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Marseilles

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Marseilles is a city full of hum and drum, where people are too busy going about their business to bother much with prettification. And I like that. What I most loved was seeing people of color in nicely sized clumps. There are nowhere near the numbers people had earlier implied. But I have no definite way of saying since only general population figures are recorded. Marseilles, however, is the second city of France, with a population of half a million or so. And I would guess that the total population of people of color tops out at something like 12 percent. For the south of France, however, that's still quite a lot – trés black.

It is also the oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks sometime around 600 B.C. Ruled by warring European tribes over a period of centuries, it became an independent territory in the 13th century before passing to France in the late 15th. It is France's major port city. Jutting out into the Mediterranean, it is the doorway to and from the African continent. Less than a 40-minute bus ride from sleepy Cassis, it is, in fact, worlds away.

On the Cours Julian, ranged on both sides by cafes, tea houses, book dealers and the like, I came upon African, Caribbean and Asian youngsters hanging out during the two-hour minimum lunch break. These seemed to be mostly teenagers, junior high and high school students, dressed in what I suppose is nouveau ethnic hip-hop-inspired clothing, hair styles and insignia. They were listening intently to old soul remixes on battered-looking boom boxes that they passed among themselves, probably trying to get the lyrics down. There were also young couples, some with toddlers or babies in carriages. I found a sidewalk cafe, ordered a pot of tea and sat to drink in the sights for as long as possible.

I'd stopped earlier at a tiny restaurant – fewer than a half-dozen tables – Cafe des Épices. There I had a lovely dish of braised grouper served over a warm bed of quartered carrots, followed by a dessert of fresh oranges spiked with clove liqueur. I had to settle for black coffee because they hadn't bought milk or cream that day. There was no green salad for the same reason. They hadn't bought fresh greens. On my way out, the chef, a pleasant young fellow, came out to apologize in person. He accepted my compliments, and we chatted briefly.

From the restaurant I headed out to comb the numerous bookstores I'd spied earlier on. After several false starts, I entered what seemed to be a well-stocked literary bookstore where I was told apologetically by the manager that he didn't really carry any works by contemporary Afro-francophone poets. One of the staffers browsed with me through the entire collection. All we found was one copy of Les Armes Miraculeuses (Miraculous Weapons) by Aimé Césaire, published in 1946, and two slim volumes from the 1960s by Édouard Glissant. That was it.

On a nearby table in the next room, I did find Patrick Chamoiseau's latest novel, Biblique des Derniers Gestes. I took that and an old copy of Glissant's Sel Noir (Black Salt). The clerk was appropriately pleased for me. I was stunned that there in the heart of très black Marseilles, where bookstores lined the downtown streets, I was unable to find a single volume by a contemporary Afro-francophone poet and only one by a novelist. We even searched through anthologies. All we found there were excerpts from three or four poets from the Négritude Movement -- which began in the 1930s and lasted through the late '50s -- including a single page from Césaire's 1939 epic, Cahier D'un Retour au Pays Natal (Return to My Native Land). Nothing more recent. And this particular anthology of poésie engagée (poetry of social engagement) did indeed come right up to the present.

One would think that no Afro-francophone poet had published anything in all of France since the end of colonialism. Now I was on a quest. Where are the poets publishing since the 1970s? The poets of my generation? Has assimilation worked so well that there remain only Chamoiseau and Glissant, crying in the proverbial wilderness?

In this same anthologie de la poésie engagée, I read a short performance piece by a young-seeming group of poets who apparently write and read together. It calls for a shout at the beginning, in an over-long not quite chantable passage. On the page, it didn't read well at all. I realize now that I should have bought it anyway. Perhaps next time I will. Perhaps I'll take a series of day jaunts into Marseilles to see this quest through.

In the large context, what all of this tells me is that there are worlds and worlds of black authors who are not entering into dialog. Who hope, as I do, that works will be translated, knowing the while that they likely will not. In the meantime, I've taken on a portion of that responsibility and undertaken a new project -- a French-English/English-French translation of Afro-francophone and African American poetry since the 1970s. The question now is whether such a project will ever reach publication.

New Orleans author Brenda Marie Osbey is currently writer-in-residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where she is working on a bilingual literary project addressing the history of slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under French colonial domination.

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