Notes From France

An Emerging Theory


I recently completed a literary tour of French universities organized in part by the American Embassy. I had been very much looking forward to this tour as it would mean getting out and away from the small-town life of Cassis. I would be traveling to campuses at Nancy and nearby Metz, as well as Lyons and Toulouse. In Nancy, I would give an evening reading at the American Library on the first day, followed by a lecture on black New Orleans and a poetry reading at the university the following day.

Situated on the Moselle River and the German border, Nancy is the capital of the Lorraine province. About three hours' drive from Paris, it vies with the capital as a cultural center. It is perhaps as famed for Place Stanislaus and its attached public park and gardens as for its art nouveau architecture and École de Nancy (think Tiffany) glasswork. It is the kind of city to which natives and adopted residents are almost equally devoted.

As its name suggests, the American Library houses a general collection of English-language books and materials and is a gathering place for Americans and Americanists in the area. Altogether it boasts a collection of 20,000 volumes, mostly history and literature, and close to 50 mostly general interest periodicals, ranging from the New York Review of Books to the Wilson Quarterly and International Herald Tribune, and from Ebony to Art In America and DownBeat. It frequently co-sponsors presentations like mine with the local arts and humanities university, l'Université Nancy-2.

Nancy is a town of about 300,000, with a student population of between 40,000 and 60,000. In spite of a history dating back to medieval times, it has a youthful feel. Its colleges of arts and humanities, mining, engineering, law, medicine and other disciplines are scattered across town. With state-run advanced education all but free, colleges and universities enjoy full enrollment. Young people seem to be forever traveling by streetcar, bus, moped or foot.

For all its youthful energy, Nancy is noticeably lacking in the kinds of amenities common to such towns in the States -- inexpensive restaurants and cafés, late-night music spots, and, especially, discount bookstores. In fact, not one of the half dozen universities at Nancy has an on-campus book store. Faculty attempt to develop relationships with local book dealers, but have no guarantee that books will arrive in time for their courses, or even be ordered at all.

Purchasing books in this way is also expensive, as dealers are under no obligation to discount group orders. Professors mostly rely on photocopied readers which, for literature classes, can run to thousands of pages.

At Nancy-2, I have been scheduled to speak to an American Civilization class -- the equivalent of American Studies in the States. They have just completed reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Other faculty and students have been invited as well. My talk focuses on the anti-slavery activity of free blacks in New Orleans. I open with a brief summary of my research on the Faubourg Tremé, and close with a selection of poems from the 1845 Les Cenelles anthology and one or two of my own poems. I then open the floor for discussion.

This is unheard of in French universities, where the method of instruction is quite rigid. Professors stand and deliver from an elevated podium at the head of the classroom. Students take copious notes but do not ask questions. The three professors hosting my presentation have warned me not to interpret this lack of participation as a negative comment on either the material or my manner of presenting. French students, they remind me, are trained to be docile. I remember this from my student days in the south of France in the 1970s, when a fellow student pulled me aside and cautioned me against disturbing the classroom atmosphere by asking questions.

My Nancy-2 audience is surprised to learn that the first anthology of African-American poetry was published not during the Harlem Renaissance, but more than a century earlier, and not in New York but New Orleans, in French. At the close of the lecture-reading, I am hammered with questions and the discussion continues past the end of the session. Prof. Kaenel pulls things to a close. We had already planned on having coffee. When I suggest that perhaps those who wanted to continue our discussion might want to accompany us to the nearby cafeteria, he advises me that none of the students are likely to come. When three young women join us for coffee, he is stunned. "You don't understand what this means," he insists. "In all my years teaching, this has never happened before." We head off to the cafeteria for a discussion of literature, music and cultural politics that lasts close to an hour, and we only depart when the cafeteria staff comes to tell us that they have to close for the evening.

That evening, after dinner with my two host professors and the English department chair, I write a long journal entry about the past day and a half. Both students and faculty seem to me to be starved for the very kind of discussion that is so outside the realm of French university teaching and learning.

Still, I am taken aback to discover in a campus audience of about a hundred not one student or faculty member of African descent. This, however, is only the first stop on a weeklong tour across several regions. At this stage, I have no way of knowing that this will turn out to be the case throughout the entire expedition. In city after city, university after university, I find myself talking to audiences deeply interested in African-American literature. And nary a black face among them. I will later learn that the French penchant for African-American literature is peculiarly narrow. For there is no comparable interest in home-grown, Afro-Francophone literature. Baldwin, Wright, Ellison and Morrison are avidly read and taught. (Baldwin lived in France for much of the second half of his life and died at his adopted home just outside Nice.) The mention of such names as Césaire, Senghor, Diop, Glissant and Chamoiseau, however, draws only blank stares. Not only are they not taught, they are virtually unknown. My persistent questioning only results in pained silence or attempts to lead the discussion back to my own writing projects. Dinner continues well past 1 a.m. Eventually we settle on such safer topics as publishing, "creative" writing, and the essay as literary form.

Returning to my hotel, I consider the lack of Afro-Francophone literature in the bookshops of Marseilles, the fact that these authors are unknown even in French universities, the absence of students and professors of African descent. But this is the first stop on a weeklong tour. Perhaps my emerging theory is all wrong. Experience will teach me that it is not.

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