A certain kinship

I worked as assistant director in a park devoted to contemporary art, 40 km from Paris. One morning, we were talking with the director and a colleague. Anodyne discussion, the ones we have in the morning before sitting down in front of our computer. We were talking about the choice between public transport and car to go to Paris. My two interlocutors displayed their reluctance to take the suburban train or the RER. They claimed the insecurity that reigned there. Living in the suburbs, I explained to them that their fear was statistically unfounded: like millions of people, for years I had taken the RER morning and evening to work in Paris, without ever having a problem.

– Yes, but you are different, retorted my director.

– Different from what?

I honestly didn’t understand what she meant.

– Well yes, added my other colleague in a tone of evidence, you will not be attacked.

I stared at them in turn, amazed. A few meters from us, the receptionist of the park gave us a look before plunging his nose into his files. I didn’t know what to say, so much the remark of my interlocutors, with whom I had maintained for months a warm relationship woven with jokes and daily confidences, had just projected me into an isolated, brutal and incomprehensible place. They seemed to think exactly the same thing, namely – with a knot in my stomach, I mentally unfolded the probable sequence of their reasoning all afternoon – that my skin color protected me from any aggression in the RER, since the aggressors necessarily had the same and maintained a kind of natural complicity with the passengers with a roughly similar melanin level.

Here is an example that can perhaps make you understand what sociologists are talking about when they discuss the situation of “racialized” people. All my life, I suffered from time to time remarks that revealed nothing about me, while saying a lot about my interlocutors. But at that moment, in that welcoming office with the warm smell of coffee where I discussed art and “cultural democratization” every day, I felt particularly helpless. In this place devoted to culture, where I had important professional responsibilities, I thought I was safe. Finally, I had to recognize that there is no safe space against prejudice. Historian Achille Mbembe speaks of “nanoracism”: a racism vaporized in the ambient air, crossing all strata of society.

Right now there are many literary voices taking this experience head-on and turning it into deep, varied, rich and complex works. In France, I am thinking, among others, of Touhfat Mouhtare, Jennifer Richard, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr or Nadia Yala Kisukidi. In the United States, I am thinking of Colson Whitehead. Before us, there were the great Toni Morrison and Maryse Condé. What, in my opinion, connects my work to that of these authors is a certain propensity to seize historical events and their “forgotten” figures, to play with and invent a counter-narrative. The story that was never that of the Nations in which we live. Songs that weren’t sung for heroes who are still close to us because they fought against that same sense of isolation within society, denounced that same violence, and have often been erased.

By writing about them, we regain dignity: the writer Yambo Ouologuem, the former slave ferryman to freedom Harriet Tubman, the revolutionary Thomas Sankara, the slave Tituba or the actress Marpessa Dawn are all figures that haunt our imaginations. We also borrow from storytelling and from what is called the “magical realism” of Latin American writers, because this is also part of our culture and trying to write about this story that is so frightening, so absurd, seems difficult while remaining stuck in the apparent Western rationality. If I think, for example, of the West Indian population from which I come and of its extraordinary wealth, an existential vertigo seizes me at the idea that its origin, recent, stems from a succession of rapes committed by masters on slaves. Sometimes you need the tools of the supernatural, even the fantastic, to write about this.

The characters in our novels also travel a lot around the world. From the plantation or the colonies, we have globalization in our lineage. We were born or attached to France, but an intimate part of us floats towards Africa, the Indian Ocean, the long American coast… This is why many of us finally consider writing as the only real place of safety.

A certain kinship