Benaouda Lebdai – Fabienne Kanor: “Louisiana”, a painful African story

Born in Orleans, Fabienne Kanor teaches literature at Penn State University, while also being an accomplished artist, actress and documentary maker, and for the past few years she has written fiction texts with seven novels to her credit, whose Humus or Make the adventure, first published by Gallimard and the second by Lattès.

Louisiana, published in 2020 by Rivages, is his seventh novel. It is worth the detour because it gives to read a story which is at the crossroads of history and geography. It turns out that no historical date is given in this story, even if the novelist is intimately steeped in the history of the black people, which shines through every page. The novelist evokes the relationship between three continents, America, Africa and Europe, from specific places like Louisiana, the narrative space of the novel, France and Cameroon, and at the edge of these places Guadeloupe, Benin and Algeria. Fabienne Kanor plays the character of a Frenchman of Cameroonian origin in search of his uncle who left a few decades earlier in Louisiana and whose family has lost track.

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Family inquiry, initiatory quest

The character of the nephew, who is the narrator, arrives in Louisiana, starts an investigation from nothing, he does research to try to reconstruct the itinerary of the uncle who bears the strange name of Etienne John Wayne Marie Pierre. He approaches the African Americans that his uncle has met or known in order to understand what has become of him, an almost mythical character, to the point that the reader wonders what was the plan of this uncle in Louisiana: to live there? Find out what he never had in Cameroon? A migration in which he got lost and whose “rotten body” would have been “fished out in a bayou”? Or died in one of the lowlands of Douala after returning to Africa? The narrative plot cultivates mystery.

A read on many levels of interpretation, whether literal or complex, the narrative is linear in terms of the chronology of the narrator’s trip to Louisiana, but from a psychological perspective. Thus a complexity is built around this uncle Étienne John Wayne Marie Pierre, the uncle of America who left in 1946 from Douala to New Orleans directly and who embodies a hero in the eyes of his nephew. Indeed, he is the substitute for a father who remained in Yaoundé, Cameroon. It eclipses “the father genitor”, and it is at this level that the unconscious and the wounds of childhood play a significant role. The Louisiana uncle restores “the confiscated pride” to the nameless narrator, who thus expresses a problem to be resolved with his past, on the paternal side.

The twists and turns that construct the story are ultimately only a pretext for Fabienne Kanor, who plunges her reader into an initiatory journey made up of meetings and personal experiences in Tremé, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. . Thus, a human and political dimension settles over the pages as the novelist revisits the history of Louisiana, where she lives. The encounters and places that the character-narrator visits are contextualized; reminders of the history of the southern United States, of New Orleans, including the origin of the name Bâton Rouge which is “a French invention”.

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Benaouda Lebdai.
© DR

Oppression as a story

The history of slavery accompanies the narrative in a subtle way, starting from what the poor blacks of Louisiana live with in memory of the “Jim Crow” law; America, in general, where black people get killed, forced to shout “black lives matter” because, as Marvin says, “I saw Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice get murdered in the TV ”with free entry“ like before when they lynched us ”. The periods are mixed and the present strongly recalls the so specific history of Louisiana, that of cotton farms and slavery which makes the narrator say: “I would have liked to have had the guts to swim across the Mississippi. , that water that so many shackles and slaves’ sobs had made to blush. “Zaac, the new friend of” the African “, makes him discover the dilapidated environment of streets, houses and especially the psychological integration that to be black is to be inferior, even if jazz and music who comes from African cultures offer pride of being Black; misery and natural disasters like Katerina only kill and bring despair to poor blacks.

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“Being a Negro from the United States”

Although Black, but Black from Africa, the narrator has a heavy and sad heart, throughout his encounters in his search for traces of his uncle. His discovery of a Louisiana inherited from the days of slavery prompts him to think with shameful relief, that of not “being like them”. He said without hesitation: “I can be all blacks: South African, Namibian, Togolese, West Indian, Cuban, but the worst of the worst is being a Negro from the United States. It is to be potentially guilty and historically unhappy. This sentiment in no way reveals a sense of superiority but rather a deep hurt of what Africans have suffered because of slavery and its consequences to this day.

The poet and novelist Baldwin wanted to escape his condition of black in the United States; he went into exile in Paris and the narrator wondered if the writer was aware of what was also happening in France: “Did he see the Arabs who were thrown into the Seine… the Africans whom France was importing when that sang to him, the West Indians who came to replace the Algerians who have become Algerians again? The Franco-Cameroonian narrator weaves the threads of history. The relationship between Zaac and the nephew shows that beyond the color of the black skin, it is the identical perception of the history of Africans that is told. Zaac the Louisiana and the African narrator describe themselves thus: “We are pharaohs, we are eternal. »Zaac becomes Zachary Ramses II, African American pharaoh! Revenge on this region where “cotton makes the South.” Cotton is the South. Cotton is good for the South and the South good for cotton. No more bars, no more cotton, no more cotton, no more gold ”. Solidarity is symbolized by the heart of the narrator “thrown into the marshes”, which marks the filial, friendly, fraternal, ancestral bond between blacks, whatever the time and place. Fabienne Kanor gives to read a novel difficult to summarize but which transports you to this Africa-America relationship thanks to a writing that is both poetic and realistic which shakes up.

Fabienne Kanor, “Louisiane”, Paris, Rivages, 202 pages, 18.80 euros.
© Shores

* Professor of colonial and postcolonial literature at Le Mans University.

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