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In the company of writers

This year when the Paris Book Fair decided to honour and highlight Francophone literature instead of centring the Fair around one guest country, no-one imagined the controversy that would be generated.

india Updated: Jun 01, 2006 00:53 IST

This year when the Paris Book Fair decided to honour and highlight Francophone literature instead of centring the Fair around one guest country, no-one imagined the controversy that would be generated. As the name indicates even to the uninitiated, Francophone literature is quite clearly literature written in the French language. The theme was therefore Francophonie (approximated as Francophony in English) and 40 writers were invited from countries as far apart as Algeria and Cambodia, but also from the much nearer Greece and Belgium. However, not a single French writer from France was included.

The absence of French writing at the Fair had much to do with a very widespread interpretation of the term Francophone literature as covering writing in French by the non-French. This implicit definition touched a raw nerve. ‘Isn’t France Francophone?’, asked one delegate ironically evoking what is a sensitive topic at the best of times. The first salvo was fired by Amin Maalouf, the Paris based Franco-Lebanese writer-journalist who raised his voice against this appellation.

After all, who is a Francophone writer? It is a person who writes in French. This is obvious but yet it is true only in theory. For the French, the term Francophone writers should mean us (the French included), says Maalouf, but it actually means ‘them’, ‘the others’, ‘the foreigners’, the ones from the former colonies.

Yet, this was far from the intention of the founding fathers of Francophony. Though the word Francophonie is hardly new, as it was coined as far back as 1880 to emphasise the linguistic factor in French colonial expansion, in its modern day avatar it assumed new dimensions. It was Léopold Sédar Senghor, writer-statesman who gave it a new meaning and proposed ‘a spiritual community of nations that use French’. However, Francophonie remains a loaded expression even if the Organisation Internationale de la francophonie (OIF), an international organisation of wholly and partially French-speaking countries, modelled to some extent on the Commonwealth has been seeking to break out of the mould of the promotion of the French language and essaying a global role in the field of cultural diversity, promotion of democracy and human rights. This organisation of 63 member-countries, currently headed by Abdou Diouf, former President of Senegal, puts the figure of French speakers in the world at 175 million. But despite all this, France still has a tendency to treat it as the remnants of its colonial empire because the whole network is intricately linked to the relations France maintains with French-speaking communities all around the world who are for the most part its former colonies.

This condescending attitude still tinted with shades of colonialism that the word Francophony expresses worked up several writers and journalists. The compartmentalisation of writing into French literature and literature written by foreigners in French, the distinction between French literature that has emerged from the centre and writing in French that has been thrown up by the fringes or the periphery, was tantamount to insidious apartheid, according to one journalist.

There is the French language of France which is the norm, the authentic means of expression and the other French which offers the unexpected and the exotic and is the voice of the Francophone writer. It goes without saying that there are no precise criteria when it comes to defining a Francophone writer. Writers from the North, who write in French, are quickly assimilated with French writers even if they are of foreign origin, but others from the South do not share the same privilege. Milan Kundera, the Franco-Czech writer, who has been living in France for the last 30 years, started writing directly in French when, to his horror, he discovered that the translator of his novel The Joke had virtually rewritten his novel embellishing his style. And worse was still to come when he realised that the Argentinean edition was based on the French re-writing of his novel. Or, to go back in time, no one has ever called Guillaume Apollinaire, the foremost French poet of the 20th century, a Francophone poet simply because he was born in Italy to a Polish Mother.

Then there is the reluctance to consider French writers Francophone authors as well as the fact that no space is allotted to Francophone writers in manuals and treatises on French literature. A host of foreign writers based in France, voluntarily or in exile and who have become naturalised French citizens, have to deal with this ambivalence. Until they are classified as French writers, their citizenship is void of meaning, their belonging to France undermined by the label ‘Francophone’.

Maalouf calls for the use of the term ‘French language writers’  which would put an end to this segregation and cover all writing in French whether produced by Blacks or Whites, whether it comes from Montreal, Dakar, Paris, Brazzaville or Phnom Penh. To do this would efface the writer’s country of origin, his nationality, the colour of his skin and let his work do the talking. Just as there is no distinction made between English literature and Anglophone writing, there would be no separation of French and Francophone literatures but only French language literatures.

However, what is not in doubt and remains uncontested by one and all is the fact that Francophone writing has greatly enriched the French language. Testimony to this is the fact that in the last three decades, the Goncourt prize, the most prestigious French literary award has been given to many a Francophone writer. Among the laureates figure: Amin Maalouf himself; Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, undoubtedly the most prolific and best-known North African writer based in France; Andreï Makine whose life has become part of literary legend. Having arrived from Siberia, he had to make a corner of the Père Lachaise cemetery his home. Since nobody believed he could write in French, he lied saying that his book was translated from Russian. His fourth book, Dreams of My Russian Summers won two top literary awards simultaneously and went on to become a phenomenal bestseller.

Today, French fiction is on the decline and critics attribute it to the experimental style of the Nouveau Roman, where plot and character were considered inferior to meticulous physical description. The period of Camus, Sartre or Gide is no more, but the writer from Africa or from the French Caribbean with his own universe, his own very specific mythology, not to omit the refreshingly new lexicon and the innovative style of writing has revitalised the language. Patrick Chamoiseau is one such writer. From the same part of the world as Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon, though far less known, Chamoiseau made a mark with Texaco, a magical, mythical 150-year-old story of his native Martinique and its Creole language and culture. A new linguistic style, a hybrid language that remains accessible and at the same time contains the values of his Creole mother tongue that he rediscovers. Works in French today, whether from the former colonies or simply by people who have migrated and settled in France for political reasons or otherwise, are expressed in a multitude of new, rich and innovative voices.

To encourage this osmosis between French language literatures requires the tearing down of out-dated colonial coloured distinctions. And most of all it requires the recognition that the language of Molière, to use an image coined by Raphaël Confiant, is also the language of Mohammed, Mamadou and Ming.