.”

One tone that readers may have perceived from his work is that he has a political message to convey. When a student asked Dongala his views on his works being defined as political novels, he did not respond positively.

“Political novel – I am very allergic to this,” Dongala stated. “My novels have politics in them, but they are not political novels.”

He later conceded that his novels have no alternative but to be conceived as political, since they are wrought with African politics. Dongala, however, did not start with politics, but rather with his characters and settings. With a background like Dongala’s, political strife with a humorous edge will inevitably be integrated into his writing.