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Panorama of Francophone literature

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

With authors spanning from Alain Mabanckou to Atiq Rahimi, the vibrant canon of Francophone literature is definitely one worth exploring. French language is shared by many countries across the world and talented authors have emerged. They all talk with verve about distinct issues, and while the panorama is wide, we invite you to embark on ten different journeys. Discover mysterious world filled with spirits, sympathise with families who fled wars and oppression or learn more about profound but contemporary themes such as exile and identity.

Alain Mabanckou - Le sanglot de l’homme noir (2012, Congo)

I am black, and obviously it shows. So the other black people I meet in Paris call me 'my brother'. Are we really?

What do a Caribbean, a Senegalese, and a Black guy born in the 10th arrondissement of Paris have in common, other than the color to which they complain of being constantly reduced to?

I put aside our genealogy, that of misfortune and humiliation - slave trade, colonization, poor living conditions of immigrants ...

Because beyond the skin, what brings them together is their sobs. I do not dispute the suffering that the black population has suffered and is still experiencing.

I challenge the tendency to erect this suffering into signs of identity.

I was born in Congo Brazzaville, I studied in France, I now teach in California. I am black, with a French passport and a green card. Who am I? I am having trouble finding an answer. But I refuse to define myself by tears and resentment.

Under a title borrowed from the philosopher Pascal Bruckner and mischievously changed, this essay highlights the tendency that pushes some Africans to explain the misfortunes of the black continent via the prism of the meeting with Europe and to cry about their fate. Eloquently, Mabanckou wants to raise awareness and suggests that they refuse to hide behind the aftermath of a distant past and build a new life. What matters is to make sure that the present is livable, that it is not the hostage of a story that some have never experienced. Will must be turned into action.

Through his personal experiences, Alain Mabanckou brings a thorough reflection on issues which concern both blacks and whites. Le sanglot de l’homme noir does not pretend to give answers concerning blackness, francophone writing or identity. Nevertheless, it gives an overview of the life of a courageous black man.

In 2012, Alain Mabanckou was awarded by the French Academy with the Grand prix de la littérature Henri Gal for all of his work. The Congolese novelist, essayist and poet now lives in California where he teaches French-language literature and creative writing at the University of California at Los Angeles

Dib Mohammed - La grande maison (1952, Algeria)

Mohammed Dib (21 July 1920 – 2 May 2003) was an Algerian author. He wrote over 30 novels, as well as numerous short stories, poems, and children's literature in the French language. He is probably Algeria's most prolific and well-known writer. In his work, Dib was concerned with bringing the authentic experience of Algerian life to a wider, particularly French-speaking, world. The Algerian revolution (1954–1962) profoundly shaped his thinking. An advocate of political equality, he believed that "the things that make us different always remain secondary."

His debut novel La grande maison is the first part of Algeria - a trilogy about a large Algerian family.

La grande maison plunges us into the city of Tlemcen towards the end of the 30s. Several poor families including that of little Omar are crammed in a large house. Omar’s widowed mother curses her husband for leaving her in this difficult situation where she is forced to work hard to feed her son, her two daughters and her paralytic mother. The recurring theme of the book is hunger. A constant hunger that regulates feelings, a hunger that turns the mother into a harpy, a hunger that pushes the young Omar to offer his classmates protection from bullies against a loaf of bread.

La grande maison recounts with humanism, gentleness and bitterness the misery that raged in Algeria at that time. This house appears as a mirror of society and the torments shared by many families.

The second part of the trilogy L'Incendie (1954) is about Omar's life during the second World War. The final part Le Métier à tisser (1957) deals with Omar's adult life as a working man in Algeria. The trilogy is partly autobiographical and presented in a naturalistic style similar to that of Émile Zola.

Estelle Sarah Bulle - Là où les chiens aboient par la queue (2018, Guadeloupe)

Estelle Sarah Bulle’s novel is about a young woman, named Antoine, who immerses herself in her family roots. Born to a Guadeloupian father and a ch'ti mother, she decides to interview various members of her family about their views on Guadeloupe. From her aunties to her grand-father, we meet characters all more different from each other, and through their gaze we discover the history of a country divided by natural splendours and the slums of Pointe-à-Pitre.

They each describe the Guadeloupean society from the 50s and topics range from the colour of their skin, gender relations and the economic management of the island by France often led to the detriment of the locals.

It also reveals that in May 1967, young Guadeloupe rebelled against an economic and political situation which they considered unfair, having the greatest difficulty to find a job and therefore to simply live. Yet, the uprising was repressed in a bloodbath.

Subsequently, many young West Caribbeans came to France in the hope of living a more secure life – a life perhaps economically more satisfying but often not humanely.

Là où les chiens aboient par la queue is Estelle Sarah Bulle’s first novel and it has been received positively by French critiques. Telerama, Libération, Le Figaro and Culturebox praised the author for bringing to light the many difficulties experienced by so many exiled Guadeloupeans.

Abasse Ndione - Mbëkë mi : A l'assaut des vagues de l'Atlantique (2008, Senegal)

"Mbëkë mi" is the impulse on which one leaves, defying all perils; and it became the crossing of the thousands of young Africans who turn their backs on misery and despair, fleeing their country by pirogue to reach the Spanish islands of the Canaries ... Ten days of navigation and wandering in a tree trunk hollowed out and loaded with at least forty people wo dream of an European Eden. Throughout the pages, the reader is swept away by hope, the immense beauty and cruelty of the ocean, death, hunger, thirst, and hallucinations.

Mbëkë mi is the first novel on emigration by canoe, seen from Africa by an African. Abasse Ndione lives and writes in Rufisque (Senegal) where he is considered to be a sage.

Abdellah Taïa - Une mélancolie arabe (2008, Morocco)

Abdellah Taïa is one of the first Moroccan writers to claim his homosexuality and to make it one of the main subjects of his novels, in a country, Morocco, where homosexuality is according to the law a serious crime.

Initially the Moroccan press reacted negatively - even some bloggers called for the lapidation of the author. Yet throughout this melancholic tale, it is not homosexuality or Islamic culture that torments the narrator of Une mélancolie arabe; it is love.

In Salé, near Rabat, in the mid-1980s, a poor teenager runs out of breath. He runs towards his dream of becoming a film director, elsewhere, far from his neighborhood, which he both loves and hates. It is a neighborhood where people have fixed him in a cliché and shameful identity: the effeminate boy. So he runs ... It's his only strength, his only way to face the violence of Morocco.

Une mélancolie arabe lets us see and feel the possessed body of a young Moroccan boy who falls in love four times. At Sale. In Marrakech. In Paris. In Cairo. He dies. He resurrects. With his own visions, he builds his destiny step by step.

Hédi Kaddour - Les prépondérants (2015, Tunisia)

We are in the 1920s, in an imaginary city called Nabhès. The stigmata of the war are still present even if life has resumed its course. It has made many widows including the young Rania, who does not intend to fall under the yoke of another husband despite the urging of her brother. She inherited the farm of an uncle and leads her little world while resisting the extension treats of her neighbor, Ganthier, a settler who doesn’t leave her indifferent. When an American team arrives straight from Hollywood to shoot a film in the region, the small society of Nabhès is suddenly confronted with a wave of modernity that highlights local oppositions. Raouf, the son of the caïd listens carefully to the speeches of all those who speak of freedom and empowerment. But the beautiful eyes of Kathryn, the main actress keep him momentarily away from his political concerns. All this under the observant and critical gaze of Gabrielle Conti, a journalist and witness of the transformations taking place in the world.

The interest of this book - beyond love relationships - is geopolitics and the clash of cultures and continents. The younger generations are influenced by the communist wind coming from Europe and aspire to civil liberty in the face of domination, iniquity, hypocrisy, and the exploitation of colonialism. The others, the predominant French colonists cling to their privileges. The protectorate begins to crack.

Heidi Kaddour plunges his characters in the Roaring Twenties, a period when the still visible scars of 14-18 announce other plagues to come. The world will inexorably change in front of their own eyes.

Les Prépondérants received the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française.

Charif Majdalani - L’empereur à pieds (2017, Lebanon)

In L’Empereur à Pied, Charif Majdalani paints the portrait of a man who made his fortune in nebulous and unflattering circumstances. He has three sons and took a terrible and far-reaching decision: only the eldest will have the right to marry in order to avoid the dispersion of the family fortune; the others will have to serve him or leave.

The two condemned brothers are impregnated with a spirit of revenge against stroke of faith, and they leave to far-away countries in order to show that they are also able of creating their own company and make a fortune.

It is a breathtaking book with entrepreneurs of another time, those who from nothing founded colossal empires. The enmities between brothers and the taste of bitterness participate in this epic tale made of twists and dizzying falls.

The author is a fabulous storyteller who brushes us the destinies of these characters. Everyone has his share of glory or defeat, they have their faults, their ambitions. It is also the history of Lebanon as a whole, the delicate moments in the history of this country with which we have a common past, decolonization, the business and the scandals that ensued.

Scholastique Mukasonga – La femme aux pieds nus (2008, Rwanda)

Through a moving story Scholastique Mukasonga pays tribute to her mother - Stefania. A courageous woman whose primary mission was to protect her children but who was coldly murdered with machetes in April 1994 during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Despite the horror of the war, Mukasonka also depicts the beautiful country of her childhood, the smells, flavors and treasures of the savannah. She shares with us the rites and traditions, the virtues of medicinal plants, the harvest, the laughs, the songs and the dances. Under the coffee trees, women used to indulge in the precious ritual of foot washing while savoring sorghum honey. If the story is sad, the pages are scented with the smell of cassava, fresh beans, sweet potatoes, banana and calabashes of beer.

La femme aux pieds nus also recalls the courage of all women in Rwanda. In the hostile bush, no war succeeded in destroying their survival instinct, their pride and their solidarity.

For Scholastique Mukasonga, writing has been a way of mourning and with her books she sheds light on the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide. But she is not a political activist nor a historian. She writes fiction and the focus is always on the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people. And the narratives are full of gentle humour. Even in tragic circumstances, a sense of humour is something all Rwandan share.

In other novels, she also touched upon language, identity and double culture. She speaks both French and Kinyarwanda and while she now lives in France, she doesn’t forget her background and often travels back to Rwanda.

Syngué sabour, Pierre de patience, d'Atiq Rahimi (2008, Afghanistan)

In a room, "somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere", a woman watches over her husband. Is he dead? Alive? Outside, we hear gun shots, hurried footsteps, moans, and then silence again.

She holds her breath. Her lips are shaking. She prays, shins her rosary, breaths, starts again. She cradles to the sound of her own litany, wants to hope. She fears this inert body, whispers to herself foolish things, never uttered, fragments of illusions which faded away. She rebels and lets bitter words, drowned for too long, escape from her womb. A flood crosses her submissive mouth. Then come forbidden words, rebellious words.

The woman reveals herself, becomes conscious of her body, no longer clamours the name of God but her memories, her aborted dreams, her forced marriage, her sister sold to an old man, the honor of a family founded on intransigence, arbitrariness, and then these fratricidal wars that never end ... She curses her husband, soldier of Allah, hero vanquished by his male pride, his religious obscurantism, his hatred of 'other’. She's praying, she's screaming. She had been silenced and denied. She becomes a woman.

A hymn to freedom and love, Syngué sabour swells like a haunting requiem.

Born in Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi fled to France in 1984. Syngué sabour, Pierre de patience (The Patience Stone), won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and has been made into a film. In recent years, he has returned to Afghanistan to set up a Writers' House in Kabul and offer support and training to young writers and film-makers.

Miguel Bonnefoy - Sucre noir (2017, Venezuela)

Miguel Bonnefoy is one of France’s most exciting new voices. Born in France to a Venezueland mother and a Chilean father, he spent his youth between France, Venezuela and Portugal. In 2013, he was awarded the Young Writer Prize (Prix du Jeune Ecrivain de Langue Française) for his novella Icare. The Young Writer Prize separates its laureates into two categories: French authors and French-speaking authors. In Bonnefoy’s case, he was awarded in the category of young Francophone writers. And since the creation of the prize, over thirty years ago, it was the first time that Venezuela, a non-French-speaking country, submitted a text and subsequently won. His latest novel is Sucre noir.

In a Caribbean village, the legend of a vanished treasure turns upside down the existence of the Otero family. In search of the booty of Captain Henry Morgan, whose ship has sunken in the vicinity three hundred years earlier, the explorers are succeeding one another. All, including the ambitious Severo Bracamonte, will cross the path of Serena Otero, the heiress of the sugarcane plantation who dreams of other horizons.

Over the years, while the family estate thrives, and it distils the best rum in the region, everyone seeks the treasure that will give meaning to their lives. But on this wild, stifling land, the tropical-colored fatality likes to divert the ambitions and the desires that consume them.

In this philosophical tale, Miguel Bonnefoy reinvents the legend of one of the most famous pirates to tell us the fate of men and women guided by a quest for love and thwarted by the whims of fortune. He also gives us, in a sumptuous prose inspired by the magical realism of South American writers, the moving and enchanting picture of a country whose wealth hides so many mirages and evil spells.

In addition to these stories, all available on culturetheque, we encourage you to read other works by authors in the likes of Sony Labou Tansi, Gaël Faye, Kaouther Adimi,

Tahar Ben Jelloun, Maryse Conde, Libar Fofana and Zeina Abirached.

More on the topic:

- Podcast: identité créole

- Presentation: Panorama des littératures francophones d’Afrique

- Video: Gustave Akakpo and Alain Mabanckou in conversation

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