French: an African language

Interview with Jean-Louis Joubert, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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Jean-Louis Joubert is professor of literature and an Indian Ocean specialist at Paris 13 University. He is also Notre Librairie journal’s director of publications. Reacting to the notions of generation, post-colonialism and « francophonie« , he reassesses the status of the French language after the decolonisation period.

A recent issue of Notre Librairie, entitled « Nouvelle génération d’écrivains » [New generation of writers], has been the subject of some debate. Would you like to comment on a few of the reactions it provoked?
Some people perceived the issue as a kind of list of honour, in which we authorised ourselves to award prizes for excellence and, of course, those who were not listed may feel some resentment. Our choices could be contested. However, the fact that it has caused discussion is, in the end, a very good thing. We by no means claim to say that the twenty or twenty-two writers chosen will be the same ones who will be remembered in the future. We have chosen writers who are already known today. We did not include authors who have been known for some 10 to 15 years, even though they might not be much physically older than the authors we chose. Authors who have only come to the forefront very recently were not included either. It’s a very tricky issue. We could have provided a wider panorama but our problem was first and foremost financial – it was a matter of budget.
However, the generation issue is a problem.
Definitely. The term « generation » is not the most appropriate. It implies that there is a passage from one generation to another. However, we cut through the generations chronologically by choosing authors at centre stage between 1995 and 2002. This is not a generation as such. They are not of the same age. It represents more a homogenous reading, but at the same time there are a great many differences between them. Here, the notion of generation is debatable. Thibaudet used it during the 1930s when he wrote his natural history of French literature.
Like generation, francophonie [French language and culture within the French-speaking world] is also problematic. You have witnessed its birth, its evolution and its institutionalisation. How would you define it today?
It is increasingly indefinable. There is a not-negligible institutional francophonie, which is important, even if only to regulate a certain number of elements. I am currently reading a very interesting thesis that was given at the University of Limoges by a Belgian student. She covers a maximum of authors who write in French but are from abroad. She has considerable difficulty in distinguishing between authors such as Jorge Semprum, Samuel Beckett, who for various reasons (political exile, personal choice) wrote in French – she places writers from the South in the same basket. I think there are very important distinctions between them. And that is where the difficulty lies when you talk about francophonie. Sometimes, the groups of texts written in French refer to entities from beyond France. The bottom line is that this thesis is written from a European point of view and it does not conceive that there are French-speaking groups that revolve around a given country or community. I always use the example of the literature of Mauritius. There has been an enormous body of texts written since the 19th Century that has not left the country, including one or two top authors that no one knows outside Mauritius. The same probably goes for Haitian literature, that is, from the 19th Century, which is centred on Haiti. This is something very different from universal francophonie. There is an increasing awareness amongst outsiders, who form horizontal groups. For example, authors like Joseph Rabearivelo, who has never been out of his home country but who corresponded with Jean Amrouche, René Maran and a French-Japanese author of mixed race, Kikou Yamata, who translated Japanese literature into French. Algeria, Madagascar and Japan during the 1930s – with them there is already a feeling that there is something happening that looks like a network.
At the beginning you talked about people who write from a Western point of view. Does that mean that you would suggest that literary history should first be taken into consideration before analysing a text?
I think that literary history is important. It is not essential when reading for pleasure. However, if you want to understand a given literature, you do need some literary history. There is a lot of intertextuality in African literature. Young authors write in respect to their elders, who they know extremely well. If you don’t understand this, you miss the essential.
Within this context, where would you situate Poétiques francophones by Dominique Combe?
It is one of the best books on the subject. He is truly competent but he does possibly remain Euro-centric nevertheless. His tools of analysis are excellent, being the theoretical thought of the past decade. He wrote a remarkable book on the way that poetry tends to define itself in comparison to narrative. But it would seem to me that he doesn’t place enough importance on literary history. He leans towards theory, whereas I think that literary history is important for French-speaking literature.
Your answer has given me an opportunity to about about your anthology of Francophone literature from Asia and the Pacific, published in 1997 with Nathan. Am I right in saying that you were one of the first to think of this literature with a focus on the French language? How did conceive the idea?
I think that it is to do with my generation. I was 20 years old when the war took place in Algeria. I was extremely affected by the war, and extremely implicated, because I had a young Algerian high school classmate who died in fighting between Tunisia and Algeria. And for many people of my generation, the political meaning of what we could put into our commitment was necessarily anti-colonialism. After I finished my aggrégation [post-graduate teaching diploma], I taught in France for two years. I then applied to write my thesis on a subject that at the time no French teacher at the Sorbonne wanted to accept. Georges Balandier, an anthropologist, finally agreed and let me file my subject on African poetry, although he did say that he was not the most competent person to supervise me. I never did the thesis. My very kind master Balandier gave me the following piece of advice, « If you don’t go into the field, you won’t understand a thing. Go and see if there are any assistantships in African universities ». As it happened there was a position available in Madagascar. When living in Madagascar I went through a sort of minor Copernican revolution. I lived in the suburbs and read the literature in relation to the place where I lived. This is totally different to my French colleagues who have only ever been abroad for short assignments. The fact that I lived in Madagascar changed my vision of the world. I realised that my vision couldn’t be French-oriented. I had to look from the outside.
Your experience in Madagascar made you a pioneer in the study of the literature of the South. In France, the notion of post-colonialism is still fairly new, whereas there is a big focus on it in the United States (cf. Africultures 28). What is your point of view?
I believe that these movements can be useful in that they provide a framework with a set of references. However, it is a notion whose theoretical effectiveness I have still to see. I see it as categorising, nominal. What’s more, I have a very similar point of view to some of my Malagasy friends who reject it with considerable vehemence, saying that the notion has made colonisation the backbone of their existence. « We supposedly only exist because of colonisation. Colonisation was a very regrettable, scandalous moment in some respects, but positive in others. However, we not just post-colonials ». In France, there have been conferences and two or three texts about it, which are – in my opinion – introductory works on postcolonial theory. In my opinion, this notion should be thrown back onto the table to see if it is effective, to see if it is useful. Personally, I doubt it.
We have talked about francophonie, and its limitations. We have raised the issue of post-colonialism and its limitations. Some academics consider it possible to unite the two notions.
If you associate post-colonialism with francophonie, there is a whole section of non-French writers who fall outside this category. Rumanian Jewish exiles, for example. For Québec, the notion may just about work. For Belgium and Switzerland it is still debatable. You can’t apply the notion of colonialism any old where. In it’s own right it’s not very easy to place, because there have been several occurrences throughout history.
Recently, during a conference in Tours (France), you said, « The French language makes it possible to understand other African cultures, it enables an understanding of Africa ».
This idea has several aspects to it. One of the things that most struck me when I first travelled to central Africa, to Brazzaville, in the early 1970s, was to hear Congolese people talking amongst themselves in French. And it seemed perfectly logical. I subsequently learnt that they didn’t come from the same place and didn’t speak the same language. At the end of the day, French is a vector for communication in Africa. I totally agree with Pierre Dumont when he says that French has become an African language. I know that heads of State such as Senghor were against this idea, because they wanted to keep a standard French. That’s absurd, because French necessarily evolves when integrated into a different country.
The second idea is that study on Africa has largely been carried out in non-African languages. There is definitely an African body of knowledge, however knowledge about Africa has often been obtained through languages such as English and French. In order to carry out serious historical research on African literature you have to consult 19th Century documents written by missionaries and military men. French is therefore a tool for learning about Africa. And it plays this role relatively well, depending on the period. The bilingual collection, Classiques Africains, notes the state of oral texts at a given time in history and also provides an interpretation via a French translation, a fact of some importance for future generations. Numerous African languages are strictly oral and they evolve very quickly. The fact that there has been at a given moment in history this photocopy of the language is of great scientific interest.

Notre Librairie, journal for literatures of the South, « Nouvelle génération », N° 146, Oct-Dec 2001, 144p., 10.50 euros. ///Article N° : 5703


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