Calixthe Beyala :

Writing in the margins

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Calixthe Beyala is not the first African female novelist. Previously, two of her compatriots, Marie-Claire Matip (Ngonda, 1958) and Thérèse Kuoh Moukoury (Rencontres essentielles, 1969) had already written « romanticised autobiographies ». On an African level, international recognition of Black African Feminine Literature starts with Mariama Bâ, author of Une si longue lettre (1979). Her novel denounces the female condition in Senegalese society. However, despite the revolt that runs through it, this work, written is a classic style, mostly remains intimist. It is not until the appearance of Calixthe Beyala’s first novel, The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me (1988), that French African feminine writing fulfills its « duty of violence ». Firstly, this works on a linguistic level, since Calixthe Beyala lays claim to « brutal, deliberately provocative writing that adopts the vividness of the spoken word…« (1). Secondly, this is shown through the narrative space – a shanty-town in Yaoundé, called the QG. Finally, this violence is inherent to the protagonist, Ateba, as she is the daughter of a prostitute and has an unknown father.
The novel is audacious in showing a world that is totally marginal. This possibly explains why this, and all of Beyala’s works in general, are so well received in France and the United States. However, this subversion poses a problem in that it does not always go hand in hand with a true work of literary writing. « Calixthe Beyala is a disputed writer, who does not abide by the implicit rules for entering the literary world. You could therefore say in a word that she is a popular writer who knows how to find her public in striking the page and hitting hard. It so happens that in doing this, she highlights the essence of the world and beings that she wants to bear witness for – they are frustrated, brutal, pathetic and disturbing. Maybe this writing (or absence of writing) is most appropriate for depicting the catastrophic 1980s and the failure of the unclassifiable sections of a partially policed French society? » (2)
Denise Brahimi’s point of view is shared by Ambroise Kom, who considers that the writing of Calixthe Beyala is an essentially functional work: « given her realistic style, her vigour and greenness of many of her descriptions, we can assert that Beyala’s writing is essentially functional and practical: knowing how to denounce the patriarchal order which governs relationships between men and women in contemporary societies. » (3)
This (possibly) explains why Calixthe Beyala’s books are published in the paperback collection J’ai Lu, which is generally devoted to « paraliterature ».
The second pit-fall in Calixthe Beyala’s novels is to be found in the highly ambiguous relationship that she keeps with Western readers. In his famous article L’écrivain africain et son public (4), Mohamadou Kane has clearly shown how the African writer is torn between a reader of the heart (African) and a reader of the mind (Western).
As the latter type of reader benefits from an established cultural tradition, they constitute the writer’s principal audience and major client, to the extent that they provide thematic guidelines for the writer’s work. To illustrate his point, Mohamadou Kane cites the example of an African author to whom a British editor returned his manuscript with the following comment: « Excellent novel, but not terribly African! » That is, not terribly exotic.
The issue of exoticism is the basis for the reproach made by Cameroonian critic, Ambroise Kom, of her compatriot, Calixthe Beyala: « Beyala does not hesitate to use stereotypes, no matter how abominable they are, to speak out against the perfidiousness of women and to show how they have fallen into men’s traps (…) and it is quite understandable why the critics are so quick to accuse Beyala of throwing herself into pornographic writing, a technique intended to attract readers in search of cheap eroticism and exoticism. Especially as in the Cameroon writer’s work, sexual promiscuity touches all races and almost all ages: « I like really dark chicks. It’s exotic and it excites the Whites » (5). (Maman a un amant, p. 165).
The moral of the story is that Calixthe Beyala seems to be far more popular with Western readers than with her compatriotes: « Calixthe Beyala’s novels take pride of place in certain hypermarkets in France and have also managed to edge their way onto the hit-parade of texts studied in numerous Western universities, especially in North America, and even in scientific conferences discussing women’s, African and/or Third World Studies. However, surprisingly, African readers and academics are largely unaware of Beyala. Even in Cameroon, the country she was born in and the world chosen for a number of her works, it would seem that – other than her flamboyant appearances on national television during her occasional trips back to her home country – Beyala and her works go completely unnoticed. » (6)
However, it should be stressed that exoticism is a danger to all African writers. The danger even goes beyond fiction and affects « scholars » as much as the writer.
When pondering the situation of African anthropologists within the context of international research, Beninese philosopher, Paulin Houtondji notes that all African scientific works operate as an exportable product. For Houtondji, contemporary African anthropologists produce an extraverted discourse. They write for a non African readership, which is, far vaster and more reliable, that also has certain expectations and requirements. (7)
This demonstrates that the danger of exoticism that specifically affects Calixthe Beyala but is almost consubstantial to all African writing.

1. Quotation from Madeleine Borgomano, Calixthe Beyala, une écriture déplacée, in Notre Librairie n°125, Cinq ans de littératures, 1991-1995, Afrique noire, 1995, p. 74. Translation by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
2. Denise Brahimi, presentation text for the Calixthe Beyala dossier in Notre Librairie, op.cit.p.63. Translation by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
3. Ambroise Kom, L’univers zombifié de Calixthe beyala, notre Librairie, op. cit. p. 69. Translation by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
4. Mohamadou Kane, L’écrivain africain et son public, Présence Africaine n° 58.
5. Translation by Africultures for the purpose of this article.
6. 1995, p. 64.
7. Paulin J. Houtondji, Combats pour le sens, un itinéraire africain, Les Editions du Flamboyant, Cotonou 1997, p. 255.
8. Loosely translated as « Fictional writing by Calixthe Beyala, the renewal of feminine writing in French-speaking Sub-Saharan Africa »
9. Loosely translated as « Battle for meaning, an African itinerary »
10. Loosely translated as « Let black women speak »
Gallimore, Rangira Béatrice, L’œuvre romanesque de Calixthe Beyala, le renouveau de l’écriture féminine en Afrique francophone sub-saharienne (8), L’Harmattan 1997.
Houtondji, Paulin J., Combats pour le sens, un itinéraire africain (9), Les Editions du Flamboyant, Cotonou 1997.
Awa Thiam, La parole aux négresses (10), Denoël 1978.///Article N° : 5285


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