FESTIVAL ALBERTINE: DAY FIVE

By Emily Lever, Tricia Woodcome, Cerise Maréchaud and Prune Perromat with special thanks to French Morning

Every Name in the Street

Moderator: Adam Shatz Panelists: Claudia Rankine, Zahia Rahmani, Charles Robinson, Jacqueline Woodson

Only days before a potentially world-altering election, Albertine Festival’s last literary panel tackled the political responsibility of language.

Adam Shatz, a writer for the London Review of Books, moderated the panel “Every Name in the Street,” featuring novelists Jacqueline Woodson, Charles Robinson and Zahia Rahmani and poet Claudia Rankine.

Shatz opened with the question, “what sort of weapon can language be against linguistic and actual violence?” For the panelists, linguistic violence occurs when the language of the elites is accepted as a legitimate mode of literary expression and the vernacular isn’t. Ruefully, Woodson recalled hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s pronunciation of the word “ask” as “aks,” a rare thing to hear in literary circles, and “mourn[ing] the fact that [she] had forgotten how to speak” in her native vernacular.

Robinson, in the tradition of American novelist Zora Neale Hurston, advocated for a “reconfiguration of language” into a modern, multicultural idiom “more beautiful, more powerful than the classical state of the language. ”

The panelists dissected what people really mean when they demand stories that are “universal.” Rankine pointed out the double standard by which some writers’ personal narratives are classified as universal and others’ as unrelatable: “Whiteness makes the world in its image and calls that universal.”

Universality was not the experience of Rahmani and Woodson, who were both motivated to write by not themselves represented in the stories they read growing up. But Rahmani also underlined that once writers of color manage to get published, they are marginalized no matter what they actually write: “In France when you’re a writer, there are two different worlds: literature and Francophonie.” She noted that the Martinican writer Edouard Glissant, an impeccable stylist, has never been included in the “great genealogy of literature.”

These power dynamics have been in place for centuries, but as Claudia Rankine shrewdly noted, what has changed is our ability to transmit and access a wider range of experiences via technology, which allows communities to be “visible in a way never done before.”


RENDERING VISIBLE THE PREVIOUSLY INVISIBLE

JACQUELINE WOODSON: “One of the big motivators, of course, is growing up and recognizing there was an absence of oneself in the literature….and making sure that wasn’t going to happen for another generation.”

CHARLES ROBINSON: “The first focus or element of my work is to explore what we are as a suffering humanity…it’s not about looking at marginal people, as a separate entity. Literature is an opportunity to explore all of our different trajectories and to create this grand common field which is our shared humanity.”

ZAHIA RAHMANI

“I think I was searching for what I could not find.”

“I think literature is haunted by the absentees.”

CLAUDIA RANKINE

“I don’t really care about story at all. I think sometimes a narrative gets in the way of the feeling, of what it means to be human.” 

THE EMANCIPATORY POWER OF LITERATURE

ZAHIA RAHMANI

"In the ‘70s, [Richard Wright’s Black Boy] helped me to emancipate myself from my family, and from the French rural context. I was twelve years old at the time, and I ran away thanks to Richard Wright.”

JACQUELINE WOODSON

“One of the greatest parts of listening to Between the World and Me was hearing [Ta-Nehisi Coates] say ‘ask’ because I realized that I had forgotten how to say it. It had been trained out of me…I had unlearned how to speak the way I had grown up speaking.”

CODE-SWITCHING AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

JACQUELINE WOODSON

“For people of color, especially, we’ve grown up with every representation being a white representation…we’ve had lots of windows... And not necessarily have those windows into our worlds been there.”

ECONOMICS OF PUBLISHING, SYSTEMIC DISPARITIES

JACQUELINE WOODSON

“I think publishers are realizing because of [political and social] movements and their visibility, that this, too, sells books. Because at the end of the day it’s about the economics of publishing.”

CLAUDIA RANKINE

“In America, we have 35% of the population is white men. They hold 70% of the governing positions in the United States…. The rest of us are living under what they determine should happen.”

ZAHIA RAHMANI

“The American economic system perpetuates segregation.”

“I think that without socialism, you only have a barbaric state.”

“In France, when you’re a writer, there are two different worlds: literature and ‘Francophonie’”

CLAUDIA RANKINE (Photo: Cerise Marechaud)

CLAUDIA RANKINE (Photo: Cerise Marechaud)

LANGUAGE, STYLE, AND POLYPHONY

“The richness of having come through the world with those many languages, it can’t help but become a part of the rhythm of the narrative. So everything I write, I have to read out loud.”

CLAUDIA RANKINE

“I’m using language as material to get to that which is felt but not spoken. And sometimes story helps me get there, but it’s not the story that I’m interested in.”

“It’s really about writing from the position of what it looks like, rather than what is valued, which I believe are two different things.”

CHARLES ROBINSON

“This notion of polyphony, it’s the story of minorities; it’s an issue of minorities. In fact, we are all minorities…. This polyphony of human life is the organization, is the presence of these multitudes of humanities, their stories, and their different songs. I am convinced that a society is not a location of peace, but a location of conflict.”

CHARLES ROBINSON

“This notion of becoming a great writer…there’s this underlying assumption that you have to master this language as it is meant to be spoken, and therefore to confirm an order. And that’s what we call integration.”

“I think it’s important to explore the usages of the French language – the urban, or more popular usages of this language in the suburbs – and from that point on, to invent a new state of the language that would be more beautiful, more powerful than the classical state of the language.”

“What is particular to American politics, and this is true for American writers of color, is that our ability to be artists cannot exist in a place separate from our ability to see our ability to live curtailed.”  

FESTIVAL ALBERTINE: DAY FOUR

By Emily Lever, Tricia Woodcome, Cerise Maréchaud, and Prune Perromat with special thanks to French Morning

AMERICA, EUROPE AND THE BLACK LITERARY IMAGINATION

Since the era of the Lost Generation, French and American literary cultures have been fascinated with each other. The fourth panel of the Festival Albertine , titled “Europe and America in the Black Literary Imagination,” examined this dynamic within the literature of the African diaspora in France and America (and often in the Caribbean and West Africa).

As the sun set behind the panel, Chris Jackson, the editor of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among other books, moderated a discussion between novelists Darryl Pinckney and Scholastique Mukasonga and scholars Maboula Soumahoro and Laurent Dubois.

Black American writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Chester Himes emigrated to France during the Jim Crow era in search of respect for their human rights. Pinckney, the author of a novel titled Black Deutschland about a young black American who settles in Berlin, contended that “being always on the move” is just as integral to black literature as the phenomenon of double consciousness. 

For Soumahoro, the black experience in France is defined by a different duality. The arrival of African-Americans seeking refuge was “convenient for France,” allowing France to seem racially progressive and proclaim itself “blind to race” while French people of color remained marginalized. In this environment, African-American culture, particularly hip-hop since the 1980s, “helped people of color in France articulate and theorize” their experience of “being racialized when everyone tells you you’re not,” said Soumahoro.

Across the vast spectrum of experiences of the African diaspora, what, if any, do black people on both sides of the Atlantic have in common? “It’s not that there is…any kind of essence, but there is a shared history that is refracted in all these different cultural forms,” said Dubois, suggesting than Pan-African identity is both a myth and a reality.  In the words of Oscar Wilde, black people in France and the United States are two people divided by a common ancestry. 


BLACK LITERARY TRADITION: FROM AMERICA TO FRANCE

CHRIS JACKSON: “There’s always a romance around this idea of Paris – a place where for African American writers in particular there are sort of three kinds of liberation happening for them: A place where they went to find themselves…a place where they could find the larger world…a place where they were first exposed to the diaspora… and to see themselves as Americans, even, with more clarity.”

DARRYL PINCKNEY: “It’s always been an irony that of course, the centers of abolitionism and the struggle for freedom are also always the capitals of empire. And so this double consciousness as Dubois would call it is simply a part of the black literary tradition. As well as always being on the move.”

LAURENT DUBOIS: “It’s interesting that the later African American writers who came…rejected the idea that there was in this encounter…something essentially, particularly Baldwin, that connected writers across the diaspora as the French thought about it.”

SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA (Translated from the French): “So we are talking about these migration movements from the Americas towards France. The atypical thing I want to share with you is that I come, in fact, from a Belgian colony.”

PAN AFRICAN IDENTITY: DOES IT EXIST?

LAURENT DUBOIS:  “People are kind of recognizing parts that are aspects of a deep past of exile, the history of slavery, the history of passage, that are being articulated in all these ways. It’s not of course that there is a kind of essence at all, but there is a kind of shared history that is refracted in all these different cultural forms.”

MABOULA SOUMAHORO: “Everything binds us, and nothing binds us. I think culture…history…displacement, marginalization, poverty, police brutality…[this] very construction of blackness, or non-whiteness, has been going on for a long time. This is what binds us. This is what we share, what those communities share….”

EXPATS OR EXILES?

SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA (Translated from the French): “What France gave me was language. It gave me an opportunity, and it also gave me a passport to help me escape the genocide”

DARRY PINCKNEY: “I’ve always thought of reading and being a writer as a chance to get away, a chance to declare your independence, to define yourself, and to make up yourself as you go along.”

MABOULA SOUMAHORO: “When they left, they often left to escape the hyper-racialization in the United States. So when they came to France, they became sometimes de-racialized. They were seen partly as African Americans, partly as black, but mostly as Americans. They were associated with a powerful nation. So it’s as if in that particular instance, nationality trumped race.”

FROM HYPER-RACIALIZED U.S. TO A “DE-RACIALIZED” FRANCE

MABOULA SOUMAHORO: “Unable to talk about race, France has hidden behind religion. Religion, and Islam in particular has been the tool found by France to talk about racial issues – but always sideways, never directly.”

DARRYL PINCKNEY: “I don’t think that Europe really has come to terms with the cost of colonialism and imperialism. The violence that went on in Africa was a legacy of the European presence, of European control.”

SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA: “I don’t look at myself or consider myself as a black person, because then I don’t see myself.”

“When I was born the Tutsis were called cockroaches… ‘You are all cockroaches. There is nothing human about you. Just look at yourselves.’ And at a certain point I just simply didn’t consider myself as a woman, as a girl, as a normal human being. When I looked at myself I was a cockroach.”

HOW AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE INFLUENCED FRENCH CULTURE

MABOULA SOUMAHORO: “I think the contributions made by African Americans…has been to perhaps help those French people of color…articulate or theorize on racial identity that is a taboo topic in France. France is France. France is blind to race.”

LAURENT DUBOIS: “For the Civil Rights struggle is…the thing that America so proudly exported to the rest of the world. The black freedom struggle in America became the model that other picked up, mostly through the circulation of books…”

LANGUAGE AND ACCENTS AS STIGMA AND PRIDE

CHRIS JACKSON: "Baldwin once said that he “started to reflect on English as being a thing that defined him more than he realized….He started to see his identity as something removed from Afro-centric point of view but also could never be Eurocentric and kind of put him in this space that really was, for better or worse, an American identity.”

SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA (Translated form the French): “I have an African accent, and that accent is my identity. An accent is an identity. I may be a writer, I may be an intellectual…but I only learned French when I started to go to school. It’s actually a beautiful gift that Belgian colonial power gave us...”

“These encounters about your accents, although they can be hurtful, [are] reassuring because it is kind of like a little bird that left a little string of stones. It means that although you’re French, you have been able to maintain your identity.”


GALLERY

FESTIVAL ALBERTINE: DAY THREE

By Emily Lever with photos by James C. Taylor

It's frustrating that there even needs to be a panel on diversity in film in two countries as diverse as France and America. As panelist Nina Shaw asked, "Why is it so hard to realize all our experiences have a certain commonality?" Why are "white movies" considered relatable while "black movies" are pigeonholed? The discussion, titled "Blacklisted: From Hollywood to Paris," featured Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes (the moderator), film critic Claire Diao, executive entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw, and director and producer Rabah Ameur-Zameïche.

Without a doubt, talented filmmakers of color do exist. The question of the night was how they can access the resources to tell their stories. In some ways, French and American filmmakers have starkly different problems: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche lauded France's robust public arts funding system, while Shaw shared the story of how Ava Duvernay funded her first film with the down payment on her house. Still, the film industry establishment in both countries is white and patrician. People of color are marginalized in casting, hiring, funding, and distribution.

From Diao, who created a distribution network bringing small international films to young people who couldn't have seen them otherwise, to Ameur-Zaïmeche, who stated, "we don't need recognition [from Cannes]! Let's make parallel festivals," the message was unmistakable: if institutions won't accept you, make your own institutions. Shaw summed it up in the words of Shirley Chisholm: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

FESTIVAL ALBERTINE: DAY TWO

Bgy Prune Perromat with reporting from Cerise Maréchaud and Tricia Woodcome with special thanks to French Morning

"The absence of hierarchy is freedom." On the second night of Festival Albertine in New York panelist and comic book artist Catherine Meurisse reflected on the capacity of art to dismantle traditional power structures. 

The evening's panel - From the Margins to the Mainstream: High Art vs. Low Art in France and the US. - featured Kelly Sue Deconnick, D’de Kabal, Catherine Meurisse and David Simon in a panel moderated by author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In a far-reaching discussion of art and the freedom and beauty it permits, the panelists touched on popular art forms, the catharsis of producing art,  the beauty in chaos and finding inspiration in dark places.

Meurisse, a survivor of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last year, also talked about the possibility of erasing chaos and pain with beauty.

“In my work, people say I’m very, very dark. But expressing darkness in words, nothing can happen to you. You transform (it) into something you can share,” said musician D'de Kabal. Kabal offered LSP an exclusive audio recording of his spoken word art after tonight's panel, as featured at the top of this page.

For David Simon, the mastermind behind cult television series The Wire, the absence of visibility of an audience means freedom. In a video interview after the panel, Simon expounded on his admiration for Honoré de Balzac, the genius 19th century French novelist known for his inimitable descriptions and morally ambiguous characters, and added that Balzac could have liked The Wire, or at least "would recognize [its] intent to acquire a city, slice by slice." 

Comic book writer Kelly Sue Deconnick, meanwhile, made a pitch for the so-called low art form: "I think if we dismiss the potential of popular art, we dismiss the potential of the populist."

*An update to this recap will be made later with a video interview with David Simon and an audio recording of  Kelly Sue Deconnick.*

THE HIGH POTENTIAL OF LOW ART

KELLY SUE DECONNICK 

*A live recording of Kelly Sue DeConnick reading from Bitch Planet can be found at the bottom of the page*

“Because we see comics as superhero comics in this country, we have a tendency to be very dismissive of them as adolescent boy fantasies. While there are a number of comics that have well-earned that, I think… I think if we dismiss the potential of popular art, we dismiss the potential of the populace."

CATHERINE MEURISSE 

CATHERINE MEURISSE 

CATHERINE MEURISSE

“I think that in France, the superheroes are not the subjects of comic books – it’s more the authors.”

"I always talked about this. There is no classification of art. At the Charlie Hebdo team, there was no hierarchy. The absence of hierarchy - it’s freedom."

D' DE KABAL

"I started to write rap songs that were 30 or 40 pages..."

"Where there's theater (performance, there's already hip hop. And where there's no theater, there is hip hop too."

DAVID SIMON

"I grew up thinking television was death…Television was empty. So if you had said to me, ‘you’re going to end up being a television writer,’ I would’ve been like, ‘where did I go wrong?’"

CHARLIE HEBDO: ART UNDER ATTACK:

CATHERINE MEURISSE (Translated from the French)

"The attacks on January 7th questioned the position of the illustrator/artist in France, in society, and in the world at large."

"To try to understand: although I believe I will never be able to fully understand and to give a meaning to my life as an artist, I decided to take drawing even more seriously and to continue working on books more than on drawings for the press - the types of works that need slower rhythm to try to dilute my suffering, sorry and melancholy. It's at the heart of my latest graphic novel that was published in the spring in France, called La Légèreté (Lightness). 

"What happened on the 7th - I arrived at the very moment when my friends were being killed. And like my other surviving friends, I tripped into this world of the indescribable, the unspeakable...I really believed that I would never ever be able to draw again. I believed that my drawings had been gunned down with all my friends. In my book, I talk about how I try to re-conquer this desire to draw."

OUT OF CHAOS AND DARKNESS COMES BEAUTY

D'DE KABAL

D'DE KABAL

CATHERINE MEURISSE

"What struck me as being so essential after January 7th, was the search for beauty. And I hung on to that word that I was really searching for so desperately during the whole year of 2015 because I was so convinced that this search for beauty and this amazing aesthetic shock would allow me to erase the shock of January 7th. So for that reason I went to Rome,... I saw the city, I saw Caravaggio... And what happened, in fact, is that I was so convinced that beauty was the opposite of chaos, but then I ended up finding that there is chaos in beauty.

During my first strolls around Rome, I saw marble, dismembered or damaged by time and seeing these damaged bodies, I would see the bodies of my friends. Except there was nothing sordid or morbid about them, because these bodies were also magnificent. So I realized that art is a mediation for me. That s what I talk about in my comic book, because in this media, you can explore anything."

DAVID SIMON

In a "television narrative, they want to keep you coming back, there is comedy... And redemption - redemption is the most oversold thing – and whatever problems we place in front of you by the end, they will be conquered because... That makes you come back in the next hour."

"The only way to liberate yourself from that, the best narrative, the best art lives with the chaos you are describing and also the imperfect politics of the new world."

D' DE KABAL

"In my work, people say I’m very, very dark. But expressing darkness in words, nothing can happen to you. You transform (it) into something you can share. I balance the energy, the darkness."

THE WIRE: A SHOW THAT HELPED MAKE TV THE NEW NOVEL

DAVID SIMON

"Nothing makes people more stupid than money – there’s so much money to be made in the television industry, you gotta to keep your audience."

On The Wire, "we were a little insulated from that... The only time the HBO executives would come to Baltimore is when their plane was on the way to Paris, and then crash. That was it. They never visited. I had more visits for Treme in New Orleans. The Wire? We were sort of an afterthought until we were not. And god bless them, because they let us keep going. We were okay with the idea of not maximizing our audience, which is a reckless way to think about things."

"They got rid of the advertisers. That was a fundamental... You know, when you had to stop every twelve and a half minutes to sell soap and blue jeans and cars…and when you had to keep people in the mood to watch those commercials and buy that stuff – when that was the job of programming, um, you couldn’t be...  You had to get rid of that. And HBO, and not just HBO, but premium cable, the idea of we’re gonna take some portion of subscription money and we’re gonna fund programming with it, and the trick will be, is that you won’t see it anywhere else. We’ll use the naughty words and the naughty bits, and we’ll have a little more violence. And there’s no denying that that was some of the currency."

BEING MALE OR FEMALE IN A MALE-DOMINATED WORLD

CATHERINE MEURISSE: "Me and my female colleagues, we often have to answer the question: “What is it like to be a female comic book author?...personally I don’t draw with [my genitals].”

KELLY SUE DECONNICK: “Women are not new to comics. I can teach any man about power fantasies. Our memory is so incredibly short."

TA-NEHISI COATES: "Even as you try to escape [misogyny], you are within it. But I think it's at least a step ahead to be conscious of it."

D' DE KABAL: "What feminism has created, it's like a big book for us [men] to read, to question ourselves."

DAVID SIMON: My newest project, The Deuce, is "a critique of capitalism, but ultimately it's a deep dive into misogyny."

AFTER THE PANEL - A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID SIMON

*Complete video interview with host Prune Perromat can be viewed at top of page*

ON HONORÉ DE BALZAC AND PROSE WRITING

LSP: "What do you think Balzac would have thought of The Wire?”

DS: “You know what, I’m not sure he would have…he was such a great prose writer and so... Honoré de Balzac, his sympathies were with the ruling class ostensibly, and yet he was so humanistic he couldn’t help but embrace the point of view of everybody he wrote about. That’s what makes those books powerful. And I think, while he was such a good prose writer, he might find some distaste in the shorthand of film. Film is much more reductive in some ways... There’s no interior voice of the writer in film, unless you do voice over. It’s just what’s on the screen. And he may have looked at it and gone, ‘What is this form of storytelling? You know? Can’t you tell a proper novel?’ He might have done that, but I think he would recognize, if I can indulge myself for a moment, I think Balzac would recognize our intent in trying to acquire a city, slice by slice, and have our allegiance be with whoever we’re writing about, regardless of their class or their station in society... Yes, he was welcome in the salons, he was welcome among the ruling class, but when he went down to be with the shopkeepers, he got there. He got there completely. He’s a great writer."


GALLERY

FESTIVAL ALBERTINE: DAY ONE

By Prune Perromat, Cerise Marechaud, Emily Lever and Tricia Woodcome with special thanks to French Morning

The Inaugural Panel: “When Will France Have Its Barack Obama?”

"If you listen to Barack Obama in 2004, in the speech that launched his political career, he said, ‘There’s not a black America. There’s not a white America. There is the United States of America.’ That was a complete lie.” And with that comment, New Yorker columnist Jelani Cobb ended the first night of the third annual Festival Albertine with an apparent provocation.

Were the words that propelled the first African American president to the White House based on a false assumption?  Isn’t dreaming of and longing for change a necessity in forcing major and necessary disruption in societies defined by inequality? For about an hour-and-a-half on Thursday night in New York, panelists aired their views on the Obama presidency and how it came to be, and the possibility of it happening in a very different society - in the old, European nation of France.

Moderated by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the acclaimed author of Between the World and Me, the inaugural panel took place at the Albertine Bookstore in Manhattan in an outpost of the French Embassy. It featured journalists Cobb, Iris Deroeux (Mediapart), sociologist Pap Ndiaye (Sciences Po), and historian Benjamin Stora.

Even as the panelists began their exchange about ideas about race – and to a certain point, class – in France and in America, New Yorkers keen to hear the confab were lined up on Fifth Avenue waiting to get the packed French-American bookstore.

Days before the presidential election, as tensions in America and Europe about race, identity and immigration continue to rise, never has the need for informed, measured voices been so strong.

Here's our wrap of Day One at Festival Albertine.


BARACK OBAMA: THE INFLUENCE IN FRANCE AND AMERICA

Obama: A wake-up call for France?

PAP NYDIAYE

  • "A lot of people think [race] is not an issue in France," but the election of Obama helped finally bring race to the fore."
  • "Why should [there be] a French Obama? Many French people will tell you that this does not matter...that France is colorblind."

Obama and the myth of post-racialism

JELANI COBB:

"What generations of African Americans and African American leaders have tried to point to is the idea of (…) there being a common mutual interest that superseded this idea of race. And so we’ve seen these kind of both of those poles in the last 8 years. When you listen to Barack Obama in 2004, the speech that launched his political career, he said, 'There’s not a black America. There’s not a white America. There is the United States of America.' That was a complete lie, alright? Total lie. But as political rhetoric, it was fascinating because what he was actually doing was appealing to the idea that people could transcend this. That there was this conception of America that could be not beholden or shackled to the idea of one category of people being at the bottom."

American politics' influence on French

BENJAMIN STORA

"American racial identity politics both idealized by the French and used as a way of distancing itself from its own racial politics."

THE DIFFERENT FATES OF CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTS

BENJAMIN STORA

"Unlike in the US, the French fight for civil rights ended in defeat, and in the government turning against antiracism." 

A fight carried out by different people in France and the US

BENJAMIN STORA (TRANSLATED AND PARAPHRASED FROM FRENCH) 

  • In the US, the fight for civil rights was (carried out by African Americans) in the 1960s.
  • In France, the fight for civil rights was carried out by the descendants of Algerian immigrants in the 1980s
  • And the big difference is that in the United States, this fight ends up leading to some progress, whereas in France, the French fight for civil rights in the 1980s ended in defeat and a destruction of the antiracist movement, with the government turning against antiracism.

AFTER THE PANEL

In line with his comments during the discussion, journalist Jelani Cobb told LSP, “In the United States, there is a longing for reconciliation, even if it’s a kind of cheap and easy reconciliation. Americans want to be able to say this is not a racist country.”

A READING WITH JELANI COBB

Below, listen to an exclusive audio recording of Cobb reading an excerpt from his book, The Devil and Dave Chapelle: And Other Essays.


GALLERY