Alain Mabanckou, at the head of a considerable body of work, where the novel rubs shoulders with essays and poetry, is the author, among others, of Broken glass, tomorrow I’ll have 20 years and the Sob of the black man. Holder of numerous literary awards (in 2006, the Renaudot prize for Porcupine Memoirs), he is professor of French literature at the University of California. He publishes Rumors of America, published by Plon.
This book has the appearance of a traveling essay composed like a logbook …
Alain Mabanckou I retain the formula of “logbook”. I wanted to move from a serious subject to a light subject, from a complex subject to another, inextricable. This book starts from America and ends there, with bifurcations in Europe (France) and Africa, in order to identify the contours of my tricontinental journey. I wanted to be free to embrace current affairs and allow the reader to choose angles: racial discrimination, literature, cuisine, painting, cinema, history, Franco-American relations. I preach a strategy of transhumance. I’m in search of what could unite us more than what divides us.
What did teaching French literature at a major university teach you about American society?
Alain Mabanckou We often have the image of a closed American society. There is the other side: people open to the world, especially young people. The teaching of French-language literature there is a victory. My classes are among the busiest in the department. The students study not only French cultures, but also African cultures, through colonization and independence. This society considers French literature as a unit of measurement for culture in general. Whoever knows this culture stands out, has an openness. For them, it’s Balzac, Hugo, but the French genius – especially in philosophy – is also embodied by Derrida and Foucault, who taught there. Today, they are, among others, Kristeva and Antoine Compagnon.
What types of students? Where do they come from overall? Are there blacks?
Alain Mabanckou My students represent the photography of American society. The predominance in these literature classes is on the side of Asian Americans. Then come the “Caucasians”, as they say, or the Whites, some from universities in Europe, such as the Sorbonne, to refine their studies. Blacks are a minority. In a class of sixty students, I sometimes have three or four blacks. University in California is expensive. Funding for studies is expensive. Poor black families do not have access to it. It is possible to apply for scholarships.
You write that when you arrived in the United States, you saw a resemblance to Congo-Brazzaville. Why ?
Alain Mabanckou It was when I lived in Santa Monica, a city by the sea, with splendid vegetation, coconut trees… I sometimes had the impression of being in my city of Pointe-Noire. Santa Monica received colonizers. The Spaniards transited there. The name of Santa Monica comes from a Berber historical figure. So there is a certain North African lineage going on there.
In academia, racism is subtle, wrapped in well-done language. It exists, but it plays on intelligence, and you have to scratch to realize that it is racism. “
Have you experienced in yourself, in any form whatsoever, any hints of racism, latent or overt?
Alain Mabanckou I don’t answer racists, that would make them smart, and they would misuse that intelligence. One of the rare times that I had an experience of this type, it was at the faculty of Dauphine, in Paris. I had just graduated. My teacher, with whom the current had never passed, asked me when I intended to return “home” when I had French nationality! It was a thinly veiled form of racism, under the apparent concern of helping Africa. We can help Africa wherever we are.
In the United States, I am considered to be at least, if not somewhat, above the middle class, because I am a university professor. Racists and non-racists revere the University of California. The people I meet have an intellectual culture of the world, whether they are teachers or students. I don’t necessarily evolve in an environment that would give me too visible signs of racism. In this environment, racism is subtle, wrapped in well-made language. It exists, but it plays on intelligence, and you have to scratch to realize that it is racism.
In your dealings with black Americans, what do you think of the way they look at you?
Alain Mabanckou With them, it is first of all, relations of fraternity and solidarity, the latter based on the injustices suffered because we were black. From there, in every house, there are always internal problems. I have come across black Americans reproaching me, as an African, for having made a pact with whites to sell their ancestors who had become slaves. This is a trend that seeks to place part of the responsibility for the slave trade on blacks. This is absurd. If there were complicity, they were not major elements having weighed heavily on the consequences of a system of trafficking, designed by the West, taking advantage of industrialization and the crossing of oceans to displace an entire people. . I do not see a continent plotting against all its people to deport them and leave virgin lands. The complicity was to be seen on the side of the greed of certain warrior leaders. Individual initiatives and not collective strategies. Every tragedy has its dark side and its complicity.
The wandering pace of the story makes all the salt of the book.
Alain Mabanckou It’s a walking book. Impression of writing while walking, or by fixing images on the lens. It covers California, but there are also Eastern Mainland accents here since I also lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is an inland journey from east to west in America. From Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, for example, I bring up the fact that it was built by the Earl of Cadillac, who was French. A statue was erected there that the Americans did not unbolt! Geographic space in the United States is not monotonous. We go from the plains to the desert or the hills. I wanted this eclecticism with, as a common thread, a narrator painting the portrait of his America.
My America is not Trump’s. He takes refuge in the comfort of fiction and denies reality. The United States is falling apart while it stagnates in its bubble. He sends the federal state troops to attack the democratic states. We are almost in a situation of civil war. “
The United States is going through a terrible crisis, linked to the gruesque figure of the president, the pandemic and a deliberately fueled interracial conflict. What do you think of the movement shaking the country?
Alain Mabanckou With this presidency to say the least disjointed, without forgetting the consequences of the clashes over race and economic issues, the pandemic, everything shows that there is a problem of leadership. America is not the one drawn up by Trump. Mine is what his previous presidents have left since Jimmy Carter and even, to some extent, Republican Ronald Reagan. He had his faults, but at least he had a responsibility as head of state. I don’t dwell on Trump. My America is not his. He takes refuge in the comfort of fiction and denies reality. The United States is falling apart while it stagnates in its bubble. The streets are crowded with tramps. Riots every day. He sends the federal state troops to attack the democratic states. We are almost in a situation of civil war.
How do you define the Black Lives Matter movement?
Alain Mabanckou The movements of the 1960s had headliners that the people followed: Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Mohamed Ali, Angela Davis, James Baldwin… There are no longer any great figures. The street becomes the main character. It was born from the despair of the poorest neighborhoods who cry:” Enough is enough ! You had been given signs. Our prophets have passed by, and you haven’t done anything, so the street is up. ” When the street rises, famous people must step aside to let the voice of the people speak. There is no longer a leader that you can shoot to intimidate the crowd, so you shoot the crowd blind. I belong to the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter section and go to their meetings.
The capitalist owns the means of production, the proletarian must offer his labor power. In the United States, the white class is dominant. It owns the means of production, the media, power, the destiny of the country. “
You speak of a class problem that doubles that of race in depth. Is this point of view noticeable in the Black Lives Matter movement?
Alain Mabanckou It is not noticeable. We insist on the problem of race. I have always thought that racism is a department of class struggle. It is the instrument that one class uses to exclude another. Race does not precede class. You are born into the class. Some are looking at ways to prevent others from entering theirs. These means are economic, social. It is the appropriation of the means of production, as Marxist-Leninist philosophy says. The capitalist owns the means of production, the proletarian must offer his labor power. In the United States, the white class is dominant. It owns the means of production, the media, the power and the destiny of the country.
In Santa Monica, a predominantly white city, people worried about who I was. Once they knew I was a professor at Ucla, they would say OK, he’s not from Englewood, one of the darkest towns the rappers come from. He is one of us and even more, he is the servant of our system. If you are in the privileged class, as black, and you help your community, white will find it suspicious. How to ensure that the fight against racism can also include the question of class? This is why we think a lot about social measures, using the suburbs, how to reduce crime and unemployment. These are all measures to allow the so-called marginalized class to breathe, and if they breathe, the upper class can continue to live their high life in peace. But it does not happen like that, because the proletarian classes demand equality in law.
I am not an unhappy black there. I am in the class where I meet bourgeois and great intellectuals. I’m on TV. My books are discussed in the newspapers. I remain Congolese with French ties. France is my adopted country. On the other hand, it is difficult for me to consider myself an American. This is why I did not take the passport, although I am entitled to it. I remain resident. I already have a double passport. The other countries will be my dream countries.
Interview by Muriel Steinmetz