Adventures in (Literary) Afropea - Sophie Marie Niang

Updated: Jul 30

by Sophie Marie Niang. This article was printed in Issue 1 of Bad Form. To celebrate Afropea winning the Jhalak prize this week, we've decided to publish the article online! Our third print issue is now available for pre-order.

The first time I read Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar, I must have been fourteen or fifteen. I was struck by the virtuosity with which the words of the Congolese-born writer captured the universe of a certain Black Paris, which to me was as Parisian as the Eiffel Tower, and yet was never represented, except when covered by an avalanche of clichés. Of course, the adventures of his 30-something-year old Congolese protagonist, navigating the difficulties and events of life as an immigrant in Paris, bared very little resemblance to my life as a mixed-race teen born and raised in the 13th arrondissement of the capital. Nevertheless, it was one of the first time that I read about a world which resembled something that I knew but had been missing from my cultural landscape, a work which made French black people, in their multiplicity and complexity, the subjects of its focus. A few years later, I read Leonora Miano’s Blues for Elise. This novel was the first I ever opened to immediately think, ‘wow, these characters look a lot like me’. Not American, not white, not disenfranchised or immigrants, but urbanite Black women, born and raised in Paris, navigating between cultures and finding ways to manage their Afropean identities. Both of these novels stuck with me. To borrow a very evocative image from Sara Ahmed they became part of my Afropean survival kit - ‘things I know I need to do and have around me to keep on going on’. And most importantly, they taught me the fundamental importance of Afropean literature.

I spent much of the past year writing about Black feminist activism and the management of Afropean identities in France for my undergraduate dissertation. In this work, I explored the processes through which French national identity is racialised as white. I also analysed the ways through which the construction of the official national history excludes memories of colonialism. I argued that these two factors accounted in part for the exclusion of postcolonial citizens from mainstream understandings of ‘Frenchness’. I then focused on two moments in the history of French Black feminism to show how activists resisted their oppressions, by reclaiming the narrative from mainstream feminists and re-writing themselves into French history. Within these practices, they have imagined radical new ways to emancipate themselves and other black women from their assigned subaltern social positions. I was particularly interested in the role the politics of flamboyance played in inspiring French black women to fully embrace the multiplicity of their Afropean identities. Finally, I argued that by anchoring their struggle in France, black feminists open up the possibilities of ‘Frenchness’. Speaking up about their experiences and forgotten narratives allow activists to rewrite France’s postcolonial citizens into the national history. Moreover, in working to change the racist and sexist paradigm of French society, these black women express their affective ties to French identity, and redefine what it can mean to be French today.

I believe French Afropean literature also plays a fundamental role in this process of redefining the boundaries of ‘Frenchness’, as well as in the process of constructing and imagining Afropean identities. Indeed, another factor which contributes to the exclusion of postcolonial citizens from the national body is their erasure from mainstream representations of ‘Frenchness’. In December 2018, Rokhaya Diallo gave a conference at the LSE on this subject. She analysed the various ways in which the image of the Parisienne is classed (as bourgeoise) and racialised (as white). She also discussed the new popular figures — female singers or bloggers of colour — who participate to the redefinition of this image, making it both more accurate and inclusive. Literature also plays a fundamental role in representation. Therefore, writing, reading and studying Afropean writings as specifically Afropean (and not African/Francophone or whichever adjective is trending to speak of the Other) is of crucial importance. I’ll focus on the example of Francophone Afropean literature here, but a similar argument, taking into account the specificities of different national contexts, can be applied to other European context, and by literature not only by Black authors, but also by other people of colours.

The term ‘Afropean’ was coined by Leonora Miano in Afropean Soul (2008), a collection of short stories, and further explored in her other works. It refers to ‘the presence of people of African descent — near or distant — on European grounds’. The concept is key to understanding the multiplicity of cultural belongings and points of reference which characterise the lives of members of the diaspora living in Europe. There are many contemporary Francophone Afropean writers: Léonora Miano, of course, but also Alain Mabanckou, Fatou Diome, Insa Sané, Laura Nsafou, Kiyémis… I’m focusing here on novelists and poets, although there is also a plethora of Afropean non-fiction, questioning and analysing the place of the dwellers of Afropea in their respective societies. But fiction, in my opinion, has a fundamental role to play, in that it has the power to normalise. Afropean literature is inherently political, because the lives it stages are political. Explicitly or implicitly, it has to deal with Du Bois’s eternal question: ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’. However, it can also move away from framing the problem, for instance theorising about racism and race relations like non-fiction does, and instead explore the ways in which people navigate lives framed by this question — whether they want to think about it or not.

Johnny Pitts, founder of the Afropean project said, about Afropean subjects: ‘we sometimes feel between cultures, we definitely travel through them (…) But we hope we aren’t scattered’. This is where literature comes in. Representation is key in grounding subjects, in legitimising and giving strength to ostracised citizens. Afropean literature, by capturing Afropean lives, in their complexities and multiplicities, plays a role in helping us not being scattered. And this is why it is fundamental to see Afropean writers as European.

Indeed, just like postcolonial citizens are often denied membership to their national community, postcolonial writers are often denied membership to their national literary landscape. Instead, they will be referred to as ‘African’ or ‘francophone’ writers. This way of always tying people back to an external origin is particularly present in French society, and participates to the process of exclusion of postcolonial citizens. Nonetheless these writers and the stories they tell are fundamentally French, although they paint the picture of a France which is excluded from official narratives. Colonial history and the subsequent population movements irremediably marked colonised countries, but it didn’t leave the colonisers unchanged either. As Stuart Hall stated when he wrote ‘I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea,’ there is no English history without the ‘other’ history of colonisation. The same statement applies to French history. One cannot accurately paint a picture of contemporary France without including Afropean lives. Afropean literature is necessary because it completes the picture of contemporary France, debunks stereotypes, and helps counter the everyday violence and erasure to which postcolonial citizens are submitted.

One of the most useful concepts I learned from studying contemporary French Afrofeminist activists was that of flamboyance, coined by the Mwasi collective. In French, flamboyance is ‘the quality of a person or a work which is gleaming, dazzling’. Contemporary Afrofeminists have re-appropriated the term to give it a new meaning, as they argue that they cannot limit themselves to the boundaries of a language that has been built against them. Flamboyance is therefore the quality of those who refuse to obey the politics of respectability, in order to proudly reassert their dignity in face of adversity. It is a ‘communicational modality of self-enchantment through and by others’: what is at stake is the ‘individual and collective creation of an emancipated and emancipatory black consciousness’. Afropean literature is flamboyant because it refuses to pander to dominant representations of European identities. It refuses to ‘other’ postcolonial citizens, and instead anchors their lives into the physical and conceptual European territory, without forcing them to abandon or reject an attachment to the physical and conceptual African territory.

Literature by people of colours anywhere is vital. Much has been written about the crucial role African-American authors played for their community in the US. But I believe it is especially important to read, think with, and write about Afropean literatures, and other literatures by people of colour based in Europe. They help us move away from US-centric perspectives and reimagine the nature of our national and continental communities. Most importantly, they give us tools to think through our own existences.

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.