Monday, 23 March 2015

PARIS BOOK FAIR: BRAZILIAN LIT, FOOD AND A PROTEST

The Paris Book Fair advertises its guest of honour.
The aroma of Brazilian cooking, the music of the Portuguese language, and a spirit of protest pervaded this year’s Paris Book Fair, May 20 - 23.

Billed as “un pays plein de voix” (a country full of voice), Brazil was the guest of honour, with 48 writers invited. The world-renowned Paulo Coelho was supposed to be the star of this lineup, but he couldn’t fit Paris into his busy schedule, according to the Fair’s organizers, so others kept the words going.

Ana Paula Maia (photo: M. Correa)
These included Bernardo Carvalho, considered one of Brazil’s best contemporary authors, and the emerging writers Tatiana Salem Levy - author of the acclaimed novel A Chave de Casa - and Ana Paula Maia, who began her career with “short pulp fiction” on the Internet and now has numberous fans.

Maia's French publisher, Paula Anacaona of Anacaona Editions, told SWAN that the young Brazilian author gives voice to those who normally have no presence in literature - a slaughterhouse employee, a worker at a crematorium. 

At the Fair, Maia and her peers discussed topics ranging from the depiction of urban violence to dealing with memory and displacement. 

But food was also a part of the experience at the Brazilian pavillion, as chefs gave workshops on the country’s cuisine, presenting appetizing-looking concoctions alongside their cookbooks.

The smell of food intermingled with sounds of protest when, on the second day of the Fair, French writers demonstrated to highlight the dangers that all in the profession are facing: work insecurity, "derisory" income, and unfavourable state regulation, among other issues.

“No writers, no books,” the protesters warned via their placards.

Still, during the four days of the Fair, book lovers filled rows of sturdy white plastic chairs as they listened to the invited Brazilian authors as well as writers from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Writers from France's overseas territories.
The African presence has continued to grow, and the huge pavilion featuring “Livres et auteurs du Bassin du Congo” (Books and Writers of the Congo Basin) acts as a magnet for a broad cross-section of visitors.

African and Caribbean authors participated too in readings and debates at the pavillions of publishers from French overseas territories including Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.

Guadeloupe’s Editions Jasor presented several writers including playwright Gerty Dambury, and the Guadeloupe Region’s Culture Service promoted its upcoming Caribbean Writers Congress, taking place on the island April 15 to 18.

Dominique Hubert
“We’ll have writers from all over the Caribbean, speaking French, Spanish, English, and showing the richness of the region’s literature,” said spokesperson Dominique Hubert. (SWAN will have a special report on the annual Congress in April.)

Another highlight of the fair has been discovering off-beat, independent publishers that produce strikingly original books, both in format and content.

La Cheminante, a French publishing house headed by Sylvie Darreau, has launched a Harlem Renaissance collection, for instance, that emphasizes the links between African American writers and the Diaspora.

Beautifully produced, the layout of the books tells as much of a story as the words. Even the font and size of the page numbers are meant to evoke certain feelings among readers.

Darreau and Boum
La Cheminante also publishes French-based African writers such as Hemley Boum, who presented her third novel Les maquisards (The guerillas) on March 22. Through a family saga, the book shines light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence.

This year, the Fair launched a “Talented Indies” programme, “starring” up and coming French-speaking publishers from cities such as Algers, Brussels, Marseille, Casablanca, Geneva and Tunis.

"This is  a space where we can come together, and we need that more and more, in light of all the incidents that have taken place since the beginning of the year," said Darreau, referring to attacks in France, Tunisia and other countries.

Monday, 2 March 2015

CARIBBEAN PLAYWRIGHTS CONVERSE AND PROVOKE

“I think Afro-American theatre comes out of protest. It is a violent reaction to untenable conditions. Caribbean theatre has all the same reasons for the anger, but our memory is not the same kind.”

This remark from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is just one of the frank and provocative comments in Visions and Voices, a captivating book by Olivier Stephenson that comprises interviews with 14 Caribbean playwrights.

The 435-page volume includes conversations with Jamaica’s best known dramatists Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, Montserrat’s Edgar Nkosi White and Trinidad’s Errol Hill - “widely recognized as the father of the English-speaking Caribbean theatre”. And, off course, there is St. Lucian-born Walcott, the Caribbean’s most celebrated poet-playwright-artist. But only one female dramatist,  Jamaica’s Carmen Tipling, is featured in the collection, which detracts from its completeness.

Stephenson, a Jamaican-born, United States-based journalist and playwright himself, conducted the interviews in the 1970s and 1980s when he was actively involved in theatre in New York as a founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

Many of his peers (and “elders”) were also living in the U.S. or visiting at the time, which was a crucial period for the genre, full of new plays and a sense of community. After Stephenson’s interviews were completed, it would take more than 30 years for the book to be published, however. 

“Some publishers said it was too academic, while others said it wasn’t academic enough,” Stephenson recalls. Finally, England-based Peepal Tree Press stepped in and the book came out last year, with a preface by prize-winning writer Kwame Dawes.

Olivier Stephenson (photo: C. West)
In the interim, Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and several of the playwrights have died; but their words still give a riveting picture of the Caribbean theatre world, with all the experiences, visions and goals. Walcott, now 85 years old, delivers some of the most insightful comments, positioning the Caribbean artist in an international context and criticizing the lack of state support for art and culture in the region.

“The body of Caribbean literature in the theatre, I think, is still minuscule,” he tells Stephenson. “And I think the reason for that is that there is not enough encouragement given to the development of the Caribbean actor and dancer in his or her native island.”

Since Walcott said those words, some things have naturally changed, with high-quality arts festivals now taking place across the Caribbean and several home-grown awards being launched. But much more needs to be achieved in the area of cultural policy.

“What stultifies and cripples in the Caribbean is the absence of that machine (to get plays made),” Walcott says. “So what you find is a lot of people having to give up writing plays because they can’t get them done.

“The total amount of unproduced plays in the Caribbean must be very, very large and God knows how many are good,” he adds.

Stephenson, in an interview with SWAN, said he completely agreed with Walcott’s assessment. “There is unquestionably not enough support,” he said. “A lot of lip service is paid to promoting the arts, but nothing is really done because that is how governments work.”

An interesting aspect of the interviews in Visions and Voices is the way Caribbean dramatists respond to comparisons between them and others in the sector. Of the criticism by some African-American playwrights that Caribbean - or West Indian - writers aren't angry enough, Walcott has this revealing response (worth repeating in its entirety):

Derek Walcott
Well, you see, I don’t think that a West Indian gets up in the morning saying, “I am black.” There is not an American Black who doesn't get up in the morning and think, even subliminally, “I am black and I have to face the day.” They get up in the morning with the feeling that something’s going to happen to them simply because they are black. That goes on in this country (the U.S.) still. It does not happen in the Caribbean. One does not get up in the morning and say, “Jesus Christ, I am black and some mother is going to be out for my ass today!” And that’s the difference. And because the Caribbean writer does not wake up in the morning with that kind of burden, he has the advantage of being able to develop a sense of universal anger, a certain perspective on the conditions of the Black or any Third World disadvantaged race.

One of the reasons why Caribbean plays are so banal - so many plays are just jokes, comedies, or backyard farces - is because that problem, the weight of being Black, does not exist for them; there’s no fight against “The Man”, against a visible oppressor. If anything, the Caribbean tendency is toward a political anger rather than a personal anger - towards a socialist or a Marxist perspective. You can’t help but be leftist in the Caribbean if you’re a writer - you have no choice, really.

When Stephenson asks why Walcott says this, the grand old man of Caribbean letters replies: “Because of the poverty, of the violent contrast between the rich and the poor. And anybody with a simple sense of justice realizes that the system in the Caribbean is unjust for the majority of the people. So that kind of anger is there.

Whether one agrees with Walcott or not, Stephenson's book does give readers much to think about, and perhaps it will also encourage the public to see a Caribbean play the next time one is presented in their area.

For more on Caribbean literature, see: https://caribbeanbookblog.wordpress.com

Friday, 6 February 2015

NINA: SINGERS PAY TRIBUTE AND CAST THEIR OWN SPELL

Autour de Nina ('Round Nina) is both a joyous and poignant tribute to Nina Simone, nearly 12 years after her death at the age of 70. This French-produced CD brings together top vocalists from different countries to re-interpret some of the songs that Simone made her own, which is quite a tall order.  But the singers deliver, for the most part, backed by intelligent and captivating arrangements.

The album starts with a very modern, “ultra-cool” version of Baltimore by the 25-year-old British artist Lianne La Havas and then moves into a scorching gospel-rock adaptation of Sinnerman, performed by the Nigerian-born musician Keziah Jones. They both manage to give the songs an individual flavour that most listeners will appreciate.

On the sixth track, French singer-songwriter Ben L’Oncle Soul stands out with his rendition of Feeling Good, sounding almost like a reincarnation of Simone with his passionate and dramatic delivery.

Composed in 1965 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, this song was one of Simone's masterpieces. Critics have hailed Feeling Good for bringing together classical music, blues and soul, and launching what would become a jazz standard, and Ben L’Oncle Soul does this musical history justice.

In contrast, his compatriot Olivia Ruiz might have opted for a different song because she has the insurmountable task of making something individual from My Baby Just Cares For Me, one of the pieces most closely associated with Simone. Ruiz doesn’t quite succeed, despite the “extra jazziness” of the music.

Singer Ben l'Oncle Soul (photo: FPT)
American singer Melody Gardot, meanwhile, brings new gravity and beauty to Four Women, composed by Simone in 1966 and first released on the album Wild is the Wind. She is matched by Swiss-born jazz artist Sophie Hunger, who lives up to her adopted name with a searing performance of I Put A Spell on You, probably the most memorable interpretation on this tribute CD – all hungry, tormented vocals, wailing instruments and an extended finale. One will want to listen to it again and again, along with the track by Ben l'Oncle Soul.

The other songs feature South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, the Franco-Moroccan performer Hindi Zahra, American jazzman Gregory Porter and French singer-actress Camille. Their performances are all enjoyable and touching in particular ways, even if one can’t help feeling that they don’t quite measure up to the “original” versions. But how could they? Simone took everything she did to an inimitable level.

Still the CD is a fitting tribute, especially when one refrains from comparing the singers to an incomparable star and pay attention to the superb instrumentation of the backing musicians. (Label: Verve. Produced by Maxime Le Guil and Clément Ducol.)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

MADNESS IN CARIBBEAN LIT: SCHOLARS & WRITERS MEET


The University of Liège in Belgium will hold a symposium titled “Altered States: Configuring Madness in Caribbean Literature” in April, with renowned international scholars and Caribbean writers participating.

The event is being hosted by CEREP (Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherche en Etudes Postcoloniales / Centre for Teaching and Research in Postcolonial Studies), one of the first research units in Europe to focus on postcolonial and formerly Commonwealth studies. Founded in 1968 by Prof. Hena Maes-Jelinek, an acclaimed academic and author, the Centre frequently organizes seminars, lectures and conferences at the University of Liège.

Current director Bénédicte Ledent says that the symposium takes as its main starting point the "ubiquitous representation of various forms of mental illness, breakdown and psychopathology in Caribbean literature" and the fact that this topic has been relatively neglected in criticism, especially in Anglophone texts, apart from scholarship devoted to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

“While acknowledging a small number of recent publications on the topic … we believe that much remains to be done to rethink the trope of ‘madness’ across Caribbean literature by local and diaspora writers,” she said.

Those interested in attending the sympsium can find registration information here: http://www.madness.ulg.ac.be/programme.html

Saturday, 10 January 2015

UNESCO TO HOLD CONFERENCE ON MEDIA FREEDOM

Following the attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO says it will host a conference at its headquarters in Paris next week dedicated to “the Right to Freedom of Expression”.

The cover of a 2013 book by Cartooning
for Peace and Reporters Without Borders
to highlight threats to  press freedom.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova will open the event, which has been organised “in solidarity with France and with the media worldwide” and which is also aimed at “demonstrating UNESCO’s mandate and commitment to freedom of expression and press freedom," the agency said.

Among those invited to participate are French and international media, representatives from UNESCO’s member states, opinion-makers and journalism schools. Well-known French cartoonist Plantu has agreed to participate and will speak alongside Bokova.

Plantu and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan are the founders of Cartooning for Peace, an organisation created in 2006 to promote dialogue, in the wake of the demonstrations and violent protests sparked by controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

He and many other cartoonists have strongly condemned the attacks of last Wednesday, when two hooded armed men entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting and opened fire, killing 9 media workers, a visitor and two policemen.

The perpetrators were in turn killed by police on Friday, after a massive manhunt in the French capital, where related assaults took place Thursday and Friday. In these other acts of violence, a gunman killed a young female police officer and later held shoppers hostage in a supermarket siege, where he reportedly murdered four people before he was killed by the security forces. 

Drawing for peace ... a cartoon by Plantu.
Bokova said that the “unprecedented and horrifying attack” on Charlie Hebdo was a “tragic reminder” to everyone that the right to freedom of expression is “fragile”, and that those who defend it may pay the ultimate price.

She referred to the sharp criticism that the magazine’s cartoonists had received when their work provoked and offended various communities, but she said the journalists had stayed “passionate in their conviction that freedom of expression must be defended against all odds”.

Bokova added that she was encouraged by the international reactions of solidarity. “The spontaneous demonstrations that this appalling crime has provoked across France and around the world - the outpouring of sorrow and anger expressed by citizens from all faiths - also reveal that freedom of expression is a right that is cherished, and understood by all as being at the heart of healthy, functioning societies,” she said.

UNESCO is the UN organisation with a mandate to promote freedom of expression as well as media freedom, and to promote and enhance the safety of journalists. Over the past decade, 700 journalists have been killed, and the protection of media workers will be one of the issues discussed at next week’s conference. The responsibilities that go with freedom of expression will also be on the agenda. 

UPDATE. To read an in-depth article on the discussions at this conference, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/press-looks-at-future-after-charlie/

Monday, 5 January 2015

FEEDING THE SPIRIT: EXPO HIGHLIGHTS ART OF EATING

The “Art of Eating - Rites and Traditions” is the latest exhibition at the Dapper Museum, a cultural space in Paris, France, that focuses on Africa, the Caribbean and "their diaspora".

Running until July 2015, the show takes viewers on a journey through the traditions as well as daily actions that govern the preparation and consumption of food, providing a contrast to the “sameness” of the global fast-food industry. 

One can observe the links between specific objects, food preparation and the offerings made to “ancestors, deities and spirits”, for instance.  These objects are made from an array of materials and come in different and fascinating forms, attesting to rich traditions and rituals. 

For more information, go to: http://www.dapper.fr/en/

Friday, 19 December 2014

REVIEW: A FEW GOOD BOOKS TO TAKE US FORWARD

This year has seen a bonanza of worthy books, covering various genres. But while best-book lists in many newspapers have focused on fiction, we’d also like to highlight some of the critical work produced by scholars in 2014. Here we select a short list of books that we hope will be widely read in the coming months. We’ve found them to be incisive, superbly written, and extremely thought-provoking.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, ed. by C. Oberon Garcia, V. Ashanti Young and C. Pimentel

This collection of essays is a timely examination of “racial ventriloquism” in the United States - that is “when white authors appropriate the history and stories of black life”.

Edited by Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charlise Pimentel, the book looks at how “white-authored narratives are consistently used to structure perceptions of American race relations”, infiltrating our consciousness and perpetuating the current hegemonic power.

The editors state that despite the success of contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, “the most influential and widely disseminated narratives of black life are created by white people through the institutions and discourses dominated by white money, decision-making, and interests”.

Focusing particularly on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, and the film it spawned, the book discusses the critical controversies around these works and investigates the divided opinions about them in the Black community itself: from Oprah Winfrey’s embracing of the story to writer Touré’s slamming the film as “the most loathsome movie” in America.

The Help links us to questions that are not only literary or cinematic but also deeply social and political,” say Oberon and colleagues. Among these questions is: why does Hollywood constantly reward black actors and actresses “for playing subservient, violent, or hypersexual roles often created by whites”?

With the current racial crisis playing out in the United States, following the high-profile killings by police of African-American men and youngsters, these issues are more pertinent than ever. As the editors assert, “stories … create our realities”, and if we don’t question and challenge the sources of these stories, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

Claire Oberon Garcia
Oberon Garcia, a professor of American literature and a race and ethnic studies scholar, particularly wishes to “encourage readers, students, and teachers to be more aware of how works such as these perpetuate the racism that so many of us are committed to eradicating”.

The editors realize that some people will disagree with their views and pose the question: “doesn’t every artist, writer, producer, or director have the right to tell stories as he or she sees fit?” The answer to that would be “yes”, of course, in a world where equality is the norm. 

But sympathy and empathy are not the same as painful experience, and “racial ventriloquism” may be fundamentally doing more harm than good. Anyone who has doubts about this can skip directly to Chapter 4: “Taking Care a White Babies, That’s What I Do – The Help and Americans’ Obsession with the Mammy”, written by Katrina Dyonne Thompson.

Thompson was a doctoral student, sitting frequently in a café “armed with stacks of books” and her laptop, when one day “an older white gentleman” approached her and asked, “Are you here to interview for a nanny job?” As she says, she felt “the burden of hundreds of years of stereotypes in this one exchange”. Thompson’s essay goes on to illustrate how Stockett’s novel feeds these stereotypes. Like the other essays in the book, it may make some readers reconsider their take on the whole “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” genre.

But the editors aren’t necessarily recommending that these narratives not be written or read; what they are calling for is context. “Racial ventriloquism” should be given its appropriate framework, and should be taught alongside books by African American writers, in a comparative and critical space. The message here is that white-authored stories should not provide the prevailing and accepted view of black lives.

The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory

Shalini Puri’s elegantly written book comes 31 years after the United States’ invasion of Grenada and is the first scholarly work from the humanities on the subject of both the Grenada Revolution and the US “intervention”, according to the publishers. The author herself describes the book as “simultaneously a critique, tribute, and memorial”, and it fills all those roles in excellent fashion.

Puri, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, argues that the 1979-1983 revolution was a transnational event that had a great impact on the politics and culture across the Caribbean and on the region’s Diaspora, both during its short span and in the three decades since its fall. Her research includes interviews, landscape studies, literature, visual art, music, film, and newspaper accounts to give a gripping description and analysis of the revolution and its effects.

Her main premise is that the region has been participating in a kind of collective silence about the revolution, hence her subtitle “Operation Urgent Memory”, a play on the name of the American offensive - Operation Urgent Fury. “The degree to which Grenadian memories are silenced is especially striking in comparison to the loudness of pro-US narratives,” she writes, adding that on the Internet, “data on the US invasion, which lasted barely a week, far outweigh those on the Grenada Revolution, which lasted four and a half years”.

Puri makes it clear from the outset that this is not a history book, but a “meditation on memory, on its frailty and its survival, on the unexpected sites and manner of its surfacing”. As such, the book can be considered a literary work, fused with criticism and journalism. It even has photographs – some snapped by Puri and others taken from archives or provided by Grenadian sources.

Shalini Puri
Readers will gain new insights into the momentous events on the Caribbean island, from the overthrow of Prime Minister Eric Gairy in 1979 to the invasion by the United States in 1983.  Puri delves into the charismatic personalities of revolutionary leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard and recounts the tragedy of Bishop’s execution in October 1983, before the age of 40. She provides compelling answers to the question of: what is the significance of a revolution on a tiny island measuring 310 square kilometres, smaller than many US cities?

As she points out, the Grenada Revolution was the “first socialist-oriented revolution in the Anglophone Caribbean; the assassination of Maurice Bishop was the first assassination of a head of state in the Anglophone Caribbean; it was the first time the United States invaded the Anglophone Caribbean.” Even now, the events still generate political debate in the region and there is disagreement about the revolution’s legacy.

Puri also examines the long-held silence of some of the participants, including noted writers, but what is most striking about the book is the compassionate tone throughout. It’s as if the author is herself moved by the story she is telling, and touched by the cast of unforgettable characters.

Stylistic Approaches to Nigerian Fiction, by Daria Tunca

One doesn’t have to know anything about the field of “stylistics” (analysing and interpreting texts through an examination of language) to appreciate Daria Tunca’s enlightening work on Nigerian literature. The Belgium-based researcher, who teaches in the English Department of the University of Liège, asserts that the “analysis of style in Nigerian fiction needs to be broadened to account for the range of linguistic techniques deployed by contemporary writers”.

In a clear and engaging manner, Tunca addresses issues such as the links between style and characterization and between aesthetics and ideology. She also casts light on the use of language and folklore in selected texts but goes beyond studies of the writers’ mother tongues to explore form and content.

In all of this, the figure that looms large is that of Chinua Achebe, the late “grandfather” of “African” literature. “Ultimately, beyond all criteria of differentiation, second- and third-generation writers have at least one major thing in common: everyone, from Nigerian academics to American radio hosts, obsessively compares them to their illustrious compatriot, Chinua Achebe,” Tunca writes.

Achebe played a defining role in the debate on language, and Tunca’s book addresses his influence and that of others including Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Among the issues: to choose or not to choose English as the means of expression?

For those who are fans of the current generation of celebrated Nigerian writers - Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others - this books provides accompaniment to the reading of their work. One will learn the names for an array of concepts and techniques used by these authors, such as “underlexicalization”: which is “withholding the usual term for something that is being described”.

Tunca says that every magician (or writer) has a trick. To discover it, “onlookers must not simply allow themselves to be dazzled, but rather observe and analyse – meticulously, systematically, and with appropriate technique. This is the aim of stylistics.” Of course, one can choose to be dazzled without any deeper observation, but then one would miss out on stimulating books such as Tunca’s.

(The three books above were published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

FICTION – THE SHORT AND LONG OF IT

It’s sometimes difficult to cut through the hype surrounding works of fiction, especially with everyone and his grandma now using social media to push their publications. The promotional screams can be deafening, but every now and then, amid the noise, the sweet calls of beguiling stories break through. That may sound a bit over the top, but it reflects the thrill of discovering truly memorable books, two of which are described below.

Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, by Sharon Leach

Sharon’s Leach’s stories are mesmerising, to put it in one word. The range of characters created by this Jamaican author and journalist stays in one’s head after one has finished the book, with bits of conversation or description recurring. From a particularly poignant story, “Lapdance”, comes this, for instance: “I’m here because I love lapdances. They’re my poison. Chillin’ in the champagne room, son. I figure people would say I’m addicted to them. That’s a hell of a thing to get addicted to.”

Leach’s protagonists are “people struggling for their place in the world, always anxious that their hold on security is precarious,” according to the blurb, but they’re more than that. They’re the products of an inventive imagination that gets to the soul of things, without sentimentality or judgment. They’re people with secrets, with heavy pasts and, in some cases, without a future.

Underpinning the skilful, fast-paced writing is a sly sense of humour, as Leach highlights the absurdities of various sexual situations. Whether readers are meant to take at face value certain improbable acts is a question that will linger, but this doesn’t necessarily detract from the strength of the collection. It makes it somehow more unforgettable. (Peepal Tree Press)

Ryad Assani-Razaki and La main d’Iman (The Imam’s Hand)

Ryad Assani-Razaki (photo by A. McKenzie)
With his air of quiet assurance, Ryad Assani-Razaki just looks like a good writer, and his first novel bears out the initial impression.

Published in Canada in 2011, and in France a year later, La main d’Iman is a story of people caught up in a web of inequality in an African country, where the main characters include children sold by their parents into domestic servitude.

The book is told from several points of view, and pulls one in from the first few lines because of the beauty and sophistication of the writing. The author’s particular talent is in describing the unspeakable, not in crude terms, but in poetic prose - much like Toni Morrison, whom he cites as an influence.

We spoke with Assani-Razaki this year in Paris, when he attended the biannual Festival America literary event. We wanted to know more about this talented writer, who was born in Benin in 1981 and currently resides in Montreal, Canada, after studying in the United States.

SWAN: What was the inspiration for La main d'Iman?
A-R: Following a long period away from my home country, I eventually returned to Benin when I could afford the trip. Upon my arrival, one of my most puzzling impressions was the feeling people gave me that they all wanted to depart. At every level of society, the eagerness seemed the same. The question of why it was so important for people to leave was my inspiration. Some people are ready to go to the furthest extremes, to achieve that goal, even risking their lives. That was puzzling to me.

SWAN: Who are your influences?
A-R: My influences are multiple. Having been educated in two languages, my influences are both French and English. But in any case, I always favor authors and works that focus on character development. My French influences would be such as Annie Ernaux for her treatment of language, Nathalie Sarraute for her thinking. The English-speaking writers that most influenced me are Toni Morrison for her courage to tackle the most disturbing themes, Jumpha Lahiri for the beauty of her words. I have also read Anchee Min, hanan al-shaykh, V.S. Naipaul. I like to travel with literature

SWAN: Do you think that francophone writers from Africa get the same attention as their English-speaking counterparts?
A-R: I think francophone writers from Africa get a lot of attention in the Francophone community. However, to cross over to the English-speaking word with translations is a bit of a challenge.

SWAN: Do you also write in English?
A-R: I do write in English.

SWAN: As someone who left his home country, is identity an issue as a writer?
A-R: I think identity is the central issue for every human being on the planet, whether they are writers or not, and even for those who haven't travelled. We spend our lives, constantly redefining ourselves. Which is why a book such as La main d'Iman that deals with the theme of improving one’s condition as a human being can resonate with anybody, regardless of their life experiences.

La Main d'Iman won the Prix Robert-Cliche, a Canadian award for first novels.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

HAITI CELEBRATES ITS ART WITH PARIS MEGA EXHIBITION

Paintings in Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation (Photo: McKenzie)

Nearly five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a wide-ranging exhibition of the country’s contemporary art began Wednesday in Paris, a testament to survival and a bold move to shatter misconceptions about Haitian culture.

Going far beyond stereotypes of naïve painting, the show aims to “transcend the magico-religious and exotic vision too often simplistically associated with Haitian art”, according to the curators.

A visitor views work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to repeat what has been done before, so this really is contemporary work with a glance to the past, or a dialogue between the past and the present,” said Mireille Pérodin Jérôme, director of a museum in Port-au-Prince and co-curator of the exhibition with Régine Cuzin, who heads a France-based artistic events company.

“The works include all styles, and the artists were chosen for the force of their expressions,” Pérodin Jérôme told SWAN. “The impact of the earthquake is of course present, with some of the artists addressing issues of continued poverty, of people still living in precarious conditions.”

The exhibition, titled Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation, will run for three months at the landmark Grand Palais national galleries. It’s already generating a buzz in the French capital, especially because of the range of the 56 artists represented and the level of the 160-plus works displayed.

Jean-Ulrick Désert stands before his artwork.
Alongside creations by celebrated figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hervé Télémaque and Robert Saint-Brice, one can find striking works by acclaimed “contemporary artists of all generations”, living in Haiti and abroad.

The Berlin-based architect-artist Jean-Ulrick Désert has two pieces in the show that immediately capture attention. His huge wall installation, labeled The Goddess ConstellationsSky Above Port-au-Prince 12 January 2010, 9:53 pm, is particularly poignant.

Rather than focusing on the physical destruction, Désert shows the constellations at the precise time of the catastrophe, evoking destiny, religion, astrology, power, powerlessness and the immense human toll. The artwork, measuring 300 x 300 cm, comprises hundreds of metal disks pinned into nine polystyrene panels covered in red velvet.

Each orb represents the exact location of the stars and planets at the time, and Désert said he worked from a satellite map to get it right. When one looks closer, one can also see that the pieces of metal are all embossed - with various images of the legendary American singer Josephine Baker, whom Désert considers a kind of goddess.

Jospehine Baker "in the stars",
“Because this exhibition is taking place in France, I wanted to have some Parisian gesture as well, because Josephine Baker is the perfect example of an icon in exile,” Désert told SWAN.

The piece pairs well with his floor installation, The Goddess Temple, which consists of carpeting, concrete, black and white velvet, glass, and Arabic text from the poem The Ruins (made famous in song by the Egyptian star Oum Kalsoum). Désert said this work was inspired by the façade of a house built for Baker.

The artist, who studied architecture in New York, is presented at the exhibition in “tête-à-tête” with Finland-based plasticien Sasha Huber, who also does installations. The show has three of these “face-to-face” or “dialogue” sections, in addition to areas devoted to untitled works, landscapes, spirits and chiefs.

Robert Saint-Brince "in dialogue" with Sébastien Jean
The other “tete-a-tete” segments feature Télémaque and Basquiat; and Saint-Brice and Sébastien Jean.

In the latter, one can view a painting by Saint-Brice that was almost destroyed by the earthquake. Titled Loas and painted around 1958, it was buried in the rubble for nearly two months and has now been restored by experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

The earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, also ruined numerous artworks; and while these can never be replaced, young Haitian artists are continuing the island’s cultural traditions, said Pérodin Jérôme.

Among the participants in the exhibition is 28-year-old rising star Manuel Mathieu, born in Port-au-Prince in 1986, educated in Montreal and now working and studying in London.

Artist Manuel Mathieu
Mathieu uses different elements for his art, including photography, installation and video; but he’s showing two arresting semi-abstract paintings in the Paris show, with mixed media on canvas.

Mathieu told SWAN that taking part in the exhibition was like “having a big party with your friends”, since some of his colleagues and mentors, like the installation and performance artist Mario Benjamin, were also involved.

“I’m happy to be here and to show to everyone that we have a diverse and complex culture in Haiti,” Mathieu said. “Trying to put nearly sixty artists together is a journey in itself.”

The exhibition took nearly three years to bring to fruition, and it may also be regarded as a journey beyond the earthquake. Several of the artists described the profound impact the disaster has had on their work, and according to one, Vladimir Cybil Charlier, some found it near impossible to produce anything afterwards.

Charlier, who was born in New York but who attended schools in Haiti, told SWAN that the earthquake “razed” her childhood in Port-au-Prince.

Vladimir Cybil Charlier and her response to Preacher Pat.
“It’s like it never existed, except in my imagination,” she said, adding that even “airport art”, or pieces sold to tourists, became “grimmer” after 2010.

In her work, Charlier plays with the idea of looking through several windows at the same time, using collage, ink, paper, wood and pencil to create distinctive pieces that gradually reveal layers of narrative to the viewer.

Her two pieces at the exhibition are from her Postcard to Preacher Pat series, a riposte to American televangelist Pat Robertson who preached that the earthquake was a consequence of Haiti being “cursed” because its people “swore a pact to the devil”.

Pointing to Robertson’s ignorance and shameful posturing, Charlier said her artwork is also a critique of the missionaries who flooded Haiti after the earthquake, many without any understanding of the country’s culture.

Her collages are among the political pieces in the exhibition, which will also teach spectators much about the nation’s history. Through art, visitors will gain further insight into Haiti’s slave revolution and its battle with France to become the first independent country in the Caribbean and Latin America.

They will also get to understand that Hati’s luminous art is the real “magic potion”, as famed writer Maryse Condé has said. - A.M.