Journey home: Alain Mabanckou. Photo: BARBARA ZANON/GETTY IMAGES
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Alain Mabanckou's The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a lyrical meditation on the journey home

Although often marginalised under the broad label of "post-colonial", Mabanckou is emerging as a force in French writing.

The Lights of Pointe-Noire
Alain Mabanckou. Translated by Helen Stevenson
Serpent’s Tail, 202pp, £8.99

Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) in 1966 and grew up in the city of Pointe-Noire. In 1989 he left for Paris. There, he studied law, worked as a corporate lawyer and subsequently quit the legal profession after a decade. He published poems and novels and won prestigious literary prizes around the world. He moved to the United States to teach literature at university and secured a professorship at UCLA. Then, after 23 years away from his home town, after his mother and stepfather had died, he decided to revisit his roots. The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a document of this return.

Mabanckou is emerging as a major and distinctive voice in French writing. His work is, however, often marginalised and bundled together under the broad label of “post-colonial” writing. One bookshop I visited in Paris had his work grouped with Caribbean writers, an error of the magnitude of approximately 6,000 miles. He is nevertheless gradually forging a literary identity and, thanks to his translator, Helen Stevenson, attracting an English-language readership. His recent shortlisting for the Man Booker International Prize should alert readers (and bookshop managers) to the ­importance of his work.

Most often, Mabanckou writes stylishly playful first-person narratives. Frequently, as in Broken Glass (2005) and Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty (2010), his fiction takes the form of short, apparently autobiographical vignettes drawn from his recollections of life growing up in the Central African country. Even when the frame of literature is more deforming, as with the magical realism of Memoirs of a Porcupine (2006) or African Psycho (2003), narrated from the perspective of a wannabe serial killer, the presence of the author shines through.

Mabanckou’s Congo is engagingly drawn and is evoked in the light of three influences that permeate his depiction: traditional superstitions and the legacies of French colonial rule and the Marxist-Leninist “scientific socialist” state that followed its ­demise. These overlapping worlds are also encroached upon by a growing American-style global capitalism, exemplified by movies, consumer products and tourism. The narrator’s stepfather – introduced in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty and revisited in The Lights of Pointe-Noire – mans the reception at the local hotel, welcoming white guests from Europe.

Mabanckou writes in a self-consciously expressive language that stems from classically correct French rather than French-Congolese dialect. This is a distinct stylistic choice that seems to carry an implicit political charge. Does Mabanckou write from the side of the Congolese or that of their former colonisers? The answer is never entirely clear. Broken Glass, for instance – a lightly absurd novel written without a single full stop – is saturated with references to classics of French literature, including Jean Genet, Michel Houellebecq and Céline. The reader is left to speculate to what extent Mabanckou is satirising or celebrating the relevance of the French literary tradition to his protagonists.

This playful (and often very funny) tone is less characteristic of The Lights of Pointe-Noire. Yet it does have a similarly ambivalent attitude to literary tradition: the return to a long-departed country has been a recurrent trope in much black francophone writing since Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939). Moments of nostalgia, such as a visit to a cinema that he passionately frequented as a boy, recall the subjective fusion with the past associated with Proust’s madeleine. The opening words of the novel – “For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive” – nod to the opening of Camus’s L’Étranger (“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”), establishing a maudlin tone that marks a maturing from the ebullience of Mabanckou’s previous books. The departed mother casts a long shadow, as does a desire to separate reality from literary fantasy.

While Césaire locates the seeds of revolutionary identity in his return home, Mabanckou’s narrator is most concerned with exploring myths. These include local beliefs such as human beings having wild animal doubles but also the patronising European view that the Congolese live in a “paradise of poverty”. Mabanckou challenges the idea that the “introduction of European ways would bring happiness to our country” and interrogates his personal relationship with his homeland, in which the “flow of my existence” is “troubled by the myriad leaves blown down from the family tree”.

Though this latest novel by Mabanckou returns to characters such as the memorable seducer Grand Poupy and incidents such as the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” used in his earlier fiction, it is perhaps not as immediately engaging as his previous books. (It will be a richer experience if you read Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty first.) But The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a thoughtful, lyrical meditation on homecoming that artfully explores the paradoxes of a narrator torn between his new life and the roots of his childhood – and a worthy addition to a rewarding body of work. 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist