Monday, March 1

The late rise of black literature


Frail and proud in her yellow coat, the young poet Amanda Gorman seduced the whole world by reading The Hill We Climb, a poem of courage and hope for America to come, at Joe Biden’s induction ceremony as President of the United States last Wednesday. Young black author on the rise, she is part of a generation of writers who now refuse to remain invisible.

And the movement could well intensify. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, last summer, the list of the ten best-selling books of the New York Times for the first time brought together a majority of books on race relations in the United States.

And this fall, the same newspaper gave the floor to ten young black poets who explained their reasons for writing. Several mentioned the need to share their experiences as young black men or women. Yet when she was little, Amanda Gorman had never seen a black woman on a book cover, before stumbling upon a novel by Toni Morrison. And it was when she realized that all the books she had read since childhood were populated with white characters that she decided to portray marginalized characters.

At the moment, efforts are being made in French translation. But there are books, written by black Americans, that took 20 or 30 years to translate.

The observation also applies, if not more, in the French-speaking literary world, in Quebec and in France, where important books, written among others by black Americans, have taken decades to be translated into French.

“At the moment, there are efforts being made in French translation. But there are books that took 20 or 30 years to be translated, ”says Jade Almeida, sociologist and Afro-feminist activist who lives in Montreal. She cites, for example, Bell Hooks, a famous African-American feminist, whose essays were late translated into French. Recently, it was the publishing house Mémoire Encrier which translated the essay by Montrealer Robyn Maynard. Blacks under surveillance. It is also to Mémoire Encrier that we owe the translation in Quebec of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler. For their part, Éditions du Remue-household translated Black feminist thought, by Patricia Hill Collins.

“It’s an essay that was written in the 1990s,” says Jade Almeida, “but it was translated in 2018.” Is it because publishers are not sure they are reaching large enough audiences with these books ? Jade Almeida goes so far as to say that studies have shown that books sell for less when a black woman is depicted on the cover …

“It is believed that a person who writes a book in which the characters are black is bound to reach only a black audience,” she says.

It was therefore in the midst of a pandemic that Madioula Kébé-Kamara, who lived in France before immigrating to Quebec, decided to found the publishing house Various syllables, devoted to black literature and that representing sexual minorities.

Black Lives Matter

“When you think of a woman, you think of a white woman. When we think of blacks, we think of a black man, ”she says to illustrate the invisibility of black women in Quebec society. Moreover, she notes that strangely, despite their many problems in race relations, the United States offers better cultural visibility to the black population.

“Quebec can be compared to France with this sort of invisibility of the black population,” adds Madioula Kébé-Kamara.

Diane Gistal is the founder of Nigra Iuventa (Black Youth), an organization that celebrates Afro-descendant history and culture through visual arts and media culture. Recently, she was delighted to find, carried by the wave of Black Lives Matter, essays on the black condition or on racism among the best-selling books in generalist bookstores in Montreal.

“Normally, you can find these books in specialized bookstores,” she says. These are books that can be found, for example, at the Racines bookstore, which recently moved to rue Saint-Hubert, in the Rosemont – La Petite-Patrie district. “These are books that help to understand what are the mechanisms that are at play,” she says.

Diane Gistal mentions Afro-Quebec authors who would benefit from being known: Stéphane Martelly or Chloé Savoie-Bernard, for example.

She adds that Quebeckers have the unfortunate tendency to view debates on racial issues as being outside Quebec.

“In France, blacks fought in the First and Second World Wars,” says Madioula Kébé-Kamara, “but they are invisible in culture and the media. In Quebec, she mentions their presence in the construction industry, but also in CHSLDs. They must “get out of the wings,” she says.

To do this, it seems that black designers still need places where they have a specific place, in publishing houses as in bookstores that are particularly interested in their condition.

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