The Bird in the Top of the Tree
Alain Mabanckou left behind a legal career to achieve acclaim as a poet, a biographer, and an award-winning novelist.
Published: Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Living in the United States, far from both the Congo and France, allows me to create my own culture, to mix my background and invent other ways of thinking. In this sense, America is the place where I can say that I am quietly writing.
UCLA College Report (pdf)
By Aaron Dalton
IN THE CLASSES of Professor Alain Mabanckou, UCLA students learn that a book is one of the best things in the world.
"To teach them this, I have to show them how much I love literature," said Mabanckou.
A professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, Mabanckou can speak about literature not just as a scholar, but also as a creator. Author of seven novels, a poetry collection, and a biography on James Baldwin (Lettre à Jimmy), over the past 15 years Mabanckou has won some of the most formidable literary prizes in the Francophone world.
Yet Mabanckou's career was once heading in a different direction, while living in France and fulfilling his mother's dream that he become a lawyer. Despite his filial devotion, Mabanckou could not shake his love of literature. By day, he filed legal briefs and argued cases on labor and criminal issues. At night, he read articles about the literary theories of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Mabanckou's critical success began in 1995, when his second book of poems won the Prix de la Société des poètes français, one of France's major awards for poetry. Encouraged by the poetry award, Mabanckou branched out into fiction. In 1998, he released his first novel: Bleu Blanc Rouge (Blue White Red).
Named after the colors in the French tricolor flag, Bleu Blanc Rouge tells the story of a Congolese man who attains his dream of living in France, only to discover a difficult reality of hardship and racism in his erstwhile promised land. The novel was showered with praise, and Mabanckou won the 1999 Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique noire, the principal award in African Francophone literature.
In the decade since then, Mabanckou has produced five more novels with an impressive range of voices and themes. He has written about the relationship between modern-day Africans and the Afro-Caribbeans who came to the West Indies in bondage. He explored the 1990s Congolese civil war. A novel called African Psycho featured an African protagonist striving and failing to be a serial killer in the mold of the antihero in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho.
In 2005, Mabanckou achieved his first true commercial success in France with Verre Cassé (Broken Glass), a novel about a philosophical barfly that was reprinted 12 times in France.
The next year, his most recent novel, Mémoires de porcépic (Memories of a Porcupine) won the Prix Renaudot, one of France's most important literary prizes. Implausible though it sounds, the main character in the book is, in fact, a porcupine.
"African wisdom considers that everyone is born with an animal double," said Mabanckou. "The animal double and the person are fated to die the same day. But in my novel, when the man dies, his porcupine double does not die. Instead, the animal describes life with his master, the human being."
If this sounds more than a little amusing, that humor is an accurate reflection of Mabanckou's personality. The voicemail message on his cell phone, for instance, consists mostly of an extended hearty belly laugh briefly punctuated with an invitation to leave a message.
"Writers write about things that they know," said Mabanckou. "When people who know me read my books, the most frequent comment I get is that my books are very funny—just like me."
Of course, Mabanckou is more than just a jokester. His novels tackle important subjects, including slavery, war, race relations, migration, violence and the media, spirituality, and philosophy. He pushes boundaries stylistically and linguistically as well, weaving Congolese rhythms into his French sentences or writing one entire novel without punctuation.
Arriving at UCLA in 2006 after a three-year stint at the University of Michigan, Mabanckou quickly established himself as a core figure in the Department of French and Francophone Studies. Most universities have at least one specialist working on the Francophone world, but thanks to a spate of recent hires, UCLA currently has five full-time faculty members specializing in the French-speaking regions of the Caribbean, Africa and Canada.
"We probably have the most exciting French department in the country right now," said professor and department chair Dominic Thomas. "Our vibrant approach to broadening the parameters of French and Francophone Studies has made us into a blueprint of what French studies will look like in the future."
Mabanckou's multiple talents give the department all sorts of possibilities in terms of engaging with students.
"I don't think it's ever been done before within a modern language department, but starting in the 2008–09 academic year, Alain will be leading a French-language creative writing class," said Thomas.
In Mabanckou, UCLA gets an inspiring professor who has achieved celebrity status in France and whose distinction will only grow as his books continue to be translated and adapted.
For his part, Mabanckou values the perspective that Los Angeles affords.
"As you see a lot of countries, your views will change," he says. "Living in France made me understand very well the processes of colonization and discrimination. Living in the United States, far from both the Congo and France, allows me to create my own culture, to mix my background and invent other ways of thinking. In this sense, America is the place where I can say that I am quietly writing."
African Psycho, Memories of a Porcupine, the James Baldwin biography, and a new volume of collected poetry—these are the fruits already borne from Mabanckou's time in the States.
"I don't think I would have written all of these books if I had just stayed in Africa or France," said Mabanckou. "Distance is useful for a writer. Sometimes you need to be far away from something in order to see it. The bird in the top of the tree can see everything. A bird sitting at the bottom of a tree cannot."