To celebrate Free Read Friday this month, Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, interviewed Alain Mabanckou and Abdourahman Waberi to discuss the impact of the 2007 manifesto for a ‘world-literature in French’.
Ten years ago, on 15 March 2007, Le Monde des Livres published a manifesto advocating a ‘world-literature in French’. Pointing to the award in Autumn 2006 of a series of major literary prizes to authors originating from outside France, the document’s forty-four signatories – including Tahar Ben Jelloun, Maryse Condé, Didier Daeninckx, Ananda Devi, Edouard Glissant, Nancy Huston, Dany Laferrière, JMG Le Clézio, Amin Maalouf, Alain Mabanckou, Anna Moï, Gisèle Pineau, Boualem Sansal, Dai Sijie, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor and Abdourahman A. Waberi – demanded the ‘end of la Francophonie’ and the freeing of French literature from its ‘exclusive pact with the nation’ (most notably from France). Two months later, in May 2007, Gallimard published a volume of essays, Pour une littérature-monde, edited by Jean Rouaud and Michel Le Bris, in which these ideas were explored in more detail, outlining the possibility of a polycentric, transnational literature in French that would transcend the hierarchical (and engrained) distinctions between ‘French’ and ‘Francophone’ literature.
The manifesto triggered controversy in France, including an article in Le Figaro by the then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy arguing that ‘Francophonie is not dead!’, and a stern rebuke along similar lines in Le Monde by Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal and then Secretary General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. There have also been numerous international conferences devoted to ‘world-literature in French’, including one in 2009 at the Winthrop King Institute at Florida State University in Tallahassee. It was from this event that the Liverpool University Press/Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies volume Transnational French Studies: Postcolonialism and Littérature-monde (edited in 2010 by Alec G. Hargreaves, Charles Forsdick, and David Murphy) emerged.
To mark this anniversary, Charles Forsdick interviewed two of the manifesto’s principal signatories, Alain Mabanckou and Abdourahman A. Waberi, both of whom attended the Tallahassee colloquium.
Charles Forsdick: The manifesto for a ‘world-literature in French’ was published ten years ago. In your opinion – a decade later – what has been its impact on literary production in the French-speaking world?
Alain Mabanckou: I think it was a manifesto that simply confirmed a current movement in literature at the time of its publication: one seeking to open up to the world, and not allowing itself to be imprisoned by national discourses. We simply accompanied an existing tendency, therefore, and ten years on, we can say that literary production is less marginalized or looked down upon. In France, for example, African writers publish with major publishing houses and their works are reviewed in the same way as those of French writers, and in the same papers.
Abdourahman Waberi: Its impact was obviously significant, as ten years after its publication, students, journalists, authors or researchers are still talking about the manifesto. The focal point, or if you like the desire to shake up Parisian hegemony, is a very old one. The ideas put forward in the manifesto were already circulating before 2007. Véronique Porra reminds us that: ‘The authors take here key ideas that some of them had already been developing in articles or interviews since the beginning of the decade. This is the case, for example, of Abdourahman Waberi, who since 1998 has distanced himself from postcolonial writing and situated himself in a category he defined as the ‘children of postcolony’; the same is true of Alain Mabanckou, Anna Moï and Nancy Huston, who have already articulated similar critical positions in previous papers or essays… ‘. These ideas circulate and will continue circulate in new guises, I think.
CF: The manifesto has attracted wide attention in the Anglophone academy, especially in the USA – Jackie Dutton has recently estimated that over 300 articles and book chapters have been devoted to it, including those in the collection published by Liverpool University Press. Why has there been an interest on this scale outside France?
AM: I believe that France has always been behind the curve in acknowledging and writing critically about the work of writers who come from elsewhere and write in French. The English-speaking world is more receptive to our writing thanks to the healthy numbers of researchers in Francophone studies. I have the impression that in France the manifesto was perceived as a coup d’état that would allow ‘Francophone’ authors to take over the French language. In the same way, studying ‘world-literature’ in depth would give French researchers the sense of reaching the end of a Franco-centric discourse.
AW: The figure put forward by Jackie Dutton is impressive but it does not surprise me, since the Tallahassee conference that you and I attended in 2009 along with Michel Le Bris, Jean Rouaud, Anna Moï, Alain Mabanckou, Dominic Thomas, Alec Hargreaves and others… already signaled this unparalleled enthusiasm. I think there are many reasons, but the main one is that teachers and researchers in the U.S. academic world (but also in Canada or Australia, for example) grasped this opportunity to ask timely questions about their field of study. Their questions found genuine echoes in the manifesto. So anyway, the time had also come for them to move away from certain critical practices and to focus their attention on other subjects of study… France remains or at least remained for a long time deaf or even hostile to these questions for reasons linked both to its history and its university system.
CF: The manifesto alludes to ‘écrivains d’outre-France’ [writers from ‘beyond-France’], without distinguishing between ‘postcolonial’ and ‘translingual’ authors, i.e., those who have adopted French as a new language. Do you think we need to distinguish between these two categories ?
AM: I think the real revolution would be to move towards the designation ‘Francophile’ writers – those whose countries were not colonized by France and who came to the French language by choice. I do not feel ‘exophonic’ or even from ‘beyond-France’: I am an African writer who speaks the world in French, because French is my only language of writing. In this I feel just as close to those who have chosen a language, perhaps even closer to them than a French writer might.
AW: The manifesto – generated and supported by a small group of writers, to which I belonged – sought initially to create a critical mass. We thought that all writers irritated by an excessive focus on Paris should be attentive to our approach. And we were not wrong, far from it. Of course, not all of them could be solicited for reasons of time and availability. The general public do not bother themselves with such designations. Critics and researchers who study these worlds must, of course, dwell on them to deepen their analyzes and to offer us reliable and serious findings, as is the case in all fields.
CF: The manifesto evokes a ‘literature-world in French’, i.e., a monolingual phenomenon. Your own work is translated into several languages, including, of course, English. What is the role of translation in the world literature, and can it be conceived without being (to quote Edouard Glissant) ‘in the presence of all the languages of the world’?
AM: All languages can communicate with each other and indeed do communicate with each other. If we chose to celebrate a ‘world-literature in French’, it was because we felt this was the last field that was resisting the call of the world. ‘World-literature’ in an English-speaking context is not in question: it is a literature that has its own standing and gives the English language extraordinary vitality through the work of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozie Achie, Teju Cole and many others. These authors are considered writers in their own right. In French literature, there is no hesitation about putting together anthologies in which everything is ‘white’, national and far removed from the wider movement of the world. Translation now plays an essential role: it allows the world to measure the extent of the imagination evident in French-language literature, an imagination that does not necessarily come from France. Besides, more authors writing in French and coming from elsewhere are translated now than authors who are ‘Franco-French’.
AW: My work circulates in English, a language in which almost all my books are now available thanks to the talent and generosity of the translators, without whom nothing polyphonic can ever be accomplished. Indeed, as my late friend Edward Glissant pointed out, writers work in the presence of all the languages of the world. They can conjure up fabulous artistic projects from microscopic places such as St. Lucia (Derek Walcott), Martinique (Césaire, Glissant…) or Djibouti, but they need the alchemy inherent in the process of translation. My books are translated into English, but also into a multitude of other languages such as Italian, German or Japanese, and this represents for me the very best of rewards.
CF: Alain Mabanckou, the recent publication of L’Histoire mondiale de la France – a collection to which you contributed an excellent chapter on the death of Aimé Césaire – has been the subject of intense controversy in France: are there, in your opinion, links between world-literature and this new transnational historiography of France?
AM: In France, when you interfere with history, you have to expect polemics. My friend the historian Patrick Boucheron, who had the idea for this book, is concerned with rewriting of the history of France in a global frame. In this sense, it was necessary to demonstrate a hybrid France, constructed with a major contribution by people from elsewhere. I was honoured to be asked to write a chapter on Césaire, who I think is one of the greatest French poets… This book – the result of a collective project – can therefore also be seen as the reflection of a desire to place the world at the heart of the imagination in French, this time in terms of the history of France…
CF : In this chapter on Césaire, you rightly refer to the ‘undeniable contribution’ of the great Martiniquan poet ‘to what is today called world literature’. This raises two questions for me: could the manifesto have recognized a much more complex genealogy of world-literature, with contributions from earlier important authors such as Césaire, Senghor, Damas and others? and should it have been placed in relation to other literary categories from other linguistic traditions – not necessarily synonymous or translatable – such as ‘world literature’ or Weltliteratur?
AM: I think that in the manifesto you can detect the underlying presence of Césaire, of Glissant. From Césaire, we borrowed the refusal of submission: French-speaking authors are not the slaves to the French language, but this language would be worthless if it had not been revived by writers who came from elsewhere. As far as Glissant is concerned, his presence can be detected in the very expression ‘world-literature’, which echoes his notions of ‘rhizomatic identity’ or his ‘poetics of relating’. Césaire and Glissant are among those who have placed our distinctive contribution to the imagination in the symphony of the world.
CF: As a teacher in the American system, Abdourahman Waberi, you are familiar with the ways in which we approach both ‘Francophone postcolonial’ literature and ‘world literature’ outside of France. I ask you the same question as Alain: from your perspective, could the manifesto have recognized a much more complex genealogy of world literature and should have been located itself in relation to other literary categories such as the ‘world literature’ or Weltliteratur?
AW: Yes, but once again we must not assign to the manifesto intentions that were not part of its initial conception. It was not a question of laying the foundations for a long-term academic reflection. The aim was, above all, to address French journalists, publishers and booksellers, and tell them to stop diminishing the literary production of so-called ‘Francophone’ writers.
CF: The recent publication of a U.S. translation of Moisson de crânes: Texts for Rwanda leads me to questions of memory: do you think there is a relationship between world-literature and literary attempts to talk about a colonial and postcolonial memory – or even to transform the literary text into a site of memory?
AW: My intuitive response is to say yes, there are multiple connections. However, I would need more time and space to reflect on this properly. At this point, a new book occurs to me: Le Pays sans nom by Anna Moï [http://www.editionsdelaube.fr/catalogue/lepayssansnom], in which she writes again about her own country, Vietnam, but by does so by entering into dialogue with another ‘Vietnamese’ author: Marguerite Duras. This going back in time is not a matter of chance, but reflects a desire to transform space and the literary text itself into a site of memory.
CF: One last question for both of you: what does the future hold for literature-world in French? is it still a useful category, or has it now achieved its aims?
AM: As with every other manifesto, I think ours reflected a particular moment, that of the early 2000s. We advocated at the time a ‘world-literature’, but now it is more a matter of living the world in literature, and remembering that literary creation is above all a personal adventure. World-literature should not be seen as a separate category. It should be seen as a form of literature like any other.
AW: The manifesto in its original form has achieved its aims, and we carry on – and must carry on – pursuing the reflections it contained in a new light and from fresh perspectives. And rightly so.
Translated by Charles Forsdick
Original French version available at https://translating.hypotheses.org/745
 Véronique Porra, ‘Malaise dans la littérature-monde (en français): de la reprise des discours aux paradoxes de l’énonciation’, Recherches & Travaux, 76/2010. Available at: http://recherchestravaux.revues.org/index411.html (accessed 16 March 2012).