From French-language literature written overseas to Francophone literature

Interview with Jean-Louis Joubert, by Taina Tervonen

October 2005
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What is Francophone literature? How can it be defined? Jean-Louis Joubert, editor-in-chief of the journal Notre Librairie and university professor, has been following this literature for the past 40 years. In this interview he discusses the concept of Francophone literature and the role Notre Librairie plays in its definition.

You have been teaching Francophone literature for 40 years. How has this concept evolved over time?
I began teaching Francophone literature in 1965, in Madagascar. At the time it wasn’t called Francophone literature, but rather literature written in the French language. The term « Francophone literature » was only widely adopted in the late 1970s. The expression was first used in 1962 by the magazine Esprit. Following the creation of a governmental body regrouping the countries that we began to call « Francophone », the term became more or less official. In fact, the ACCT, (Agence de coopération culturelle et technique) did not even include the word « Francophone » in its name. The term used was « countries where the French language is used. »
When were these terms dropped and the term « Francophone literature » adopted?
The term francophonie was definitively adopted in the 1980s. The other terms were never completely abandoned. The word francophonie continues to be contested for different reasons. Certain scholars prefer to speak of francographie.
The first major publication to make mention of the literature now referred to as Francophone literature was the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. » Volume III appeared in 1958, and included articles written by the great scholar Auguste Viatte, who never spoke of francophonie, but of inter-related and overseas literatures. At the time the latter term was the most widespread. It also appears in an anthology by Léon Damas called Poésie d’outre-mer. Today it would be called Poésie francophone or Poésie du Sud. The term outre-mer, or overseas, referred to anything that was originally colonial, and which, furthermore, was still colonial at the time.
Has the concept remained the same even though the term has changed?
No, because the Quebecers, the Belgians, and the Swiss to a lesser extent, have all come on board. Belgians and Quebecers would be furious if no mention were made of them in any work discussing Francophone literature.
Can all these literatures really be grouped together, in literary terms?
The factor that unites them is that they are all written in French.
So then French literature would have to be considered as part of Francophone literature. This is generally never done!
Exactly! That is the problem. Belgians and Quebecers often criticize the French for not considering themselves to be Francophone. The idea of francophonie is still not very well accepted in France. The teaching of Francophone literature is very inconsistent.
Why is this distinction still prevalent?
I am not so sure that it always prevails. There are African and Maghrebi writers living in France whose works are considered French. Mohammed Dib is an example that comes to mind. But it is true that the distinction does exist. There are specific prizes for Francophone literature, but things are changing. Take, for example, the short story competition organised by RFI, which initially concerned African writers, and which is now open to all short stories written in French, including those written by French authors. This year, Francophone authors such as Alain Mabanckou and Léonora Miano were nominated for French literary prizes.
Is this evolution linked to Francophone policy?
I think that finance plays a crucial role. As long as there are no well-established publishing houses in Africa, it will always be extremely difficult for African literature to exist independently, and it will always gravitate around Paris. This is not the case in Quebec or in Belgium. However, Paris still plays a symbolic role. Recognition can only be gained in Paris.
Is this economic and symbolic dependence the distinguishing trait of African literature?
At the risk of contradicting myself I will say that there is a fledgling African publishing scene. From time to time African publishers release a book that is widely successful in Africa and that is only re-released by a French publisher ten or fifteen years later. This was the case of So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba.
But on the other hand, even in a relatively wealthy country like Mauritius, a book cannot exist unless it is co-published by French publishers. In this respect, the case of poet Edouard Maunick is extremely interesting. His most recent collection was published in Mauritius, but it will be re-released in France by Seghers, for distribution reasons. An African publisher that releases a book at a reasonable price in Africa cannot distribute it in France due to the cost.
Does knowing that a French publisher will eventually have to be approached have an influence on the book’s content?
Most likely. An author who is going to be published in France thinks that his readers will need explanations. There will be a certain number of explanatory elements in or around the text, which would not be there if the book were being published directly in Africa. Consideration for their French readership also comes into play. Authors will try to appease or provoke them. This certainly plays a role.
Certain authors, such as Kossi Efoui, refuse to give any explanations.
He wasn’t the first to claim « I am a writer first and then African, maybe. » Tchicaya U’Tamsi had already brandished this banner. I think that Kossi Efoui represents a definitive evolution. More and more African writers are now conscious of creating literature above all else. The first writers did this as well but for them the message was the most important factor. Today, more significance is being accorded to the act of writing itself. This brings to mind the success of Frankétienne in Haiti. He writes texts that are very difficult but that are also fascinating if the reader chooses to delve into them. In Africa there is also Mabanckou, whose writing style is very original. They are less militant and they no longer hold any illusions. They no longer believe that literature will change the world. There is also a desire to have a less ideological and monolithic view of oneself.
You have been following this evolution through your work for the journal Notre Librairie, where you have been editor-in-chief for 25 years. What is the journal’s history?
It was created in 1969. I came on board in the late 1970s. At first, the journal was aimed at African librarians, for whom it was meant to serve as a guide. It was linked to a programme launched by the Ministry for Cooperation for rural libraries. This programme worked well in certain countries, like Mali. Today, the journal is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As you know, our ministries can no longer directly participate in this type of programme as it is forbidden by French law. It is therefore necessary to create relatively independent cultural operators or agencies through which the ministry can place orders. Over the years the orders have evolved, and it was recognized that it would be interesting to create a journal dedicated to promoting books. The journal is not a literary review but a book review, which is a bit different. The focus is on the book as an object. We have also done issues covering themes on the margins of literature, such as development, environmental issues, art, etc. The journal’s subtitle has been changed many times, from « Livres, lectures et bibliothèques, Afrique, Madagascar et Maurice » to « Afrique – Océan Indien« . The scope of our work was first defined in relation to the scope of work being done by the Ministry for Cooperation, which did not include the Maghrebi countries. We focus on Africa, the French West Indies, the French overseas departments and territories, and the Indian Ocean.
Is it also active in literary terms?
There is a sort of debate surrounding this issue. It is operational because the journal exists and it has generated a certain number of cultural events, such as the Etonnants Voyageurs festival held in Bamako and the Salon du livre africain.
Has the existence of this journal contributed in a certain way to defining African literature?
Yes, undoubtedly. It’s inevitable. The journal has played an important role in developing the idea that there is no longer a single African literature but numerous national literatures. We did not set out to play this ideological role. We simply thought it would be interesting to publish issues on the various countries’literatures. We covered all African countries, except for Chad, which unfortunately turned out to be a victim of recent changes to our editorial line. These issues appeared to divide up the literatures and it must be said that the different governments were happy to play along. In fact, they were thrilled! One Minister for culture was absolutely delighted when we told him that we were going to dedicate a volume to his country’s literature. The more recent the country’s literary movement is, the more the country has a need to affirm itself. These issues were very successful, especially in the countries they covered. They caused less of a stir in France. Furthermore, at the time the journal wasn’t even distributed in France.
Isn’t there a contradiction in the fact that the journal is produced in France but read mostly in Africa?
We do have a few Africans on the advisory committee. But it’s true that this is a problem. African universities are in a period of crisis and are suffering from a brain drain towards France and increasingly towards the United States and Canada. We work a lot with these exiled academics. In Africa the journal is copied a lot, and even pillaged sometimes. But it is also produced with this in mind. In Cameroon there is a magazine called Patrimoine that is extremely active. I won’t say that it was created thanks to Notre Librairie, but something happened there. Africans read Notre Librairie a lot and it makes them want to do something for themselves.
The journal definitely serves as a reference, but isn’t this due to the fact that it is the only one to have such a developed distribution network?
This is one of the ways in which Notre Librairie is very lucky and it does contribute to its longevity. From time to time various people want to radically change or get rid of it, but it is the only review of its kind and it definitely has its own audience. Its online version is free and a lot of people download it – even more than those who buy the print version, whose sales stand at 7,000-8,000 copies. Most of these go to official organisations such as cultural centres and the like.
Does this sometimes create problems in terms of the themes being examined or the content of certain texts?
Our « patrons », as we call them, have not created problems for us to date. There was some criticism of articles which seemed to be politically sensitive. But I don’t think that there are subjects that we can’t broach. This said, we have never thought of doing an issue on prisons for example, since this might be too much of a touchy subject. But I think it would pass. However, we could never do an openly political issue where we took sides in one way or another. It is clear that we will never do that. Our patrons in Paris would be against it, and rightly so.
But it’s a literary journal!
Yes, but politics are everywhere! [laughs]In the end we have very few critics. We answer directly to the Bureau du Livre, which is run by people whose goal is to promote books written in French. However, we are very careful. In our most recent issue, which was on languages, one writer included certain views in his article which could have provoked really negative reactions in his country. We asked him to rewrite his text with this fact in mind. We are obliged to take this kind of thing into account, even though we are not a political journal.
Would it have been possible to do this recent issue on languages (1) in the early days of the journal?
Probably not, because the idea itself wasn’t mature enough at the time. Very few people were conscious of the fact that African languages were not necessarily condemned to disappear quickly. Today, we could do an issue on literature in national languages and this would even be highly encouraged.
Isn’t this also linked to the evolution of the institutional Francophone body, whose message has changed in order to better accept linguistic diversity?
Yes. Countries where the use of French is extremely limited will soon make up the majority of the international Francophone community. French is still being taught in Eastern Europe, but people speak it less and less. Political francophonie has changed a lot. At first, it was a sort of club, like the Commonwealth, today it is more of an influential group with regard to globalisation, but it isn’t always very effective…
This year you published an issue on up-and-coming writers (2). You have already done similar « talent scout » work with the showcase for the new generation of writers, which was moreover violently criticized by writers who had not been chosen. Is this linked to the virtual monopoly you have in Africa? Is it becoming decisive for authors to be cited in the journal and featured in your showcases?
Absolutely. It does make things a bit awkward. About twenty authors were chosen for the showcase and there were a dozen more who could also have been selected. But we stand by our choice. As for the issue on up-and-coming writers, it was difficult to determine the selection criteria. The literary quality was of course taken into account, but it can also be a bit subjective. The major criterion was that the writers had to be more or less unknown, and either not published by a big, well-known publisher or not published at all. Certain authors had already been published by African publishers. This was also why we chose not to include an African publisher on the jury (3).
The journal’s critiques are often quite neutral. Is this voluntary?
There are no guidelines given to this end. It’s rare but there have been a few relatively critical texts. In other magazines, I can write articles that I wouldn’t write for Notre Librairie. I tend to focus on the positives. There is another difficult aspect. In most cases we know these authors. It becomes a lot harder to be brutal. When you’re a critic for a newspaper like Le Monde, it’s another story altogether.

1. « Langues, langages, inventions », Notre Librairie, 159, July-September 2005.
2. « Plumes émergents », Notre Librairie, vol° 158, April-June 2005.
3. The jury was composed of Jean-Louis Joubert, Nathalie Carré and Nathalie Philippe (from the review’s editorial team), Pierre Astier, literary agent and former editor-in-chief of Le Serpent à Plumes, Monique Blin, president of the association Ecritures vagabondes, former director of Les Francophonies in Limousin, and Tanella Boni (author).
Translated by Kyana LeMaitre///Article N° : 5736


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