Le Manifeste des 44

Two weeks ago, 44 French-language authors, including Tahar Ben Jelloun, Edouard Glissant, JMG Le Clézio, Amin Maalouf, Alain Mabanckou, Erik Orsenna, and Abdourahman Waberi, signed a manifesto titled “Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français,” which was published on the cover of Le Monde des Livres. The writers want a reconsideration of the literary aspect of “francophonie,” in which France sees itself as the hub, while countries from the ex-empire are the spokes.

[L]e centre, ce point depuis lequel était supposée rayonner une littérature franco-française, n’est plus le centre. Le centre jusqu’ici, même si de moins en moins, avait eu cette capacité d’absorption qui contraignait les auteurs venus d’ailleurs à se dépouiller de leurs bagages avant de se fondre dans le creuset de la langue et de son histoire nationale : le centre, nous disent les prix d’automne, est désormais partout, aux quatre coins du monde. Fin de la francophonie. Et naissance d’une littérature-monde en français.

Here’s a rough translation:

The center, that point from which a Francophone-French literature was supposed to shine, is no longer the center. The center, up until now, had an absorption capacity that forced authors who came from somewhere else to give up their belongings before melting in the pot of the language and its national history. The center, the fall prizes tell us, is now everywhere, in the four corners of the world. End of francophonie. And birth of a world literature in French.

This year, all the major French prizes (the Goncourt, the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Renaudot and the Femina) were awarded to non-native French authors, and so it was perhaps an opportune time to raise the question of a “world literature in French,” one that can live and thrive in the same way as world literature in English. Indeed, it’s quite clear from the document that the authors look to the English-speaking world as one in which it is easier for non-English writers to have their words heard, and their books considered for their merits. The authors write:

Combien d’écrivains de langue française, pris eux aussi entre deux ou plusieurs cultures, se sont interrogés alors sur cette étrange disparité qui les reléguait sur les marges, eux “francophones”, variante exotique tout juste tolérée, tandis que les enfants de l’ex-empire britannique prenaient, en toute légitimité, possession des lettres anglaises ? Fallait-il tenir pour acquis quelque dégénérescence congénitale des héritiers de l’empire colonial français, en comparaison de ceux de l’empire britannique ? Ou bien reconnaître que le problème tenait au milieu littéraire lui-même, à son étrange art poétique tournant comme un derviche tourneur sur lui-même, et à cette vision d’une francophonie sur laquelle une France mère des arts, des armes et des lois continuait de dispenser ses lumières, en bienfaitrice universelle, soucieuse d’apporter la civilisation aux peuples vivant dans les ténèbres ?

And, in English:

How many French-language writers, caught between two or several cultures, have asked themselves about this strange disparity, which relegated them to the margins, as ‘francophones’, a barely tolerated exotic variant, while the children of the ex-British empire were taking, in all legitimacy, possession of English letters? Was one supposed to take for granted a certain congenital degeneration among the heirs of the French colonial empire, by comparison with those of the British empire? Or else recognize that the problem was in the literary milieu itself, in its strange poetic art, turning like a dervish upon itself, and in this vision of a francophonie upon which a France, mother of letters, arms, and laws, continued to dispense its lights, as a universal benefactor, concerned with giving civilization to the peoples living in darkness?

I am not sure that things are so rosy in the world of English-language literature, but they are certainly rosier than in the francophone world. In any case, the manifesto drew a number of reactions. Abdou Diouf, ex-president of Senegal and now secretary-general of the International Organization of Francophonie denounced the 44 authors as “gravediggers of francophonie.” And in Le Figaro, presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who never misses an opportunity to shut up, jumped into the fray, saying that “francophonie is not a colonial concept.” (One wonders, given his passionate defense, how many native-born Frenchmen identify themselves as ‘francophones.’ We all know it’s a term for The Others.) There is also a lively discussion on Alain Mabanckou’s blog, here, here, here, and here.

As for me, I look upon all of this with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. Born and raised in Morocco, I received a semi-colonial education that valued French over both my native language (Darija/Moroccan Arabic) and the standard form (Fusha/Standard Arabic). Until I went to college, I did all of my creative writing in French. I started to write in English in 1996, while in graduate school. When my first book was published in the United States, it was shelved in the general fiction section, just like any other book by any other American writer. When it appeared in France in January, however, La Fnac had it under Littérature anglophone. Meanwhile, my friends in France were looking for it under Littérature maghrebine. That is how silly labels are. All I can say is that I live in the republic of letters; my book belongs to anyone who wants to read it.