The graphic biography Frantz Fanon hit bookshops this autumn, in a year that has seen a renewed focus on colonialism and the combat for equality, which the Martinique-born writer, philosopher and psychiatrist spent much of his life exploring.
Written (in French) by Frédéric Ciriez and illustrated by Romain Lamy, the volume is a lavish production - beautiful to look at and to hold - and comes at a time when Fanon’s work is more “relevant and crucial than ever”, as the Paris-based publisher Editions La Découverte puts it.
Fanon died in 1961 at the age of 36, but his importance hasn’t dimmed for scholars and the general public. Last July, for instance, the Caribbean Philosophical Association held a 20-day online symposium titled “Fanon at 95”; the purpose was to “celebrate both Fanon’s life as well as the lives of those for whom he combatted, the damned of the earth,” according to the Association, referring to one of their subject’s best-known books.
The conference attracted scholars and writers from around the world, discussing Fanon’s thought and work on decolonization, and examining his enduring global significance. In 2020, he seems to be one of the most cited intellectuals, as struggles for equality and social justice continue in the United States, Latin America, Western Europe and other regions.
It is against this backdrop that the new graphic biography has been published. The book takes as a starting point Fanon’s 1961 meeting in Rome with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who agreed to write the preface to Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) - the searing book about the dehumanising consequences of colonization.
Over three intense days of talks with Sartre and his companions Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann, Fanon tells his life story, recalling his youth in Martinique, being a World War II soldier, studying in France, writing Black Skin, White Masks, working as a doctor, and joining the Algerian revolution.
The latter, among many momentous historical events, is the focus of the book, along with Fanon’s wider role in movements to throw off colonial yokes. Readers also see the price he paid for his activism - threats, censorship, assassination attempts, and loss of health.
We’re pulled into the history of human-rights and anti-colonial struggles, with descriptions of events such as the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists (1er Congrès international des écrivains et artistes noirs), held in Paris in 1956.
The narrative has Fanon remembering the congress, with illustrations of some of those who attended: organiser Alioune Diop - the founder of journal and publishing house Présence Africaine; writers Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant; poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor; and author and historian Amadou Hampâté Bâ. And, not to be missed, there’s an image of James Baldwin, looking over his shoulder at the reader on page 146. (Baldwin wrote about the congress in the essay “Princes and Powers”, taking issue with some of the tenets of Négritude.)
Numerous other events and issues are detailed in Frantz Fanon, alongside the Algerian war for independence and European colonialism and racism. We see Fanon in Tunis, Accra and Conakry, meeting with anti-colonial fighters and future statesmen, for example, even as his health worsens.
The book ends with his death in a Washington hospital on Dec. 6, 1961, and with Simone de Beauvoir breaking the news to Sartre - who replies: “non … Frantz est vivant”.
He certainly lives on in this well-researched, imaginatively written and colourfully illustrated book, which gives a solid introduction to his life and ideas, especially for those who might be unfamiliar with his writing.
This is an intellectual and political biography, as the publisher states, but some readers may still miss the personal aspect of Fanon’s story: as a partner to the mother of his first child, as a husband - to his French wife Josie (a “revolutionary woman herself”) - and as father to two children, who’ve worked to continue his legacy. - SWAN
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