- Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape
In Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape, Bennetta Jules-Rosette argues that anthropologists and Francophone African writers have worked together in what she calls “an uneasy collaboration” to create French-African literature since the emergence of négritude in the 1930s and 1940s (19). What emerges from her study is the notion that African writers have always experienced an intense ambivalence toward their French and African cultural identities that has influenced the themes of African writing. While Black Paris is a welcome update of Lilyan Kestleloot’s Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Négritude (1974), which focuses on poetry and the cultural power of négritude, it lacks theoretical power. Jules-Rosette describes her method as “shared anthropology” in which “researchers and their dialogants are the co-producers of descriptions” (3). Participant-observer is an unusual role for the writer of a humanities study, and it seems to have permitted her discoveries she may not otherwise have made. Yet her commitment to “the real” as told by those who were there has limitations for the reader who is trying not only to see the social conditions that Jules-Rosette describes but also to understand the invisible discursive structures that perpetuated them. Black Paris is, after all, about writers, but the author subordinates her argument to the goal of letting the writers speak for themselves, thus limiting her analytical continuity from one context to another.
Jules-Rosette’s position as a “witness” or participant-observer means not only that her methods focus on the writers’ thoughts about their own work, lives, and attempts to be published, but also that Jules-Rosette inserts herself into their world. The most stunning example of her participatory method is that she went so far as to write a novel using the Parisianist style. Jules-Rosette [End Page 166] tells about a writer she interviewed who questioned her ability to make a genuine analysis of Parisianist literature without writing in the genre. Therefore she writes that “as part of [her] critical analysis of Parisianism, [she] responded to the challenge of writing in the genre” (181–2). Jules-Rosette reports that the author who challenged her was not satisfied with her effort and that publishers and literary agents in the U.S. were unable to classify it. Is Jules-Rosette a better sociologist than a novelist? In any event, her novel’s potential never comes to fruition and the account of it in the study raises more problems than insights.
The term “Parisianism” arose in her conversations with French-African writers. She writes that though it “is not a genre description current among literary theorists . . . the term is particularly appropriate because the authors use it to describe their own works and to assert their cultural claim of belonging to French society” (148). Generally speaking, Parisianist stories are set in contemporary Paris and feature individualist themes rather than accounts of collective social protest. Like the African editors and intellectual leaders she interviews, Jules-Rosette provides a space where the voices of African writers can be heard with minimal mediation. Her use of this term, “Parisianism,” foregrounds the priority she puts on location as a factor in the development of literature, and it reflects her overall project of describing the literature as the writers have described it to her. She believes that “Writers’ assessments and descriptions of their own work challenge conventional literary canons and contain projections and justifications that may subvert what their critics have to say about them” (186). The problem with this method is that it puts her in a position where it is easier to receive the writers’ points of view as information than to evaluate them fully. Moreover, given the ambivalence that she says often characterizes this work and the difficulty the writers have getting published, their interest might be better served by the sort of advocacy that provides entry into the conventional literary canon.
Jules-Rosette’s project ultimately seems to be that of returning Francophone African writing to...