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A Selection of 9 Books To Celebrate French Language Authors

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French Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen with African and Haitian publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2017

There has been much talk in recent years about how French language authors from countries other than France have been revitalizing French literature; many of these authors have been winning prestigious French literary awards, such as the Franco-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani who won the 2016 Goncourt Prize. Of course French language authors have always been published in France, but now more than ever, they are recognized as an essential part of the contemporary French literary canon. 

France is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. The country made the conscious political decision to include numerous well-known authors who write in French and are published in France, but are not necessarily French. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in his opening speech at the Fair, “French belongs to those who have chosen to speak it.”

Just to name a few, authors in the official French delegation to the Fair include the Algerian Kamel Daoud, Alain Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo, Lebanese cartoon artist Zeina Abirached, and Atiq Rahimi, an Afghani-born filmmaker and writer.

Salman Rushdie once said that English has become an Indian language, and much in the same way, French has become a North African language, or a sub-Saharan African language.

Following is a reading list of books by French language authors born in countries other than France.

Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty

Ten-year-old Michel lives in Pointe Noire, Congo, in the 1970s. His mother sells peanuts at the market, his father works at the Victory Palace Hotel, and brings home books left behind by the white guests. Planes cross the sky overhead, and Michel and his friend Lounes dream about the countries where they'll land. While news comes over the radio of the American hostage crisis in Tehran, the death of the Shah, and the Bokassa diamond scandal, Michel struggles with the demands of his twelve year old girlfriend Caroline, who threatens to leave him for a bully in the football team. But most worrying of all for Michel, the witch doctor has told his mother that he has hidden the key to her womb, and must return it before she can have another child. Somehow he must find it. Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty is a humorous and poignant account of an African childhood, drawn from Alain Mabanckou's life.

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Black Bazaar

Buttologist is down on his uppers. His girlfriend, Original Colour, has cleared out of their Paris studio and run off to the Congo with a vertically challenged drummer known as The Mongrel. She's taken their daughter with her. Meanwhile, a racist neighbour spies on him something wicked, accusing him of 'digging a hole in the Dole'. And his drinking buddies at Jips, the Afro-Cuban bar in Les Halles, pour scorn on Black Bazaar, the journal he keeps to log his sorrows. There are days when only the Arab in the corner shop has a kind word; while at night his dreams are stalked by the cannibal pygmies of Gabon. Then again, Buttologist wears no ordinary uppers. He has style, bags of it (suitcases of crocodile and anaconda Westons, to be precise). He's a dandy from the Bacongo district of Brazzaville - AKA a sapeur or member of the Society of Ambience-makers and People of Elegance. But is flaunting sartorial chic against tough times enough for Buttologist to cut it in the City of Light?

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The Meursault Investigation

The protagonist in Daoud's novel is the brother of 'the Arab' killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus' classic novel The Outsider. Angry at the world and at his own unending solitude, he resolves to bring his brother out of obscurity by giving him a name - Musa - and a voice, by describing the events that led to his senseless murder on a dazzling Algerian beach. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.

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Belly of the Atlantic, The

Salie lives in Paris. Back home on the Senegalese Island of Niodior, her football-crazy brother, Madicke, counts on her to get him to France, the promised land where foreign footballers become world famous. How can Salie explain to him the grim reality of life as an immigrant? The story of Salie and Madicke highlights the painful situation of those who emigrate. Others who feel this pain include Ndetare, the Marxist schoolteacher and football coach, exiled to Niodior by the government but never accepted by those born there. Then there's Sankele, his former lover, the legendary beauty, whose only way out of an arranged marriage ends in tragedy. And poor Moussa, whose dreams look set to come true when he's scouted by a big French football club, but which fall apart when he doesn't make the team.

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I Am a Japanese Writer

A black writer from Montreal has found the perfect title for his next book I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it and gives him an advance. The problem is, he can't seem to write a word of it. He nurses his writer's block by taking baths, re-reading the Japanese poet Basho and engaging in amorous intrigues with rising pop star Midori. The book, still unwritten, becomes a cult phenomenon in Japan, and the writer an international celebrity. A Japanese writer publishes a book called I Am a Malagasy Writer. Even the Japanese consulate is intrigued. Our hero is delighted—until things start to go wrong. Part postmodern fantasy, part Kafkaesque nightmare and part travelogue to the inner reaches of the self, I Am a Japanese Writer calls into question everything we think we know about what-and who-makes a work of art.

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Fear and Trembling

Belgian author Amelie Nothomb's 8th novel, and also one of her most popular, tells the story of Amelie, a well-intentioned and eager young westerner, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfilment of a dream for Amelie, but once there her working life quickly becomes a comic nightmare of terror and self-abasement. Disturbing, hilarious and totally convincing, Fear and Trembling displays an elegant and shrewd understanding of the intricate ways in which Japanese relationships are made and spoiled.

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Children of Heroes

Their father's favorite saying, between drinks and blows, was, "Life holds only bad surprises, and the last one will be death." Children of Heroes is Colin's story. Testimony, confession, a child's outpouring: this is his painfully matter-of-fact account of how he and his older sister, Mariela, killed the man who tyrannized them and their piously pathetic mother, who is now a "blank." As he describes their flight from the slum in Haiti to an uncertain somewhere called "far away," Colin conjures a bleak picture of the life he and his sister are trying to leave behind. This book tells a story of Haiti that is at once intimate, universal, and otherworldly.

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Eve Out of Her Ruins

With brutal honesty and poetic urgency, Ananda Devi relates the tale of four young Mauritians trapped in their country's endless cycle of fear and violence: Eve, whose body is her only weapon and source of power; Savita, Eve's best friend, the only one who loves Eve without self-interest, who has plans to leave but will not go alone; Saadiq, gifted would-be poet, inspired by Rimbaud, in love with Eve; Clélio, belligerent rebel, waiting without hope for his brother to send for him from France. Eve out of Her Ruins is a heartbreaking look at the dark corners of the island nation of Mauritius that tourists never see, and a poignant exploration of the construction of personhood at the margins of society. 

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Hysteric

In this daring act of self-examination and confession, the late French Canadian novelist Nelly Arcan explores the tortured end of a love affair. All the wrong signals were there from the start, but still, she could not help falling. More than a portrait of an affair gone wrong, Hysteric is a chronicle of life among the twenty- and thirty-somethings, a life structured by text messages, missed cell phone calls, the latest DJs and Internet porn. When the writer’s aunt read her tarot cards, no predictions for her future ever appeared. This tale, an astounding feat of literary realism, shares the story of a woman who loses her identity in a man, in hopes of finding love. 

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Kite

Rich and multilayered, with elements of both memoir and fiction, Lebanese author Dominique Eddé's Kite begins in the 1960s and ends in the late '80s. It is the narrative of a passionate, and ultimately tragic, relationship between Mali and Farid set against the simultaneous decline of Egyptian-Lebanese society. Kite chronicles the casualties of social conventions, religious divisions, and cultural clichés. The differences between East and West are central to the tension of Edde's book and share the responsibility for an unavoidable impasse between the lovers. This fragmented narrative - written in several voices that reflect the broken lives of those caught up in the madness of war - calls into question an entire way of living and thinking. 

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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