Dongala's 'Mad Dog' a Tale of Two African Teens
LIANE HANSEN, host:
In 1997, Emmanuel Dongala and his family fled their home in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in the wake of a brutal civil war. Civilians had been shot at random, neighborhoods had been bombed by rival militia groups. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands escaped into the rain forest. Dongala was one of the luckier ones. A chemistry professor and dean of the University of Brazzaville, he had been educated in the United States and visited America frequently. He had many American friends, including the novelist Philip Roth, who arranged for Dongala to become a visiting professor in chemistry at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts. Dongala turned to writing novels about the war and violence in Africa. His newest is "Johnny Mad Dog," and Emmanuel Dongala is in the studios of member station WAMC in Albany, New York.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. EMMANUEL DONGALA (Author, "Johnny Mad Dog"): Welcome. Thank you.
HANSEN: "Johnny Mad Dog" is the story of two teen-agers during the fall of an African capital city. You are not specific. Laokoles, or Lao for short, became a refugee with her legless mother and traumatized brother. Her bricklayer father has been shot and killed by the militia. And the novel begins on the day of her final high school exams. She wants to become an engineer. The other character, Johnny Mad Dog, is a cocky, macho militia rebel who, with a gang of thugs, is terrorizing everyone in the city. What kinds of stories were you able to tell through them that you perhaps could not have told through the eyes of adult characters?
Mr. DONGALA: What's interesting, by using these two young characters, is the freshness of what they see and the way they talk because they say just what they see. There's no reasoning behind it. It's just fresh out of their heart. Because this conflict has been with adults manipulating kids, and these kids do not know that they are manipulated. And this is what I wanted to show.
HANSEN: Lao, the girl, is very smart. She's educated, she's built houses. Mad Dog thinks he's an intellectual because he went to second grade, and he's absorbed with lessons from "Rambo" movies and popular culture. She reads books; he collects them as loot. Is that how it breaks down? Is there a contrast in this society, maybe not necessarily boy or girl, but does this contrast contribute to the story? And how does it illuminate the motives behind those that these two represent?
Mr. DONGALA: The story of these kids who are frustrated--they want to go to school, they want to get an education, but they have no chance to get this education. And some of them, in their mind, they think they are great intellectuals, while others dream about it by reading, by dreaming of America, where they think they can get an education. So this is what I tried to show with these two characters.
HANSEN: In your stories, you bring in other characters in terms of--you know, there are aid agency workers, non-governmental organizations; other countries are involved...
Mr. DONGALA: Yeah.
HANSEN: ...mercenaries, environmental groups. You have a scene where a helicopter drops down into a field to rescue a guerrilla and leave Lau in the field. All of these groups--the way that you write them, all of these groups don't seem to have a clue about what's really happening.
Mr. DONGALA: Right.
HANSEN: So what are the big issues you want to illuminate?
Mr. DONGALA: When these conflicts start, there's a reason. But after a while, nobody knows why people are fighting. They militias start by being on one side, and then they become autonomous, and they don't know why they're fighting anymore, except for the loot, for the power. What I do not understand in this thing is how--the level of cruelty those people can inflict upon each other. Out of the kids I know, I used to see every morning, some of them going to school--how all of a sudden they can be so violent. And this is where the mystery--this is a puzzle to me.
HANSEN: How much did you draw on your own experiences and perhaps those of your students?
Mr. DONGALA: Oh, a lot, a lot.
Mr. DONGALA: Some of my students took part in this fighting, which was sad because after all the talk of democracy, respect of human rights, etc., when the fighting started, I was astonished to see how quickly they can fall behind their regional ethnic leader.
HANSEN: How much did you exaggerate the cruelty? How much did you exaggerate for effect?
Mr. DONGALA: I didn't exaggerate at all. On the contrary, there are things I couldn't write.
HANSEN: So when you write a scene, for example, where a young girl is literally run over three times by tanks and soldiers...
Mr. DONGALA: Mm-hmm.
HANSEN: ...who are coming to rescue the white European hostages that have sought refuge in what is the United Nations compound...
Mr. DONGALA: Right.
HANSEN: ...that is something that you know happened?
Mr. DONGALA: Yes. And even the story of their dog--coming back to get their dog, that's a true story, too.
Mr. DONGALA: For--yeah.
HANSEN: One of the European hostages forgot the dog, went back into the compound...
Mr. DONGALA: Right.
HANSEN: ...and then got on the helicopter and took off, leaving the rest of the African refugees in the courtyard.
Mr. DONGALA: Right.
HANSEN: The conflict continues. Just this month, for example, it's been reported that Rwandan rebels may begin to discuss leaving Congo, and they've been there since 1994. So this megastory is one that continues. What are the stories that you still want to tell?
Mr. DONGALA: Ooh, I have so many stories to tell about the way women--usually when you have conflict like that, women suffer more than men. And also, all these kids now who--it's a lost generation. I mean, they don't go to school anymore. And I'm really afraid for the future of the country.
HANSEN: Emmanuel Dongala is the author of the novel "Johnny Mad Dog," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He joined us from member station WAMC in Albany, New York.
Thank you very much.
Mr. DONGALA: Thank you.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.