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Reviewed by:
  • Contemporary Francophone African Writers and the Burden of Commitment
  • Mary Ellen Wolf
Cazenave, Odile and Patricia Célérier. Contemporary Francophone African Writers and the Burden of Commitment. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2011. 246 pp. $24.50.

Writers can no longer be easily connected to a specific national terrain. Today, they increasingly operate in transnational networks which are multiple, hybrid, and global. This is especially true in relation to postcolonial African writers who no longer necessarily inhabit their homeland. Odile Cazenave and Patricia Célérier's book offers a broad portrait of this new generation of writers who seek to move beyond the narrow confines of politically committed literature and belong to the world. Yet rather than abandon the concept of Engagement, these writers have steadily sought to change its terms. Since the 1990s, they have consistently cultivated a highly experimental literature, which, according to the authors, offers "pluralistic aesthetic commitments" (4) and "other scenarios of involvement" (160).

Although the notion of commitment continues to restrict critics' reading of these contemporary authors, it is not immune to change. In order to demonstrate the malleability of the concept, Cazenave and Célérier begin by revisiting the texts of those writers they call the "enduring militants" who hail from the pre- and post-Independence periods. During this time frame, littérature engagée was supposedly cut and dried. A writer's role was to expose and resist the oppression of the colonial system in a straightforward way. Yet, according to Cazenave and Célélier, several novelists from the 1950s through the '70s complicated and subverted this dichotomous structure by continually revising traditional models of Engagement. Among the writers under discussion are Mongo Béti, Ferdinand Oyono, Sembène Ousmane, Sow Fall, Ahmadou Kourouma, and Henri Lopez. Perhaps the most classically engaged writer of this group is the Cameroonian Mongo Béti whose "enduring" commitment and aesthetic practices passed through "several phases of renewal"(33). After Independence, disillusionment with the neo-colonial nation-state would spawn a complex array of new narrative structures and techniques that were polymorphous, subversive and increasingly complex. Nevertheless, in spite of their diversity and aesthetic innovations, the vast majority of these pioneering authors have, according to Cazenave and Célérier, been too often evaluated strictly in terms of their political stance. In other words, the notion of commitment has not only consistently shaped the canon of francophone African literature, but continues to reductively inform the critical discourse that surrounds it.

The remainder of the book focuses on the myriad ways that have been devised by francophone African writers in the past two decades to cope with the issue of political engagement. Chapter 2 addresses the prevalence of the "duty of memory" in the writing of contemporary African fiction. Beginning in the1990s, francophone African writers began the excavation of the atrocities of both the colonial and post-Independence regimes. To practice memory is, first of all, to confront and reconstruct a silenced history. This long-term process includes the systematic deconstruction of Africa's mythical heroes, and the revamping of its legends. One of the real merits of Cazenave and Célérier's work is that it highlights the contributions of women writers. For example, their analysis of the workings of memory in the novels Les baigneurs du lac rose (2002) by Tanella Boni and Reine Poukou: Concerto pour un sacrifice (2004) by Véronique Tadjo centers on the historical investigation and reconstruction of "new male and female heroic figures" (73), as well as the rewriting of foundational myths. The last section of this chapter is devoted to "Rwanda: The Duty of Memory Project." Ten authors from across Africa were called upon to take up short-term residence in Rwanda in 1998 and to produce a piece of fiction relating to the 1994 genocide. Each [End Page 241] book was published separately. This collective yet individualized confrontation with a buried history renewed once again "the meaning of engagés writers" (90).

How can the contemporary writers of francophone African literature "lift," so to speak, "the burden of representation"—the burden that is buttressed by the idea that all African novels...


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pp. 241-242
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