‘I do what I can to sound the alarm’ says Fatou Diome

By Clarisse Juompan-Yakam

Posted on Friday, 10 June 2022 12:32
Fatou Diome in Paris, 2019. ©Astrid di Crollalanza/Editions Albin Michel

With Marianne face aux faussaires (Marianne against the fakers), the writer denounces both racism and radical forms of anti-racism with her acerbic tongue.

In 2017, in the midst of the French election period, Fatou Diome published Marianne porte plainte! [Marianne files a complaint/presses charges!] a prose poem that questioned the concept of national identity, its omnipresence in the political debate and the excesses of its defenders.

Five years later, in a similar context, the 54-year-old Franco-Senegalese writer returns with Marianne face aux faussaires, an incisive, uneasy essay on the defence of republican values in a France caught between xenophobic identitarians brandishing the threat of a “great replacement” and anti-racist activists trapped in a colonial past that deviates from the fight they claim to lead. A France that has to put up with their bitter, sad and declinist speeches.

In an acerbic tongue, the author of, among others, Le Ventre de l’Atlantique (The Belly of the Atlantic) and Celles qui attendent (Those who Wait), who says she writes to repair her inner chaos, cannot stand by and watch as the wolves tear apart and transform the constitution. Taking strength from her dual identity, she tries to depict another France, the real one, which conveys humanist values and makes her feel fully French and Senegalese.

As my grandfather used to say, inertia hastens the shipwreck, even on land.

What justifies this new appointment with Marianne? Did your outcry in 2017 against the crystallisation of the debate around identity, Islamophobia and the instrumentalisation of secularism fail to assuage the political climate?

Fatou Diome: Five years ago, the far-right, which was already very disturbing, only had one wing. Today, it has branched out, and its progression at the ballot box appears absolutely frightening. Marine Le Pen has become “normalised” in the eyes of many French people even though her theories have not changed. I naively thought that the turbulent period that motivated the editors of Marianne porte plainte ! would disappear. Instead, the situation has escalated, and a violent and identity-based discourse has invaded the media. I want to express my disapproval. As my grandfather used to say, inertia hastens the shipwreck, even on land. So I do what I can to sound the alarm.

You draw a portrait of the fakers who, according to you, threaten the cohesion of the French republic. Who are they?

They belong to two opposing camps, but they maintain and nourish each other. On the one hand, there are the wolves of the extreme right who howl loudly at their detestation of otherness. They shamelessly point to scapegoats – inevitably Blacks or Arabs– whom they hold responsible for all ills, and aspire only to see them driven out of the territory.

Opposing these wolves are what I call false shepherds. They are flimsy activists who turn their activism away from the honourable causes it normally defends and into invective, hatred and aggression, directed not only at the wolves but at anyone who does not share their views or methods – and whom they consider traitors to the Black cause. These false shepherds are so comfortable with the idea of being designated victims that they can no longer shake off their victimhood.

How did the obsession with identity gradually take hold in France?

Since I arrived in France in 1994, the semantic field of political discourse has not stopped evolving. We have gone from Jacques Chirac’s “social fracture” during the 1995 presidential campaign to Nicolas Sarkozy’s “national identity” in 2007 and 2017, and then to the “great replacement” in 2022.

Over the years, because of terrorism, all Muslims have been stigmatised and the idea of the forfeiture of nationality has been raised. And because some Africans have not managed to integrate – often because of a lack of jobs or housing – others have been denied French nationality. How do you expect someone who is told over and over again that they are a foreigner to develop a real sense of belonging to the nation?

From the very first pages of your book, we discover some of the anonymous letters you received after the publication of Marianne porte plainte! They are injunctions to silence…

With this many letters, I could have published a nonsense compilation. Some of them order the “monkey” I am to stop concerning myself with France’s business while others threaten me with a feet-first return to Senegal [a veiled death threat]. At first, I systematically got rid of them. One of my PR people advised me to keep the letters because they could be useful one day in case of an investigation. For a long time, I also refrained from talking about them so as not to give their authors publicity – which is precisely what they are looking for  – or to give them the impression that I am terrorised.

Are you?

Not at all. I don’t care if I die today or tomorrow. Not giving in to fear, I can publish whatever I want. Writing is my way of being in the world. What sense would my life have if I could no longer report what is bothering me in my books? If I ceased to be the voice of the thousands of people who share my revolts but who have neither the capacity nor the opportunity to express them publicly? To continue to write despite the threats is a civic duty.

I was raised to overcome things that crush me. When I say that, I’m accused of lacking compassion for those who fail.

Does this injunction to keep quiet come from both sides?

Those who accuse me of being a “whore to Daech” or tell me to “go home and eat bananas” are obviously Caucasians. On the other hand, those who call me a “sell-out” or a “service Negress” are necessarily Africans or, at least, Blacks. It’s paradoxical: the same people applaud me when I criticise the inequitable contracts with Europe. I then become their favourite sister, almost their new Sankara.

When I speak out against polygamy, which is not adapted to the urban lifestyle (in apartments and close quarters), which worsens poverty and promotes sexually transmitted diseases, they cry White thought. What does this mean? Are intelligence and common sense rare plants that only grow among white people? If you are Black, as soon as you question practice in your community, you are accused of validating the Western discourse.

Do we have so little self-respect that we feel incapable of scientific, dialectical, balanced and progressive reasoning? This is victim thinking that integrates mediocrity as though it is part of us. That’s what I’m fighting: I was raised to overcome things that crush me. When I say that, I’m accused of not having compassion for those who fail.

Do you?

I was a cleaning lady for seven years in France. I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to send out 170 CVs and only receive two replies, one a rejection and the other offering two hours of work a week. These setbacks didn’t stop me from looking at the stars and telling myself that I wanted one. Making an entire generation of young people believe that because of colonisation and slavery they are forever ruined – that they will be crushed and impoverished forever – is destructive.

There are European countries that are poorer than ours. We don’t hesitate to immigrate there because we think that everything outside Africa is always better. And we end up in obscure backwaters starving to death. At some point, you have to say, “Open your eyes!” Poverty has no nationality and it doesn’t need a visa. It’s the same for human distress.

You assert your freedom of thought. Is that what makes you say that your skin is not a straitjacket?

No one can lock me in. Are we, African artists, the only ones without the freedom to write about what we want? This kind of injunction to speak and fight for Africa is quite revolting. I am not a soldier in an army. I do what I want: my conscience, my life, my family history and my path belong to me.

I can be in solidarity with my people and the country I live in, like any human being with a political conscience, but nobody has the right to prescribe my struggles or my commitments. Are we all obliged to address the same issues? It seems that we Africans have decided that talking about the difficulties of Black people, now, yesterday and the day before is the only reason for making creative work. I deplore this: it is a way of reducing the field of possibilities for artists from the continent.

You have said that rehashing the same subjects is ultimately a form of cowardice.

It’s a way of protecting oneself by remaining locked up in the cocoon of slavery and colonisation, two themes upon which there is always consensus. They rally the majority, who whine and criticise without being able to formulate any solution. I prefer to be proactive.

I prefer to fight for the development and for the dignity of Africa.

This straitjacket can also be imposed by whites.

Yes, this is an identity assignment. To accept it is to play into the hands of racists and sectarians. It consists in denying the other’s ability to define himself. One Black person is not the same as another; each has his or her own history. In the same way that the Shoah did not affect all Jewish families, slavery and colonisation did not affect all Black people to the same degree.

Some experienced colonisation in the worst way, while others, withdrawn into rural areas and without contact with colony governors, barely experienced it at all. Many do not want to hear this truth. Are you Black? Then you [must] have a revolt to lead, a bitterness to deal with. I refuse to do so because human life is too short. I prefer to fight the scourges that cause real problems, to fight for development and for the dignity of Africa.

What appears to you as an identity assignment is seen by others as an invitation to join the struggle.

Africans are inclined to use the global ‘we’. Generally, I agree, except when this ‘we’ becomes dictatorial, when outrage meets outrage, sometimes leading to a brawl. As Martin Luther King said: “Our thirst for freedom must not lead us to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” When they go into battle, some of our people forget that they are up against people who are purposely provoking them in order to bring out their bad sides and lend credence to the image of us they’d like to impose on the public.

There is nothing glorious about forming packs to go and knock down statues. It’s primitive.

What example of altercations do you have in mind?

Demolishing statues. If we absolutely have to take them down, let’s do it in Dakar, Abidjan or Cotonou. As independent countries, we are free to change the names of our streets and monuments. A statue of Colbert may irritate us in France, but we should not take it out on the statue because it’s been erected in his country.

If I were a French MP, I could argue that its presence is disturbing to me as a native of Africa. Why not organise a debate to try to rally society to this cause by explaining that certain symbols may offend citizens with the painful history of slavery? This could result in a law being passed. This peaceful approach seems more constructive to me. There is nothing glorious about forming packs to go and knock down statues. It’s primitive.

Besides, isn’t knocking them down questionable?

Yes, it is. Like burning books. Do we have to erase the symbols of history to feel at peace by pretending that history never existed? If these statues remain, they will better educate young French people about the inglorious role that their country may have played in history. I expect young African generations to master their past, understand it, to contextualise it in order to move forward proudly, freely, and with dignity.

The worst harm that can be done to them is to make them believe that colonisation is responsible for their fate. They have not experienced it: everything is within their reach, as soon as they take on certain challenges. Obviously, the fight against racism must continue. I hope that it will be easier for the new generations, thanks in particular to the skills they have. Education helps to break down barriers.

This is the kind of thinking I want to install. It is more liberating and, to a certain extent, more dangerous than all the victimised anger that we hear and which serves no purpose. When you make someone feel guilty, they get angry and stop listening to you. When you argue, they dread you even more. No one can dominate someone who makes her case and acts in a determined and resolute manner.

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