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Five French Writers of Colour Whose Words and Stories will Move and Inspire You

Known for being one of the most politically engaged and culturally aware countries in the western world, France has long taken pride in its achievements and struggled with its failures. The rise to prominence of Le Pen in the 2017 Presidential Elections shows how racism pervades French life and like all European countries, whiteness has been lauded as the centre of all lived experiences, with white voices and experiences drowning out the words of people of colour. However, despite this omnipresent racism, in the latter part of the twentieth century, with the demise of Empire and the breaking down of barriers that had stopped writers of colour from staking their claim as creative artists, French literary culture has increasingly become more vibrant and diverse. With this in mind, the following list of texts offers a brief glimpse into the diverse voices of French writers of colour.

The Collected Poetry

Without doubt, one of the most important literary movements in France during the twentieth century was the Négritude Movement. Formed in Paris in the 1920s and 30s and influenced by pan-African intellectualism and the Harlem Renaissance that was occurring in New York City at the same time, the Négritude Movement was also indebted to Marxist and anti-colonial principles. The group organisers, Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas wanted to revolt against the racism experienced by black people in France and so sought to cultivate their own creative group and to explicitly write texts that centred around the experience of black people. Indeed, the movement’s manifesto was the “affirmation that one is black and proud of it”. Césaire’s body of writing in particular is worth attention. Extending from political texts to creative adaptations of Shakespeare, Césaire’s poetry meets in the middle between politics and creativity. Césaire: The Collected Poetry can be read as a tome that illustrates the black French experience during the twentieth century. Influenced too by surrealism, Césaire’s unflinching and lyrical poetry is unapologetic, beautiful and belongs on the shelf of any poetry-lover.

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Beyond Negritude

The Afro-Martiniquais writer and journalist Paulette Nardal was also deeply involved in the Négritude movement in France. She founded the “Woman in the City” journal, from which the book Beyond Négritude is collected. In this book, Nardal’s essays, critical thoughts and musings about the role of black women in the urban city and in France in general are archived. The work in this book touches upon race, class, theology, feminism and liberation – and while most of Nardal’s words are from the immediate post-WW2 years, they continue to resonate strongly in todays world. Nardal’s work illustrates that it has always been the words and work of black women that produce meaningful liberation for all identities. This text provides an apt counterpart for those who appreciate the work of Simone De Beauvoir who does not go far enough in her interrogations of structural oppressions as Nardal does.

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Three Strong Women

The first woman writer of colour to win the illustrious Prix Goncourt award, Marie NDiaye’s 2009 novel Three Strong Women is an important, emotional and tender book. NDiaye’s book comprises three novellas that give an insight into the experience of people of colour in France, Europe more generally, and beyond. In the first section of the book, Norah visits Senegal from France at her father’s request in an attempt to connect with him. In Senegal, she is faced with the claustrophobic task of understanding and accepting the realities of her father’s role in her life as well as her own personal struggles and dissatisfactions. The second story in the novel explicitly explores masculinities – Rudy reflects on his life, decisions and emotional responses with the toxic repercussions of patriarchy and the racism of the French Empire underpinning his lived experience. Finally, the third story depicts Khady who attempts to rebuild her life following the death of her husband. Khady’s dependence on her in-laws and lack of economic privilege and power means that she is poignantly forced to rely on herself alone to survive. Three Strong Women documents the strong connections between France and Senegal which is apt not only because NDiaye’s father hails from Senegal, but because she asserts the diversity within France and the rightful platforming of voices of colour from the French population. Three Strong Women is an intense read that is especially relevant for today when contextualised with the current refugee crisis in Europe and France’s need to combat racism and make room for the voices of people of colour and black people.

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Our Lady Of The Nile

Born in Rwanda, Scholastique Mukasong relocated to France in the 1990s before the Rwandan genocide. Our Lady of the Nile is her fourth book in French, but first translated into English. The novel details the lives of Tutsi and Hutu girls attending a Catholic school in the run up to the genocide. With poignancy and at times light humour, Mukasong builds the simmering sectarian tensions that boil over into the horrifying mass killings. This novel is a glimpse into stories that are so often not told, with the voices of those who experienced such traumas talked over.

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To Hell and Back

Following the well-worn path of independent, brave and uncompromising women before her, To Hell and Back: The Life of Samira Bellil is a visceral and powerful memoir by Samira Bellil, a poor Algerian-French woman who lived in the suburbs of Paris in the 1990s. This memoir details with the impact and ramifications of violent acts of misogyny against marginalised vulnerable women. Bellil recounts the trauma of her attack and gang-rape twice at the hands of men from her French Muslim community. She discusses how her community reacted to her attacks and writes of her personal struggle to go to the police to name her attackers. To Hell and Back is a poignant and oblique memoir about pain and trauma and how we can find a way to overcome such events and attempt to live a positive life. Sadly, Bellil’s life-story did not have a happy ending, as the title of her memoir had so hoped for – she died, aged 31 from stomach cancer. In her memory, we would do well to read this book and take strength from this brave woman who left behind her powerful voice and worked tirelessly as an activist for women during her life.

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This selection of books illustrates the range of black writers and writers of colour who populate the French literary world, past and present. As the last vestiges of colonial rule fall away from empires such as France, the playing field will hopefully become more even for black writers and writers of colour. Given the beauty, originality, poignancy, bravery and humour of the books showcased in this review, the amplification of diverse voices such as these cannot come soon enough.

Based in Northern Ireland, Maeve holds a PhD in English Literature - her thesis deconstructed silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. Maeve is an avid reader of poetry, fiction and academic ... Show More