Saturday, 13 May 2017

LISTENING TO JAMES BALDWIN AND RAOUL PECK IN PARIS

By Claire Oberon Garcia

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro opened in Paris this month to a sold-out and diverse audience at L’Arlequin Cinema on the city’s Left Bank.

The powerful film takes an innovative approach to presenting James Baldwin’s life and ideas, avoiding “talking heads” and using only words from his own writing along with archival film footage and clips from the Hollywood movies that Baldwin discussed as exemplifying certain enduring pathologies of American culture.

The filmmaker was in attendance, along with James Baldwin’s nephew and members of the film crew, and the silence of the packed hall was remarkable, almost as if everyone were all in a collective trance.

As Baldwin would pause, for example, in an interview with Dick Cavett to search for just the right entrance point into a response to a question, the audience collectively held its breath.

Save for a few moments of quiet, bitter laughter at points later in the film, the audience was quietly absorbed by Baldwin’s words and the powerful and often violent visual images. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice - almost unrecognizable - respectfully brought Baldwin’s characteristic very personal but formal rhetoric to life.

Images from the present constantly infiltrated Baldwin’s words and archival visuals: footage of
civil rights protestors being beaten in the streets cut to the National Guard in Ferguson treating protestors with an almost mechanical contempt; black and white photos of lynched people juxtaposed with recent family photos of black children who have been killed by police; a litany of aural apologies by various officials and statesmen, including President Donald Trump, overlaid scenes of past and present indifference to humanity.

Writer James Baldwin, in the film.
Despite the film’s emphasis on broader social forces and problems, it also conveyed a sense of Baldwin’s individuality and vision: his development from a bright, curious Harlem boy with bad teeth to a celebrated intellectual who nevertheless always felt himself to be an outsider, a self-described witness to social change rather than a participant in it, who seemed startled to receive a standing ovation by hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates after winning a debate against the aristocratic American right-wing critic William F. Buckley.

The audience gave the film a standing ovation that lasted until the end of the credits, after which Peck spent nearly an hour answering questions from the audience.

Interest in Baldwin’s work has only recently been revived. Peck described the impact that reading Baldwin at age 17 or 18 had on him, and declared that the motivation for making this film was to help make sure that Baldwin’s ideas were not lost to future generations.

When asked by a young woman in the audience whether or not the film had any message for France, Peck declared that Baldwin’s critique isn’t just of the United States, but addresses any society that does not respect various aspects of human difference, including immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation.

Raoul Peck
The film made clear that Baldwin’s incisive analysis of the pathology of U.S. racism is still relevant today, and that today’s increasingly polarized West is badly in need of his brand of intelligent, righteous humanism.

Claire Oberon Garcia is an author and a professor of literature, race and migration studies at Colorado College in the United States. She is co-editor of the book From Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Help.

Monday, 8 May 2017

FRANCE: AIMING TO CHANGE MINDS WITH ‘US AND THEM’

On a day when the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron beat his far-right opponent  to win the French presidential elections, a museum in the Trocadéro area of Paris was packed with young visitors - a symbol of the results.

They had come to see “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), a daring exhibition - for France - that has been prompting dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

From the exhibition: how do we categorize others?
Launched in the run-up to the vote, and under the patronage of UNESCO, the exhibition’s aim has been clear from the outset: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective - especially in a climate of divisive politics.

“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” said Bruno David, president of France’s National Museum of Natural History and of its anthropology branch the Musée de l’Homme, which is hosting the exhibition.

“That’s the objective. What we’re doing is in the tradition of the museum, a humanist tradition, asking questions of society,” he told journalists during the opening at the end of March.

Many observers have been wondering how France reached the stage of having an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of presidential elections, as happened in 2002.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party (she temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 34.3 percent of the votes in the final round on May 7, against Macron's 65.7 percent. She had campaigned on a blistering anti-immigration and anti-globalization platform.

Views similar to hers, seen as promoting division and fear of the “other”, have especially caused concern among institutions with a commitment to human rights and equality, as the museum says it is.

“The first network of the Resistance [during World War II] was born here,” David said in an interview at the museum, which opened in 1937 and is located in the landmark buildings of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

“The exhibition is in line with our principles. It is not militant, because we’re a museum and our approach is scientific, but it is fairly courageous, especially during this time,” he continued.

Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in ready-made representations and to divide them into categories”.

Museum workers set up the exhibits.
It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives”. 

The curators have arranged the display into three parts, focusing on what they call the processes of "categorization", as well as on the historical development of institutional racism and on the current political and intellectual environment.

“It is natural to categorize,” says Evelyne Heyer, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of genetic anthropology. “But it’s the moral value that we give to differences that determine if we’re racist or not. It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.”

Heyer says that based on genetic study, humans have fewer differences among them than breeds of dogs, for example, and that the “categorization of race is inappropriate to describe diversity”.

A panel at "Nous et les Autres".
The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin colour vary” and it presents information tracing the origins of humankind to the African continent.

Apart from the scientific aspect, the curators have put much emphasis on the historical and international facets of “racialization”, focusing for instance on Nazi Germany and the “exaltation of racial purity”; the treatment of the indigenous Ainu people in Japan; the divisions between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; and segregation in South Africa and the United States.

As on election day, the exhibits have sparked sober discussion. During the opening night, for instance, as people crowded in front of a screen showing footage of civil rights struggles in the United States, a Paris-based African American artist commented, “I remember that so well.”

When a French spectator responded, “But you don’t look that old”, the artist stated firmly: “I am. I was there,” and so a conversation began.

The entrance to the exhibition.
The curators are hoping that the exhibition will prompt long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics, who also wonder about the display's target audience: who exactly is "us" or "them"?

Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.

It provides information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with “North-African-sounding” names often don’t receive responses to letters), as well as figures showing that the population most subjected to racism in the country are the Roma.

“Racism is difficult to measure, but many studies have been done on access to employment and on people’s views of those they consider different,” says historian and co-curator Carole Reynard-Paligot. “We want people to see these statistics and to ask questions.”

She said that she and her colleagues also wished to show the move from individuals’ racism to state racism, to examine how this developed and the part that colonization and slavery have played.

 A view from the exhibition: how to live together?
Throughout the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 8, 2018, the museum is organizing lectures, film screenings and other events. 

From May 10 to July 10, it is presenting works by a group of photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is in observance of the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and abolition.

Meanwhile, other museums are also taking steps to counter the anti-immigration mindset. The Paris-based Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they voted.

This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, said that the Sunday free access would be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.

It was also a chance to “discover ... the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum added. - A.M.

For an earlier version of this article, please see the Inter Press Service (IPS) site: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/in-france-us-and-them-amid-elections/

Saturday, 22 April 2017

FILM REVIEW: QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY AND BELONGING

By Dimitri Keramitas

As the issue of identity becomes an increasingly global one, filmmakers are delving into how characters navigate troubled cultural, national and economic divides to remain true to who they are - or merely to fit in.

Family Member, Cyprus’ contribution to the recent “Week of Foreign Cinema in Paris”, is one such film. It has been making the rounds at international festivals, where the questions it raises have resonated with audiences. 

How does one fit in? A scene from Family Member.
Interestingly, none of the characters in Marinos Kartikkis’ movie is in fact “foreign” within the context of that divided country - they’re all Greek-Cypriot.

The catalyzing figure is an old man who worms his way into a Cypriot family (in Greek, the word for foreigner, xeno, can also refer to any outsider or stranger). Theodoros perturbs the family’s ways at first, and is barely tolerated. But gradually he makes himself accepted and liked, becoming a genuine “family member” (and also humanizing the others, who’d all seemed wrapped up in themselves).

The film begins as grim domestic and social tragedy. Yorgos (Christopher Greco) is a convenience shop-owner struggling to survive in a depressed economy. He tries to be lenient towards customers who can’t pay right away. In any case he doesn’t have much choice: He can either hope for deferred payment, or do without their business altogether.

Yorgos’ wife, Sophia (Yiola Klitou), tries to hold the family’s domestic economy together, but her children nag her for cash or the material things that Western kids normally take for granted. The family gets by with the aid of her aged father’s pension. The father lives with the family, which means that aside from the monetary contribution, he can help care for Yorgos and Sophia’s young son. One day he dies peacefully in his bed, which is not only a personal loss but a financial one - the precious monthly pension.

Out of desperation, Sophia gets the idea to keep the pension money coming by pretending that her father is still alive. After the unrelenting social tone, Kartikkis surprises us by sliding into blackly humorous melodrama, sort of like Shallow Grave or any number of prankish indie films. But the social context makes the plot creepily plausible. Sophia tries to persuade her husband to go along, and his horrified reaction lends more plausibility before he agrees to take the old man’s body to the cemetery for a secret burial. Even the children are brought into the family plot (in every sense of the word).

When Yorgos later catches an old man shoplifting, he pounces on him like an avenging angel but relents from turning him over to the police after the old man’s pleading and the compassionate urging of Sophia. She also sees in the man another way to further her scheme. Soon the old man is staying at their home, not only assisting in the pension scam, but trying to be useful or at least keep out of everyone’s way. The relationships between Theodoros and the family members become more complex, sympathetic and human. But questions about his past life arise, the family plot thickens, and the narrative moves in unexpected ways.

Family Member’s director, a US-trained painter and art teacher, films in a careful way, sometimes stately, other times nearly static. The four-square style plonks the camera in front of the action, which is framed in relative close-up. It’s an austere technique recalling the French director Robert Bresson, except here the aim isn’t spiritual or iconic, but rather brings out characters pressurized by external constraints. One shot feeds into the next fluidly, keeping the film from feeling oppressive, although oppressiveness is the dominant tone.

A "family" dinner in the movie.
The director’s sober filming eventually wavers (which comes as a bit of a relief), with a few headlong pans and vertiginous angles, but he never loses control. The Cypriot setting lends itself to his style. 

Although the island is situated in the Mediterranean’s southern reaches, geographically more Middle Eastern than European, with palm trees decorating the landscape, the urban backdrop seems austere, evoking the island’s history as Crusader bastion, Frankish fief, and British colony. This is also reflected in the characters, all solidly portrayed by a talented cast. Christopher Greco and Yiola Klitou especially bring restrained power to their put-upon characters.

In the end, Theodoros turns out to be more foreign than he first appeared - not just another Cypriot retiree, but someone who’d spent much of his life in England. He comes to represent a different financial reality, from more normal times (just as Sophia’s father, with his pension, had). For people in countries struck by burst bubbles and failed austerity policies, economic normalcy has become a paradise lost. The characters in Family Member find some material consolation, but more importantly they regain their humanity in the process.

What the director illustrates in a cogent manner is how the prolonged economic crises in Cyprus and Greece have stressed not only society and family bonds, but the sense of identity. Parents unable to provide for their families, forced into degrading or dubious undertakings, see their self-image as breadwinners or proper middle-class people fray. Likewise, one’s acquaintances, colleagues, and customers become transformed into adversaries. The most banal government officials are seen as nefarious oppressors. Although Family Member doesn’t deal explicitly with migrants or refugees, the film is a powerful depiction of how in a time of crisis everyone becomes an Other - even oneself.

Production: AB Seahorse Film Production. Distribution: Homemade Movies (Cyprus). 

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and award-winning writer based in Paris.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

HAVANA TO STAGE INT’L JAZZ DAY’S GLOBAL CONCERT


The “musically vibrant and culturally rich city” of Havana, Cuba, will host the main concert of this year’s International Jazz Day, to be celebrated worldwide on April 30, according to the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In a joint announcement, the agency’s director-general Irina Bokova and American jazz musician Herbie Hancock (a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) said that the Day will culminate with an All-Star Global Concert presented at the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso.

The Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso
The show will take place under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture of Cuba, the Cuban Institute of Music and the Cuban National Commission for UNESCO, and it will be live streamed by the UN agency.

Hancock and legendary Cuban musician Chucho Valdés will serve as the artistic directors of the Global Concert, while U.S. pianist, arranger and composer John Beasley and Cuban pianist Emilio Vega will be the musical co-directors. The show will also feature an “extraordinary array of artists from around the world paying tribute to the international art form of jazz”, UNESCO says.

The list of performers include Richard  Bona, Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller and Esperanza Spalding of the United States; Till Brönner of Germany; A Bu of China; Igor Butman of the Russian Federation; Takuya Kuroda of Japan; Dhafer Youssef  of Tunisia; and many others.

“UNESCO is proud to be associated once again with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, as well as with the Instituto Cubano de la Música, to raise the flag for jazz, for freedom, for creativity, for diversity and for unity,” Bokova said in a statement. “This year’s focus on Cuba is testament to the power of jazz to build bridges and join women and men together around shared values and aspirations.”

The Global Concert's Musical Co-Director John Beasley.
(Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
The aim of International Jazz Day - now in its sixth edition - is to highlight the “power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity”, UNESCO says.

It also seeks to "promote intercultural dialogue through respect and understanding”, and to unite people from “all corners of the globe”.

Throughout the day, numerous musicians and educators from Cuba and around the world will participate in a range of free jazz performances, master classes, improvisational workshops, jam sessions and community outreach initiatives, the agency says.

“Programs will take place at schools, arts venues, community centers, jazz clubs and parks across the city of Havana and throughout Cuba beginning on Monday, April 24th and leading up to the festivities on April 30th,” according to UNESCO.

The organizers said that these programs “will be among the thousands of International Jazz Day live performances, educational activities, and community service programs taking place in more than 190 countries on all continents”.

A scene from last year's Jazz Day.
(Photo: S. Mundinger)
Speaking about the day and Havana’s role, Hancock said: “Afro-Cuban jazz and its rich history have played a pivotal role in the evolution and enrichment of the entire jazz genre. The incomparable trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie along with beloved Cuban musicians Mario Bauzá, Machito and Chano Pozo, infused American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms to create a brand new, energetic sound that defined modern music.”

The Havana show comes five months after the death of former Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro, and after that of jazz vocalist Al Jarreau who performed in earlier events.

Last year, the Global Concert took place at the White House, hosted by then President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

For an article and interviews about the 2016 event, please click on the following link to INPS news:

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

FRANCE HOSTS MAJOR EXHIBITION ON JAMAICAN MUSIC

It’s one of those movie-like spring days in Paris, where blue skies and brilliant sunshine lift spirits after a long, wet, grey winter. Many people are outdoors trying to catch the rays, but Jamaican artist Danny Coxson is not among them.  He’s inside a museum in a northeastern neighbourhood of the French capital, with a brush in his hand and tubs of vivid paint beside him, focusing on finishing a portrait of a deejay named Big Youth.

Artist Danny Coxson and Curator Sebastien Carayol.
Coxson’s artwork - colourful and precise renditions of Jamaica’s best known musicians - is the “common thread” that links the vast range of items on display in Jamaica Jamaica!, France’s first major exhibition on the history and impact of Jamaican music.

Raised in Trench Town, like Bob Marley, 55-year-old Coxson has been painting since he was a young man, but he says he didn’t take it seriously until he was in his early thirties, when he lost three fingers through a machete incident in 1991. Since then, he has devoted his career to painting murals of Jamaica’s singers, producers and sound engineers, holding his paintbrush in the remaining fingers of his right hand.

Through a grant from the Institut français cultural agency, Coxson has been artist-in-residence in Paris since February, painting murals and portraits for the massive exhibition. On this day, he’s an island of calm in the museum, as workers rush around, finalizing the display for the public opening on April 4.

“This exhibition is a good thing for us Jamaicans,” Coxson says in an interview. “But we have to wake up about our own culture because sometimes we don’t value it enough. And look at how people come from so far and take it up.”

Jamaican music and artistic production have contributed greatly to the island’s cultural and economic development, but this is sometimes overlooked, Coxson says. Artists like him don’t receive enough official support, but perhaps the international spotlight will lead to greater local recognition of the role the arts play in development.

The Jamaica Jamaica! show is being held at the Philharmonie de Paris, a cultural institution at Paris’ immense Cité de la Musique complex. The Philharmonie focuses on music in all its forms and comprises state-of-the-art auditoriums, exhibition spaces, and practise rooms. It had long wanted to host an exhibition about Jamaican music, says Marion Challier, exhibition project manager.

“But we wanted to show the culture as well as the music and to show that Jamaican music is an important part of the history of the Black Atlantic,” she adds. “There are so many stereotypes about the music and so many stigmas attached and we wanted to go beyond that.”

For the organizers, including curator Sébastien Carayol, it was important to show the African roots of the music and to shine a spotlight on its early forms, such as kumina and mento, as well as on ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall. “It was essential for us that the exhibition wasn’t just about Bob Marley,” Challier says.

Photos of Bob Marley are a key part of the display.
Items about Jamaica’s most famous musician, and his band-mates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, naturally form a significant part of the exhibition, but the show delves into the island’s “complex history” and the role that music has played throughout.

According to the organizers, “The branches of Jamaican music reach as widely as those of jazz or blues, and its roots dig deep into the days of slavery, tracing back to traditional forms of song and dance inherited from the colonisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Still, “what many people don’t know is that since the 1950s, inventions in Jamaican music - born out of the ‘do-it-yourself’ ingenuity pulsing through the ghettos of Kingston - have laid the foundations for most modern-day urban musical genres, giving rise to such fixtures of todayʼs musical lingo as ‘DJ’, ‘sound system’, ‘remix’, ‘dub’, etc.”

The Philharmonie adds that: “Jamaican music is anything but one-dimensional. Often placed under the heading ‘World Music’, it is so popular around the globe that it could be called the ‘World’s Music’”.

Carayol, the curator, says that a particular interest for him was to show the “legendary sound systems” that have been an intrinsic part of 20th-century Jamaican culture. The exhibition has assembled original “sound-system” speakers, or "mobile discos", dating from the 1950s and 1960s, for instance. Many of these had been discarded, and it was thanks to collectors who “rescued” them that they can now be displayed.

Coxson and Exhibition Project Manager Marion Challier.
In fact, one huge speaker box was being used as a bench in somebody’s yard when a collector from the United Kingdom spotted it and managed to get it renovated, according to Carayol. It’s currently back in working order.

These sound systems lend themselves to the interactive nature of parts of the exhibition. Visitors are invited, for instance, to take a stint as the “selector”, to spin records, “turn up the volume and feel” their own sound “delivered by a world-class sound system custom built by sonic master Paul Axis”.

In other spaces, visitors get to learn about the famed Alpha Boys School, where orphans or other disadvantaged youth were groomed to become musicians at an institution run by Roman Catholic nuns in Kingston.

The School has had its own band since the 1890s, and its alumni have influenced the development of both ska and reggae, according to historians. The four founding members of the Skatalites group (Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Johnny "Dizzy" Moore and Lester Sterling) were “Alpha boys”, and the exhibition includes a vibrant mural of the group - painted by Coxson.

Musical instruments from the Skatalites.
“These young men overcame their beginnings and became truly proficient musicians,” says Carayol. “That story is very important to me. It’s a universal story.”

The School will have tee-shirts on sale to raise funds for its continued operation, following fears that it would have to be closed in the future.

Jamaica Jamaica! also includes paintings of personalities often mentioned in reggae lyrics, such as Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and visitors can listen to records that mention these political figures.

“Through installation, artwork, recordings, film - we’re trying to explain who everyone is,” says Carayol.

Asked why he, a Frenchman, was the curator of the exhibition, Carayol said the “simple” reason was: “You spend three years writing a project and it has to be written in French.”

Beyond that he has the “interest and the expertise,” he said, having spent years researching and directing films about the music. “The last thing I want is to be an outsider looking in and telling Jamaican people about themselves. I’m here for them to teach us and not the other way around. That’s my main focus,” he emphasized.

For Jamaicans who lived through the turbulent 1970s, an aspect of the exhibition that will strike a particular chord is the connection between the music and politics, and this is presented in a number of ways. There are the songs that came out of that period, rare film footage, and iconic photographs of the famed One Love Peace Concert, when Marley tried to bring together warring factions aligned with politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga.

The so-called “rod of correction” used by then prime minister Manley is on display too. Manley gained support from the island’s Rastafarian community partly by claiming that Haile Selassie had given him this rod, or walking stick. And though that claim was later debunked, the “rod” remains the stuff of legend.

Both Manley and Marley are depicted in artwork throughout the exhibition, in paintings by some of Jamaica’s most celebrated artists, including the late Barrington Watson. Many pieces are on loan from the National Gallery of Jamaica and from private collectors on the island and in the United States and Britain.

Artwork by Danny Coxson at the exhibition.
“One of the big surprises was learning about the art,” Carayol says. “It’s an evocation of the music, and I want to show these artists to people who don’t know about them.”

The expected 150,000 visitors probably won’t forget Coxson, as his paintings of the island’s talented musicians and of renowned Jamaican poet Louise Bennett put these personalities resolutely centre stage.

(Photos and text - copyright AM / SWAN)

"Jamaica Jamaica!" runs from April 4 to August 13, 2017. It includes a "Jamaica Weekend" with concerts, workshops and lectures. For another version of this article, please visit the Inter Press news agency site:

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

PARIS BOOK FAIR SHOWCASES ‘RICHNESS’ OF DIVERSITY

Long lines of people waiting to speak to an author. Children sitting on the floor immersed in their reading. An African Nobel Prize laureate giving his views on subjects ranging from literature to retirement. A presidential candidate surrounded by throngs of reporters and young people. Books and writers from all over the world.

Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka at Paris Livre.
The sense of excitement at the 2017 Paris Book Fair (Paris Livre) demonstrated once more that books are still important to a great number of people. During the four-day event, March 24-27, some sessions were so crowded that visitors found it difficult to move from stand to stand.

The interest shown by readers and high-profile visitors such as French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was good news for the event's organizers, as well as for the publishers from 50 countries and the nearly 3,000 authors attending the Fair.

“It’s a great opportunity to connect with readers,” said Rodney Saint-Éloi, a Canada-based Haitian poet, publisher and founder of the company Mémoire d’Encrier.

He said he had been coming to the Fair since 1989 and that it had grown in diversity, which was contributing to its “richness”.

An expanded African Literature pavilion, for instance, hosted a wide range of events, with participants who included Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Along with the interviews of authors, the discussions included topics about women’s intellectual work to achieve change, diaspora writing, and the issue of translation of African languages.

Canada-based Haitian publisher Rodney Saint-Eloi.
Translation, in fact, was a significant theme of the Fair, which is one of the world’s leading events for literature in French.

Saint-Éloi said that throughout the Caribbean, for example, much more needs to be done to make books accessible in the region’s languages: French, English, Spanish, Dutch and different Creoles.

“What’s really lacking is translation, and for this we have to change the previous routes,” he told SWAN. “The islands need to speak to one another directly without passing through former colonial administrations.”

Saint-Éloi said he hoped to see a multi-island space for Caribbean writing in future editions of international book fairs. Traditionally, France’s overseas departments and territories have had their own pavilion, which includes writers from Martinique and Guadeloupe, but several visitors were on the lookout for a “pan-Caribbean” stand this year.

Canadian author Tristan Malavoy.
Many of the books by Haitian as well as French-speaking African writers were on sale at Canada’s Québec pavilion, where Saint-Éloi displayed works from his publishing house.

Acclaimed Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière, who writes in French and was elected to the Académie française in 2013, was on hand to present his novels and range of children’s books, but the stand equally highlighted new voices in Canadian fiction. These included Vietnamese author Caro Vu and the multi-talented Tristan Malavoy, who signed copies of his award-winning book Le Nid de Pierres (The Nest of Stones).

“The fair is a very rich, if overwhelming, experience,” Malavoy said. “The range of literature and the number of visitors really create an impact that’s unforgettable.”

This year, Morocco was the Fair's guest of honour, and writers from the North African country had their books on display in a strikingly designed ivory-coloured pavilion, next to a restaurant set up under a traditional tent featuring Moroccan furniture and implements: round brass tables, wooden stools, silver teapots. Visitors could eat tajine or couscous and sip mint tea while they read the books they’d bought.

One of the literary stars was naturally Moroccan-French writer Leila Slimani, who won the prestigious Goncourt prize in 2016 for her novel Chanson douce. She livened up a discussion with her views on women's rights and other subjects. The perennial attraction of the Fair, however, is not only the chance to meet the famous, but also to discover new books and writers. Along with the Moroccan pavilion, this was particularly true of the large section devoted to independent publishers from the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris.

Dominique Falkner's Mojado.
The pavilion housed about 100 small publishers this year, offering novels translated from Yiddish, beautifully bound poetry collections, Brazilian stories translated into French, and books about relevant subjects written in new ways.

Publisher Envolume, for instance, presented Mojado by French-born, Florida-based writer Dominique Falkner. This novel centres on a Mexican mother and daughter trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and on a companion in search of a father. It shows how the trek brings the participants together, and Falkner himself undertook similar journeys to research the story. He said he started writing “way before” the current anti-immigration U.S. government took office.

Meanwhile, another independent publisher, Plein Jour, showcased a book about the true story of five members of the Black Liberation Army (including Jean and Melvin McNair) who hijacked a plane flying from Detroit to Miami in 1972 with 82 passengers on board. The plane landed in Miami, where the hostages were released. But the hijackers, accompanied by their children, carried on to Algeria, after ransom money was “delivered” to the aircraft. The perpetrators were arrested and later released in Algeria, and some made it to France where they continued living, after various court cases that highlighted the dehumanizing aspects of racism in the United States and the factors that pushed them to act.

Author Sylvain Pattieu, a French historian, novelist and lecturer, tells this story in an original manner, with short passages mixing fact and imagination and showing the effects of the hijacking on the lives of those involved. The book, titled Nous avons arpenté un chemin caillouteux (We’ve traversed a stony path), was one of the many unexpected discoveries at this year’s increasingly varied Paris Livre. (SWAN)

Saturday, 18 March 2017

FAREWELL TO DEREK WALCOTT, THE MASTER OF POETRY

“So, tell me about the book,” he said. “Who published it?”

When I told him the name of the publisher, he joked: “And how much they paying for an advance these days? I hope you got a few pounds.”

Derek Walcott in 2012
 (Photo: Centro Culturale di Milano)
That made me laugh. The advance was not worth mentioning, but I was happy the book was out. Still, what was there to say about a first collection of stories to a Nobel Prize winner?

Later, another writer assured me that this particular laureate, Derek Walcott, was genuinely interested in the work of young authors. He had in fact lent his support to several up-and-coming writers in his homeland St. Lucia and other Caribbean countries.

His graciousness stood in contrast to the star treatment that he was receiving at this conference on Caribbean literature, organized by Italian scholar Luigi Sampietro. We were in Milan, in the early Nineties, and everyone hung onto Walcott’s words. Applause broke out at his every utterance. It was surreal to be sharing a table, not only with him, but also with Guyanese writers Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen and with Jamaican prize-winning author Olive Senior.

Walcott mixed erudition and humour, and he elicited laughter by constantly murmuring asides in patois. When I offered to translate the speech of a Spanish-speaking fellow writer, he said teasingly: “You sure you know enough Spanish for that?”

He was right, and I was happy when someone in the audience - who was truly fluent - volunteered to do the translation. Walcott had studied languages (Spanish, French and Latin) in Jamaica, at the University of the West Indies, so he probably could have done the interpreting himself.

At dinner that evening, he and his partner Sigrid Nama displayed unfailing good-humour and consideration towards our hosts and other guests, who got an insight into both his poetry and his personality. At the time, Walcott was working on a musical play with singer Paul Simon, and he was frank about the challenges of the project - which would reach the theatre several years later.

Asked about working with the music icon, Walcott didn’t use the opportunity to laud his own contribution, instead he was quick to praise Simon’s efforts, noting how difficult theatre work could be. In addition to being a poet and painter, he was a playwright, and he had full experience of the field.

Most people know of the magnificent legacy Walcott has left with his work, and many will also have heard of the allegations over the years, which should be openly addressed. But perhaps fewer realise the memories that will last of Walcott’s unexpected wit and his grace. – A.M.

On March 19 in Paris, France, writers will pay homage to Walcott’s work at the Poétiques de Résistance event organized by the Institut du Tout-Monde, an organization founded by another acclaimed Caribbean writer, the late Édouard Glissant: http://www.tout-monde.com/poetiquesresistancesmars2017.html

For a complete profile of Walcott, and obituary, please see the New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/books/derek-walcott-dead-nobel-prize-literature.html

Monday, 13 March 2017

A WRITER SPEAKS OF CHILDHOOD SPENT IN ‘DIRTY WAR’

Laura Alcoba is an Argentine-born writer and translator who lives in Paris, France. Her first book, Manèges (The Rabbit House), described Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s from a child’s perspective, when even the very young knew what could happen “if your political sympathies drew the attention of the dictatorial military regime”. Thousands were killed, tortured, and abducted, and many names remain among "los desaparecidos". 

In the powerful and widely acclaimed memoir, readers see events through the eyes of the young Alcoba, whose father is imprisoned, forcing her and her mother to live in hiding with other members of the resistance movement.

Laura Alcoba (Photo: F. Mantovani - Editions Gallimard)
Alcoba followed this affecting story with Le bleu des abeilles (The Blue of the Bees), which recounts her move to Europe to join her mother who had been granted refuge in France. At the age of ten, the author discovered a new country and language, and the book depicts a child’s experiences with living in exile, even as her father remained imprisoned “at home”.

This year Alcoba has published La Danse de l’Araignée (The Dance of the Spider / Gallimard Press), her fifth book and the latest in the highly recommended trilogy of memoirs. In the following interview, she speaks with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN's editor) about her new work, her natal country, and her life in France as an author. (The interview is translated from French.)

A. McKenzie: How would you describe La Danse de l’Araignée? What can readers expect?
L. Alcoba: In La Danse de l’Araignée,  the 12-year-old narrator lives with her mother and a friend of her mother named Amalia, in France, on the outskirts of Paris. These two women and the young girl are Argentine refugees.  The story takes place at the beginning of the 1980s. The narrator in the book is on the threshold of adolescence and all the changes it brings – anxiety and dreams. Her head is also full of the correspondence that she has with her father, a political prisoner in Argentina. Despite the separation and the physical absence, the father is very much present thanks to the epistolary exchange. In one of his letters, he speaks to her of a spider that could serve as a pet, as a companion. A huge spider, a hairy tarantula, which makes her dream.

Alcoba's lastes book (Gallimard).
But how can a man play his role as a father even when he’s absent? In La Danse de l’Araignée, the challenges and obstacles are so many: distance, the prison where her father is, censorship (the letters are read by the prison administration and have to pass certain controls to enter or leave the prison). However, the narrator and her father manage to speak with each other, and the father/daughter relationship becomes a reality.

A.M.: Why have you told your story as a trilogy, rather than as a one-volume memoir?
L.A.: I didn’t set out to write a trilogy.  These three books came one after the other. A few years following the publication of Manèges (The Rabbit House), it seemed to me that the little girl who narrated the story in my first book – about her life under dictatorship in a house where there was a printing press behind a rabbit-breeding enterprise – should regain the words. To speak of exile, this time, and also the way in which an absent person could be at the centre of a child’s existence:  that’s what I did with Le Bleu des abeilles, where I evoked the correspondence that I maintained for a long time with my father. We wrote once a week to each other for two and a half years.

But after the publication of this book, I realized that the little girl hadn’t said everything there was to say. I felt that she needed to continue her story. Something important happens in La Danse de l’Araignée.  My latest book marks the end of the narrator’s exile: it’s after what is recounted here that she can fully put down roots in her new country. Furthermore, the age of the narrator in La Danse de l’Araignée particularly interests me. This age when one is between two worlds:  that of a child and that of burgeoning adulthood. 

A.M.:  In The Rabbit House, you began the prologue by noting that you thought you would write this story only when you were very old, but then one day you “couldn’t bear to wait any longer”. How did this day come about? What made you begin to “remember the past in much more detail”?
The first in the trilogy.
L.A.: In my first book, I recount a very painful period, under the Argentine dictatorship. A tragic story where several people lost their lives and in which a mother and her daughter are separated: Diana Teruggi and Clara Anahí Mariani. Diana Teruggi was assassinated in November 1976, and her daughter, who was then a baby of three months, was carried off by soldiers. As a child, I lived with my mother in the house of Diana Teruggi and her husband, before these events. Diana was then pregnant. The army was looking for my mother. We had to hide…

I remember very well what we lived through in this house, where several people lost their lives in a tragic way after our departure. For a long time, I had wanted to write about these events. I told myself that if I wanted to become a writer, I needed to find the courage to begin with this. That this story and no other had to be the first stone. But I couldn’t stop saying “later”. 

Still, I felt a sense of urgency at a certain moment. I had to write, immediately. I think the birth of my daughter can explain this feeling. I started writing my first book at the moment that my daughter reached exactly the same age that Clara Anahi was when her mother was assassinated. That, without doubt, contributed to a sort of closeness between Diana and myself, and the memory of Diana came alive. Suddenly I could see her again. Her beauty, her smile, her strength. It was necessary to save a trace of all that, which I could give to others in writing this book.

A.M.:  The events are all portrayed with gripping clarity and intensity in the books. How do you balance “truth” and “memory” as a writer?
L.A.: I tried to bring up all the images from memory (the visual dimension is very important in my writing – it’s always the starting point).  Using these images, I look for the child that I was, and especially her voice. But this voice is that of a character. It’s not me remembering myself from the present. It’s the child who speaks – a child that I no longer am, a child who has to be a creation since she speaks in the present for herself.  But this child, I look for her and I create her through the images of the past that I manage to bring to light. There can of course be some distortions. My books are not testimonies. I see them as the result of a sort of quest.

The intensity with which children and adolescents live in relationship to the world is very special. For them, everything is new, everything is discovery.  I think that the intensity comes from my making a child speak, that I try to give form to the past from this point of view, from this distance”.

A.M.: Yet, how much of your books is bearing witness, so that atrocities committed are not forgotten?
L.A.: The past resonates in us and around us. You cannot turn your back. When it is painful, when it brings wounds, to ignore the past could be toxic, even very dangerous sometimes. All my writing speaks of this, I think.  But if you have to give the hurtful past its place, if you have to listen to it and draw lessons from it, this is also to free yourself from it.

A.M.: You write in French, but you translate books from Spanish. How do you relate to the two languages?
I really need these two languages, which I love deeply. I pass from one to the other ceaselessly. I love translating. But for my literary work, it’s French that comes most naturally. Perhaps because Spanish is tied to fear, as I was growing up. When I was a child, during the Argentine dictatorship, it happened often that I didn’t know what I could say and what I had to keep hidden. So I preferred to keep quiet, it was wiser. It’s because of this that, although I dearly love my maternal language, I’m very grateful for French, very happy of the freedom that I’ve found using it.

A.M.: How have the books been received in Argentina, and in Latin America generally?
L.A.: In Argentina, my books have been received with a lot of warmth and sympathy. Each week, I receive messages from readers, often young people. The reception to the books in Spain, Latin America and particularly Argentina has really touched me.  

A.M.: What’s next for you as a writer?
L.A.: I’m currently writing a book that requires a lot of research and which I hope to finish in a year. But perhaps it will take two more years. It’s a story that occurs between Latin America and Europe. For this novel, I’m working on a true story that requires me to consult many books and to call on others for their memories.

Laura Alcoba and other writers from Latin America and the Caribbean will discuss their work at the Maison de l’Amerique Latine in Paris on March 15, 2017.

(Copyright: SWAN). For another version of this article, please see IPS News: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/books-a-writer-speaks-of-childhood-spent-during-a-dirty-war/