Monday, July 04, 2005

Media(ted) Relations

Something that I look forward to on my long research trips to France is discovering new literature. Despite the abstractness of the language, French has a simplicity that makes it a great language for cross-cultural exchange, be it in the form of people in the Third World writing in a second language or translations of works written in languages that are not widely spoken. Furthermore, the French literary market is hungry enough for new works that many more translations are made available for the average consumer than in English literary markets.

I picked up Le Ventre de l'Atlantique (The Belly of the Atlantic) by Fatou Diome. A Senegalese woman who immigrated to France in the mid-1990s, Diome writes about the relationships between immigrants in France and the people back home. The novel, her second book, explores the West as it is perceived by Africans, especially as images of the West are created and nurtured by media.

Sankèle/Salie quit her village on a Senegalese island to escape an arranged marriage (after her parents kill her bastard son), and sought out intellectual freedom in France, something that she could not have in Senegal. Her liberation, however, comes through hardship and humiliation. Rather than finding a life of free thought, her skin color forces her to live as an outsider, struggling at great expense to survive in a modern economy. The imagined intellectual life is difficult to obtain, and she lives in solitude rather than comfort.

In Senegal, powerful media images of opportunity in the West transfix the youth of her home village. France is a nation of easily-won wealth and luxury. In particular, the adolescents obsess over 'foot' (soccer/football). They gather around the sole television in the village to watch Africans playing in premiere league teams, and even on the national team. The African players are not just wealthy, they are portrayed as men who have been accepted by France as members of the nation. The adolescents dream of establishing themselves in French clubs. ‘Foot' is the only means that they see of escaping poverty, and it defines their desires.

The television, of course, shows only one side of reality. The misery of immigrants, which would be understood by French audiences, does not come to light. The rupture plays out in another medium, the telephone. Sankèle receives calls from her brother Mandiké. He calls her for one reason: to talk about soccer matches. He presses her to put him up so that he can pursue his dream of joining a French club. Instead Sankèle tries to educate him about the dangers of immigration and urges him to stay home: France would not be a land of dreams for him. He reproaches her: she is not helping him. Rather his sister has become a greedy ‘individual' who has lost her sense of obligation to family and community.
"If you think it is better to get by here in the country, why have you not come back? So come, prove yourself that your ideas are right."
Salie realizes with great pain that she cannot communicate the reality above the televised image.

Many African novels explore the dangers of acculturation. After the pattern set by The Ambiguous Adventure, young men are sent into the rarified environments of western colonial schools. They learn in order to save their communities and their cultures. Instead, they are "Westernized", transformed so that they are alien to the communities they would have saved.

Le Ventre de l'Atlantique seems to stand in a new direction that is taking place within African literature (Emmanuel Dongala's Little Boys come from the Stars is another example), one that does not accept the strict separation of the "West and the Rest". Media pierces the into the periphery, carrying images of the West that are uncritical, and consequently alluring. Media cultivates a new imaginary geography in which desire and happiness are defined almost entirely by distance from European and North American countries and the hurdles that must be surmounted in order to reach them. People become blind to what social and economic change can occur at home, and they do not anticipate the complex cultures of the West and what it will take for them to assimilate.

Diome mentions events that I partially witnessed when I was in France in 2002. During the World Cup, as France's fortunes sank and Senegal's rose, Africans in Paris filled with pride, celebrating in the streets with verve. Sadly the Parisian authorities decided that it was inappropriate for Senegalese to rejoice for their national team as Frenchmen would for their own.

[Updatde:] The website Words without borders has a translated passage from the book. I invite everyone to go read.

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