[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Hertich discusses the complexity of racial identity in French culture and how NDiaye’s work, particularly Among Family, offers new perspectives on the subject.]
The drive to classify is deeply rooted in the Western tradition. As Michel Foucault wrote, much of the West’s tradition of knowledge is based upon categorization (137-76). Differentiations, however oversimplified they may be, are frequently promoted as understanding. One finds this tendency in the often vague domain of “Francophone literature,” where the term Francophone traditionally equates to a work not originating from the Hexagon. This is due, in part, to the success of la négritude, a movement founded by the Martinican, Aimé Cesaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal who were living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Since the beginning of the movement these two disparate geographic areas frequently have been grouped together under one rubric. Furthermore, as négritude became a more widely-recognized “vehicle of protest against the colonial condition” (Jules-Rosette 88), authors from other regions, such as Pierre Vallière in his Quebecois separatist work, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, began to employ the term. Yet while fomenting change, this amalgamation of various peoples and cultures also helped solidify simple, dichotomous labels. In Négritude et négrologues, for example, Stanislas Adotevi strongly criticizes négritude and asserts that its tropes create a false homogeneity (45). In this way, it could be argued that négritude encompasses all those who are not in a position of power, just as Francophone literature describes all works in French from non-French authors.
Since the 1980s, however, a newer generation of generally young “Francophone” writers has emerged. The group is very diverse, including both authors who were born elsewhere but live in France such as Calixthe Beyala, Yodi Karone, and Leïla Houari,1 and Beur authors who were born in France such as Azouz Begag and Jean-Luc Yacine, to name but a few. This new generation has troubled the established dichotomy, for these authors cannot claim the primacy of one specific country or area. In a 1991 interview, Yodi Karone, for example, proclaimed: “I am Cameroonian, but I am also Parisian” (Jules-Rosette 255). The texts of this new generation often mirror this plurality, with questions of identity and place within society found at the forefront. Now, since these writers and their works cannot be easily classified in pre-established categories, these new authors complicate traditional divisions. Given this uncertainty, one must ask: Do these new works eliminate the viability of previously accepted models? (Where) do they lie within the area of Francophone literature and its associated theories, and where do the boundaries of different literary domains fall in general? While no simple answer to these questions exists, the texts of Marie NDiaye, and more specifically her fourth novel, En famille, do offer us insight into the difficulties of this ambiguous situation. In this novel, NDiaye’s perceptions about family unlock new approaches and perspectives to this hybrid Francophone literature that defies traditional binary categorization.
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