Celebrating Black Francophone Writers
The rise of the #BLM movement in the United States and across the world has led many of our readers not only to look to expand their knowledge of issues surrounding race and racism, but also to broaden their awareness of works by Black writers generally. Contemporary titles like Reni-Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi have been very much in demand here at Shakespeare and Company, as have classic texts by Black writers, particularly the works of James Baldwin and Octavia Butler.
Although the situation has been improving over recent years, a historical lack of works in translation has meant many extraordinary Black francophone writers remain relatively unfamiliar in the anglosphere. Still, there are some great titles available to English-language readers. Below, our booksellers Aminata, Adam and Ben recommend a selection of classic and contemporary works.
If you’re interested in an analysis of the roles that class, race, and national culture played in colonialism and the efforts to end it, then The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (a psychotherapist and anti-imperialist) is the perfect place to start. Perhaps a less well-known writer, but no less influential, is Paulette Nardal. She was the first black person to study at the Sorbonne University and a crucial voice in the development of the concept and perspectives associated with “Négritude”. The edition of Beyond Negritude that we stock includes the original French text alongside its English translation.
Alexandre Dumas, often cited as the most widely read of all French storytellers, was of African descent—a fact that, as President Jacques Chirac acknowledged, likely led to his exclusion from the Pantheon until 2002, two-hundred years after his birth. As for that other venerable institution of the French language, the Académie française, it wasn’t until 1983 that a black writer, Léopold Sédar Senghor—a poet, cultural theorist, and the first president of Senegal—was elected as one of the “Immortals”. And it took until 2013 for a black novelist—Dany Laferrière—to take his seat there. Laferrière has written more than a dozen novels, each as innovative as the last. Of those available in English, his ribald debut How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired channels James Baldwin and Henry Miller, while I Am a Japanese Writer is a compelling and disorienting work of auto-fiction. On the subject of academies, the first ever New Academy Prize in Literature—styled as the “Alternative Nobel”—was awarded to Maryse Condé in 2018. Condé is perhaps best known for Segu, but her I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem from 1986, feels particularly relevant today, and the English edition even includes a foreword by Angela Davis.
Marie NDiaye and Alain Mabanckou are responsible for some of the most interesting novels in French, or any language, in recent years. NDiaye’s Three Strong Women is gritty and moving, and won her the prestigious Prix Goncourt; while books like African Psycho and The Death of Comrade President have earned Mabanckou the moniker of the Samuel Beckett of Africa. Two French-Rwandan authors well-worth discovering are Scholastique Mukasonga and Gaël Faye. Mukasonga’s poetic and moving novels and memoirs have been beautifully translated and published by Archipelago Press. Faye’s heart-rending Small Country was a smash hit in France, and was recently adapted for cinema. You can listen to his event at the bookshop here or wherever you get your podcasts.
Speculative Fiction & Comix
In the realm of wickedly satirical speculative fiction, Abdourahman A. Waberi imagines Americans and Europeans fleeing their collapsing continents to seek refuge In the United States of Africa. While in the world of comics, Yvan Alagbé’s Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures has recently been meticulously adapted and published by NYRB books. Alagbé did a fascinating and compelling event with us in 2019, which you can listen to on our podcast.