November 2016

African Noir and the Frivolous Literary

To understand the writing of Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, one needs to take into account the influence of the French colonial educational system that began after WWI. Not surprisingly, colonial schools glorified French culture and promoted allegiance to the imperial power.

One of the ways in which this occurred was through exposure to great French literature with a particular emphasis on the realist novel of the 19th century. Because of this training the realist style of Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, or again Émile Zola became the model for the first great wave of Francophone African authors in the 1950s. Adding to this ideal of realistic prose, was the evident influence of Jean-Paul Sartre’s call in the 1940s and 1950s for an engaged literary practice: art couldn’t just sit there and be beautiful, it had to do something. Indeed, Sartre’s imperative of engagement came at a particularly opportune moment since Francophone African writers were caught in the historical turmoil of the post-WWII period. African troops’ participation in the fight against Nazism and the European imperial powers’ weakened state made de-colonization not only desirable but increasingly possible. Literature became a means of describing this emerging historical situation and an instrument for advocating for African independence.

Though this simplifies a complex situation, Francophone African authors from the 1950s onwards remained largely indebted to what realism put to the service of ideological engagement. While useful and often deeply moving throughout the early period of independence, increasing questions arose about the limits of engaged realist writing. The response was in some cases, as with an author such as Cameroon’s Mongo Beti (1932-2001) to turn to irony. For others, such as Congolese author Sony Labou Tansi (1947-1995) the answer lay in modernist stylistic, temporal, and representational distortions. However, in the mid 1980s arose a particularly intriguing response to what had become an aesthetic dead-end. As authors cast about for a new way of thinking about fiction, they came upon popular literature, and most notably, crime fiction – what in French is called the “roman noir,” or again, the hard-boiled novel. The irony was that in France the various permutations of noir fiction had been wildly popular since WWII, and, since the 1960s the genre had taken on a notable and often radical ideological tilt (either to the left or to the right). Thus, in France at least, the genre had already been put to work as a form of engaged writing that had the distinct advantage of actually being read by the masses and of not taking itself too seriously.

What brought this well-established literary genre to the attention of African authors was the unique case of African American author Chester Himes (1909-1984). While largely forgotten in the United States, Himes made a name for himself in France in a rather astonishing fashion. Of the same generation of African American “protest” writers as Richard Wright (1908-1960), Himes had left the U.S. for France in the late 1950s in the hope of reviving his flagging literary career. In a stroke of editorial genius, the editor of France’s most popular crime series, La Série Noire, recognizing that Himes’ style would lend itself perfectly to the task, suggested that the American try his hand at crime fiction. The result was one of the most unusual and striking series of “noir” novels ever written. The circumstances of their publication only made them that much more appealing. Written in English, and then immediately translated into French, Himes would pen nine novels, all set in Harlem, with the recurring detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. With their absurdist and often violent humor, vernacular dialogue, and extensive meditation on the politics of race, the Harlem domestic novels (as they came to be called) were a smashing success and finally made Himes famous, if only in France (where he continues to be popular to this day).

But the Harlem novels weren’t only read by French people. They were also being devoured and passed from hand to hand by young Francophone Africans – who would subsequently become authors in their own right. It is in this manner that Himes became – beginning in the 1980s with such novelists as Senegal’s Abasse Ndione (1946-) and Franco-Cameroonian Simon Njami (1962-), but most notably in the 1990s with Bolya (1957-2010) Achille N’goye (1944-), Aïda Mady Diallo (1974) and Mongo Beti – the model for what, in The Noir Atlantic: Chester Himes and the Birth of the Francophone African Crime Novel, I called the “frivolous literary.” This expression showed how Himes modeled an emancipation from the high art and/or engaged literary paradigm guiding Francophone African fiction to that point. In the process, these Francophone African authors accomplished two things: they changed their target audience from a limited intellectual class (too often consisting of academics in the West) and they proclaimed their right to create according to their own terms—and to make a living as authors in the process. That Himes himself had followed a similar path towards his own success as an author made him a particularly convincing example. But just as important were several other factors: Himes was American, and therefore detached from the French history these African authors were trying to escape; he was African American and as such represented an important African diaspora contribution to global modernity; he brought a specific set of technical tools (his use of the vernacular, his use of hard-boiled narrative, his emphasis on precise social location, to name but a few); and he mediated his ideological engagement and racial consciousness through an absurdist, or even grotesque irony that changed the overall shape and thrust of his work. All these features made Himes uniquely suited as a model for the emerging African noir of the 1980s and 1990s.

Finally, if today, the cluster of crime novels that appeared over the twenty-year period stretching from 1984-2004, has proven to be a passing moment, it is that the innovations that crime fiction brought to Francophone African writing has largely been integrated into the works of todays’ authors. Leonara Miano (1973-), Alain Mabanckou (1966-), and Fiston Mwenza Mujilla (1981-), for example, are all, to a lesser or greater extent, making use of the noir techniques that Himes inspired in the notable literary moment of African noir. Indeed, the shift from a writing that insistently draws attention to its own status as literature towards a style that has largely turned its back on what we might call “the rules of engagement,” shows just how powerful that influence has been. Significantly, these young authors are, precisely because of this new detachment, producing writings that are as ideologically engaged, as they have ever been…through the post-noir back door, as it were.