On “here” and “elsewhere” in literature in Senegal and Austria

The Senegalese literary scholar Mbagnick Sene discovered the works of Franz Innerhofer, Thomas Mann, Peter Handke, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, Josef Winkler and Thomas Bernhard in his home country. Today, he is fascinated by identity, politics and the relationship between Africa and Europe in his research on transcultural literary studies. 

How did you come to be interested in the literature of Austrian writers in a country that is located about 5,000 kilometres away from Austria?

I started to learn German when I was at secondary school. Our university offers lectures and seminars on the literatures of German-speaking countries. My professor Mamadou Diop (a specialist in Austrian literature) gave me the book “Schöne Tage” by Franz Innerhofer at the Department of German Studies at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop Dakar. Reading this book sparked my interest in Austrian literature. I was particularly interested in the social criticism inherent in these texts. Later, these works were joined by those of Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka and Josef Winkler, and in the future perhaps also those of Ingeborg Bachmann. Franz Innerhofer also formed the core of my doctoral thesis together with the Senegalese writer Fatou Diome.

Where do you draw your comparison from?

The question of identity is currently at the heart of my research. This is of particular importance in homeland and anti-homeland literature. Innerhofer is an extraordinary example of anti-homeland literature in Austria, which includes a great deal of – sometimes – harsh social criticism.

Does this kind of anti-homeland literature also exist in Senegal?

Senegalese literature features many authors who deal with colonialism and its consequences. In the 1990s, a new generation of writers emerged, most of whom live outside Senegal, mainly in France. They practise social criticism in both directions – towards both France and Senegal. We refer to this generation as les enfants de la postcolonie, the children of postcolonialism. They are primarily concerned with relations between the two continents of Africa and Europe. Fatou Diome, to whom I compared Innerhofer in my thesis, belongs to this generation.

To give an example, what similarities do you see between Fatou Diome and Franz Innerhofer?

Both authors grew up as illegitimate children, which shaped them. The protagonists in the two works I recently compared in my lecture, Beautiful Days and Le ventre de l’Atlantique, are marginalised and are even described as a sin of youth. And both have perfected multidimensional writing. Literature offers a third space that arises when the familiar meets the foreign, the here and the elsewhere. In doing so, it can accomplish something that I also find important for my own literature: People can live together without borders between people, even if there are borders between countries.

Were there writers before that who were critical of colonialism?

Yes, authors such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Cheikh Anta Diop and Frantz Fanon have also addressed the colonial reality. Now we are dealing with a new generation that uses different stylistic devices and criticises both sides – Europe and Africa. However, most of them live outside Senegal.

What part does language play in this? The language you write in is the language of the colonial power, French.

Yes, French is our official language and language of instruction. The vast majority of authors also write in French. Sadly, there are only a few examples, such as the poets, playwrights and essayists Cheikh Aliou Ndao and Boubacar Boris Diop, who publish their texts in Wolof. In Senegal, we are multilingual: There are 24 national languages, and in our families we speak in our respective national language. The public sphere is dominated by French.

Is there any discourse on this that is reflected in other formats? What is the language you sing your songs in?

We always sing in our national language. One example of this is Youssou N’Dour, who has achieved worldwide fame. He developed Mbalax, today’s Senegalese pop music, which has lyrics written in Wolof and which can be heard all over the planet.

What do you think of the criticism expressed in the literary texts you deal with? Can it help us to move forward?

I think it’s normal for the 21st century. Today we live in a world in which national borders no longer prevent us from living here or elsewhere. People can live together, bringing their own cultures and ways of life with them, which should be preserved and brought into dialogue with each other.


About Mbagnick Sene

Mbagnick Sene is a lecturer at the University Iba Der Thiam in Thiès, Senegal and an Ernst Mach Fellow at the Univerity of Klagenfurt from October 2023 to June 2024. In 2018, he was supervised by Primus-Heinz Kucher (Department of German Studies) while conducting research for his doctoral thesis at the University of Klagenfurt. He graduated from the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar in 2022 with a doctoral thesis on the subject: “The aporia of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’ in the trilogy of novels by Franz Innerhofer: ‘Schöne Tage’, ‘Schattseite’ and ‘Die Großen Wörter’ and those by Fatou Diome: ‘Eingeborne Zuerst’, ‘Der Bauch des Ozeans’ and ‘Unmöglich zu Wachsen'”. His research centres on transcultural literary studies with a focus on the problem areas of identity, politics and African-European relations and interculturality. Mbagnick Sene has published several books and is also an author. In 2024, his novel ‘Une Vie de Pleurnicheries’ was published by La maison Edition Mametouty-Editions, Dakar.