‘No longer just the white man.’ Can French literature make room for new voices?

Colette Davidson in The Christian Science Monitor:

France’s literary institutions have long struggled with a diversity problem. Though France doesn’t collect statistics on race and ethnicity, a majority of top editors and authors have historically been white. Its literary awards heavily favor men: Since France’s top literature prize, the Prix Goncourt, began in 1903, only 12 women have won. The integration of marginalized literary voices, especially those of second-generation French or people of color, has come in fits and starts. Until the 1990s, literature written by children of immigrant parents of Maghrebis descent was categorized using a pejorative term for Arab. The publication of a 1999 novel by Rachid Djaïdani, which described daily life in France’s housing projects where many immigrants live, was a landmark in breaking the mold. Another was the publication in 2007 of a controversial literary collection by second-generation French writers about their complex relationship with France.

But progress has been incremental. Publishers still gravitate to books by people of color from Francophone Africa or the United States, rather than minority writers who grew up in France. “I’ve always been struck by the lack of representation in French literature of my reality: what it means to be Black in France,” says Gladys Marivat, a Paris-based literary journalist. In 2015, she interviewed all of the major publishing houses in Paris as part of an investigation into the lack of diversity in French literature; her report went unpublished. “When I asked [publishers] why this was the case,” says Ms. Marivat, “the answer was always the same: a total incomprehension of my question. They said, ‘But we publish authors from Francophone Africa.’ But that’s not the same thing.”

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