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Notes from France: French readers are turning to writers of mixed heritage | Books


Late autumn is France’s literary awards season. But away from the clinking champagne glasses and parties for the biggest laurels, such as the Goncourt or the Renaudot, it is often the smaller awards that shape the nation’s reading habits, propelling new French voices to international fame. Three prize-winning French novels show how themes of conflict and mixed cultural identities are coming to define France’s best writing.

In a nation still traumatised by terrorist attacks, still regularly honouring fallen soldiers in missions against jihadists in west Africa’s Sahel, and where the plague of discrimination and joblessness among young people on housing estates is yet to be addressed, novels about battles – past and present – are dominating booksellers’ recommendations and becoming a major literary export. These stories are devastating in their depiction of a society where prejudice and discrimination have fatal consequences, but all centre on characters kept afloat by the ties of family and friendship. For anyone wanting to understand today’s France, they are compulsory reading.

David Diop’s heartbreaking and poetic Frère d’âme, which will be published in English in the UK next year as At Night All Blood Is Black, addresses a story woefully absent from French history books – the inner life of African troops who fought in the French trenches in the first world war. These soldiers, often referred to as Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen) were drawn from all over west Africa, and president Emmanuel Macron honoured them in the centenary commemorations last year. But their own accounts are often missing from collections of soldiers’ letters home. Diop, a French-Senegalese writer and academic, takes the reader on a journey through the increasingly troubled mind of Alfa Ndiaye, who has been sent, with his best friend from Senegal, to the incomprehensible muddy butchery of the trenches.

Meanwhile, Mahir Guven’s masterpiece of a first novel, Grand frère, has just been published as Older Brother in the US. It is a meticulously plotted, funny and tragic story of an Uber driver in a Paris banlieue whose younger brother, a talented theatre nurse at a city hospital, has disappeared, and is feared to have gone to Syria to treat injured civilians. With its touching descriptions of an immigrant father’s relationship to his sons, it was praised in France for its insight into the lives of modern chauffeurs “taking direction from a phone”. But it is the huge scope of the French slang that Guven uses to weave a story that flits between life on a French housing estate to war in Syria, that sets him apart. Born in France to Turkish and Kurdish parents, he said he was sick of cliched depictions of young men in the Paris suburbs and set out to tell the truth.

Finally, also published in English next year is Alice Zeniter’s award-winning The Art of Losing, inspired by her family’s arrival in France and the Algerian war of 1954 to 1962, a war still not fully acknowledged in the French national psyche. She challenges official narratives about the harkis, a loaded and often pejorative term for the Algerian Muslims who aided the French army. Many were massacred. Those who managed to flee to France were kept in camps behind barbed wire, sometimes for years, before settling in tower blocks. Their descendants still grapple with the after effects today. The book reflects the current thirst in French storytelling for writers of mixed heritage to address parts of history and society that have been left untold. Asked why she wrote the book, Zeniter said: “I wanted to fill in the silences.”


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