African books in Paris

David Tresilian , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

David Tresilian visits the third edition of the Paris African Book Fair, now well on its way to establishing itself as a major event on the French and European literary calendar

Paris African Book Fair

 

Now in its fourth year and third edition, the Paris African Book Fair has been taking place each year at the town hall of the city’s sixth district since 2021. Judging by the crowds at this year’s Fair, taking place from 15 to 17 March, the event is going from strength to strength, with its mix of African and French publishers and programme of talks and discussions having no difficulty in attracting enthusiastic visitors.

The sixth district municipal offices are opposite the famous 18th-century Church of Saint-Sulpice, a Paris landmark, and near the shopping district of Saint-Germain-des-Près. Lines of people were still in evidence waiting to be admitted to the Fair even an hour before its closing when the Weekly visited, while inside a sprinkling of Francophone Sub-Saharan African publishers and French publishers with African lists were displaying their publications to crowds of eager buyers.

Paris has traditionally been a rite of passage for Francophone African writers looking for exposure abroad, with the French publishing industry often acting as a kind of middleman between African writers and world audiences. While being published in major Francophone African centres such as Dakar or Conakry is obviously important for any African writer, the additional sales that can come from being published in Paris have long been seen as an important source of recognition as well as a route towards translation into other languages.

As if to underline this point, French publishers like Karthala, Harmattan, and Présence Africaine all had stands at the Fair, with these independents being known for their commitment to publishing new work in a range of subject areas from Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the Global South, particularly literature, history, and the social sciences. The larger publisher Gallimard also had a stand, with its well-known Continents Noirs series of literature by Francophone Sub-Saharan African and Diaspora writers generating considerable interest.

However, in addition to these French publishers there was also representation from Sub-Saharan Africa itself, with small houses from Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Cameroun and other countries booking stands or parts of stands for the event. Ivory Coast was the Guest of Honour. Matters of cost and other reasons will have borne heavily on decisions by small African publishers to attend the Fair, and some of them had understandably decided to opt for corners on the stands of larger distributors rather than send staff or large numbers of books in their own right.

Many such stands had a provisional air, but visitors must have felt grateful that their staff had nevertheless decided to throw some books in a suitcase and fly to Paris for the Fair. One of the great unknowns that the African Book Fair may help to answer is what is being published in French and also in other languages in Sub-Saharan Africa and what is the present situation of African publishing.

Harmattan’s well-known Paris bookstore is only yards from the town hall of the city’s sixth district, and it has long functioned as a first port of call for readers interested in writing in French by African authors and writing on the African continent. Karthala also has a bookstore in the Paris 13th district together with a Website guiding readers through its extensive lists that also include many publications on North Africa and the Arab world.

Présence Africaine, still based nearby in the famous Latin Quarter of Paris, almost needs no introduction, having been set up in the French capital by Sub-Saharan African writers and intellectuals in the 1940s to make the literary and other production of the region and Diaspora better known both in Europe and in Africa itself owing to the superior distribution available from France at the time.

The same thing cannot be said about the Sub-Saharan publishers who had made their way to this year’s African Book Fair, however, as their books may not ordinarily be easily accessible, or accessible at all, in France. Probably it was in large part to meet authors and publishers from Africa that so many people had decided to attend the Fair this year and to discover more about Francophone publishing in Africa.

Residents of Paris can browse at Harmattan any day of the week, but the same thing is obviously not true of those African publishers who had come to Paris for this year’s Fair. It is to be hoped that in future years even greater numbers of African publishers and writers will feel able to come to the Fair, possibly with the aid of larger grant programmes or subventions.

 

Events: Another attraction of the Fair this year was the programme of events that had been organised for visitors, with this including talks, roundtable discussions, book signings, and interviews with authors along with art exhibitions and musical performances.

As is so often the case with events of this sort, in order to take in all that was on offer visitors would have had to attend on all three days of the Fair and often be in two places at once since lectures and other meetings were taking place at the same time in rooms in different places in the same building. However, even one day’s visit provided much food for thought, along with a desire to follow up on some of the Fair’s recommendations.

Even at the annual Paris Book Fair, a major professional rendez-vous for the larger Francophone publishing industry, the professional needs of publishers often take second place to the needs of readers, with books being on sale to visitors and events directed as much at them as at editors negotiating rights and other matters. This was particularly the case at the African Book Fair, where the programme of lectures and discussions was notably well attended by the general public.

On the day the Weekly visited, panel discussions were taking place on the similarities and differences between Francophone and Anglophone African literature and new books on responses to climate change in Africa. Earlier panels had discussed the literature of South Africa, the detective story in Africa, and books on allegations of human-rights abuses against former African leaders, with later ones looking in detail at the literature of Guest of Honour Ivory Coast and “the African novel in a changing Africa.”

The authors of six books were waiting for the announcement of this year’s Grand Prix Afrique for Francophone African writing, with shortlisted writers such as Wilfried N’Sondé (for his novel La reine aux yeux de lune), Marc Alexandre Oho Bambe (Souviens-toi de ne pas mourir avant d’avoir aimé) Dibakana Mankessi (Le psychanalyste de Brazzaville), Vincent Lombume Kalimasi (Paroles de perroquet), Dieudonne Niangouna (La mise en papa), and Henri-Michel Yere (Polo kouman Polo parle) all on tenterhooks before the decision of the jury.

N’Sondé was at hand to sign copies of his novel at the Fair, as were dozens of other writers including Benaouda Lebdaï signing his Afrique du Sud: histoire et literature, winner of the Grand Prix de l’Essai Moussa Sow in 2024, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, author of Les Culs-reptiles published in Gallimard’s Continents Noirs Series and also noted at last year’s Fair, and Eugène Ebodé, author most recently of Grand Père Ouidi au Sahel and Administrator of the Chair of African Literature and Art at the Académie Royale du Maroc.

Everyone the Weekly spoke to at the Fair, very often in excellent English despite the Francophone character of the event, emphasised its unique identity as probably the only major African book fair in Europe and certainly the only one able to make use of such stylish, if unfortunately rather small, premises in Paris. The energy was palpable, stallholders and those responsible for marshalling the crowds said, adding that the success of the Fair over the last three years had attracted wider and growing interest both from the French media and from the Francophone media on the African continent.

Speakers at the panel on Francophone and Anglophone African literature spoke interestingly about the similarities and differences between these two sets of work. French academic Redouane Abouddahab introduced the discussion by pointing to the similar themes addressed in the two literatures, from the anti-colonial struggles of the earlier writers to the post-colonial agendas of the later ones, while also pointing to potential differences.

While French colonialism in Africa had supposed itself to be part of a “civilising mission,” imposing the French language and civilisation wherever it went, British colonialism had not seen itself as having any particular cultural role, he said, meaning that the post-independence African writers choosing to write in the formerly colonial languages of French or English had been dealing with a different inheritance, one hoping to eradicate the local culture as far as possible or make it conform to the standards set by France and the other satisfying itself with “indirect rule” and a general absence of cultural proselytism.

Members of the panel considered this and other themes, with Benaouda Lebdaï, earlier on hand for a book signing and himself also a professor at the Université du Mans in France, speaking interestingly on how the two literatures had reacted to these two forms of colonial inheritance.

There were some differences, he said, but these were perhaps outweighed by important similarities, with Francophone and Anglophone writers of different generations both preoccupied by the trauma of foreign occupation, the struggle for independence, the retrieval of cultures and identities submerged or trampled upon by colonialism, and, notably from the 1970s onwards, the onset of disillusionment at the bureaucratic character of African post-colonial regimes apparently more concerned to enrich their supporters than to work for greater democratic participation or sustainable development.

 A comparative approach could detect stimulating similarities in the work of the Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra and the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, despite their different local circumstances and means of expression, Lebdaï said, notably as a result of their interest in cultural retrieval and the restoration of linguistic and cultural identity. It could also draw parallels between the work of the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, author of Nedjma, sometimes seen as the most important Algerian novel published during the country’s War of Independence against France, and that of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who achieved wider international recognition with the award of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the main rooms of the Fair, the stands of Harmattan, Karthala, and Gallimard were attracting considerable interest, as was that of Présence Africaine, with the selection of books on display featuring some by this venerable publisher’s best-known authors, including by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Anta Diop, the West Indian writer Aimé Césaire, and translations of works by Anglophone authors like Eric Williams, Soyinke, and former Ghanian President and theorist of Pan-Africanism Kwame Nkrumah.

Gallimard was presenting publications in its Continents Noirs Series, while Harmattan and Karthala, two of the largest stands at the Fair, were doing a brisk trade in sales of new books and books from their back catalogues.

Editions Frantz Fanon from Algeria also seemed to be doing a brisk trade, notably promoting works by Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Bencheikh, on hand to sign copies of his latest work, and the memoirs of Said Sadi, founder in 1989 of the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie in Algeria and a fixture of social-democratic politics in the country since. A discovery at this stand was Algerian intellectual Mohamed Arkoun’s book on the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, L’aspect réformiste de l’oeuvre de Taha Hussein, published by Editions Frantz Fanon in 2019.

The Moroccan publishers La Croisée des Chemins had set out their recent and older publications in French – it also publishes in Arabic – joining compatriots grouped together as the Collectif de la nouvelle edition marocaine, while Algerian publishers Casbah Editions were presenting some of their catalogue of works in French.

On the schedule of lectures and other events for the other days of the Fair there were intriguing events that many visitors must have wished they could have found time for, including on the African rights market and problems of distribution on the first day of the Fair and special sessions on the Martinique writer Aimé Césaire and the Congolese writer and former Prime Minister of Congo-Brazzaville Henri Lopes on the last.

    

Salon du Livre Africain de Paris, Mairie du 6ème arrondissement, Paris, 15-17 March.

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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