In July 2007, freshly-elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave an important speech in Dakar, Senegal, in which he quoted Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.
One could discuss for hours how politicians use poetry as proof of their (so-called) high level of education. During my studies in Political Science, I even wanted to write my master’s thesis on this topic, but my director’s look made me choose a more...realistic topic.
The fact remains, however, that our ex-president (and his then pen, Henri Guaino) obviously didn’t have the right words of his own to describe the trauma of the slave trade in front of Senegalese people. Yet, maybe poetry was above all, from his viewpoint, a way of diminishing the importance of this topic, making it more emotional, subjective, literary (fictive?) The following sentences were far sharper, when he said that “The African Man has not stepped enough yet into History… Africa’s problem is that it lives its present too much in the nostalgia of lost paradise and childhood… In this imagined world, where everything starts again endlessly, there is no place for human adventure or for progress.”
Wow, wait, did he really say THIS?
Well, yes, actually he did…
In 2016, when Le Printemps des Poètes decided to focus, for its 19th edition, on African French-speaking poetry, we were afraid that the thousands of people who take part in this two-week festival in France and abroad (teachers, librarians, publishers…) may be befuddled by this theme, because of the lack of publishing houses focusing on African poetry. This may be a sign that French publishers, consciously or unconsciously, agree with Sarkozy’s words. But it may also be a sign that African poetry needs recognition, and that its lack of visibility is not linked to some nostalgia and childhood brooding. To be honest, a few days before the beginning of the festival, what I heard told me that we had achieved something great, and that people in France were really waiting for this kind of event, and eager to promote African creations. This edition of the Printemps des Poètes may be one of the most rich, intense and exciting ones, and we thank all the organizers for it.
So, what about African poetry in France?
One must know that, when it comes to Mediterranean African poetry, it is very well-represented in French publications, with classic authors like Jean Sénac, Jamel Eddine Bencheikh, Abdelwahab Meddeb and, of course, Kateb Yacine. Further east, I could write for hours about Andrée Chedid or Joyce Mansour, two Egyptian women who (for a change) are as famous as male authors like Edmond Jabès.
When it comes to modern authors, the names of Tahar ben Jelloun, Abdellatif Laâbi or Tahar Bekri are the first that come to my mind.
And as for French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, the one called “Black Africa,” that of the West, which people used to call “Françafrique” for a long time, the major authors were and are Léopold Sédar Senghor, Birago Diop, Tchicaya U Tam’si, Bernard Dadié…
And what about women in all these lists?
If you understand French, I cannot but not recommend that you read Ce que vivent les femmes d’Afrique (What African Women Live, Panama, 2008), written by brilliant Ivorian poetess, Tanella Boni, whom I already talked about in a previous article (“Interview with Soro Solo”). I also recommend Elles (Lanskine, 2016) by Kouam Tawa, a Cameroonian poet and playwright we invited to France for two months, in February and March. She wrote:
“I wish I could have gone somewhere else. To speak languages I do not know. To understand choices that astonish me. I wish I could have gone somewhere else. Somewhere else. Somewhere else. In this hole I was born, in this hole I grew up and in this hole I live. Like my grand-mother, who was born in the village, who grew up in the village, who lived in the village. Will I die in this hole?”
Publishing modern African poets in France is, to be honest, a form of courage, happily illustrated by houses such as Présence Africaine, Le Seuil, Continent Noir/Gallimard, Al Manar, Bruno Doucey… One must notice that, since 2011, Le Printemps des Poètes finds invaluable support in the work of Bruno Doucey’s publishing house. It is, also, the house with which we published Versopolis booklets last year. This house publishes, every year, an anthology dedicated to our festival and focusing on the theme we promote (Insurrection in 2015, At the heart of arts in 2014, Voices of the poem in 2013…). Through 300 pages, readers discover or rediscover dozens of poems, authors, and viewpoints dispatched according to cleverly-conceived chapters. These anthologies are very helpful to the many people who organize events during the festival.
This year, the anthology is called 120 nuances d’Afrique (120 Shades of Africa). No other whipping intention here, but that of European prejudices against African creations. The book offers a panorama of African poetry chosen by Bruno Doucey, Christian Poslaniec and Nimrod, a major Malian poet whose last books were published by Gallimard and Doucey (the second one is a great novel about South-African poetess, Ingrid Jonker).
According to Bruno Doucey, “To publish today an anthology of African poetries (plural is required), means to inscribe oneself in a debate, an intellectual and human adventure, which rejoices at accomplished progresses and distrusts ambushed regressions.”
“Staying the course of hope,” the “three mariners’ mad of world poetry...seek the African continent and islands, from the Atlantic to the Indian, where African cultures scattered.”
A vast program, to which they added a real will to promote African poetesses, in spite of the lack of recognition, if not hostility, they face in their own countries and which led some of them to leave their homeland for other shores.
Let us talk, for instance, about Ketty Nivyabandi. Ketty was born in Burundi in the late 70s. She writes poetry and has become the leader of a movement for female emancipation in her homeland. Considered as persona non grata there, she found asylum elsewhere in Africa, and now in North America. Her Instagram account reveals the extent to which women’s status is her first object of concern. In late January, her account was full of posts a re-posts of photographs, some funny and some moving, of the international “Women’s March,” which became anti-Trump demonstrations.
“Girls just wanna have FUNdamental rights” (seen on a Polish Instapic).
Apart from multiple events which will focus on African poetry, Le Printemps des Poètes invites three authors to a residency within the city of Paris. They spend two months at the Cité Internationale des Arts, at the heart of the historical Marais quarter and by the Seine. These authors will write, perhaps rest and meet a lot of different audiences, including pupils in libraries, cultural centers and museums. This year, they are Ismaël Savadogo, born in 1982 in Ivory Coast, Kouam Tawa, born in 1974 in Cameroon and Harmonie Dodé Byll Catarya, born in 1991 in Benin, a young and famous slammer. They will be supported by three African poets living in France: Gabriel Mwéné Okoundji, Nimrod et Tanella Boni.
These three residents will also take part in a major event, which will take place at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, the aim of which is “to give recognition to non-Western arts in national French museums.” In its auditorium, and in the company of Alain Mabanckou, Véronique Tadjo, Tanella Boni and Abdourahman Ali Waberi, these authors will talk about their vision of poetry, of African creation during two hours hosted by Soro Solo, a major Ivorian journalist who produces a broadcast on France inter, the most important French radio station. Solo will also, with his accomplices Vladimir Cagnolari and Hortense Volle, organize the great “Enchanted Africa’s Ball,” dedicated to African music and culture, during which they will speak and sing poems for the end of the festival, and the Cabaret sauvage, on March the 19th.
This year, Le Printemps des Poètes will be also supported by film director Abderrahmane Sissako (his movie, Timbuktu, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, and won 7 Césars in France). It is an honor to have these two great figures with us this year, and we hope that, thanks to them, poetry (and especially African poetry) will have more visibility in France.
I have already talked about Tanella Boni. She is a poetess from Ivory Coast, she lives in the south of France and is a professor of philosophy. She wrote a lot of books, some of them for children, and this year she offered us a short poem for a special initiative we launched four years ago. “PhotoPoème” is dedicated to pupils and their teachers, and it invites them to create an artistic common work, of which they would take a photo that echoes a poem. For the first years, we asked Zeno Bianu, Maram al-Masri and Yvon Le Men to write or offer us a poem they hadn’t written for the youth, and we asked kids if they could find inspiration in these texts. We received hundreds of pictures, and published them. So this year we asked Tanella if she would take part in this fourth adventure and, to conclude this article, here is the poem she agreed to offer:
Like a blue bird
Bearing multicolored seeds
In a dying day
I walk with head and words up
in a forest of lianas
on a cobweb
poem is my initiation name
hope my star-broker code
From Jusqu'au souvenir de ton visage (Alfabarre 2011)