African literature in French

The first contemporary literature was born as a protest against French rule and the policy of assimilation. Its leading figure was Léopold Senghor, who in 1960 was elected first president of the Republic of Senegal. In Paris during the 1930s, he met Negro writers from the French Caribbean, such as the poets Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon Damas of French Guiana. Together they began an examination of Western values and a reassessment of African culture, and in 1947 they founded Présence Africaine, Africa’s leading literary journal. Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948; “Anthology of the New Negro and Madagascan Poetry”) was an important influence in the formation of the idea of a Negritude (a term first used by Césaire) that should include poets outside Africa—in the French Caribbean territories and in Madagascar, for example. Senghor’s poems are sometimes regarded as examples of 20th-century French poetry in the manner of Paul Claudel or Saint-John Perse, but they are, in fact, essentially African: his love poetry, in particular, is intensely so in structure and tempo. Senghor’s themes are those of Negritude: he attacks what he sees as the soul-lessness of Western civilization (“no mother’s breast, but only nylon legs”) and proclaims that African culture alone has preserved the mystic warmth of a life that could still revive “the world that has died of machines and cannons.” This culture, says Senghor, gains strength from its closeness to nature and constant contact with “the ancestors”; Western culture is out of step with the world’s natural and ancient rhythm. Therefore, he proclaims, “[We are] the leaven that the white flour needs.” In long rhapsodic lines he tries to make the French language swing and dance in the rhythms of his native Serer language.

Another Senegalese, Birago Diop, has similarly explored the mystique of African life in a volume of poems, Leurres et lueurs (1960). His countryman David Diop wrote the most violent and full-blooded protest poetry to be produced by the Negritude movement: “When civilization kicked us in the face, when holy water slapped our cringing brows.… ”

Two of the most important Francophone novelists are the Cameroonians Mongo Beti (pseudonym of Alexandre Biyidi), whowrote Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba), and Ferdinand Oyono, author of Une Vie de boy (1956; Houseboy) and Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille (1956; The Old Man and the Medal). All three novels aim to explode the French colonial myth of France Outre-Mer: that the French West African possessions were not really colonies and that educated Africans are thus simply “black Frenchmen.”

The second generation of French African writers was less concerned with the public rhetoric of Negritude. Thus, though the Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam’si sometimes spoke of his people’s sufferings (“My race remembers the taste of bronze drunk hot”), he did not claim to be the spokesman of his race. In Le Mauvais Sang (1955; “Bad Blood”), Feu de brousse (1957; Brush-Fire), À triche-coeur (1960; “A Game of Cheat-Heart”), Épitomé (1962), and Le Ventre (1964; “The Belly”), he explored his personal agonies in Surrealist poems in the dense texture of which mythological, Christian, and sexual imagery are juxtaposed.

Camara Laye became famous with his romantic autobiography L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child ), which draws a poetic, idyllic picture of life in a traditional African town. His most important work, however, is the novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King ), which describes a white man’s quest for personal salvation in the mysterious atmosphere of the West African jungle. It is regarded as among the most imaginative novels to have come from Africa. In a third novel, Dramouss (1966; A Dream of Africa), Laye, who in 1965 became a political refugee in Senegal, attacks the harsh methods of Guinea’s ruling party. Among Africa’s socialist intellectuals, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène is best known as a film director, but his Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God’s Bits of Wood) is a classic novel about the poor.

In the 1960s there was an important development of the philosophical novel in French-speaking Africa, notably by Sheikh Hamidou Kane in L’Aventure ambiguë (1961; Ambiguous Adventure) and by Yambo Ouologuem in Le Devoir de violence (1968; Bound to Violence). Both writers belong to the Islamic western Sudan and present their novels partly in the form of “dialogues,” either between Islam and Western materialism or between traditional autocracy and Christian compassion. Remarkable as women writers in a hitherto male world were Mariama Bâ, recipient of the first Noma Award for publishing in Africa for Une Si Longue Lettre (1980; So Long a Letter), and Aminata Sow Fall, a fellow Senegalese, who earned praise for La Grève des battu ou les déchets humains (1979; The Beggar’s Strike), an ironic novella of great skill.

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