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Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France$

Katelyn E. Knox

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781383094

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781383094.001.0001

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Writing, Literary Sape, and Reading in Mabanckou’s Black Bazar

Writing, Literary Sape, and Reading in Mabanckou’s Black Bazar

(p.71) Chapter Three Writing, Literary Sape, and Reading in Mabanckou’s Black Bazar
Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France

Katelyn E. Knox

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyses two principal cultural works: Ivorian Coupé-décalé music and Alain Mabanckou’s novel Black Bazar (2009). On its surface, Black Bazar seems to participate in the larger trend of ‘writing to right’ explored in chapter 2 within what scholars have termed ‘Black France’. A closer look, however, reveals that the novel’s main protagonist’s (Fessologue’s) seeming refusal to engage politically about notions of race and ethnicity is merely a façade that exposes and subsequently calls into question the position of the ‘minority-author-as-native-informant’ ascribed to those authors and artists studied in chapter 2. Chapter 3 proposes that in addition to using the Congolese fashion Sape movement as a means to examine the tension between writing and reading, the novel also employs ‘literary Sape’ to similar effect. The chapter’s reading of Black Bazar, then, exposes how Fessologue’s danse des griffes—a carefully crafted set of cultural references interrogates institutionalized spectacularism in the cultural realm. Through this formal device, Mabanckou slyly subverts those same reading strategies to which he knows he and his works will be subjected. In so doing, the novel also complements the formal, theoretical interventions Mabanckou (and other authors) has made in interrogating the designation ‘Francophonie’.

Keywords:   Alain Mabanckou, Black Bazar, Coupé-décalé, Sape, Race in France, Black France, Francophonie

Even after the rise of works which seem to ‘write to right’ images of France as a sort of El Dorado studied in the previous chapter, these images nevertheless continued to flourish in francophone literary and musical works throughout the early twenty-first century. In fact, an African music movement known as coupé-décalé, was born in 2002 out of this precise image. Coupé-décalé is curious as an African musical movement for two principal reasons: first, it began in Paris rather than in Africa; and second, its first real group, known as the ‘Jet Set’—a play on words referring to both the number of members (seven), and their opulent lifestyle—had no musical training or experience. Rather, this group, according to one of its members known as Lino Versace, was known in Parisian African circles for their opulent weekend outings, including their designer clothing, cigars, champagne, and convertibles.1 When, in 2002, a violent civil war broke out in Côte d’Ivoire, African music producer David Monsoh approached the group to ask if they would consider creating a music movement to send messages of hope to the war-torn nation; though all but Douk Saga (self-proclaimed ‘President’ of coupé-décalé) initially declined Monsoh’s invitation, Saga quickly convinced the rest of the Jet Set to join him in the studio.2

Coupé-décalé began as a means of spreading positive messages to a war-torn Côte d’Ivoire, but the conflict also played a large role in the movement’s widespread success. During the civil war, government officials instituted a curfew, and Ivorians preferred to spend their curfew hours in bars (known as maquis)3 rather than remain isolated at home. The images of opulence transmitted through coupé-décalé music videos contrasted greatly with the chaos and violence Ivorians experienced in their everyday life and, as Dominic Kohlhagen concluded, cultivated a (p.72) mythical notion of ‘ailleurs’ (elsewhere)—often associated with images of France—that allowed Ivorians to escape their daily realities, even if for a short while.4

Yet, like the migritude works (primarily Alain Mabanckou’s Bleu-Blanc-Rouge) that had contested similar images sapeurs had put forth equating life in France with economic success, other Ivorian musicians, particularly the zouglou group Magic System, took issue with the images coupé-décalé transmitted of France. In their song ‘Un Gaou à Paris’, (‘An Idiot in Paris’), for instance, Magic System describes the plight of a young African immigrant who, buying in to the myth of France as an El Dorado, travels there only to suffer marginalization and impoverishment, and is ultimately pursued by the police.5 In the estimation of lead singer Asalfo, continuing to orient young Ivorians’ gaze northward and equating ‘success’ with arrival in France, continues the vicious circle of immigration.6

A closer look at coupé-décalé, however, reveals that the narrative it advances is more complex than first meets the eye. Specifically, its lyrics, sung in an Ivorian street slang known as nouchi, articulate a multivalenced critique of colonization that complements the images of opulence its artists put forth.7 As Yacouba Konate points out, nouchi draws on English and Ivorian languages, but also deliberately redefines French words.8 In the coupé-décalé context, three French words are of particular importance: ‘couper’, ‘décaler’, and ‘travailler’, each of which corresponds to a dance movement. ‘Couper’, which literally means ‘to cut’ in French (and is therefore coupled with a cutting motion of the arm)9 means ‘to steal’ in nouchi. ‘Décaler’, meaning ‘to shift’ in French, signifies ‘to return back to one’s country’ in nouchi, and ‘travailler’ (to work), means ‘to show off one’s wealth ostentatiously’. Coupé-décalé performances often take place in clubs, where prominent DJs, who play the role of host, sing the praises of artists and other club VIPs. In the coupé-décalé context, this act is referred to as an atalaku, a Lingala term conspicuously borrowed from the Congolese soukous music context, where it refers to the person (either DJ or host) doing the praise singing, rather than the act itself.10 In order to prove the DJ’s atalaku true, the artists perform danses des griffes (showing off their clothes’ designer labels) and shower the DJ with bank notes (‘travailler’ or ‘travaillement’). Coupling the Jet Setteurs’ images of opulence (designer labels, cigars, champagne, etc.) with these lyrics, one discovers a multivalenced critique of colonization. Journalists have celebrated the Jet Setteurs as ‘Robin Hoods’ of neocolonialism, suggesting that they travel to (p.73) France, ‘cut’ what is rightfully theirs, ‘shift’ back to Côte d’Ivoire, and redistribute the wealth to Ivorians (‘travailler’).11 Yet, as one might expect, because these words are all intelligible to French audiences, and nothing indicates their hidden meaning, this multivalenced narrative packs an additional punch: this narrative evades detection by audiences only familiar with French and not nouchi.

The title to Franco-Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s short story ‘Propos coupés-décalés d’un nègre presque ordinaire’ (‘Cut and Shifted Remarks of an Almost Ordinary Negro’) conspicuously references coupé-décalé—an allusion that not only draws cultural connections between the Ivorian music movement and Mabanckou’s literary work, but also subtly hints at the way the short story (like coupé-décalé) advances its own multilayered narrative using its literary form.12 In ‘Propos coupés-décalés’, published in Télérama magazine in 2006, like Mabanckou’s 2009 novel Black Bazar, which is based on it, the anonymous narrator advances polemical views about his fellow ‘black French’ compatriots, as well as about Africans more generally, while simultaneously alluding to dozens of works by French and francophone authors and artists to support his claims. While the short story conspicuously draws attention to some allusions, others are only visible to those with the requisite cultural background to identify them. Just as Coupé-décalé artists advance hidden narratives only discernable to those who understand nouchi words’ multiple meanings, Mabanckou similarly advances hidden narratives through these allusions—a formal technique I term ‘literary sape’—in both ‘Propos coupés-décalés’ and Black Bazar.

On its surface, Black Bazar (like the short story on which it is based) seems to participate in the larger trend of ‘writing to right’ explored in the previous chapter. What Black Bazar ‘rights’, so to speak, is the very idea that emerges out of the migritude works discussed in Chapter 2: the implicit and automatic association between racial and ethnic minorities in France, immigration (likely clandestine), marginalization, and criminality. The individuals who make up Black Bazar’s ‘Black France’ differ not only from this relatively monolithic portrait in terms of their nationality and immigration status (some are French-born—both Antillean and hexagonal—while others, born in West and Central Africa, have immigrated to France), but also from one another in terms of their views on racial identity.

This image of ‘Black France’ that Black Bazar ‘writes to right’ is also supported by the way it gives its reader access to this heterogeneous community: through the (auto)ethnographic writings of its (p.74) narrator-author named Fessologue (rendered ‘Buttologist’ in the English translation by Sarah Ardizzone), who, like Charlie in Le Paradis du Nord or Massala-Massala in Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, seems to serve as a native informant for the reader, giving an insider’s view into how life ‘really is’ for racial and ethnic minority and immigrant populations in early twenty-first-century France. In fact, Fessologue seems to take pride in his objective perspective: though other characters heatedly debate what it means to be black in contemporary France—even to the point of hurling insults at each other—Fessologue merely records these conversations in his notebooks (which ultimately becomes his novel, also entitled Black Bazar), refusing to either participate in the moment, or even to add his own thoughts when he revisits his journals to write the novel. Even when Hippocrate (‘Mr. Hippocratic’), Fessologue’s Martinican neighbor, invites him for drinks with the express purpose of telling him how both sub-Saharan Africans and blacks in France more generally are ungrateful for the colonial gifts they received, Fessologue listens silently but does not respond (either in the moment or retroactively).

Yet, as I illustrate below, this seeming objectivity or refusal to engage politically is merely a façade that Fessologue deploys to call into question the very position of ‘minority-author-as-native-informant’ itself. Far from a passive observer, Fessologue actively intervenes in the debates he records (themselves proxies for debates taking place in contemporary cultural criticism, especially in the realm of francophonie) through two types of writing: figurative writing using fashion (associated with the Congolese sape movement), and literal writing using fiction. Using both fashion sape and what I term ‘literary sape’, Black Bazar deftly exposes the cultural institutionalized spectacularism that permeates the literary and cultural marketplaces. Just as Fessologue the sapeur composes his outfits and then reads them for his audience using danses des griffes, so too does Fessologue the author deploy literary griffes—hundreds of references to literary, musical, and filmic works as well as political debates—to draw readers’ attention to the lenses through which they read Black Bazar itself. Analyzing Fessologue’s literary sape, then, reveals how he actually participates in the same debates about blackness and black authorship he seems to simply record.

Through its literary sape, the novel points up the problematic reading strategies engendered by these cultural marketplaces, including the way they perpetuate the idea that there exist certain prescribed roles open to minority authors (such as engaged spokesperson for his or her community or native informant responsible for relating authentic (p.75) African or diasporic experiences to his or her reader) and that authors and artists who fail to occupy these roles are ‘sellouts’. Additionally, Fessologue’s sartorial and literary sape in Black Bazar slyly and preemptively critique the larger frameworks of the cultural marketplaces in which the novel itself circulates. Through them, the novel contests the logic underpinning the taxonomy francophonie—which largely depends on biographical information about the authors classified thusly—and the way it primes audiences to approach the works through autobiographical and ethnographic, rather than literary, lenses. Ultimately, then, Black Bazar uses writing to expose and subvert the very same reading strategies to which it is subjected (cultural institutionalized spectacularism) from within.

Reading Authorship and Francophonie in Black Bazar

If the works examined in Chapter 2 center on ‘writing to right’, Black Bazar engages writing to read the act of reading itself. Reading both others’ bodies and actions, and minority authors and their works occupies much of Black Bazar’s characters’ time. Whether explicitly about authorship or not, I contend that it is through these discussions that Black Bazar explores the problematic reading strategies to which francophone authors and their works are subjected in the cultural arena. Ultimately, it is to these reading strategies that the novel’s literary sape will respond.

A discussion about how minority authors and their works are read opens Black Bazar, indicating this subject’s centrality to the novel. In the prologue, Fessologue speaks with another character known as ‘Roger the French-Ivorian’ about the book he has just completed (also entitled Black Bazar), and the questions Roger poses about Fessologue’s novel reveal that not only does he harbor a latent association between true writers and whiteness (13–14, 7–8),13 he also mentally classifies works originally published in French by minority authors alongside those by foreign authors originally published in other languages (subsequently translated into French). He asks, for instance, whether the novel has ‘une mer et un vieil homme qui va à la pêche avec un petit garçon’ (15) (‘a sea and an old man who goes fishing with a young boy’, 8), ‘un ivrogne qui va dans les pays des morts pour retrouver son tireur de vin de palme décédé accidentellement au pied d’un palmier’ (18) (‘a drunkard who goes to the land of the dead to find his palm wine supplier who (p.76) accidentally died at the foot of a palm tree?’, 11), or even ‘un grand amour au temps du choléra entre un pauvre télégraphiste et une jeune écolière qui finira plutôt par épouser un médecin plus tard’ (18) (‘a great love that takes place in the time of cholera between a poor telegrapher and a young schoolgirl who will end up marrying a doctor later on’, 12). These questions allude to the plots (or paraphrase the titles) of a wide range of texts including Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), and Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985); Roger’s other questions also reference Luis Sepúlveda’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (1989), Yukio Mishima’s The Music (1964), Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel (1988), and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959). Examining the list, one notes that there are no ‘French’ (or even ‘francophone’) authors; the only other African voice of the group—the Nigerian Amos Tutuola—is anglophone.

Roger’s inclination to racialize ‘real’ writers as white, and to classify works of minority authors writing in French alongside other ‘foreign’ writers, recalls the claims of ghettoization which the signatories (including Mabanckou himself) of the manifesto ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’ leveled against the taxonomy francophonie. Published in Le Monde in 2007, what came to be known as the ‘manifeste des quarante-quatre’ (the manifesto of the forty-four) decried how the mutually exclusive categories ‘francophone’ and ‘French’, used to classify works in physical and online bookstores (such as the major French retailer FNAC), depended largely on racial identity and ghettoized those works classified as ‘francophone’.14 At the time, perusing bookstores confirmed these claims: works by Aimé Césaire, a black Martinican, and therefore French, author were classified as ‘francophone’, and not French, while those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a white philosopher born in Switzerland, not France, could be found in the ‘French’ section.15 Roger’s assumptions about Fessologue’s book, in fact, perfectly capture the problems emerging from classifying ‘francophone’ works alongside ‘foreign’ ones translated into French, to which Mabanckou himself responded in the edited volume based on the manifesto: ‘these authors of “foreign literature” do not share the French language with me’.16 Through Roger’s notions about Fessologue’s authorship, then, Black Bazar exposes the larger reading strategies to which minority authors and their works are subjected.

Similarly, the tirades of Mr. Hippocratic (Fessologue’s Martinican neighbor) about francophone authorship in general reveal that these (p.77) taxonomies and reading lenses legitimize certain roles for francophone authors—notably that of grateful recipient. Though Mr. Hippocratic personally finds it dehumanizing to be positioned as ‘black’ and affirms his own desire to no longer be ‘taxé de noir’ (226) (‘referred to as being black’, 224), he nevertheless imposes a racializing gaze on others to affirm his distinction from other ‘black’ populations, as Éloïse Brezault has pointed out.17 This racializing gaze is also evident in how Mr. Hippocratic envisions black authorship: as a colonial gift for which the (formerly) colonized author should be—but often is not—grateful. Mr. Hippocratic even suggests that the earliest francophone works—including Ferdinand Oyono’s Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille (1956) (The Old Man and the Medal, 1969) and Une Vie de boy (1956) (Houseboy, 1966), Mongo Beti’s Ville cruelle (1954) (Cruel City, 2013) and Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956) (The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971), and René Maran’s Batouala (1921)—owe their very existence to the colonization they critique. It is ‘grâce à la colonisation’, (‘thanks to colonization’) he asserts, that these works were published and that ‘un Noir a eu pour la première fois le prix Goncourt qui n’est réservé, en principe, qu’aux Blancs’ (228) (‘a black won [for the first time] the Prix Goncourt which is meant to be the reserve of the whites’, 226). The undercurrent of gifting (evident in the repeated phrase ‘thanks to’ and the symbolism of the literary prize) that permeates Mr. Hippocratic’s discussion of black authorship reaffirms the French literary establishment as the legitimizer of authors from former colonies and places the black author in the position of gracious recipient (echoing the comics explored in Chapter 1).

Though comically exaggerated, Mr. Hippocratic’s views nevertheless call to mind discussions about two contemporary authors writing in French: Léonora Miano and Marie NDiaye. Cameroonian Léonora Miano has described how pressure to demonstrate gratitude toward the French publishing industry has curtailed her narrative options:

je suis avant tout une femme du tiers-monde à qui on accorde une faveur, et je suis donc sommée, par divers moyens, de rester à ma place’.18

(I am, above all, a third-world woman for whom they’re doing a favor, and I’m thus ordered, through various means, to stay in my place.)

Similarly, after receiving the Prix Goncourt for her novel Trois Femmes puissantes (2009) (Three Strong Women, 2012), Marie NDiaye drew public criticism from politicians—notably Éric Raoult (UMP Mayor of Raincy)—for denouncing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies. Ignoring that NDiaye, though ‘black’, is not only French, but actively resists the (p.78) title of ‘francophone’ writer, Raoult’s statement closely resembles that of Mr. Hippocratic in its vocabulary of gifting: ‘We awarded her the Goncourt Prize because she has talent […]. Now that she has received this prize, she can think as she likes, but as it happens she now has to be a kind of ambassador for our culture […] France has given her the Goncourt Prize’.19 As Dominic Thomas has highlighted, from within the phrases ‘we awarded her’ and ‘France has given her’ emerge latent assumptions about the place of minority authors in France: though NDiaye is French, her blackness nevertheless marks her as the internal other.20 In other words, Mr. Hippocratic’s colonial conception of black authorship is alive and well.

Furthermore, in citing what could be termed ‘engaged’ or ‘oppositional’ francophone literature, Mr. Hippocratic not only relegates the black francophone author to the role of spokesperson for his or her community, he also places francophone literary production in a reactionary paradigm with respect to metropolitan literature and culture. Such a vision of African authorship has long pervaded the field of francophone and postcolonial literary criticism; one thinks, for instance, of how the edited volume The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989) erects a dialectic within which postcolonial literary production can only ever be reactionary.21 Though critics have largely moved away from such binaries pitting so-called ‘minor’ literatures against ‘major’ ones—Françoise Lionnet and Shuh-mei Shih’s formulation of ‘minor transnationalism’ stands out as one exemplary model—iterations of them still nevertheless seep into the literary marketplace’s structural dynamics (through, for instance, the opposition between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’ literature, which I discuss below).22

While not overtly about francophone authorship, the views of another of Black Bazar’s character known as ‘Yves the just Ivorian’ about how racial and ethnic minorities should act in the interpersonal and sociopolitical spheres—that they should be engaged, authentic spokespeople for the racial collectivities in which they are positioned (regardless of whether they identify themselves in that way), and that failure to do so constitutes ‘selling out’—echo similar discussions within cultural criticism. On their surface, Yves’s views on racial identity in France seem not only diametrically opposed to those of Mr. Hippocratic, but also limited to the interpersonal and sociopolitical spheres (rather than commenting on cultural marketplaces). Whereas Mr. Hippocratic actively denies the pertinence of racial identities in his own life, Yves (p.79) insists that all black individuals have a collective responsibility to act on behalf of a larger black community in France. Yves proposes, for instance, that black men must sleep with white women to combat monoethnic and monocultural (and implicitly monochrome) notions of French identity. He proclaims, ‘nous allons carrément bâtardiser la Gaule par tous les moyens nécessaires’ (102–03) (‘we’ll go ahead and bastardize Gaul by all means necessary’, 98). Yet closer analysis of Yves’s perspective reveals that it shares more common ground with Mr. Hippocratic’s than initially meets the eye. Like Mr. Hippocratic’s vision of black authorship, Yves’s proposed vengeance strategy both assumes the existence of legitimized ways of performing blackness and obligates individuals externally positioned as ‘black’ to conform to them.

Yet Yves’s views clearly work through some of the most polemic discussions in francophone criticism: African authors’ engagement, authenticity, and selloutism. Yves’s supposition that all black individuals (regardless of whether they identify themselves thus) must actively advocate for a collective black cause parallels wider stances articulated in the field of francophone literary criticism that African authors must write on behalf of the communities they purportedly represent. As Odile Cazenave and Patricia Célérier have posited, such expectations to produce sociopolitically engaged works effectively constitute a ‘burden of commitment’ placed on African authors.23 Cameroonian author Mongo Beti’s public criticism of his compatriot Calixthe Beyala for refusing to use her literature to shed light on Cameroonian sociopolitical realities, epitomizes such a burden.24 Just as Yves proposes that other protagonists’ racial identity should dictate their behavior, so too do wider literary and cultural critiques fall back on racial or national identities to define narrative possibilities open to francophone authors.25

In fact, the novel pursues these entangled notions of engagement and authenticity through Yves’s accusations that other characters who fail to perform their blackness in ways he considers legitimate are ‘sellouts’—a term often ascribed in the cultural realm to authors and artists who have supposedly abandoned their community (defined in a myriad ways) in pursuit of economic prosperity. From within this critique emerges a judgment about the works themselves: they are no longer ‘authentic’, but rather mass-produced, commercialized objects designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible. In Black Bazar, Yves calls ‘Roger the French-Ivorian’ (who, as his name implies, is of mixed national and racial heritage) ‘un vendu comme tous les autres métis’ (104) (‘he has sold out like all the other half-castes’, 100), claiming that he, like artist (p.80) sellouts, has abandoned his ‘authentic’ identity to appeal to the broadest possible market.

Yves’s critique of Roger as a ‘sellout’ here recalls the ‘burden of commitment’ placed on African authors, demanding that they act on behalf of a larger cause. Moreover, Yves’s wish for Roger to ‘be Ivorian’ (105) all the time presupposes both the existence of an authentic Ivorian identity, and sanctioned ways for Ivorians to demonstrate it. When extended to the literary realm, this logic has two dangerous implications: not only does it forestall African or francophone authors’ creative agency by suggesting that certain topics are more (or less) valid for their writing but, more worrisome still, it also primes the audience to read their works through ethnographic and autobiographical, rather than literary, lenses.

Yves’s accusation of racial selloutism leveled against Roger also raises the larger topic of audience, calling to mind a perennial question posed of francophone authors (especially given that many successful authors both live and publish in the former métropole): for whom should they write? For critics such as Beti and Boubacar Boris Diop, francophone African authors living abroad risk becoming bound up in cultural markets designed to exoticize African cultures and thus reinforcing stereotypes about Africa in the West. This very claim has been leveled against Mabanckou.26 As but one example, one need only consider the case of Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir (1953), whose purportedly idyllic tone, nostalgia for colonial Africa, and detailed depiction of certain secret Mande practices (specifically the initiation ceremony) drew scathing criticism and accusations that Laye served as a native informant who had sold out African secrets to a Western audience.27

Through the way its characters read racial minorities, Black Bazar examines both the assumptions underpinning debates in cultural criticism and the reading strategies they engender. As I mentioned at this chapter’s outset, Fessologue, sometime target of these accusations, curiously resists responding to other characters; rather, he gives his reader an objective map of the francophone critical terrain without intervening himself. This objectivity, however, is merely an illusion. While outwardly Fessologue is a simple recorder of others’ debates, a look beneath the surface reveals that he actually participates in them through two types of writing: on the body (fashion sape) and on the page (literary sape). The force of both types of writing stems from their attention to—and, consequently, their ability to subvert from within—the reading strategies to which they will be subjected.

(p.81) Fessologue’s Fashion Sape: Encoding to Undermine Decoding

That sape features prominently in Mabanckou’s Black Bazar is hardly a surprise to readers familiar with his other works. In fact, one could argue that this cultural phenomenon has never not been associated with Mabanckou’s literary persona. Not only did it serve as the main focus of his first novel, Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (1998), largely responsible for propelling him onto the literary scene, but it has also been a mainstay of his subsequent works, both fiction—including his 2012 crime novel Tais-toi et meurs (Shut Up and Die), his 2013 short story ‘Confessions of a sapeur’ published in Francophone Afropean Literatures, and his 2005 novel Verre cassé (Broken Glass, 2009)—and non-fiction—including his book-length essays Le Sanglot de l’homme noir (The Black Man’s Sob), Écrivain et oiseau migrateur (Writer and Migratory Bird), and his preface to Héctor Mediavilla’s S.A.P.E. As one might expect, then, sape has featured prominently in critical discussions of Mabanckou’s works, particularly those focusing on Bleu-Blanc-Rouge and Black Bazar.

Like the excellent sociological studies on real-life sapeurs on which they draw,28 these critical studies of sape in Mabanckou’s works focus primarily on revealing the discrepancies between sapeurs’ real lives and the narratives they put forth through communications with their ‘home’ communities and through their clothing during descentes (return trips). The main questions driving these literary and cultural studies center around the relationship between sapeurs’ agency and the larger exploitative systems in which they find themselves. For instance, while scholars have concluded that sape fashion allows its practitioners to assert their agency within larger systems in which they have relatively little power (both in the Congo and on a global scale),29 they nevertheless ask whether doing so, in some ways, paradoxically reproduces the same colonial mentalities it supposedly subverts because it continues to place the former colonial power (France, in this case) at the center. In fact, this is precisely the force of migritude works, according to critics: they reveal that the miroir aux alouettes—the image of France as an El Dorado—is nothing but an illusion.30

The same central preoccupations orienting studies on sape in real-life and fictional settings—how do sapeurs use their clothing to assert their agency and to what extent does doing so nevertheless perpetuate larger systems that continue to exploit them—also define how scholars have approached Fessologue’s sape in Black Bazar. Pascale De Souza, for instance, points out how Fessologue’s ties, which prominently feature (p.82) the quintessential symbol of the Eiffel Tower, are at once ‘a symbol of success’ and ‘the epitome of the colonial yoke’.31 For Fessologue (as for the sapeurs before him), adorning his body with authentic European designer labels (griffes) and symbols (the Eiffel Tower), simultaneously confirms two opposing narratives. Through them he both asserts his agency but also risks becoming a site of neocolonial conquest.

My reading of Fessologue’s sape, however, comes to a slightly different conclusion. In my view, Black Bazar uses sape as a metacom-mentary on literal and figurative acts of reading, including those filters applied to sapeurs and francophone authors in cultural and literary criticism. In other words, Fessologue’s sape in Black Bazar raises larger questions of minorities’ agency within exploitative systems precisely to challenge its reader to interrogate the assumptions underpinning these discussions. Why is it, Black Bazar asks, that sapeurs can only be either subversive agents or unintentional victims of neocolonialism? Likewise, why are similar classificatory schemas (‘engaged’ or ‘sellout’, victim of metropolitan publishing or subversive writer) disproportionately applied to francophone authors and their works? Ultimately, as I now trace by examining two of Fessologue’s danses des griffes, the novel uses fashion sape to shift its reader’s gaze from Fessologue’s performance itself to the assumptions underpinning how the reader decodes it. In the same way, as I discuss in this chapter’s final section, the novel’s literary sape similarly shifts Black Bazar’s reader’s attention to the lenses through which s/he understands the novel itself. In so doing, the novel intervenes in the way it is packaged as a case of what Graham Huggan has termed the ‘postcolonial exotic’.32

Though he references clothing a few times earlier in the novel, the first time Fessologue discusses the cultural phenomenon of sape, he contextualizes it within the act of reading. In fact, the chapter begins with Fessologue engaged in the act of reading his own body. Here, he performs the first of two danses des griffes in the novel. Observing himself in a mirror, he figuratively decodes his outfits for Black Bazar’s reader, playfully and hyperbolically asserting that he wears: ‘Linen jackets by Emmanuel Ungaro that crease elegantly and are worn with refinement. Terylene jackets by Francesco Smalto. One hundred per cent or even two hundred percent lambswool jackets in pure Cerruti 1884 fabric. Jacquard socks’ (38–39). Though one might read Fessologue’s impossible claim that his vests are made of ‘200% lambswool’ as a sign of his devotion to fashion, another clue in this passage—the reference to the Cerruti 1884 fabric—leads me to conclude otherwise. As discussed (p.83) in the previous chapter, sapeurs’ success depended on assembling wardrobes whose constituent parts bear authentic, designer labels; it is thus surprising that Fessologue states on two separate occasions that his clothes are from ‘Cerruti 1884’, (28, 44), when the authentic couturier is Cerruti 1881. The uninitiated reader will likely miss this detail and take Fessologue’s word that he is a good sapeur; however, those with the requisite cultural background will likely read this detail as evidence that, in attempting to participate in a market he does not fully understand, Fessologue is duped into adorning his body with counterfeit goods.

What, then, should we make of Fessologue as a sapeur? Is he, as his 200% lambswool vests suggest, the epitome of sape? Is he, as his off-brand garments and their sometimes kitschy symbols indicate, the victim of larger systems in which he has little power? Or does he, in fact, deliberately deploy these overused symbols and off-brand garments to subvert the system from the inside? Black Bazar offers its reader no conclusive answer and, in my view, this is precisely the force of Fessologue’s danse des griffes. Fessologue’s careful attention to his outfits’ composition throughout the novel suggests that these seeming mistakes are deliberate, not accidental. Moreover, far from glossing over some of his garments’ off-brand labels, Fessologue actively draws his reader’s attention to them—something he would not do if he were trying to conceal them. In my view, Fessologue deliberately presents evidence to support both readings in order to bait his readers into drawing definitive conclusions. Far from saying anything about Fessologue as a sapeur, the conclusions his readers (and cultural critics) draw expose the preexisting lenses (reading strategies) to which his body is subjected. In a deft move, Fessologue uses sape precisely to reveal and subsequently interrogate the prescribed narratives imposed on sapeurs’ bodies.

This scene thus calls to mind those conclusions drawn by critics regarding francophone authors and their works discussed above. To echo but one example, Fessologue’s chameleon-like appearance here recalls the main positions ascribed to Camara Laye’s canonical L’Enfant noir in the criticism.33 To put it in terms that parallel Fessologue’s danse des griffes: is Laye an unwitting victim of the French publishing industry? Does his use of a seemingly nostalgic tone indicate that he has internalized colonial views of Africa? Or does he deploy seemingly ‘authentic’ symbols of Africa (those that conform to his European audience’s preexisting image of the continent) in order to slyly subvert the system from the inside?34

Fessologue’s danse des griffes suggests that definitively resolving this (p.84) debate is not only impossible but counterproductive because any attempt to do so, Black Bazar claims, necessarily weighs Laye against implicit standards for African authors without interrogating the assumptions upon which these standards rest. Fessologue reads his own body not to show off his clothing, but rather to expose and interrogate the very reading strategies he knows his readers will use to decode it. To draw a definitive conclusion either way—that Fessologue is an authentic sapeur or a victim of larger systems in which he has no control—is to fall prey to the very trap he sets through his clothing. Rather, what becomes the focus in this scene are the problematic assumptions underpinning his audience’s reading strategies themselves—a proxy for the reading strategies (such as notions of ‘engagement’, ‘selloutism’, or ‘authenticity’) permeating literary and cultural criticism as well.

Immediately following this scene, Fessologue performs a second danse des griffes that illustrates what happens when audiences read others’ bodies without the cultural background necessary to do so. Because he carefully prepares his body to be read, Fessologue literally and figuratively goes out of his way to draw others’ gazes to his display on the way to a friend’s party: ‘j’aurais pu prendre un taxi, mais pourquoi me priver des regards des passants?’ (47) (‘I could have caught a cab, but why miss out on the looks of passers-by?’, 43). When he arrives at Paris’s Gare du Nord, he notices that his plan to draw attention to himself has succeeded, and consequently he performs a danse des griffes for his spectators: ‘J’ai ouvert les trois boutons de la veste, une technique pour mettre en valeur ma ceinture Christian Dior’ (48) (‘I undid three of my jacket buttons, which is a special technique I have for showing off my Christian Dior belt to its best advantage’, 44). Through this choreographed movement Fessologue reveals his outfit’s shocking force: even his concealed accessories bear authentic labels.

His audience, however, responds not with awe and applause but with insults: ‘Ah oui, il faut tous les virer, ces connards!’ (49) (‘Too right, let’s get rid of the bastards!’, 45) and ‘Bande de fainéants!’ (49) (‘Slackers, the lot of them!’, 45). Confused and alarmed, Fessologue silently waits on the platform for his train; only later does he realize that his suit was the same color green as the uniforms of the striking SNCF agents (50). For Fessologue, being mistaken for a striking laborer constitutes the ultimate trauma: ‘C’était une humiliation, je n’en suis toujours pas revenu’ (45) (‘I felt so humiliated, I still haven’t got over it’, 40).

Though it might at first seem like Fessologue overreacts, closer analysis reveals that the stakes could not be higher in this scene: he (p.85) and his audience are negotiating for control over how to read his body. Despite Fessologue’s best efforts to guide his audience through the act of reading his outfit, they can only draw from their own interpretive grid—one in which the black body is a source of labor. Moreover, while the onlookers at the train station will never understand their error, the novel makes this misreading a focal point for its own reader. In so doing, it exposes the latent assumptions influencing how Fessologue’s audience understands his performance. Whereas Fessologue the sapeur cannot draw the station’s onlookers’ attention to this error or, by extension, contest it, Black Bazar does both.

This scene also draws its reader’s attention to Black Bazar’s larger commentary on the relationship between reading, writing, and sape—both in literal and figurative terms. Above, I have illustrated how Fessologue uses sape as a kind of writing to expose the logic of ‘authenticity’ to which his body will be put—themselves proxies for the way francophone authors and their works are read in larger critical realms. Below, I will trace how Fessologue uses writing as a kind of sape for similar purposes. Just as Fessologue the fashion sapeur uses recognizable fashion labels (griffes) to put himself forth as a chameleon, Fessologue the literary sapeur uses both conspicuous and carefully hidden references to other cultural works (literary griffes) to the same end. Ultimately, the Gare du Nord episode becomes a cautionary tale warning Black Bazar’s readers to avoid making the same mistake with reading the novel itself and its literary danse des griffes. Those who miss it—like the station’s onlookers—risk returning the black author (and his or her works) to dominant (literary) frameworks. In a deft move, the novel pre-emptively anticipates and interrogates the lenses (and packaging strategies)—iterations of institutionalized spectacularism in the cultural marketplace—applied to francophone works.

Black Bazar’s Literary Sape: Writing to Contest Reading

More than any of Fessologue’s actions, his choice to abandon sape proves scandalous for his friends, who read this act as a sign that he has sold out and abandoned his core values. What his friends take as a radical break in Fessologue’s character, however, I read as a continuity that bridges the gap between sape as a kind of writing and writing as a kind of sape. In other words, Fessologue does not so much abandon sape as he chooses to express it through fiction rather than fashion.

(p.86) As I have been tracing, sape-as-writing goes hand in hand with reading, and writing-as-sape is no different. For instance, Fessologue describes how his earliest writings—love letters to Congolese women—dutifully reproduced legitimized forms he and his friends found in a French book entitled Le Parfait Secrétaire (The Perfect Secretary). He humorously recalls:

Et nous on envoyait nos lettres sans même tropicaliser les choses. […] On évoquait l’hiver, on décrivait la neige, on alignait des sapins à chaque paragraphe. [… O]n avait fini par croire que rien n’était plus poétique que d’appeler une fille très noire ‘Ma Blonde de neige’. (63)

(And we sent our letters without even tropicalizing them. […] We wrote about winter, we described the snow, we stuck pine trees into every paragraph. [… W]e ended up thinking that nothing could be more poetic than to call a particularly black girl ‘My Snowy White’, 58–59)

For these young Congolese men, writing—particularly the supposedly intimate, ‘authentic’ love letter genre—becomes a deliberate act of encoding their narratives to conform to the reader’s expectations. Writing, then, ultimately collapses all notions of authenticity, revealing the flawed assumptions upon which rest Diop’s and Beti’s assertions, discussed above, that African authors have a duty to explore ‘authentic’ African realities for African audiences in their literature.

Curiously, however, even as Black Bazar points out the problematic assumptions perpetuated by the reading strategies of the francophone cultural marketplace (namely, that francophone authors must ‘write to right’ and that there exist certain legitimized ‘authentic’ African narratives), the novel actively invites its reader to adopt the very same autobiographical and ethnographic reading strategies it marks as problematic. First, Fessologue claims to be the son of Mabanckou’s own mother: ‘[J]’étais son petit-fils, le fils de sa fille Pauline Kengué’ (101) (‘I was her grandson, the son of her daughter Pauline Kengué’, 96), lending an autobiographical dimension to the novel. Readers of Mabanckou will recognize this autobiographical connection, not only from the many works he has dedicated to her (including Black Bazar itself), but also from his 2013 autobiographical novel, Lumières de Pointe-Noire (The Lights of Pointe-Noire, 2015), in which Mabanckou chronicles his mother’s central role in his upbringing. What is more, Fessologue’s authorial process—writing a novel based on the journals in which he records his interactions at Jip’s, the Afrocuban bar where the majority of the novel is set—also positions him as a ‘native informant’ charged (p.87) with translating his own culture for a foreign audience. Here, one again hears echoes of Laye’s novel L’Enfant noir, often read through autobiographical and ethnographic lenses. In a cunning move, Black Bazar outwardly presents itself as both autobiographical and ethnographic precisely to foreground the larger ideological questions these reading strategies raise.

As I hinted in this chapter’s introduction, Black Bazar intervenes in these larger ideological discussions using a technique I term literary sape—a formal literary device that reflects on the act of reading itself. Just as Fessologue’s danses des griffes challenge the reader to recognize and interrogate his or her own lacunae and preconceptions, so too do the novel’s danses des griffes littéraires—allusions to cultural works and political debates from a variety of historical and geographical contexts—draw Black Bazar’s readers’ attention to the lenses through which they read Black Bazar itself. Analyzing the novel’s literary sape, then, reveals how Fessologue actually participates in those same debates about blackness and black authorship he seems to observe objectively.

Black Bazar’s literary griffes take a variety of forms. Some are conspicuous, referencing either a work’s title or an author by name (such as the film Jaws, the television series MacGyver, or Phil Collins’s song ‘Another Day in Paradise’, Marx’s Das Kapital [1867] [Capital: A Critique of Political Economy], Claude Nourago’s ‘Armstrong’, or Dany Laferrière’s novels Pays sans chapeau [1996] [Down among the Dead Men, 1997] and Le Goût des jeunes filles [1992] [Dining with the Dictator, 1994]), while others, reduced to convenient sound bites, are only identifiable to those with the cultural background necessary to recognize them. For instance, the griffes used in descriptions of Mr. Hippocratic—including two references to the concluding line of Voltaire’s Candide (Mr. Hippocratic’s insistence that everyone must ‘cultiver son jardin’ [29, 35] [‘cultivate his own garden’, 23, 29]), a canonical work of French literature, and Fessologue’s quip that ‘il prétend qu’il y a des bruits et des odeurs quand mes amis et moi préparons de la nourriture et écoutons de la musique’ (36; emphasis added) [‘Not to mention the noises and smells he claims get produced by me and my friends when we’re cooking our food and listing to our music’, 30], an allusion to the now infamous speech Jacques Chirac gave during an RPR dinner debate on June 19, 1991—lend weight to Mr. Hippocratic’s insistence that he does not want to be positioned as black, and align him with both conservative, right-wing rhetoric and notions French cultural purity.

(p.88) The sheer quantity and variety of these references collapse all interpretive categories such as ‘popular’ and ‘canonical’, or ‘African’ and ‘French’, lending weight to De Souza’s conclusion that it is unlikely that one reader will recognize them all.35 Where I differ from her interpretation, however, is with respect to the larger implications of the novel’s literary sape. While she concludes that the fact that the reader will never recognize all of these references reveals his or her own shortcomings to him or her, I would add that it is through this strategy that the novel demands that its reader critically examine the potential implications of these shortcomings. In other words, the novel’s literary sape not only prompts its reader to ask What other references am I missing? but, more importantly, What assumptions is the act of missing these references causing me to make?

Returning to the train station scene discussed above clarifies this nuanced distinction. As I suggested above, Fessologue’s audience fails to grasp the significance of his belt’s designer label (Christian Dior) during his danse des griffes, just as readers will likely miss many of the novel’s literary griffes. Yet what becomes the focal point of this scene is not just the audience’s incomprehension (though this is, of course, an important element), but also the misreading that results from it. They read his body as a striking laborer, the ‘ultimate humiliation’ for an enthusiastic sapeur like Fessologue. In the same way, Black Bazar’s literary sape uses its danse des griffes to shift the audience’s gaze from their shortcomings to the problematic readings such shortcomings cause them to make.

Three examples of the novel’s literary sape reveal how Black Bazar in fact participates in those discussions about francophone writers that Fessologue seems to simply record. In the conversation between Roger and Fessologue about African authorship discussed above, for instance, a literary danse des griffes highlights the assumptions behind uncritically received European images of Africa. Roger comically apes the civilizing mission’s rhetoric, extolling the French imperial project: ‘Y avait tous ces maux sur nos terres d’ébène, notre Afrique fantôme au point que même Tintin était contraint de faire le déplacement en personne pour notre bien!’ (16; emphasis added) (‘There were all these ills over our ebony lands, our ghostly Africa, to the point that even Tintin ended up having to come over in person on our behalf’, 10). This account of African history contains unsignaled references to Michel Leiris’s autobiographical and ethnographic book L’Afrique fantôme (Phantom Africa, 1934), written during his participation in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti; Hergé’s comic Tintin au Congo (1931) (p.89) (Tintin in the Congo, 2012); and Albert Londres’s Terre d’ébène (Ebony Land, 1929), a travel narrative that denounces the effects of colonial rule. The content of both Leiris’s and Londres’s texts works at cross purposes with Roger’s stereotypical image of Africa as an uncivilized land: Terre d’ébène depicts colonization—not precolonial Africa—as ‘savage’, and L’Afrique fantôme reveals more about the ideologies and epistemologies central to the burgeoning scientific disciplines that took Africa as their object of inquiry than it does about Africa itself. Reading this passage as an example of a literary danse des griffes reveals its subversive commentary on Roger’s stereotypes about Africa. By inconspicuously citing works that directly counter the content of Roger’s speech, Fessologue the literary sapeur advances a critique resembling that offered by Achille Mbembe: that ‘narrative about Africa is always pretext for a comment about something else, some other place, some other people. More precisely, Africa is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious and give a public account of its subjectivity’.36

Another prominent example of literary sape comes during Fessologue’s interactions with the protagonist known as ‘l’Arabe du coin’ (‘The Arab on the Corner’) who on five separate occasions asks Fessologue if he knows of the ‘poète noir’ (‘black poet’) who wrote the lines ‘L’Occident nous a trop longtemps gavés de mensonges et gonflés de pestilences’ (24, 112, 114, 147, 246) (‘For too long the West has force-fed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence’, 18, 109, 110, 144, 244). Just like the novel’s other semi-concealed references, this interrogative format, which censors both the author’s name and the work’s title, encourages the uncertain reader to pursue the reference—one which readers unfamiliar with Aimé Césaire can uncover with minimal research. Without deeper knowledge of francophone literary criticism, however, such a reader will likely miss the way in which this instance of literary sape reflects on processes of packaging black authors in literary marketplaces. Specifically, in referring to Césaire, the Arab on the Corner adopts part of the now famous phrase André Breton used to title his preface to Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land): ‘Un grand poète noir’ (‘A great black poet’). For critics, this preface raises some of the most central questions regarding black authorship and packaging, including why Breton’s voice was needed to preface the work, what relationship this preface establishes with respect to the work itself, and what role, specifically, Breton envisions race playing in Césaire’s authorship.37 That the Arab on the Corner refers to Césaire as a ‘grand (p.90) poète noir’, rather than using his name, draws the reader’s attention to the larger frameworks to which francophone authors are subjected, as well as their ideological implications.

One final example of literary sape illustrates how Black Bazar’s form intervenes in its own protagonists’ discussions of ‘passing’ and ‘selling out’ highlighted above. After Fessologue abandons vestimentary sape and begins straightening his hair, a Gabonese man approaches him and criticizes his physical appearance: ‘Le Gabonais a rajouté que je n’étais qu’un pauvre Noir qui n’aimait pas le manioc et que je me défrisais les cheveux pour ressembler aux Blancs’ (245; emphasis added) (‘The Gabonese man added that I was just a poor Black who didn’t like cassava and that I straightened my hair to look like Whites’, 243). This interaction harkens back to both Yves’s expectations that black and mixed-race individuals perform their racial identity in certain prescribed ways. This passage, too, contains an unsignaled allusion to Gaston Kelman’s novel Je suis noir et je n’aime pas le manioc (I’m Black and I Don’t Like Cassava, 2003)—that readers unfamiliar with contemporary francophone literature are likely to miss. Referencing a work that has been termed a ‘non-threatening, apologist narrative’38—draws attention to how these accusations of racial shame are remapped onto literary landscapes. Fessologue, now an author, discovers that his individual, corporeal choices are taken as representative of a community much in the same way that individual francophone authors are often burdened with expectations that they serve as spokespeople for their communities.

Ultimately, then, the novel’s literary sape subverts the main problematic reading strategies (cultural institutionalized spectacularism) underpinning the cultural marketplace. First, the diversity of its griffes contests the notion that there are sets of cultural references shared by those of the same national or racial background, thereby highlighting the problematic assumptions that cultural critics perpetuate when they demand that authors use their writing to explore certain sacrosanct subjects. What is more, these references are often reduced to easily digestible and deployable sound bites. This act, then, suggests that all cultural works—not just African ones—are subject to processes of commodification in cultural marketplaces. That these claims of inauthenticity and selloutism are disproportionately applied to francophone (or minority, in a broader sense) authors and their works in the literary marketplace reveals the problematic assumptions disproportionately applied to francophone—and not French or majority—authors.

(p.91) Conclusions

This mise-en-abyme of contesting interpretation through literary sape is not limited to the novel Black Bazar. Since its publication, Black Bazar has been translated into theatrical and musical forms: Modeste Nzapassara’s one-man play performed in 2011 and two soukous albums entitled Black Bazar (2012) and Black Bazar, round 2 (2013).39 The title track of Black Bazar, ‘Black Bazar: Face A’ (‘Black Bazaar: A-Side’), which sets Congolese artist Soulemayne Diamanka’s slam poetry to soukous music, illustrates how the project’s musical iteration extends the novel’s broad reflection on contemporary images of blackness into the musical realm. In the song’s second verse, Diamanka’s lyrics meditate upon common phrases containing the word ‘black’: ‘Justice blanche, misère noire / La bête noire, c’est toi / C’est écrit noir sur blanc / Et ta peau restera noire malgré ton masque blanc’ (White justice, black misery / The black sheep is you / It’s written black on white / And your skin will remain black despite your white mask).40 The anaphora of ‘black’ (in both French and English) underscores how images of blackness in everyday parlance are heavily steeped in notions of violence, exclusion, marginalization, and struggle. The song’s lyrics even engage in literary sape, referencing Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks—a work which contests how skin color becomes a lens through which the actions and accomplishments of all individuals positioned as ‘black’ are filtered.41

Black Bazar is hardly the first novel in which Mabanckou has deployed the literary form that I have termed ‘literary sape’, which could be considered a formal thread running throughout his oeuvre. As John Walsh has illustrated, Mabanckou had already used this form in his earlier novel Verre cassé (2005) to call into question processes of canon formation and to explode taxonomies such as francophonie from within.42

As I have traced throughout this chapter, Mabanckou’s novel proposes reading (figuratively and literally) as a potentially dehumanizing act—an echo of the type of gaze the colonial children’s comics discussed in Chapter 1 cultivate in their young reader. Mabanckou’s novel not only draws parallels between the many arenas in which this gaze operates (sociopolitical, historical, and cultural) and shows how, far from limited to interracial interactions, these gazes also inform how racial and ethnic minorities read each other’s bodies (and works), but it also makes the gaze itself the object of critical scrutiny. At the same time, Black Bazar (p.92) mitigates the potential violence of the gaze by endlessly refracting its objects through its intermedial form. In so doing, the novel considers the assumptions underpinning reading and marketing strategies—including the ‘write to right’ narratives—through which francophone works are marketed and consumed.

On its surface, the work I consider in the next chapter, Blues pour Élise, seems to return to the ‘write to right’ paradigm. In fact, the novel’s back cover announces that Blues’s protagonists depart from the ‘clichés misérabilistes’ (clichés of misery) the reader has come to associate with minority literature in contemporary France (such as those discussed in Chapter 2): they live bourgeois lifestyles, eat sprouted grains, use Paris’s Vélib’ bike share system, and participate in speed dating. Blues, like Black Bazar, contests latent notions of France’s racial and ethnic minority populations’ homogeneity, and takes as its focus a new community termed ‘Afropeans’: those born in France to parents of sub-Saharan African immigrant background. Yet Blues’s main focus is not simply correcting latent stereotypes about what one might call ‘black France’ by giving its reader a more nuanced vision of its heterogeneity. Rather, it also takes as its focus the origins of these stereotypes themselves: images of blackness (and whiteness) that permeate mainstream media. In fact, as I show, Blues’s form is intermedial—the novel bears traces of both a music album and a television series. Through this intermediality the novel constructs an Afropean mediascape that not only offers an alternative to the mainstream media, but also allows the novel, like Black Bazar’s literary sape, to take a self-reflexive stance on its own status as a cultural object subjected to the cultural marketplace’s larger forces.


(1) Lino Versace, interview by Katelyn Knox, 6 July, 2006.

(2) David Monsoh, interview by Katelyn Knox, 10 July, 2006.

(3) On the meaning of ‘maquis’ in nouchi and its relationship to other contexts in which the term has been used (such as during the French resistance, or in armed anti-colonial struggles), see Noël Kouassi Ayewa, ‘Mots et contextes en FPI et en Nouchi’, paper presented at Actes du 7es Journées scientifiques AUF-LTT (2005).

(4) Dominic Kohlhagen, ‘Frime, escroquerie et cosmopolitisme: Le succès du “coupé-décalé” en Afrique et ailleurs’, Politique africaine, no. 100 (2005), 92.

(5) Magic System, Un Gaou à Paris (Paris: EMI, 2003), CD.

(6) As A’salfo describes in an interview with Schadé Adédé, his primary objection to coupé-décalé was to the images of opulence and the practice of ‘travaillement’, or conspicuously showering individuals with bills. See Schadé Adédé, ‘A’Salfo (lead vocal de Magic System)—“Douk Saga est parti avec une bibliothèque”’, Notre Voie, accessed 15 September 2015, http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/200610250808.html.

(7) For excellent studies on nouchi, see Sasha Newell, ‘Enregistering Modernity, Bluffing Criminality: How Nouchi Speech Reinvented (and Fractured) the Nation’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19, no. 2 (2009); Hannah Sande, ‘Nouchi as a Distinct Language: The Morphological Evidence’, in Selected Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, ed. Ruth Kramer, Elizabeth C. Zsiga, and One Tlale Boyer (Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 2015).

(8) Yacouba Konate, ‘Génération zouglou’, Cahiers d’études africaines 168 (2002), 783.

(9) One also notes a similar gesture in Caribbean dances, which rehearses the act of cutting sugar cane.

(10) For more information on atalakus in the Congolese soukous context, see (p.180) Bob White’s background on this practice in ‘Modernity’s Trickster: “Dipping” and “Throwing” in Congolese Popular Dance Music’, Research in African Literatures 30, no. 4 (2005). This practice also recalls the historical role of the griot in West Africa, as well as contemporary criticisms that many griots now only sing for economic advancement, rather than fulfilling their cultural role. See, for instance, Christopher Miller’s analysis of the griot figure in Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir in Theories of Africans or Dorothea Schulz’s ‘Praise without Enchantment: Griots, Broadcast Media, and the Politics of Tradition in Mali’, Africa Today 44, no. 4 (October–December 1997).

(11) Honoré Essoh, ‘Le “couper-décaler”: phénomène musical ou danse d’escrocs?’, RezoIvoire, accessed 15 September 2015, http://www.africahit.com/news/index.php?mod=article&cat=Ivorycoast&article=22.

(12) Alain Mabanckou, ‘Propos coupés-décalés d’un Nègre presque ordinaire’, Télérama 2958 (2006).

(13) Note: all translations for Black Bazar are from the published English translation, Black Bazaar (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012).

(14) Muriel Barbery et al., ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’, Le Monde (16 March 2007); Michel Le Bris, Jean Rouaud, and Eva Almassy, eds., Pour une littérature-monde (Paris: Gallimard, 2007). Despite its origins as an alternative to the problematic category of francophonie, ‘littérature-monde en français’ has also generated heated controversy among critics. See especially Alec G. Hargreaves, Charles Forsdick, and David Murphy, eds., Transnational French Studies: Postcolonialism and Littérature-monde (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012); Charles Forsdick, ‘From “littérature voyageuse” to “littérature-monde”: The Manifesto in Context’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 14, no. 1 (2010); Jacqueline Dutton, ‘Littérature-monde or Francophonie? From the Manifesto to the Great Debate’, Essays in French Literature and Culture 45 (2008).

(15) Since 2010, these categories no longer feature prominently on FNAC’s website; however, they are nevertheless still palpable in physical bookstores.

(16) Alain Mabanckou, ‘“The Song of the Migrating Bird”: For a World Literature in French’, [Le chant de l’oiseau migrateur.] Forum for Modern Language Studies 45, no. 2 (2008), 147.

(17) Éloïse Brezault, ‘Du malaise de la “condition noire” dans la société française: Une identité composite en mal d’intégration dans quelques romans africains contemporains’, Nouvelles Études Francophones 26, no. 2 (2011), 150.

(18) Léonora Miano, Habiter la Frontière (Paris: L’Arche, 2012), 73.

(19) Raoult qtd. in Dominic Thomas, Africa and France: Postcolonial Cultures, Migration, and Racism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 149; emphasis by Thomas.

(21) Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes (p.181) Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989).

(22) Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, Minor Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

(23) Odile Cazenave and Patricia Célérier, Contemporary Francophone African Writers and the Burden of Commitment (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 24.

(24) Mongo Beti, ‘L’Affaire Calixthe Beyala, ou, comment sortir du néocolo-nialisme en littérature’, Palabres: Revue Culturelle Africaine 1, no. 4 (1997).

(25) For an extremely thorough study of the way the French and African publishing industries shaped notions of African authorship in the early twentieth century, see Ruth Bush’s Publishing Africa in French: Literary Institutions and Decolonization (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

(26) See Raoul Nkuitchou Nkouatchet, ‘Alain Mabanckou écrit-il pour les blancs?’, Slate Afrique (4 April 2012), accessed 4 February 2014, http://www.slateafrique.com/85007/la-fatigue-d%E2%80%99alain-mabanckou. It is worth pointing out that such anxieties are not limited to the literary or cultural realm; for instance, Paulin Hountondji asserts that funding networks and the high level of consumption of scholarly works in the West means that African social scientists regularly exoticize their own culture in order to succeed in the scholarly community. If, he argues, African researchers began to examine their society with ‘African’ eyes, they would no longer feel the need to ‘exalt their own cultural particularities’ that differentiate them from the West (Endogenous Knowledge: Research Trails. [Dakar: CODESRIA, 1997], 68).

(27) For the most well-known example, see Mongo Beti’s article ‘Afrique noire, littérature rose’ Présence africaine 1, no. 5 (1955). Both Adele King and Christopher Miller offer useful and comprehensive overviews of the critical landscape surrounding L’Enfant noir (see King, Rereading Camara Laye [Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002], 48–53; Miller, Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 121–26). Miller’s analysis also offers a much more nuanced reading of Laye’s novel.

(28) See my discussion of sape in the introduction to Chapter 2.

(29) See especially Dominic Thomas, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007); Ch. Didier Gondola, ‘Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth’, African Studies Review 42, no. 1 (1999); Justin-Daniel Gandoulou, Entre Paris et Bacongo (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Centre de création industrielle, 1984); Jonathan Friedman, ‘The Political Economy of Elegance: An African Cult of Beauty’, in Consumption and Identity, ed. Jonathan Friedman (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Acadmeic Publishers, 1994).

(30) In fact, Dominic Thomas concludes that this is what makes Le Ventre de l’Atlantique (2003) such an important work: even though Madické initially (p.182) views Salie as a paysanne (without actually using that language), he eventually heeds her warnings and decides not to migrate to France. This act valorizes the breaking of the cycle of immigration and of Francocentrism—the recognition that success is possible at home. See Thomas, Black France, 203–04.

(31) Pascale De Souza, ‘Trickster Strategies in Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazar’, Research in African Literatures 42, no. 1 (2011), 110.

(32) Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (New York: Routledge, 2001), xi.

(33) As Abiola Irele has illustrated, much literary criticism devoted to L’Enfant noir, particularly Adele King’s Rereading Camara Laye, has contested the ‘authenticity’ of both its author and its content. For Irele, these accusations of inauthenticity reveal problematic assumptions regarding African literature: ‘should an African novel be no more than an ethnographic document that is required to be true to life in every detail? And was Laye thus constrained to an exclusive reproduction of his indigenous culture?’ (‘In Search of Camara Laye’, Research in African Literatures 37, no. 1 [2006], 118).

(34) Laye’s is hardly the only case demonstrating the compulsion to ‘place’ African (or African diasporic) authors that dominates literary and cultural criticism; in fact, one hears echoes of perhaps one of the most contentious francophone authors living and publishing in France today: Calixthe Beyala. The Cameroonian author actively cultivates her media persona as both ‘authentic’ and fake to exploit, as Nicki Hitchcott has put it, ‘France’s neocolonial fear of—and desire for—the exotic’ (‘Calixthe Beyala: Prizes, Plagiarism, and “Authenticity”’, Research in African Literatures 37, no. 1 [2006], 103).

(36) Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 3.

(37) For just two examples addressing these very questions, see Irele’s preface to the 2000 edition of Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, and Watts’s Packaging Post/Coloniality.

(39) As I mentioned in this chapter’s introduction, an earlier version of what would ultimately become Black Bazar was also published in Télérama as a short story entitled ‘Propos coupés-décalés d’un nègre presque ordinaire’ in 2006.

(40) Modogo Abarambwa and Sam Tshintu, Black Bazar (Paris: Lusafrica Records, 2012), CD.

(41) Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press 2008), 96–97.

(42) John Walsh, ‘Sarkozy, Mabanckou, and Notes from the Bar: Alain Mabanckou’s Verre cassé’, The French Review 84, no. 1 (2010), 132.