- French Immersion:Black France in L. Miano’s Tels des astres éteints and A. Mabanckou’s Black Bazar
The idea of a literature reflecting the experience of people of African descent in the West has been a tough one to establish in more than one nation since the interbellum period, in France perhaps more than anywhere else. The Republican ideal put forward by the French official discourse made it hard to bring up the existence of minority groups in the country, and the field of literary studies had a hard time adjusting to newer academic disciplines such as cultural and postcolonial studies due to the dominance of a universalist paradigm. However, the success of contemporary novels such as Léonora Miano’s Tels des astres éteints, published in 2008, and Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazar, which came out one year later, might signal the beginning of a [End Page 220] shift in the country’s mind-set. Both narratives, in very distinct ways, hint at ways literature may allow us to go past the fruitless discussions on identity that have dominated public debate for the past three decades. By actively involving their readers in a demanding literary experience of verbal immersion, Miano and Mabanckou accomplish a salutary change of perspective.
In the final chapter of Tels des astres éteints, Miano’s narrator metaphorically addresses the lost image of Africa, saying: “We did not recreate you. We only had the pretention to do so, not the ambition” (369). Keeping this distinction in mind, we could say that Mian’s third novel is a deeply ambitious one. No “pretention” here, in that Miano, a native of Douala, Cameroon, never poses as the keeper of any dogmatic or eternal truth about Africans, either who they are or who they ought to be. After two novels, L’intérieur de la nuit (2005) and Contours du jour qui vient (2006), set in an imaginary country of equatorial Africa, Léonora Miano tackles the condition of black people in Europe without any demagogy or simplicity: there is no easy answer to our questions, she seems to say. Our condition, rather, is defined by these questions, which can sometimes turn into quests. Miano borrows these words from Billie Holiday’s “Left Alone” as an epigraph: “There’s no house that I can call my own.” Despite resorting mostly to third-person narration, Tels des astres éteints addresses the very political topic of the black condition in Europe at the intimate level, digging deep into the subjectivity of its ensemble cast.
Amok, Shrapnel, and Amandla are the “extinct stars” (“astres éteints”) that the title poetically designates. They are as different from each other as three individuals can be, and yet, they are black. Black is their skin color, the surface of what they are—a surface they are all reduced to by the society in which they live. The metaphor of the black face as an extinct star beautifully describes the mechanism of dispossession accomplished by racism: unable to shine, i.e., to let their rich potential and inner life show to other people, Miano’s Afropeans are somehow stuck at the surface of things. Their development as human beings has been permanently put on hold, taking them to a different dimension of society, in which linear progression is replaced with a sort of musical way of being in the world. The structure of the book allows us to immerse ourselves in this silent choir, this existential call-and-response being sung somewhere in the margins of “The North.” The first and final chapters, both entitled “Come Sundays” as a tribute to Duke Ellington, are written, unlike the rest of the novel, in the first-person perspective. The narrator, designated in the paratext as a female oracle (“pythie”), addresses an unspecified entity in a dense prose that combines the urgency of short sentences with a nuanced lyricism. The reader gradually realizes that the addressee is Africa, not as a geographical area but, as Stuart Hall once wrote, as “the name of...