Looking Back on Afropea’s Origins
Looking Back on Afropea’s Origins
Léonora Miano’s Blues pour Élise as an Afropean Mediascape
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter continues the book’s inquiry into the way twenty-first century authors and artists interrogate institutionalized spectacularism both in their works’ content and form by analysing Léonora Miano’s intermedial novel Blues pour Élise (2010). The novel probes the relationship between minorities’ literal (in)visibility within predominantly whitewashed mediascapes (Appadurai) and their figurative recognition. Far from simply pointing out how the relative absence of racial and ethnic minorities within France’s mediascape impacts its Afropean characters, however, the novel puts itself forth as an Afropean mediascape—its own remedy to the normative, whitewashed French mediascape. Juxtaposing two characters’ views on how to improve Afropeans’ literal and figurative visibility in France, the chapter also reveals underlying causes of this (in)visibility: the painful traumas of France’s colonial past. The novel, then, suggests that opening these painful histories can prove cathartic for all populations involved, and can lead to more inclusive visions of French national identity.
As I show throughout this book, the gaze is associated with power and privilege. Not only do those in power never have to question the existence of their gaze, they also control how they and other populations are put on display. The works studied in the previous two chapters have staked out their own ‘oppositional gaze’, both looking back at their audience and contesting the image through which they are depicted. The works self-reflexively grapple with how they might become complicit in perpetuating the same institutionalized spectacularism they seek to contest (the way racial and ethnic minorities are discussed in news media, or marketed in cultural marketplaces).
Scholars who have approached the gaze through postcolonial and racial lenses have underscored how media transmit a privileged white, male, heteronormative gaze. bell hooks says it best:
When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and of power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy. To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage its images, was to engage its negation of black representation.1
Other scholars, notably Frantz Fanon and Stuart Hall, have similarly echoed how media landscapes often betray a white gaze, which is subsequently internalized by minority populations.2 In fact, one of the unearned privileges that white people enjoy, according to Peggy McIntosh, is being able to ‘turn on the television or open the front page of the newspaper and see people of [one’s] race widely represented’.3 Efforts to ‘look back’ thus demand not only an interrogation of what is (p.94) seen but also of the larger institutional forces that privilege certain ways of looking.
Léonora Miano’s 2010 novel Blues pour Élise does just that: it probes the relationship between minorities’ literal (in)visibility within predominantly whitewashed mediascapes (a term Arjun Appadurai defines as ‘image-centered, narrative-based accounts of strips of reality’)4 and their figurative recognition. Far from simply pointing out how the relative absence of racial and ethnic minorities within France’s mediascape impacts its Afropean characters, however, the novel puts itself forth as its own Afropean mediascape—its own remedy to the normative, whitewashed mediascape. In her collection of essays, Habiter la Frontière (2012) (Inhabiting the Border), Miano has decried how black populations still struggle for control of their image in France, and how minorities often have little control over these ways of looking:
Être Noir en France aujourd’hui, c’est avant tout être dans une situation d’impouvoir. C’est ne pas maîtriser sa propre image, puisqu’elle est fabriquée par d’autres, qui conçoivent eux-mêmes, l’objet de leur crainte, de leur détestation, de leur mépris, ou d’une empathie infantilisante. C’est même voir son image détournée.5
(To be black in France today is above all to be disenfranchised. It’s to be unable to control your own image, because it’s produced by others, conceived as the object of their fear, their loathing, their contempt, or of an infantilizing empathy. It’s even to see one’s image hijacked.)6
Miano points to the example of Saffy Nebbou’s film L’Autre Dumas (The Other Dumas, 2010), whose casting of Gérard Dépardieu as Alexandre Dumas expunged the author’s complex racial heritage.7 For Miano, this specific example of racial whitewashing in Nebbou’s historically based fictional film is both symptomatic of and also participates in a larger, more sinister whitewashing: that of French national history and memory. She puts it bluntly:
Parce que Dumas appartient au patrimoine littéraire hexagonal, il ne peut être incarné par un Noir, ce qui est une manière d’indiquer aux Noirs qu’ils ne peuvent représenter leur pays qu’en étant blanchis.
(Because Dumas belongs to the metropolitan French literary heritage, he cannot be played by a black man, which is a way to indicate to blacks that they can only represent their country by being whitened.)8
A self-reinforcing cycle ensues: the larger absence of racial and ethnic minorities in mainstream media perpetuates latently racialized (white) (p.95) conceptions of national identity, which, in turn, continue to influence the types of image presented in the media.
Miano’s 2010 novel Blues pour Élise examines the risks, stakes, and potential ways of changing (in quantity and type) racial and ethnic minorities’ literal and figurative visibility in France and their implications for minorities’ recognition. Like the works studied in earlier chapters, Blues could be said to ‘write to right’; in this case, it ‘rights’ the association between racial and ethnic minorities and socioeconomic disenfranchisement. The novel counters images of heterogeneity often inscribed onto a ‘black French’ population by tracing the lives of France’s ‘Afropeans’. As Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas point out, the term ‘Afropeans’ refers to the heterogeneous population of sub-Saharan African descent born in Europe.9 More than a shared African history or culture, what unites Afropean individuals is a shared experience of exclusion on European soil.
There are many works I could have chosen to explore the case of France’s Afropean populations, including one of Miano’s other novels, Tels des Astres Éteints (Like Extinguished Stars, 2008), or novels by Wilfried N’Sondé, Bessora, Sami Tchak, or Fatou Diome.10 Yet what sets Miano’s Blues apart from the others, and the reason why I have chosen to focus almost exclusively on it in this chapter, is the way that, more than any other work I could have chosen, it engages this book’s central threads—the gaze and display—through both its content and its self-reflexive form. A quest for acceptance drives each of its Afropean characters, whose individual struggles mirror Afropeans’ collective ones. Their cases raise larger questions regarding visibility, including: What is the relationship between external and internal recognition? Is gaining recognition an active or passive process? And what is the relationship between racial and ethnic minorities’ literal visibility (such as within France’s media) and their metaphorical visibility within historical discourse? Studying Blues, in other words, allows me to supplement the discussions I’ve opened in previous chapters (how do francophone authors and artists simultaneously ‘look back’ at their audience and the ways the cultural marketplace packages them?) with an extended study of how mediascapes operate as sites of display.
To illustrate how the novel engages with these questions, while resisting answering them definitively, I turn to two of Blues’s protagonists: the sisters Estelle and Shale. Estelle operates as the mouthpiece for a more militant Afropean perspective. In her view, Afropeans should actively affirm their presence by ‘inventing themselves, imposing (p.96) themselves, and speaking themselves’ instead of waiting for external recognition (‘to be named’, as she puts it) in the eyes of the majority (106).11 Her view seems to offer a seductively simple and above all agency-filled response to Miano’s observations above: Don’t like how, when, or where you’re depicted? Change it yourself! Yet her sister Shale’s case calls into question the efficacy of such a strategy within a wider context of historical amnesia. From her earliest childhood years, Shale has felt like an outsider in her family. Though she does not know it until the end of the novel, she has good reason for these feelings: born nine months after her mother’s rape, her paternity is uncertain (her father, Raymond, who knows of the rape, outwardly claims Shale as his own, but his actions testify to a barrier between them). It is not until Shale’s mother Élise finally breaks the silence surrounding her origins that Shale can reconnect with the many communities to which she belongs (Cameroonian, French, and familial). Shale’s case, which I read as a metaphor for the wider Afropean struggle for recognition in France thus directly interrogates Estelle’s strategy above. Significantly, it is not until Shale ‘is named’ and her history is finally spoken, that she begins to feel a sense of belonging.
If Blues’s content explores how Afropeans’ visibility in European media is both symptom and outcome of the larger whitewashing of history and memory, its intermedial form offers a response. The novel’s structure bears traces of both a television series and a music album (complete with a ‘Bonus’ chapter which, like the ‘bonus’ tracks on musical albums, is not listed in the novel’s table of contents).12 For these reasons, I read Blues as a self-contained Afropean mediascape whose significance is twofold. First, it provides an alternative to the whitewashing Miano criticizes above. In constructing its Afropean mediascape, Blues looks both transnationally to other diasporic spaces (especially the African American context) and to ‘local’ French and European contexts. This positions the Afropean mediascape as just one node in a much larger interconnected network of mediascapes. Second, Blues’s structure emphasizes cultural works’ status as commodities within larger cultural marketplaces and reflects on how cultural recognition and visibility go hand in hand with commodification. Like Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazar, examined in Chapter 3, Blues uses its form to expose and contest institutionalized spectacularism in cultural marketplaces.
While Blues is a literary work, it was originally written as an ‘Afropean’ television series (traces of which I analyze in this chapter’s third section). Though Blues has yet to appear on the small screen, this literature-television intermediality nevertheless points its readers’ gaze towards French television, encouraging them to critically evaluate the types of programs offered. It puts on display the conspicuous absence of minorities in certain realms of French popular culture, harkening back to hooks’s and attendant assessment of global mediascapes’ overwhelmingly white gaze. That network executives refused Blues airtime is not, perhaps, surprising given the historically limited presence of racial and ethnic minorities on France’s small screen and the relative dearth of shows with primarily ‘minority’ casts.13 Moreover, those same larger structures responsible for perpetuating the whiteness of France’s screens despite perennial calls for reform of how, when, and in what capacity racial and ethnic minorities are given airtime are precisely what Blues ultimately contests. Before turning to the novel, however, I would first like to explore these calls for reform in more detail.
Cameroonian author Calixthe Beyala’s group Collectif Égalité (Collective Equality) played a central role in bringing discussions of racial and ethnic diversity on French television to the fore, and prompted the first official inquiry by France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA; Higher Audiovisual Council) into the topic in 2000. The report’s conclusions were sobering: minorities were underrepresented globally in French television media, particularly in certain realms (recurring series and news journalism), but overrepresented in others (sports and music).14 In series, their roles were secondary and often stereotypical. In television news, they were rarely journalists; the few who occupied this role often presented on ‘foreign’, rather than domestic affairs. In order to combat this inequality, the CSA modified French public television stations’ operating procedures in 2001:
les deux chaînes publiques, France 2 et France 3 doivent assurer la promotion des différentes cultures composant la société française sans aucune forme de discrimination. France 5 […] doit veiller aux échanges entre les différentes parties de la population, et à diffuser des émissions relatives à l’insertion des étrangers.15
(the two public channels, France 2 and France 3, must promote the different cultures that make up French society without any form of (p.98) discrimination. France 5 […] must ensure exchanges between different parts of the population, and broadcast shows about the integration of foreigners.)
Yet, despite this attention to promoting diversity on French airwaves, the history of diversity in terms of race and ethnicity on French television reads like a broken record: a declaration of continued deficiency, calls for further studies, reports suggesting more and different visibility, followed by another declaration of continued deficiency. In 2004, the first report released by France Télévisions after launching its ‘Plan d’action positive pour l’intégration’ (Positive Action Plan for Integration), for instance, concluded that ‘L’image des populations immigrées est déformée’ (The image of immigrant populations is skewed), still largely dominated by sports, music, and stereotypical roles; ‘L’insuffisance est globale’ (every area is falling short), and ‘Les conditions de recrutement des journalistes et des présentateurs ne favorisent pas la présence de personnes issues de l’immigration dans ces métiers’ (The conditions for recruiting journalists and hosts are not favorable toward people of immigrant backgrounds in these careers).16 Reports issued almost a decade later (2011 and 2013) show little (if any) improvement. As President of the CSA’s ‘Diversity’ task force Mémona Hintermann-Afféjee has highlighted, French television media still hardly reflect the diversity (in terms of racial and ethnic background, age, handicap, and socioeconomic status) of the French population—a manifestation of institutionalized spectacularism.17
If, for two decades, reports have continued to signal a problem with minority presence and to propose the same solutions, what is preventing concrete progress? The language used in the 2001 decree offers several clues. First, it intimates that the promotion of French cultural diversity (code for racial and ethnic minorities, as I explore in Chapter 5) might lead to ‘discrimination’—a reflection of the larger tensions confronting racial and ethnic minority concerns in France’s colorblind universalist context. In fact, this very opposition (promoting diversity while fighting discrimination) permeated discussions of one of the principal strategies proposed to rectify racial and ethnic minorities’ visibility: implementing ethnic quotas. Nowhere was this tension more clearly articulated than at a one-day conference entitled ‘Écrans pâles? Diversité culturelle et culture commune dans l’audiovisuel’ (‘White Screens? Cultural Diversity and Shared Culture in Audiovisual Media’). Held at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA; Institute of the Arab World) in 2004, ‘Écrans pâles’ brought together representatives from the CSA, the Haut Conseil à l’Intégration (HCI; High Council on Integration), France’s (p.99) media stations, and individuals working in the film and television industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though the CSA’s report admits that quotas established in US media had a positive effect on racial and ethnic minorities’ presence, both the CSA and all of France’s network executives nevertheless argued that such means are discriminatory and that the same results could be achieved without implementing quotas.18
Though the idea of racial and ethnic quotas remains particularly controversial, France’s television media are already keenly attuned to naming and quantifying a variety of different populations in order to ensure equal airtime. During elections, for instance, French television stations must give equal time to each candidate. What is more, the CSA promotes gender equality on its airwaves. In fact, in its 2005 report, the CSA specifically compares improving parité (equal rights for women) to furthering equal presence for racial and ethnic minorities. Ultimately, it concludes that to promote parité is to promote ‘equality’, whereas to promote racial and ethnic minorities using quotas is to ‘discriminate’.19 This conclusion, however, depends on the way the CSA incorrectly identifies biological sex (significantly, only ‘male’ or ‘female’) as a universality and gender as neatly corresponding to sex: ‘on est toujours homme ou femme et la féminité est aussi universelle que la masculinité’ (we are always either a man or a woman and femininity is as universal as masculinity).20 Unlike biological sex or gender, ‘race’, the CSA concludes, is a socially constructed category and cannot therefore be quantified. In a highly problematic move, the same biological determinism often cited in arguments made against racial quotas (race is not biological and therefore should not be quantified) becomes the cornerstone of the CSA’s argument for gender equality. I suspect that in the coming years the CSA (and France more generally) will revisit its policies on parité in light of more current understandings of the difference between an individual’s biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression (particularly with the rise in awareness of transgender, gender fluid, and genderqueer populations). This case nevertheless illustrates that France does not oppose quotas per se, only their selective application in certain domains (race and ethnicity).
Moreover, charging the HCI—a governmental structure housed within the larger Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Codevelopment until 2012, when both were disbanded—with investigating racial and ethnic minorities’ presence on French television pegs racial and ethnic diversity as subjects best approached through the lens of ‘integration’. This move testifies to the larger ways in which France’s (p.100) official policy of avoiding vocabulary of race ultimately conflates ‘race’ with ‘immigration’. Positioning the HCI as the venue for these discussions and inquiries, therefore, perpetuates the equation between racial and ethnic minorities and ‘foreigners’—those who have not fully integrated into France’s national fabric. It is to this image that Afropeans, born in Europe but often approached as ‘foreigners’ in their own land, respond.
Echoes of these main debates regarding racial and ethnic minorities’ presence on French airwaves emerge in Blues at an art exhibition where one of the main protagonists, Estelle, meets her new romantic partner, Ernest. The exhibition itself, entitled ‘Les nouveaux Français’ (‘New French People’) passes almost unnoticed—a metaphor for the lack of recognition received by the larger concerns it represents (France’s racial and ethnic minorities) in France. Blues characterizes ‘Les nouveaux Français’ as an afterthought (‘La municipalité d’un arrondissement situé au nord de Paris avait improvisé une galerie d’art’ [The local government of an arrondissement situated in the north of Paris had improvised an art gallery]) to which only a bare minimum of resources have been allocated, evident in the food offered the attendees:
Quelqu’un avait acheté un quatre-quarts au supermarché. La couleur jaune des tranches voulait rappeler l’oeuf frais, mais elle demeurait piteusement chimique. […] Des gâteaux secs étaient présentés dans leur emballage. On y lisait l’inscription: Prix gagnant. (97)
(Someone had bought a pound cake at the supermarket. The yellow color of its slices was supposed to resemble fresh eggs, but it was woefully synthetic. […] Some dry cakes were laid out in their packaging, which read Value Package.)
In fact, as the novel points out, many of the event’s attendees (‘un public rare, composé de personnes âgées, de badauds’ [an unusual public, comprised of elderly people and gawkers) happen upon it by chance, seeking shelter from an unexpected deluge (98).
In describing the exhibit, the novel points up two levels of silence that shroud discussions of racial and ethnic minorities in France. First, Blues suggests that the exhibit’s subject, ‘Les nouveaux Français’, constitutes a void in the larger mainstream media—a lacuna that Estelle’s friend Carmen seeks to fill using her documentary-style photography: ‘Faire plonger les gens dans le réel que le journal télévisé ne faisait que survoler’ (97) (Plunging people into the reality that the TV news never addressed). Though Carmen’s photography catalyzes productive discussions regarding racial and ethnic minorities, both her work and (p.101) the event at which it is displayed go unnoticed by national and even local media, a fact on which the novel insists: ‘L’absence totale des médias. Pas même l’ombre d’un journaliste de site Internet, brandissant une petite caméra afin de recueillir les impressions’ (98; emphasis in original) (The mass media were totally absent. There was not even the shadow of a journalist from a website, brandishing a small camera to collect statements). In this way, the novel underscores a double layer of silence surrounding issues of race, ethnicity, and national identity in France. Not only are they relatively absent within mainstream media, but their conspicuous absence itself also receives little to no attention.
Conversations at the exhibition illustrate how this double layer of silence both depends on and reinforces the whitewashing of France’s history and memory. When Estelle rejoins her friend, the latter is engaged in a conversation with
une vieille dame qui ne comprenait pas l’intitulé de la manifestation. Prétendait-on modifier la France, remanier son identité, faire en sorte, au fond, qu’elle continue à porter le nom de France sans que son contenu s’accorde en quoi que ce soit avec? La vieille dame s’était lancée dans une tirade sur l’importance du passé. (101)
(an old lady who didn’t understand the show’s title. Were they claiming to modify France, rework its identity, make sure that, at its heart, it would continue to bear France’s name while its content no longer resembled it in the slightest? The old woman launched into a tirade on the importance of the past.)
But yet, as Carmen’s reaction suggests, the old woman’s vision of the past—the cornerstone upon which her conception of national identity and belonging rest—is at best unintentionally partial, and at worst deliberately amnestic.21 As she reminds the old lady:
Les nouveaux Français étaient, comme tout ce qui existait dans le pays, une production de son histoire. Ils n’étaient pas apparus subitement. S’ils vivaient en marge de la mémoire nationale telle que la concevait la vieille dame, ils ne l’avaient pas choisi. (102)
The new French were, as with everything in the country, a product of its history. They did not appear out of the blue. If they were living on the margins of what the old lady considered national memory, it was not by choice.)
Outwardly, the two women’s visions of Frenchness could not be more opposed. Whereas the old lady sees France as an unchanging entity (p.102) (latently monoethnic and monochrome), Carmen’s view contests the very premise on which the old lady’s view rests: that there never had been a static identity one could pinpoint as ‘French’. Though seemingly opposed, however, both women’s perspectives converge around the importance of naming and point out (from opposite ends) the inaccuracy of the event’s title. Presenting racial and ethnic minorities as ‘new French’ sets them in direct opposition to a supposedly homogeneous population of ‘old French’. The old lady is right to criticize the type of modification the exhibit’s name implies (‘Were they trying to modify France’), and is also right to turn to the past. However, as Carmen’s response highlights, it is not ‘la France’ itself that such discussions modify, but rather the narrow visions of history on which they depend. Here, one hears echoes of the works examined in Chapter 2, which similarly contest the way colonial history is often expunged from national narratives, resulting in restrictive notions of national identity in France.
Estelle and Ernest’s first conversation, immediately following the exhibition, interrogates the old woman’s static vision of history, genealogy, and national identity, instead positing them as dynamic. Seated in a café, their conversation begins when Estelle asks Ernest to identify the background music: Zap Mama’s ‘Bandy Bandy’ (featuring American neo-soul artist Erykah Badu) from their album Ancestry in Progress.22 Far from background noise, this song gives literal and metaphorical voice to the Afropean history often relegated to France’s margins. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but shortly thereafter evacuated to Belgium, where she was raised, Zap Mama’s group leader Marie Daulne embodies the Afropean position. Musically, Daulne promotes her group’s style as Afropean; in fact, not only does the very term ‘Afropea’ originate with the group’s second album, Adventures in Afropea 1, but she has also described her overall musical enterprise as a ‘bridge between Africa and Europe’.23 The song ‘Bandy, Bandy’, which sets prominent string parts (both bowed and pizzicato) to a compressed, synthesized drum machine track and sampled bird sounds, is no exception in this regard. The album’s title, Ancestry in Progress, also responds directly to the old lady’s narrow vision of French history. Rather than one stable, unchanging, and untainted lineage, France’s ancestry has always been ‘in progress’.
Set to this musical backdrop, the ensuing conversation interrogates, while resisting simplification of, Afropeans’ ‘visibility’—both cultural and historical—within mainstream media. Though both Ernest and Estelle agree that Afropeans lack recognition, they disagree on both (p.103) the source of, and potential ways to rectify, this absence. Estelle blames Afropean artists’ unwillingness to speak out. Comparing the case with that of African Americans, she notes that:
Contrairement aux Afro-Américains, qui avaient lutté pour se faire respecter chez eux, ils [les Afropéens] rechignaient à s’affirmer Européens. Or, s’ils ne se sentaient pas à leur place en Europe, ils ne pouvaient attendre d’y être traités en autochtones. (105)
(Unlike African Americans, who had fought to earn their respect in their own land, they [Afropeans] objected to asserting themselves as Europeans. Well, if they didn’t feel at home in Europe, they could hardly expect to be treated as natives.)
In her view, Afropeans must not wait to for recognition in the eyes of the majority; rather, ‘Ils devaient s’inventer, s’imposer, se dire’ (106) (They needed to invent themselves, to impose themselves, to speak themselves). Ernest sees things differently: in his view, the European audience’s unwillingness to metaphorically listen, rather than the Afropean artists’ reluctance to speak out, perpetuates Afropeans’ marginalization. What good, he asks, is ‘speaking oneself’ when your audience is figuratively deaf?
Ernest’s view also implicitly pinpoints institutionalized spectacularism within official historical discourse as the source of Europe’s deafness. He points out that African-American artists, unlike their Afropean counterparts, enjoy enormous success in France, which indicates that the audience’s reluctance to hear is not due to race. Though Ernest does not explicitly make the connection, this preference for African-American artists mirrors the different places African Americans and French colonial subjects have occupied in French history. As numerous studies have demonstrated, many African Americans found French ‘colorblind’ society a welcome haven from United States racism in the interwar years.24 Consequently, this history of African Americans’ presence in France has, in French national mythology, come to symbolize the success of French republican universalism and the inherent racism of the United States in French national memory. (This also explains why post-civil rights United States policies such as taking ethnic statistics and implementing affirmative action continue to be characterized as ‘discriminatory’ in France, much like the idea of implementing racial and ethnic quotas on French television discussed above.) Yet to herald the superiority of French colorblindness over the color conscious American model by pointing to the case of the African American population is to ignore another (p.104) case—that of France’s colonized subjects—that denounces France’s racial utopia as a myth. As Tyler Stovall highlights, at the very same time as France welcomed African Americans with open arms, it was implementing racist policies against its colonized subjects.25 That French audiences prefer African-American cultural works over Afropean ones, then, becomes an extension of a ‘colonial syndrome’—to expand on Anne Donadey’s formulation of ‘Algeria Syndrome’.26 Literally and metaphorically listening to these populations would also mean recognizing the complex histories from which they were born and rewriting the national myths that depend on the silencing of these histories.
Estelle and Ernest’s conversation might seem to fall into the trap of blaming Europeans alone for perpetuating this historical lacuna—a perennial outcry made against revisiting such histories.27 Blues as a whole, however, resists such potentially destructive sweeping generalizations. The case of Estelle’s sister Shale (which I read as a metaphor for Afropeans) reveals that not only does Blues implicate both Europeans and Africans in perpetuating the historical silence, but also resists characterizing the silence as deliberate and calculated. Instead, it pinpoints the amnesia’s source as the difficult nature of the histories themselves, rather than a lack of desire to revisit the past. In so doing, Blues avoids the principal pitfalls (such as suggesting that Europeans are the only population at fault, and suggesting that the amnesia is deliberate) that can reinforce feelings of guilt and bitterness and ultimately impede engagement in such historical inquiries.28
Looking Back on Shale’s Origin Story
Echoing Zap Mama’s song, Shale’s ancestry is literally ‘in Progress’, and, though she remains completely ignorant of the rape that obscures her ancestry, she nevertheless has always intuitively perceived a distance separating her from her family. Significantly, the rape of which Shale may be born (as well as its silencing) is an intra-family affair, and symbolizes the silenced histories of Africans’ participation in the slave trade and colonization. Ultimately, Shale’s case highlights the importance of revisiting (or figuratively ‘looking back’ on) the transnational histories that represent Afropea’s metaphorical ‘origin story’, while resisting falling victim to the trap of blaming any one population in particular for this historical silence. Rather, it suggests that the first step forward—simply opening these dialogs—can prove cathartic for all involved.
(p.105) Though both of Shale’s parents are from Cameroon, her father Raymond’s family opposed his marriage to Élise. When, despite these reservations, Raymond and Élise not only marry but also legitimize their marriage with a child (Shale’s older sister Estelle)—an act which ‘avait clairement mis le feu aux poudres’ (182) (had clearly sparked things off)—the family deals one final blow to the couple, one that complicates even further Shale’s genealogy and that permanently distances her from her family members. Raymond returns home one night to find toddler Estelle alone on the couch, and his cousin and wife in the bedroom:
L’homme appliquait une main ferme sur la bouche d’Élise qui pleurait. Son agresseur s’était levé avec le sourire, avait accusé Élise de l’avoir attiré là. [… L]e cousin avait quitté les lieux en chancelant, disant que Raymond méconnaissait les traditions. Rien de ce qu’il pensait posséder n’était à lui. Pas même sa femme. Tout appartenait à la famille. Non seulement il avait le droit de prendre cette femme, mais il ne pouvait accepter que sa parole soit mise en doute. (184)
(The man was holding his hand firmly over Élise’s mouth; she was crying. Her aggressor had gotten up with a smile, had accused Élise of having lured him there. [… T]he cousin had left the place staggering, saying that Raymond was refusing to respect traditions. Nothing that he thought he possessed belonged to him. Not even his wife. Everything belonged to the family. Not only did he have the right to take that woman, but he could not accept that his word be questioned.)
Despite her father Raymond’s outward claims that Shale is his daughter, this incident permanently shrouds Shale’s identity—born nine months thereafter—in a sense of uncertainty. In her parents’ eyes, Shale stands as a constant reminder of the trauma their family endured—one, which, too painful to remember, they refuse to acknowledge.
This intra-family violence symbolizes the violence Africans committed against each another during the slave trade and colonization. Attempts to revisit Africans’ roles in these histories, particularly in the cultural realm, however, have proved extremely controversial, and have even faced censorship. For instance, Ousmane Sembene’s film Ceddo (1979), which depicts a West African village’s attempts to preserve its traditions in the face of Christianity, Islam, and the slave trade, was immediately censored in Senegal and Yambo Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence, 1968), which fictionally explores slavery perpetuated by Africans, was the subject of immediate and widespread criticism.29 Blues’s vision of the amnesia surrounding Afropeans’ history (p.106) thus complicates ideas that only Europeans are to blame and are the only population that needs to revisit history.
Where Estelle maintains that Afropean populations must ‘invent themselves, impose themselves, and speak themselves’, Shale struggles to speak and to author herself, even from an early age. For instance, their mother Élise remembers that Shale ‘ne parlait d’elle-même qu’en énonçant son propre prénom’ (166) (only spoke about herself by using her own first name) refusing to use the first-person. Though one might argue that, in so doing, Shale literally ‘speaks herself’—since she uses her own given name—at the same time, this act is also evidence that Shale espouses the gaze that would ‘other’ her. She sees herself, as Fanon put it, ‘in the third person’.30 Shale’s use of the third person tempers Estelle’s idealistic suggestion of speaking the self, cautioning that to do so might disguise how this seemingly powerful act instead reproduces one’s position as object of the violent, othering gaze.
In addition to experiencing difficulties speaking herself, the silence that reigns around Shale’s origins also impedes her attempts to author herself into being through autobiographical fiction. As Blues explains, Shale’s childhood was marked by an obsession with origins and recurring episodes where she seemed unable to recognize her own family members:
il arrivait parfois que Shale se réveille le matin avec, dans le regard, une lueur d’incompréhension. Elle semblait se demander quel était cet entourage qui se disait sa famille, comment elle était arrivée parmi eux. (168–69; emphasis added)
(it sometimes happened that Shale woke up in the morning with a glimmer of incomprehension in her eye. She seemed to ask who was this entourage that claimed to be her family, and how had she arrived among them.)
A quest to discover ‘how she arrived among them’ forms the basis for Shale’s autobiographical fiction, La Vraie Vie de Sambo (The True Life of Sambo), in which Shale’s autobiographical double Sambo wakes up each morning surrounded by a family of whom she has no recollection, but who know her entire history.
To quell Sambo’s anxiety and, more importantly, to prove her belonging, her family members recount stories from her life. Significantly, however, these stories limit themselves to the post-natal period:
Ceux qui vivaient là connaissaient son nom, se souvenaient du jour de sa naissance […]. La mère […] lui pinçait doucement la joue, lui faisait le récit de sa naissance. (144−45; emphasis added)
That the fictional mother’s attempts to explain Sambo’s place in the family originate with the day of her birth—and not before—mirrors Afropeans’ metaphorical ‘origin story’. Specifically, the larger historical amnesia regarding the global forces (such as colonization) governing how Afropeans ‘came to be among’ their national families continues to reinforce the reigning narratives pinpointing postcolonial immigration as their metaphorical ‘birth’. This resistance to return to the larger histories on which this ‘birth’ was predicated sidesteps Sambo’s question. Rather than recounting ‘how she arrived among them’, Sambo’s family takes for granted that she is among them, and instead recount what has happened since she joined them.
If Blues indicts both Europeans and Africans for perpetuating this amnesia, the conversation during which Élise tells Shale of her rape nevertheless suggests that this amnesia is not deliberate. Rather, it stems from the pain inherent in revisiting such violent histories. In characterizing the impasse as a result of the conversation’s difficult nature, Blues not only resists blaming Europeans and Africans for this silence—an act which could engender further feelings of guilt and resentment—but also suggests that one of the biggest difficulties lies in the mere act of opening the conversation.
After Raymond’s death initiates a five-year silence between Shale and her mother, Élise finally summons the courage to visit Shale to ‘répondre à la question que Shale se posait depuis longtemps’ (177) (answer the question that Shale had been asking herself for a long time). Élise struggles to broach the difficult subject; silence and small talk about Shale’s new living arrangements (especially the fact that she has just taken in her cousin Baptiste temporarily), dominate their conversation, which is worth quoting at length here:
Élise dit sa surprise en croisant Baptiste à l’entrée de la résidence. Shale répondit qu’elle l’hébergeait depuis quelques jours. Silence. Élise ne savait pas qu’ils étaient si proches. Shale rétorqua que ce n’était pas le cas, mais qu’il n’avait nulle part où aller. Silence. Ouverture du pot à thé. Tout de même, n’était-il pas surprenant que Baptiste soit venu ici plutôt que chez Estelle qu’il connaissait mieux? Estelle était en plein déménagement. C’était elle qui avait donné l’adresse à Baptiste. Silence. Dépôt de tasses sur un plateau. Ajout de deux petites cuillères. Pas de sucre. Pas d’édulcorant. Début de l’infusion des feuilles dans la théière (p.108) transparente. Enfin, rien dans cette situation ne lui posait problème, pas le moins du monde, non, non, puisqu’ils étaient majeurs et n’avaient plus de comptes à rendre, mais comment se faisait-il que Baptiste […] (176; emphasis added)
(Élise said she had been surprised to run into Baptiste at the apartment building’s entrance. Shale responded that she had been putting him up for a few days. Silence. Élise didn’t know that they were that close. Shale retorted that they weren’t, but he had nowhere else to go. Silence. The teapot is opened. All the same, wasn’t it surprising that Baptiste would come here instead of going to Estelle, whom he knew better? Estelle was in the middle of moving. She’s the one who gave Baptiste the address. Silence. Cups are set down on a tray. Two small spoons are added. No sugar. No sweetener. The tea leaves begin to steep in the transparent teapot. At any rate, nothing about the situation bothered her, not in the least, no, no, because they were adults and didn’t have to explain themselves, but how was it that Baptiste […])
The syntax Miano uses for this conversation—particularly the stage-direction style sentence fragments describing the tea’s preparation—is not found elsewhere in the novel. Read as a metaphor for the larger silence surrounding violent histories such as colonization and the slave trade, this scene also suggests that the source of that silence lies not in a lack of desire to entertain such discussions (since Élise has gone to great lengths to track down her daughter after such a long estrangement), but rather an inability to imagine how to open them. In this way, Blues avoids characterizing the silence as a calculated refusal to ‘look back’—a move that would stand to amplify feelings of resentment and guilt, and reinforce deeply entrenched impasses. Instead, the novel paints the impasse as temporary, and one whose solution is simple: an invitation to dialog. Having grown weary of her mother’s small talk, Shale bluntly demands: ‘Si tu me disais pourquoi tu es là, maman’ (176) (Would you just tell me why you’re here, mom). Though certainly not tactful or diplomatic, Shale’s move to turn the conversation toward its intended topic suggests that Afropeans can, figuratively speaking, take an active role in catalyzing such productive discussions.
Significantly, Blues resists representing (either through direct or indirect discourse) both how Élise reveals this history to Shale and how Shale responds in the moment. Though the novel painstakingly describes the minutiae leading up to the conversation, and will later describe Élise’s take on the success of the conversation as a whole, it nevertheless offers no details on how the conversation in question (p.109) transpires. In so doing, the novel refuses to print a template (even fictional) for such a conversation, leaving open a myriad possible routes it could take.
If the conversation’s details remain ambiguous, the novel nevertheless insists on its cathartic potential and the centrality of naming. As one might expect, finally knowing her own origin story comforts Shale and prompts her to re-establish connections with the many communities to which she belongs. In fact, it is during this conversation that Shale announces her plans to visit Cameroon—a country she had never previously desired to visit. As Élise recounts to her boyfriend Frédéric, ‘[Shale] veut se recueillir sur la tombe de son père’ (186) ([Shale] wants to reflect on the tomb of her father). The term ‘se recueillir’, which connotes private prayer or reflection, also functions in a double sense: Shale’s trip to Cameroon will also allow her to figuratively collect herself; that is, to pick up the pieces of her broken genealogy, and to transform them into a coherent whole. Yet Shale is not the only one for whom the conversation proves cathartic. Having finally recognized the trauma she endured, Élise, too, returns home with a renewed sense of self. Though the conversation itself has exhausted her mentally, psychologically, and even physically, she nevertheless looks to the future with optimism.
Finally, this conversation underscores a connection between naming and history. Specifically, Élise explains to Shale that it was her father who named her:
Quand Élise l’avait interrogé à ce propos, il avait seulement répondu: Pour qu’elle transforme la boue. [… I]l faisait allusion à l’histoire qui avait engendré la fillette. C’était cela, la boue que l’enfant devait transformer’. (178, emphasis in original)
(When Élise asked him about it, he had only replied: So that she can transform the mud. [… H]e was alluding to the history that had produced the young girl. It was that, the mud that the child needed to transform; emphasis in original.)
This piece of information not only constitutes the missing link between Shale and her father, but it also reveals that the traumatic history of her origins was always already given a voice and a name. Yet, even while recognizing the trauma, the name Raymond chose for his daughter insists on the importance of recognizing the history in order to move forward, an idea that resembles the West African concept of Sankofa.31 Turning to—and naming—this history, in other words, does not engender stasis (p.110) and impasse but rather serves as a productive point of departure for sustained dialog and transformational change.
Here, I would also like to insist on a parallel between Shale’s name and that of and her autobiographical double, Sambo. As Jan Pieterse discusses, Sambo, a word originally ‘derived from a Hispano-American term meaning half-caste’, came to be a prevalent stock name in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture, including product advertising and minstrel shows.32 Often set in opposition to Nat, the stock character that embodied the threatening stereotypes mapped onto black individuals (and whose very name recalls Nat Turner and the threat of rebellion), Sambo, a contemporary of Nénufar, the Banania tirailleur, and other stereotypical racist icons examined in Chapter 1, represents the ‘the prototype of the contented slave, the carefree black’.33 As Leora Auslander and Thomas Holt document, images of Sambo were not limited to the United States; in fact, they discovered Sambo statuettes still adorning Parisian restaurant patios in the early twenty-first century.34 Naming Shale’s fictional double ‘Sambo’, then, gives voice to another history central to the Afropean origin story: that of racist iconography and spectacles held on French soil. As I have traced throughout Race on Display in 20th- and 21st-Century France, it is the legacies of all of these histories that immigrant and racial and ethnic minority authors and artists insist must be spoken now.
Echoes of Blues—particularly the importance of naming, the concept of Sankofa, and the centrality of creative arenas as venues to work through such questions—abound in Miano’s nonfiction Habiter la Frontière. In one particularly striking passage, Miano deploys the same central image (transforming mud) used in Shale’s naming story to liken her own creative projects to this cathartic dialog:
Il me semble parvenir parfois, à créer comme ils le font, de la beauté avec de la boue. Car ces identités frontalières sont nées de la douleur. Elles sont nées de l’arrachement, du viol, de la détestation de soi-même. Elles ont dû traverser ces ombres pour inventer un ancrage sur des sables mouvants, et s’imposer, non pas contre, mais parmi les autres. Elles habitent, au fond, un espace cicatriciel. La cicatrice n’est pas la plaie. Elle est la nouvelle ligne de vie qui s’est créée par-dessus. Elle est le champ des possibles le plus insoupçonnés.35(emphasis added)
(Sometimes I get to create, as they do, beauty from mud. Because these border identities are born of pain. They are born of abductions, of rape, of self-hatred. They had to get through these shadows to invent their own mooring among moving sands, and to affirm themselves, not against, but (p.111) among, others. At their core, they inhabit a scar-like space. A scar is not a wound. It’s the new line of life that’s created on top. It’s the field of the most unexpected possibilities; emphasis added.)
In the vocabulary of trauma and violence, one hears allusions to Blues’s central protagonists, who are born of rape (Shale), whose lineage testifies to forced relocation and slavery (Élise, Shale, Estelle, and Akasha), and who struggle with self-hatred (Baptiste and Malaïka). The central corporeal image contrasting the wound (‘la plaie’) with the scar (‘la cicatrice’) insists on the productive and cathartic dimensions of remembering the violence that caused them. The scars that remain on the metaphorical bodies are both evidence of the trauma but also the bodies’ capacity to heal.
In the end, Shale’s story ‘looks back’ on both the complex histories that have engendered her and on the ways of looking that continue to shape her subjectivity. Unsure of her origins or the meaning of her name, she oscillates through the different options open to her: a racist stock character (Sambo), a young girl who sees herself in the third person, or a daughter disconnected from her family. Shale simultaneously encounters an abundance of images that do not quite fit her identity (such as the rest of her family’s connection with Africa) and a dearth of narratives in which she can identify herself. These two extremes mirror those which Afropean populations encounter in their own lives. They are caught between hearing themselves referred to as ‘immigrants’ or treated as though they identify as ‘African’ or ‘black’ more than ‘French’ on the one hand, and yet face deafening silence from both French and Africans regarding the histories they have inherited. Just like Shale, then, they must first work to expose and seek to rectify these gaps before they can ‘speak themselves’.
It is here that Blues distinguishes itself from other ‘Afropean’ works: in addition to using its content (notably, as I have illustrated, the sisters Estelle and Shale) to expose the relationship between Afropeans’ figurative and literal invisibility in France, Blues also combats this invisibility through its form. Just as Miano’s characters inhabit ‘border identities’, her creative works exhibit, as Miano herself has put it, an ‘esthétique frontalière’ (border aesthetic);36 Blues is no exception in this regard. The novel’s intermedial form, which I read as an Afropean mediascape, constitutes a formal working through of the main threads I have been exploring in this chapter—namely, how Afropeans might seek recognition (especially given the larger institutionalized spectacularism that characterizes the European mediascape), the tension between ‘being (p.112) named’ and ‘speaking oneself’, the role history plays in this process, and the risks and stakes of turning to and acknowledging the past in order to move forward.
Blues, Intermediality, and Cultural Commodities
A closer look at the novel’s title reveals Blues pour Élise’s Afropean and intermedial interventions: ‘Blues pour Élise’ joins two musical references linking black and European musical production. First, ‘blues’ refers to the genre of the same name that emerged in the African-American milieu; ‘pour Élise’ alludes to Beethoven’s canonical work Für Elise—one of Western music’s most recognizable melodies. In the composite title, both parts remain distinct and recognizable, yet they combine to form a new whole that differs from either of its parts. What is more, these parts give voice to those connections forged across the Black Atlantic of which Afropea was born—histories whose remembering, as I have been tracing above, marks an integral step in Afropean identity formation.
In addition to underscoring its Afropean orientation, the novel’s title also signals its intermediality. It references two musical works, yet the reader holds a printed text—a ‘literary’ object—in his or her hands. Pairing a musical title with a literary work, both of whose constituent parts are still distinctly identifiable, then, similarly reflects how music, printed literature, and television merge into a third intermedial form within the novel’s pages. Just as the constituent parts of Afropea combine to form an entirely new object (while still containing traces of its constituent elements), the novel’s intermediality similarly still contains traces of both music and printed literature.
A musicality permeates Miano’s oeuvre in both form and content. Her earlier novels set in Cameroon, often referred to as her ‘triptyque africain’ (African triptych)—L’Intérieur de la nuit (2005) (Dark Heart of the Night, 2010), Contours du jour qui vient (Outline of the Coming Day, 2006), and Les Aubes écarlates: Sankofa cry (Scarlet Dawns: Sankofa Cry, 2009)—for instance, draw from musical structures and metaphors—a point to which Miano herself has drawn critics’ attention: ‘L’intérieur de la nuit suivait une structure AABA classique, pour l’interprétation de thèmes de jazz’ (L’intérieur de la nuit followed a classic AABA structure heard in jazz performances).37 Similarly, her two earlier works dealing with questions of racial identity, immigration, and (p.113) Afropeanism in France—Afropean soul et autres nouvelles (Afropean Soul and other Short Stories, 2008) and Tels des Astres éteints (Like Extinguished Stars, 2008)—also allude to a variety of musical works (including those belonging to African-American genres).38 As I have illustrated above in the allusion to Zap Mama’s song ‘Bandy Bandy’, this musicality is also present in Blues. Moreover, as Catherine Mazauric has shown in her analysis of musical references in Miano’s Afropean novels Tels des Astres éteints and Blues, these works’ musicality goes beyond the borders of the literary text, demanding that the reader access the songs through another means (such as Miano’s own website, where she offers the visitor a variety of songs).39 However, where Mazauric sees this element as a sign of the deficiency of what she terms Blues’s ‘transmediality’ (‘le medium de l’imprimé s’avère ainsi borné, la transmédialité appauvrie quand, sur son site personnel, Miano peut, à sa guise, offrir des liens vers des vidéos des artistes qui font le “son” des personnages du roman’ [‘the printed medium proves limited, its transmediality impoverished when Miano offers links on her personal website to videos of the artists who provide the “soundtrack” of her novel’s characters’], emphasis in original), I see it instead as an important piece of Blues’s larger commentary on the interconnected nature of mediascapes.
I draw an important distinction between intermediality and musicality in Miano’s works: where Miano’s earlier works are musical, Blues is both musical and intermedial. The key to this distinction resides in how the novel uses both its content and form to draw attention to the commodification of cultural works. Specifically, where her earlier musical works might ultimately produce a hybrid text, Blues bears traces of three different cultural commodities: a literary novel, a television series, and a music album. This distinction speaks to the novel’s larger intervention regarding the circulation of images and packaging of cultural works in global marketplaces. Ultimately, I read Blues’s intermediality as a self-contained Afropean mediascape that both offers an alternative to the whitewashed European mediascape and reflects on the larger processes that govern how African, European, and black identities are understood and consumed worldwide.
As I suggested above, Blues’s form bears traces of a television series. Critics have picked up on Blues’s televisual dimension; Nicki Hitchcott has usefully compared Blues’s form and content to the American series Sex and the City.40 Beyond conspicuously drawing attention and simultaneously responding to the relative lack of Afropean presence on French airwaves, however, one element of the way Blues deploys (p.114) televisual narrative conventions has been overlooked: its relationship to commodification. This television-literature connection is made through two formal elements. First, each chapter concludes with an ‘Ambiance Sonore’ (soundscape) section listing the musical references (title and artist) in the preceding chapter. This format recalls a similar practice in certain television series, especially those found on music-oriented channels such as MTV (which, though it originated in the United States is nevertheless extremely popular in France), where each episode concludes with a recap of the songs and artists heard. Second, Blues concludes with an invitation whose tone unmistakably recalls television commercials: ‘Retrouvez les personnages de Blues pour Élise dans: Paris’ Boogie, Séquences afropéennes, Saison 2’ (Meet up with the characters from Blues pour Élise in: Paris’ Boogie, Afropean Series, Season 2).41 Both of these moments in Blues draw attention to how commodification and selling products drives television content. The explicit advertising-style announcement with which Blues concludes, of course, mirrors explicit commercials (so valuable, in fact, in the US context that shows’ writers shape episodes with commercial breaks in mind). Similarly, the ‘Soundscapes’ function as a ‘product placement’ of sorts—a calculated strategy designed to sell albums and songs packaged in the more palatable format of a TV show, rather than an explicit advertisement. In this way, then Blues’s televisual-literary intermediality underscores that no image can be divorced completely from processes of commodification. This insistence on the commercial aspect of images, then, problematizes Estelle’s view that Afropeans must ‘invent themselves, impose themselves, and speak themselves’, raising the question: To what extent, in so doing, do they also sell themselves?
Similarly, Blues’s structure also presents itself as a musical album, illustrated best through its table of contents, which announces that Blues consists of ten sections: eight numbered chapters, each with its own title, and two unnumbered ‘Interlude’ sections (coming between chapters 3 and 4, and 6 and 7). Like interludes sometimes found on music albums, Blues’s interludes take a step away from the main action, transcribing (in Camfranglais, for which a glossary is provided) Bijou’s side of her short telephone calls to her friend in Cameroon. Second, just as some albums contain an unlisted ‘bonus track’, Blues contains a ‘bonus’ chapter entitled ‘Newbian luv: Let’s Barack our lives!’ not listed in the novel’s table of contents. Just like its televisual packaging, Blues’s musical intermediality draws attention to the commercialization inherent in the medium. In this way, the printed literary text the reader holds in his or (p.115) her hands becomes a symbol of other cultural commodities that circulate within wider marketplaces.
It is precisely its multivalency that leads me to read Blues as a self-contained Afropean mediascape that reflects on its own construction. As Arjun Appadurai defines them, mediascapes function as ‘invented homelands’ driven by ‘the need of the deterritorialized population for contact with its homeland’.42 This definition of ‘mediascapes’ underscores their particular importance for diasporic and exiled populations, since both (regardless of their intent to return) maintain images of a real or imagined homeland.43 Yet, one might wonder to what extent Afropeans represent a ‘deterritorialized’ population, especially since Afropeans, though often approached as ‘foreigners’ in their own land, are nevertheless ‘at home’ in Europe. Moreover, where might Afropeans’ ‘homeland’ be? Miano’s nonfiction writing compounds rather than resolves this tension between Afropea’s geographical placed-ness and its imaginary placelessness. She defines Afropea as:
un lieu immatériel, intérieur, où les traditions, les mémoires, les cultures dont ils sont dépositaires, s’épousent, chacune ayant la même valeur. Afropea, c’est, en France, le terroir mental que se donnent ceux qui ne peuvent faire valoir la souche française.44
(an immaterial place, inside, where the traditions, the memories, the cultures of which they are custodians intermingle, each one having the same value. Afropea is the mental territory in France that those who cannot claim pure French stock carve out for themselves.)
Miano’s definition pairs geographical places with imaginary landscapes, ‘an immaterial place’ and ‘the mental territory in France’, to underscore Afropea’s nature as simultaneously placed and placeless.
As a self-contained Afropean mediascape, Blues confirms this image of Afropea. Many of the artists referenced in the ‘Ambiance Sonore’ sections reside between multiple spaces themselves, simultaneously calling attention to and subverting impulses to classify them according to national paradigms. Baloji, a Congolese-born Belgian artist, for instance, has spoken publicly about his (and his music’s) resistance of rigid categories:
J’aime bien le terme Afropéen. Mais j’ai une carte d’identité belge, j’ai eu la nationalité. Je ne dirais pas que je suis un mutant, c’est un peu fort, mais je vis entre deux mondes.45
Another artist referenced in the ‘Ambiance Sonore’ sections, the rapper Bams—the artist who led the 2014 charge against the performance art piece ‘Exhibit B’ discussed in this book’s introduction—also often finds herself explaining her national and ethnic heritage to journalists. Born in France to two Cameroonian parents, Bams chose her stage name—short for Bamiléké, one of the dominant ethnic groups in Western Cameroon—because it
me permet de toujours avoir à parler de ce que certains aimeraient que l’on gomme mais qui m’est cher. Mon autre Pays, mon autre moi. Titi Parisienne de naissance, Camerounaise de sang et Extra Terrienne de coeur et de Tête!46
(allows me to keep speaking about those things that some would prefer I hide, but that are dear to me. My other country, my other me. Parisian ragamuffin by birth, Cameroonian by blood, and extraterrestrial in heart and mind!)
That Afropean artists are often asked to explain their relationship to Africa also parallels the struggle of Blues’s protagonists in being at once ‘at home’ in France, yet not perceived as such.
Just as the artists Blues references defy placement in national paradigms, so too do their musical compositions subvert rigid generic classifications. For instance, born in East Algeria, Keyko Nimsay fuses larger, transnational forms of musical expression such as jazz47 with elements from her local musical context. Another artist mentioned in the novel, Valéry Boston (who grew up in Paris but overtly proclaims her Antillean heritage) actively encourages her audience to read musical works as a signifier of her complex heritage. Her website situates both her and her music between multiple spaces and genres, tracing a complex musical genealogy that parallels her own national and ethnic heritage:
enveloppée[s] d’un patchwork d’influences riches et contrastées […]. Du jazz à la musette, en passant par le funk et le reggae, sa musique est à l’image de qui elle est: colorée, riche, festive et positive.48
(enveloped by a patchwork of rich and contrasting influences […]. From accordion jazz via funk and reggae, her music is in her own image: colorful, rich, festive, and positive.)
In promoting herself thus, Valéry Boston co-opts those same narratives, which, as I have shown throughout this book, but particularly in Chapter (p.117) 3, are widely used to package African authors and artists. She presents herself as the perfect embodiment of the minority artist: not only does she offer her listeners a peek into the exotic world from which she comes, but the identities she presents through her music are ‘authentic’. By including works and artists that straddle national and generic borders, Blues calls attention to the classificatory impulses governing Afropean media production and consumption.
In tracing the contours of an Afropean mediascape, however, Blues posits Afropea as just one node in a much larger network of mediascapes. Alongside the many Afropean artists like those highlighted above, for instance, one also notes other artists easily situated within national and generic taxonomies such as African Americans Marvin Gaye and Millie Jackson; Caribbean artists Soft and Annick49 and Janklod; European popular musicians Léopold Nord et Vous and Arthur H.; or Cameroonian musicians such as Francis Bebey and Bill Loko. The resulting ‘Ambiance Sonore’ sections function as cultural genealogies that testify to productive transnational connections.
Ironically, however, Blues is ultimately packaged in the very same ways it contests. The summary offered on the back cover exudes a tone of exoticism, inviting its reader to discover Blues’s exceptional Afropean protagonists, whose uniqueness stems precisely from their normalcy:
loin des clichés misérabilistes, [elles] adopte[nt] le mode de vie bobo, se nourri[ssen]t de graines germées, se déplace[nt] en Vélib’, recour[en]t au speed dating pour rompre la solitude.50
(far from embodying the clichés of misery, [… they] adopt a hippy lifestyle, eat sprouted grains, get around using Paris’s Vélib’ bikeshare system, and resort to speed dating to break up their solitude.)
In insisting on how Blues’s Afropean protagonists depart from the reigning ‘clichés of misery’ associated with the minority protagonists found in other francophone works set in Paris, the summary nevertheless repeats those same racial and ethnic stereotypes from which Blues’s protagonists supposedly depart. Within this claim to relativism and universality (‘these protagonists are just like you and me’) lies a sinister narrative of exceptionalism articulated along racial and ethnic lines. In this summary one cannot help hearing echoes of Fanon, who, (p.118) after reflecting on how his ‘color’ functions as a filter through which all of his social relationships and professional accomplishments are mediated, points out the vicious circle to which this rhetoric of racial exceptionalism contributes:
Negroes are savages, morons, and illiterates. But I knew personally that in my case these assertions were wrong. There was this myth of the Negro that had to be destroyed at all costs. We were no longer living in an age when people marveled at a black priest. We had doctors, teachers, and statesmen. OK, but there was always something unusual about them. ‘We have a Senegalese history teacher. He’s very intelligent … Our physician’s black. He’s very gentle’.51
In insisting on the normalcy of Blues’s Afropean protagonists, the novel’s back cover simultaneously announces ‘OK, but there [is still] something unusual about them’. On the one hand, their normalcy (that is, their adoption of supposedly white, bourgeois culture) makes them abnormal (compared to other racial and ethnic minority protagonists in francophone literature), yet their race inherently signals their difference from this white, bourgeois majority. Ultimately, the racial identity of the novel’s protagonists becomes the unspoken but yet ubiquitous filter through which the novel’s paratext insists we must understand their actions. Like Fanon, they too (despite their efforts within the novel’s pages to cast off this burden) become ‘prisoner[s] of the vicious circle’.52
Ultimately, then, Blues grapples with the way the cultural marketplace sells blackness as a commodity for consumption, all the while weaving its response directly into its intermedial form. Like the other musical and literary works analyzed in previous chapters, Blues turns a critical eye on the institutions responsible for (re)producing images of racial, ethnic, and national identities, while simultaneously reflecting on its own ‘voice’ within the cultural marketplace. What is more, Blues underscores how reconsidering these images also depends on revisiting national and transnational histories still all too often expunged from national narratives. It shows how the various arenas of institutionalized spectacularism (official historical discourse, cultural marketplaces, and news media) overlap and intersect.
Blues (and the packaging to which it has been subjected) also implicitly highlights the urgency of opening up another discussion that is complementary to, but yet conspicuously absent from, discussions of how minorities are viewed in France: namely, how whiteness operates. As I have shown above, Blues explores the relationship between racial (p.119) and ethnic minorities and national identity by charting the contours of France’s Afropean population. The novel, however, also begins to contest the rarely examined relationship between whiteness and national identity through Shale’s boyfriend, Gaétan, who, though white, was born in Cameroon and feels out of place in France. To return to Miano’s assertion with which I opened this chapter, France’s ‘mémoire blanche’ (white memory) has perpetuated notions equating racial and ethnic minorities with foreigners. Discussions of France’s mediascape—such as those held at the ‘Écrans pâles’ conference—implicitly recognize the ubiquity of whiteness on France’s small (and large) screens. Yet, while arguing for more and varied images of racial and ethnic minorities, it is telling that none of the participants sought to name or define whiteness, or to interrogate the way it functioned as the presumed ‘norm’ from which racial and ethnic minorities deviate. As Blues’s own back cover illustrates, however, these norms nevertheless function as an unexamined lens through which discussions of race and ethnicity are filtered in contemporary France.
In my view, then, accomplishing the radical work proposed in Blues (and the other works examined in previous chapters) also requires us to critically interrogate the visions of normalcy from which racial and ethnic minorities supposedly depart. In the chapter that follows, I take whiteness as my focus, teasing out how cultural works and increasing claims of ‘anti-white racism’ outline racial and cultural whiteness and their relationship to national identity in contemporary France. Ultimately, the works I examine—like Blues pour Élise—espouse a philosophy of Sankofa, suggesting that all populations involved must turn to the past in order to make meaningful progress in the future.
(1) bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 118.
(2) See Fanon’s discussion of magazines and history books (Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox [New York: Grove Press 2008], 127) or Hall’s analysis in ‘Racist Ideologies and The Media’, in Media Studies: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
(3) Peggy McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, Peace and Freedom Magazine (July–August 1989), 10.
(4) Arjun Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’, Theory, Culture and Society 7, no. 2–3 (1990), 299.
(5) Léonora Miano, Habiter la Frontière (Paris: L’Arche, 2012), 71–72; emphasis added.
(6) Note: all translations in this chapter are my own, unless otherwise indicated.
(7) Of course, this film about a ghostwriter, called a nègre (littéraire) in French, opens up wider discussions of racial identities.
(9) Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas, ‘Introduction: Francophone Afropeans’, in Francophone Afropean Literatures, ed. Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014). The notion of ‘Afropean’ communities grows out of a much larger discussion of ‘Black European’ and ‘Afro-European’ communities. See Allison Blakely, ‘The Emergence of Afro-Europe: A Preliminary Sketch’, in Black Europe and the African Diaspora, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Sabrina Brancato, ‘Afro-European Literatures: A New Discursive Strategy?’, Research in African Literatures 39, no. 3 (2008).
(10) See Wilfried N’Sondé, Berlinoise (Arles: Actes Sud, 2015); Le Silence des esprits (Arles: Actes Sud, 2010); Le Coeur des enfants léopards (Arles: Actes Sud, 2007); Bessora, 53 cm (Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes, 1999); Les Taches d’encre (Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes, 2000); Cueillez-moi jolis messieurs (Paris: Gallimard, 2007); Sami Tchak, Places des fêtes (Paris: Gallimard, 2001); Fatou Diome, La Préférence nationale, et autres nouvelles (Paris: Présence Africaine, 2005). I must point out, too, that Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazar (2009), studied in Chapter 3, is often classified as an ‘Afropean’ work. In my view, it straddles the boundary between a work depicting ‘Black France’—of which one part is necessarily European—and ‘Afropea’, principally because its main protagonist, Fessologue, is not Afropean. Even if he shows no desire to return, he nevertheless migrated from Central Africa to France in young adulthood.
(p.184) (11) Léonora Miano, Blues pour Élise (Paris: Plon, 2010). Note: all citations to Blues for the remainder of the chapter will be given as parentheses.
(12) This structure is confirmed by an interview in which Miano explained that she hoped that it could one day be shown on French television (Camille Thomine, ‘Léonora Miano: “Il faut formuler le concept d’afropéanisme”’, Le Magazine Littéraire (22 December 2010), http://www.magazine-litteraire.com/actualite/leonora-miano-il-faut-formuler-concept-afropeanisme-06-11-2013-33069.
(13) A select list of notable exceptions include more informative and documentary-style programs such as Mosaïques (France 3, 1977–87), Opération Télécité (France 3 Paris and France 3 Lille, 1999–2003), Saga cités (FR3/France 3, 1991–2002), and Semaines de l’intégration (France 3, 2003–05), as well as dramas and sitcoms such as Sixième gauche (FR3, 1990), La Famille Ramdam (M6, 1990–91), Fruits et légumes (FR3, 1994), Seconde B (F2, 1993–94), and C’est cool! (F2, 1996). For a comprehensive analysis of the history of minorities on French television (in both fiction series and other nonfiction arenas) see Alec G. Hargreaves, ‘Gatekeepers and Gateways: Post-Colonial Minorities and French Television’, in Post-Colonial Cultures in France, ed. Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney (New York: Routledge, 1997). Hargreaves also offers a thorough analysis of the series La Famile Ramdam in ‘La Famille Ramdan: un “sit-com” pur beur’, Hommes & Migrations 1147 (1991). For insightful analyses of the relationship between minority spectatorship in the British context, see Karen Ross, ‘White Media, Black Audience: Diversity and Dissonance’, in Black Marks: Minority Ethnic Audiences and Media, ed. Karen Ross (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001).
(14) See page 65 of the Haut Conseil à l’Intégration’s (HCI) three-year report, entitled ‘Diversité Culturelle et culture commune dans l’audiovisuel’, accessible at http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/064000272.pdf.
(15) Haut Conseil à l’Intégration, Rapport 2002–2005, 92. The law has since been modified; its most recent version can be found at http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000000435897&categorieLien=id.
(17) Mémona Hintermann, interview by Mikaël Guedj, 2013. One of the ways Hintermann proposed to combat this was to ask each French station to develop its own ‘diversity’ commercial and air it during the weekend of July 13–14, 2013 to coincide with France’s national holiday.
(18) Écrans pâles? Diversité culturelle et culture commune dans l’audiovisuel: Actes du colloque du 26 avril 2004 (Paris: La Documentation Française, 2004).
(20) Haut Conseil à l’Intégration, Rapport 2002–2005, 75. Of course, an enormous corpus of literature in a variety of fields has demonstrated that these assumptions (that there are only two biological sexes, that biological (p.185) sex is universal, and that gender identity and expression neatly correlate to biological sex) are incorrect. For but some of the most canonical and most recent work on this subject, see Mimi Marinucci’s Feminism is Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory (New York: Zed Books, 2010) for a thorough overview of how sex, gender, and sexuality are often wrongfully collapsed, and how these collapses are justified, as well as an excellent glossary of terms related to sex, gender, and sexuality; Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), which approaches the implications of science and materialism for our understanding of biology and sex; Anne Fausto-Sterling’s books Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000) and Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men (New York: Basic Books, 1985), which challenge the research that establishes the sex binary as primary and examines how intersexed persons complicate the theory; and Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993), which examines the discursive and performative dimensions of gender. I thank Taine Duncan for introducing me to such a vast array of important works on the topic.
(21) Françoise Vergès usefully analyzes the underlying implications of terms (such as ‘amnesia’, ‘occlusion’, and ‘selective memory’) often associated with describing the historical lacunae surrounding the slave trade in contemporary France. See her ‘Les Troubles de la mémoire: traite négrière, esclavage et écriture de l’histoire’, Cahiers d’études africaines 179–80, no. 3 (2005): 1150–55.
(22) Zap Mama, Ancestry in Progress (New York: Luka Bop Records, 2004), CD.
(23) Zap Mama, Adventures in Afropea 1 (New York: Luaka Bop Records, 1993), CD.
(24) See, for instance, Tyler Edward Stovall, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996); Tyler Stovall, ‘No Green Pastures: The African Americanization of France’, in Black Europe and the African Diaspora, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Anne Donadey, ‘African American and Francophone Postcolonial Memory: Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Assia Djebar’s La femme sans sépulture’, Research in African Literatures 39, no. 3 (2008).
(26) Anne Donadey, ‘Anamnesis and National Reconciliation: Re-membering October 17, 1961’, in Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France, ed. Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001).
(27) Neoconservative politician, writer, and Académie française member Max Gallo has even argued against revisiting colonial history at all. In his view, doing so inevitably initiates a self-reinforcing cycle that undermines the (p.186) very fabric of the Republic by reigniting ‘les frustrations, les humiliations, et les haines. On traîne la France au banc des accusés’ (the frustrations, humiliation, hatreds. We drag France to the dock). See Gallo, ‘Colonisation: la tentation de la pénitence’, Le Figaro (30 November 2005).
(28) For but one example, see my discussion of the controversy surrounding the 2005 Loi du 23 février whose fourth article (now repealed) required French history books to discuss the ‘positive effects’ of colonization in this book’s introduction.
(29) Ousmane Sembene, Ceddo (New York: New Yorker Films, 2001), VHS; Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968). For a more extensive treatment of the topic of African silence regarding the slave trade, as well as cultural works exploring both the topic and its forgetting in Africa, see the chapter ‘African Silence’ in Christopher L. Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
(31) An Akan word meaning, ‘reach back and get it’, Sankofa is often represented as a bird that reaches back to pick up an egg resting on its back. That Miano subtitled one of her earlier novels ‘Sankofa cry’ already indicates that the concept plays a central role for her.
(32) Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 152. Sambo is also a character mentioned in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, a story originally published in 1899 about a young boy in India.
(33) White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, 152. For more on Sambo’s representation in American popular culture, see Sylvia Wynter, ‘Sambos and Minstrels’, Social Text 1 (1979).
(37) As Miano has explained, African American cultural works find a particularly prominent place in her writing because they played a central role in ushering in her own ‘black consciousness’, which she terms ‘l’être noir’ (‘black being’): ‘j’ai compris que je faisais, moi aussi, partie de ces peuples auxquels une place au monde avait été assigné en fonction de leur complexion’ (I understood that I, too, belonged to those people whose place in the world had been assigned based on their complexion) (Habiter la Frontière, 29).
(39) Catherine Mazauric, ‘Débords musicaux du texte: Vers des pratiques transartistiques de la désappartenance (Léonora Miano, Dieudonné Niangouna)’, Nouvelles Études Francopohones 27, no. 1 (2012): 108.
(p.187) (40) Nicki Hitchcott, ‘Sex and the Afropean City: Léonora Miano’s Blues pour Élise’, in Francophone Afropean Literatures, ed. Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014).
(43) For a particularly thorough discussion of the differences between diasporic and exiled populations, see Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton University Press, 2001).
(45) Olivier Cachin, ‘Baloji: Rappeur entre deux mondes’, RFI.com (5 February 2008), accessed 24 February 2015, http://www.rfimusique.com/musiquefr/articles/098/article_17149.asp.
(46) ‘A la rencontre de Bams, artiste rap, jazz et soul camerounaise’, Bonaberi.com (2 June 2010), accessed 24 February 2015, http://www.bonaberi.com/ar,a_la_rencontre_de_bams_artiste_rap_jazz_et_soul_camerounaise,7810.html. Though she publicly identifies herself with her ethnicity, Bamiléke, over any nationality (French, Cameroonian, or a mixture of the two), her birth in France, as well as her Cameroonian heritage is always evoked in articles about her, as Yasmine Chouaki’s entry on RFI’s website illustrates: ‘Bams est une chanteuse de hip-hop originaire du Cameroun et née en France en 1973’ (Bams is a hip-hop singer of Cameroonian background, born in France in 1973).
(47) As Timothy Taylor, among others, suggests, African American music such as jazz has often been taken as a marker of modernity or of a type of reactionary musical discourse, rather than necessarily evoking the geographical location of the United States (Beyond Exoticism, 155).
(49) In the ‘Ambiance Sonore’, ‘Annick’ is spelled ‘Anick’ (49).