In 2021, Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah and South African Damon Galgut received prestigious literary awards. Deserved consecrations, but which meet the expectations of Western critics.
The award of the Goncourt prize to The most secret memory of men, by the Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, has been, rightly, greeted by everyone, or almost. According to the award-winning author, “this is a strong signal […], a way, too, to show that France is sometimes much larger and much more noble – in any case much more open – than what we can, we want to reduce it. This prize rewards a novel of great quality, highlights the formidable work of two small publishing houses (Philippe Rey and Jimsaan) and, above all, places peripheral literature on the world literary map. What more can you want?
However, a critical dose of distancing seems necessary. Enthusiasm must give way to critical reflection work. There are thus several issues that it is useful to explore. What does this triumph reveal to us over the relationships, structured by colonial history, between the dominant and the dominated? At what cost is success when it depends on another who is in a position of strength? What does he tell us about the condition of the writer from the South?
Behind the literary consecration lurks the question of literary power, which is inserted in the structures of colonial domination. Thus, thousands of men and women write in the world, in many languages, with different writing practices, but few have achieved global recognition because it depends on the literary centers which decide on the legitimacy of their work. written.
For the French language, Paris is at the heart of this practice of legitimation. The power of these centers emanates from colonial history, from a history of subjugation of the other. It is multifaceted, economic, political, military and also symbolic. It may have faded over time, but its hold remains. We cannot therefore dissociate these instances of legitimation from a history and from the context.
What do we celebrate if not the approval of the dominant, who grants the dominated the legitimacy they dream of?
We could thus wonder about the enthusiasm of each other, in particular of an intelligentsia from the South, to glorify this event without calling into question the symbolic power of an institution like Goncourt. Because what do we celebrate, in the end, if not the approval of the dominant, who decides the value of the dominated and grants him the legitimacy he secretly dreams of. It is, in certain aspects, a psychic and intellectual enslavement, a reflex of the ex-colonized, this perpetual good student who waits to be told that he is up to the task.
An eminently European novel
The success of the dominated writer has a price: to be accepted and recognized, he must write texts that meet the expectations of the dominant. Thus, the writing practiced, the genre chosen, the choice of themes are not innocent. He therefore creates according to well-defined limits. It is allowed, moreover, a degree of subversion, but a permitted and agreed upon subversion. He practices a form of otherness that is accepted, a form of submissive insubordination, so to speak.
The true decolonization of the artist from the South will begin when he can create for his own people.
Thus the novel by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is, in my eyes, an eminently European novel, in its themes (in particular that of the deification of literature), in its structures, inscribed in the lineage of the project of Western modernity. In other words, it is a writing of the margins, which claims to be such, but which is paradoxically a writing of the center, constructed according to the logics of the center, elaborated to be recognized by the center. The tragedy of the Southern artist is that he is doomed to be a perpetual exile. Little or not understood by his family, little recognized, exiled in his own country, he wishes to gain or access to recognition and artistic consecration in the countries of the North. But this is not without consequences.
Some, who have settled in, are in a relationship of psychic dependence in the face of structures of domination, end up internalizing them. Others strategically choose to play the game, without necessarily disguising who they are. Exiled at home, exiled in the spheres of domination, the artist of the South wanders in a real no man’s land literary. True decolonization will undoubtedly begin when he can psychically free himself from symbolic domination, when he can create for his own people, drawing from his roots, when he will manage not only to decenter his artistic practice but to reinvent it, according to others. paradigms. So, to be at the heart of this “most secret memory”, you have to be at the heart of yourself, at the heart of your loved ones.
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Goncourt, Nobel, Booker Prize… The reward from dominant to dominated – Jeune Afrique