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He is Senegalese and French, with nothing to reconcile

  • >> Laura Cappelle, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-31 11:27:39 BdST

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The author David Diop at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, May 17, 2021. Diop, an International Booker Prize finalist for his novel “At Night All Blood Is Black,” is among the writers whose work is helping France face its history with Africa. (Elliott Verdier/The New York Times)

As a child, the Senegalese French author David Diop was used to seeing soldiers not unlike Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator of his novel “At Night All Blood Is Black.” In Senegal, men who had fought for France in the two world wars often took part in national parades, yet when Diop started reading letters by French soldiers, infantrymen from colonised African countries were nowhere to be found.

“It felt unsatisfying, because in Senegal, we knew what they’d done for France,” Diop, a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau in southwestern France, said in an interview this month. “It made me want to write a fictional letter from a Senegalese soldier.”

Since its release in France in 2018, “At Night All Blood Is Black” has helped fill the void. Diop, 55, won several awards, including the Goncourt des Lycéens, a sister prize to the prestigious Goncourt that is voted on by high school students. The English-language version of “At Night All Blood Is Black,” translated by Anna Moschovakis, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November and is now a finalist for this year’s International Booker Prize. The winner will be announced Wednesday.

“At Night All Blood Is Black” has also contributed to a reckoning with colonial history in French fiction. Alice Zeniter met with similar acclaim for “The Art of Losing,” a multigenerational novel set during and after the Algerian war for independence, which was translated into English by Frank Wynne and published in the United States in March, also by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

While progressive theories about race and postcolonialism have ignited bitter culture wars in France and drawn accusations of Americanisation, Diop’s and Zeniter’s success shows that there is also a desire for more open discussion about France’s history with Africa.

Zeniter, who is of Algerian descent, found that writing fiction helped her sidestep a polarised public debate. “It offers a suspension of judgment in order to explore a life that’s different from ours,” she said in a video interview.

“Literature can be a way of moving people before they turn to rational explanations of history,” Diop said. “It may be a clue that remembrance is necessary to achieve a sense of balance in France.”

As Diop tells it, balance between his own two cultures came fairly naturally. He was born in Paris to a French mother and a Senegalese father, who had come to France to study. The family later moved to Dakar — a change the 5-year-old Diop did not find especially dramatic.

“I was lucky that my French and Senegalese families both acted very warmly toward my parents. I received a lot of love from both sides,” he said. “I didn’t experience my two cultural identities as a source of conflict.”

Diop moved back to Paris after finishing high school to study literature. While his mother, a devoted reader, had nurtured his love of a wide range of French and African authors, at university he became fixated with the 18th-century “Lumières,” the humanist Enlightenment movement led by the likes of Voltaire and Denis Diderot. “I was drawn to their activism and commitment to human rights. I won’t say I lost them, but at the time I had political ideals,” Diop said with a laugh.

Raised on France’s universalist values, Diop said he did not experience racism as an academic of colour, and he is careful to distance his writing from activism. He finds notions such as cultural appropriation, he said, “oppressive” — “Flaubert created a Madame Bovary even though he wasn’t a woman” — and prefers to think of literature as “freedom.”

“We shouldn’t lock ourselves up in mental prisons,” he said. (At one point during our conversation, Diop gently asked: “Don’t you think these questions around race are being imported into countries where issues weren’t being addressed in those terms?”)

Still, “At Night All Blood Is Black” alludes in no uncertain terms to the racial dynamics at play in the trenches of World War I. African soldiers from colonised countries were outfitted with machetes to inspire greater fear. Alfa, Diop’s main character, picks up on the performance of savagery that is expected of him, and he takes it to another level by venturing out every night to murder a German soldier and bring back his severed hand.

Diop and Zeniter both drew from the work of historians to fill in the blanks. “I read them the way an academic shouldn’t: without taking notes. I wanted what had really made an impression on me to reemerge when I started writing,” Diop said.

When it came to the Algerian War, Zeniter found “a colossal amount of scholarship,” she said. “It makes it much easier to move forward without being scared of making a huge mistake.”

Diop was also inspired by Wolof, the language he spoke growing up in Senegal, to lend Alfa — who does not speak French in the novel — a voice of his own. “I tried to mould French,” he said, “to make it sound a little like Wolof when it’s spoken in formal circumstances, using rhythm and repetition.”

He credited the 20th-century Ivorian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma with bringing a uniquely African flavour to French — a form of “reappropriation,” as Diop put it, in countries where French became the official language under colonial rule.

Both Diop and Zeniter were overwhelmed by the reactions from readers in France. When Diop did events for “At Night All Blood Is Black,” which has sold 170,000 copies in the country, people would bring him “letters, photos of their grandfather or great-grandfather with African infantrymen,” he said. Zeniter received hundreds of letters from former soldiers, she said, who confided in her about their experiences during the Algerian Independence War.

“It made me realise what a void there was in terms of stories about that time. It’s clear that the ability to talk about it out loud was smothered,” Zeniter said.

Other French artists are now following suit. “And the Heart Is Still Steaming” (“Et le Coeur Fume Encore”), a work of documentary theatre created by Margaux Eskenazi and Alice Carré, recently explored the legacy of Algerian decolonisation onstage, along with playwright Alexandra Badea.

The next step may be for these works to reach non-French speakers in the countries they are so intimately tied to. “At Night All Blood Is Black” has yet to be translated into Wolof, while Zeniter’s “The Art of Losing” will get its first Arabic edition next year — albeit in Egyptian dialect, which is not necessarily accessible for Algerian readers.

For Diop, who will publish his next novel, about an 18th-century European traveller to Africa, in French in August, it would be a way to keep building cultural bridges. Writing, as he put it, has been a way to “conciliate between” his Senegalese and French roots — not, he stressed, to “reconcile” them. “There was nothing to reconcile, in my view.”

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