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Africans in Paris: On “Malamine”

By Edward Gauvin

“I’ve never seen an African in a bookstore in France,” said Christophe Ngalle Edimo. “I say African, because whatever country in Africa you’re actually from, the minute you set foot in France, you’re an African. That’s how they see you—not who you are, what you do for a living.”

The rage, frustration, and alienation this condition fuels are at the heart of Malamine, a graphic novel by the Franco-Gabonese writer Edimo and Cameroon artist Simon-Pierre Mbumbo. “We subtitled it An African in Paris to give publishers a hook.”

Malamine recounts the difficulties of its title character, an educated African immigrant, in fitting into a society where, as Edimo puts it, “African means you dress in green and sweep the streets at dawn. There’s another word for if you’re black and work in an office in France: West Indian.

“The African arrives in France knowing no one. A few friends from his home country, and his boss—but that’s a hierarchical and not a social relationship. Often, he can’t go back home for political or economic reasons. He’s in a hurry to prove himself.”

Born in Gabon to a Gabonese father and a French mother, Edimo was raised on Francophone bande-dessinée and Italian fumetti. He studied mineralogy in college, but on immigrating to France at the late age of twenty-four, went back to school for law. He now works with delinquent youth for the Ministry of Justice, writing comics on the side.

“Malamine isn’t an autobiographical character, but all the people and places in his life are real. I know the bar where the young integrated Africans gather, the publisher of African political tracts with his own bookstore, and the woman who went a year working under the table, dodging the cops.” Though he venerates René Goscinny’s run on Astérix and Obélix and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, he cites no influences on Malamine other than reality. “When I first started writing comics, editors suggested westerns, because westerns were selling well. I didn’t know a thing about westerns. But I know about this.”

Edimo’s passion to try and change the lives of Africans in France extends beyond writing. He is the founder of an organization called L’Afrique Dessinée (Illustrated Africa), which arranges encounters not only between African artists and French editors at comics festivals, but also outreach programs between artists and African youth. “African writers have such a hard time making it; if only a successful one would go to the projects in Paris where all the immigrants live and say to them: See? This is possible.”

Last year saw the first festival of African comics in France. “They’re not in the bookstores, but families come to the festivals. You can reach out to the kids.”

The children of immigrants, he notes, have their own problems. “You’re expected to follow in your father’s footsteps in Africa. But the whole point of being born in France is so you don’t have to do what your parents did. There’s a certain tension there, but it’s changing.”

Published to glowing reviews in 2009 by Les Enfants Rouges, Malamine drew comparisons to Ken Loach for its social realism and cross-section of a community. It features scenes of violence that recall the 2005 riots (“I know how they felt”) and the hope that Obama’s election gave Africans the world over.

“I was in New York with a friend when it happened,” said Edimo. “But for the tribe of Obama’s father in Kenya, life hasn’t improved. What we’re living now is the lag time between hope rearing its head and the reality it promised actually coming about.”

Edimo cites the American obsession with efficiency as a leveling force against racism. “Americans will go with whatever works best.”

He lays racism in France at the feet of colonialism, which he notes ended a century later than slavery. “Economically, Africa is still a colony. And the French haven’t gotten over equating colonial with inferior.”

Edimo is currently working on a project with a Polish artist, and another with an artist of part Chinese, part French, and part Malagasy descent. He plans a trilogy of works about the city of Paris—“a great city”—from the point of view of a musician, a dancer, and a writer.

Published Feb 16, 2011   Copyright 2011 Edward Gauvin

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