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from the August 2017 issue

Recalculating the Hexagon: The New French Literature

The French-language literary tradition distinguishes between "French" or "hexagonal" literature, written by authors born in France (the hexagon), and "Francophone" literature, written by authors born elsewhere. Based on geography but also echoing the country's colonial history (and, arguably, reflecting the associated tropes of exoticization and condescension), the distinction has often been maintained in both reception and awards; the major French literary prizes went largely to native-born writers, and Francophone writers often found larger audiences abroad. In recent years that imbalance has started to shift; in 2006, four of the six most prestigious prizes went to writers born elsewhere, and when French-Mauritian author J.M.G. Le Clézio—a Francophone advocate—won the 2008 Nobel, his success brought renewed attention to other writers from the marginalized regions.

The trend toward parity continues. In 2016 Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou was named to the Chair of Artistic Creation of the Collège de France in Paris. Mabanckou was not only the first writer to hold the post, he was the first African; which meant that the first French writer in this prominent appointment at this venerable university was Francophone, rather than French. In his inaugural lecture Mabanckou spoke to the vexed relationships between France and its former African territories. In an interview after his lecture, he reinforced the need for French literary culture to embrace a global approach, remarking, "Whether we like it or not, French literature is no longer a hexagonal literature, but a 'world literature.'"

As the definition of French literature expands beyond the traditional binary, the diverse voices outside the hexagon have their counterparts within, as writers from former colonies and elsewhere relocate to France and begin, or continue, to compose in French. These writers have migrated geographically and, in some cases, linguistically. In blending an outsider’s perspective with the local language, they create a new French writing, reframing and expanding the literature of their adopted country. This month we present a selection of these new voices.

Several of the writers here hail from former French colonies and grew up suspended between their mother tongues and the official French of the occupiers. One, Zahia Rahmani, writes from the dual perspective of the doubly exiled. Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). These men were twice rejected: first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families sought refuge but instead faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. In an excerpt from Rahmani's autobiographical novel Muslim, a Harki's daughter is forced to abandon her native Kabyle for French. Ten years later, she recovers both her language and her memories to solve a lingering mystery from her past.

Rwanda's Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse also fled war, in her case the Rwandan genocide. Here she makes her English-language debut with "Motherhood," from her first collection of short stories, Ejo.  When a Tutsi widow's Hutu in-laws spread the rumor that she poisoned her husband, her bereft fifteen-year-old son turns against her; and when he reaches adulthood, his vicious uncle exploits his festering resentment to recruit him for the extremist Hutu militia. Caught at the intersection of family quarrels and ethnic conflict, his mother fears he will explode into unthinkable violence. In Mairesse's native language, Kinyarwanda, "ejo" means both "yesterday" and "tomorrow": a fitting description of the inescapable effect of war and the intrusion of the past into the present and future.  

Rachid O. was born in Morocco and, unlike Rahmani and Mairesse, came to France by choice. In his "Hot Chocolate," a Moroccan adolescent is entranced by his nanny's tales of her doted-on previous charge, the adorable French boy Noé. The old woman's daily reminiscences over Noé's photo fan the teen's infatuation until, obsessed, he finds a way to shorten the distance between them. Rachid O.'s work addresses the struggle of being gay and Muslim; here, the teen's conflation of his desire for Noé with his yearning for France foreshadows both his adult attraction to men and his eventual departure.

Novelist and playwright Aziz Chouaki's impressionistic take on an Algerian immigrant's arrival in Paris moves through a series of quick images to produce a photographic portrait of disorientation. Bombarded by sensation and lubricated by multiple rounds of drinks, the giddy Jeff caroms from his cousin's claustrophobic apartment to the teeming streets of Pigalle. Chouaki's staccato prose captures Jeff's frenetic first night and telegraphs the chaos ahead.

While the colonial migrants at least come equipped with some knowledge of French culture, those from other countries must find their own tools to navigate the turmoil of arrival. In Négar Djavadi's autobiographical tale, a teenage Iranian immigrant discovers the route to peer acceptance in Paris winds through English-language punk. In the cacophony of the Sex Pistols and their three-chord cohort, she achieves a harmony of wardrobe, language, and worldview. She embraces the music and its culture "because it denounces the hypocrisy of power and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me."  (Watch our blog for a playlist.)

Shumona Sinha, born in Calcutta, moved to France and worked for a charity providing interpreting services to asylum seekers. Her experience informs "The Man with the Guava Tree."  A brusque immigration officer grills a bewildered Hindu refugee as an interpreter struggles to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide. Caught between the obtuse bureaucrat and the flummoxed young man, the interpreter responds in the only way possible. Sinha has been on both sides of the desk, and her black comedy of rigid bureaucracy exposes the cruel joke on immigrants who flee terror only to endure a second ordeal in their "haven."

These stories represent only a fraction of the richness of topic and language found in this new French literature. As the traditional geographical distinctions recede, the new angles within the hexagon promise a reformulation and remapping of contemporary writing in French.

© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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