The Empire Of Words


Rama Salla Dieng

The fiction of Senegalese writer and filmmaker Khady Sylla not only used speech to create worlds and ways of being in the world, but used speech as a world and a character in its own right.

When you hold Khady Sylla’s 1992 novel, Le Jeu de la Mer (published in the Encres noires collection of L’Harmattan Paris), it is the black and white image of Khady at the back of the book that first catches your attention. Her gaze is captivating and mysterious. She wears discreet lipstick, a shaved head, and large hoop earrings. You imagine this photo in color because Khady’s writing is sparkling, sublime, and unexpected.

What words then inhabit this 29-year-old young woman when her novel appears? Above the photo, the blurb of the book promises a story. It promises an enigma in fact, with three main characters: Aïssa, Rama, and Assane. Then you let your gaze wander over the cover. You admire the sublime photo of an empty boat facing the sea, taken by Stéphane Weber in July 1990 in Nianing, Senegal. The poetic and promising title seems like an invitation: “Le Jeu de la Mer” (The Game of the Sea) written in large black characters, intrigues you just like the canoe which faces eternity.

Browsing through the pages, you discover that Rama and Aïssa, the two young girls of the story, are gifted with the power of words. They live in a house on the edges of the Atlantic Ocean. Their square courtyard is surrounded by filao trees, eucalyptus, and “bougainvillea that lived their most vivacious oranges, pinks and reds.” The courtyard is the theater of their games, songs, and laughter.

Then you realize the polysemy of the word “play” which inhabits all the scenes of this superb story. In fact, in the evening, facing the lively and living sea whose eddies lick the foundations of their shelter, Rama and Aïssa play wure (awalé), a game of strategy and calculation accompanied by an oratorical joust, in an ebony boat. It’s the moment of truth and you could swear that you heard them spellbound: “wure wa dem na këŋ, wax i maam dem na ndeeñ taale!” (Game of the sea, let the dream machine come alive!). The game can begin. The elements of nature conspire to make the setting conducive to the unbridling of their extraordinary imagination. Their game is done according to the play of the sea and the reflection of the halo of light from the lamp which “cast an excessive shadow on the table.” The sea then becomes the bed on which their fantasies are projected, the fruits of their powerful spirits: “The house seized with unreality, took on the artificial appearance of a setting lit by invisible projectors,” and “the black sheets of the night spread over the house.”

During the day, Rama and Aïssa become masters of speech and create tales. Installed at the end of a cliff overlooking the ocean as if at the end of their world, they become demiurges by the power of their harvest of pearls from the evening awalé game. They take turns to create stories respecting predefined rules. “The place favored the daytime flowering of speech. The tales emerged on this scene as the day extended its dreams.” In this enchanting setting at the border of fantasy, speech becomes the link and the binder between Rama and Aïssa. These oral narratives also become the bridge between reality and fantasy: “Free and full speech traveled from one throat to another, bringing together a thin thread, the fragments of a foreseen universe.”

Of Rama and Aïssa, you know nothing else except their fascination for the game of the sea. Moreover, their surprising physical resemblance seems to give meaning to the expression “like two drops of water,” they “both come from the same mold, fleeting black statuettes. Only the gaze distinguished them.” Are they twins or just sisters? You don’t know and you won’t know more, at least not yet, not right away. This is because Khady Sylla, poetess, and prophetess, creates a world where speech creates worlds. Speech creates ways of being in the world, just like her characters Rama and Aïssa. No, speech itself is. It is a world and a character in its own right, engendering other small characters.

Always placing themselves face to face, the power of oral creation unites Rama and Aïssa’s destiny. They play, laugh, dance and wander according to their stories. Their world pitches on the crest of words. It is contained entirely in the tenuous yet overflowing thread of their wide-shored imagination. However, beyond this common destiny, a different way of being in the world seems to separate them. It seems to threaten their precarious balance. Rama respects mysteries and questions with equal gentleness. She often likes to take refuge in the world of memories, following the rules of tale creation to the letter. For her part, Aïssa cherishes nothing more than breaking these rules. In her quest for clarity and answers, mystery exasperates her.

Thus, you keep wondering about Rama and Aïssa, characters as fascinating as they are enigmatic. They are just like Assane, an intrepid detective and head of “the fictional department,” who is on their heels despite their beauty being his sole clue. Assane makes surprising encounters and collects testimonies as incongruous as they are disconcerting.

And yet, you discover, stunned, that the onset of confluences between the protagonists are actually the calculated disorders that the twins show on their way. The mystery deepens before it is resolved for the three characters whose lives are ineluctably entangled.

Your breath is short and hissing, your irises dilate, and your heart pounds wildly. Then the denouement frees you in a way that is as beautiful and captivating as it is unexpected. You conclude that Khady Sylla had a gift: that of double vision conferred by speech. But pregnant with words, Khady, like Assane, has a grip on words. The power of words possesses them. They make a whole world with it. Rama and Aïssa also share this gift and power.

You thus, notice that worlds exist at the heel of the words. Living and happy prophets possess what Khady Sylla used to call “the third eye.” They have the intuition and the vision of these words. Khady Sylla, daughter of water, had the gift of speech. A simple word. Here’s what Khady had to say about Le Jeu de la Mer:

After the publication of my novel Le Jeu de la Mer in 1992, a friend advised me to send it to French director Jean Rouch. I did and a week later he called me. I then heard his very particular voice, this slightly singing voice of the great dreamer. Jean told me that my book had enchanted him because the two main characters, the two twins Rama and Aissa, were daughters of the water. I had heard of the daughters of the water before. My grandmother once told me that my mother was a daughter of the water l and that it had been very difficult to keep her alive. And there was this surprising whiteman, Jean Rouch, who opened to me the doors of Peulh (Fulani) mythology.

In films like A Single Word (directed by Khady and her sister, Mariama Sylla), the ultimate fascination of Khady, her sister Mariama and their mother for the sea is clear. Thus you read that Khady Sylla defined herself as a daughter of the sea: a pure and introverted person. She is not attached to material things as per the Wolof expression … but for Khady, as for Rama and Aïssa, this definition is literal. No other empire interests them more than that of the word. Because it is the key to the myth of their creation, in fact of all creation.