The America festival, which takes place in Vincennes (Val de Marne) from September 22 to 25, 2022, has chosen this year as its theme “The voices of America”, and among these voices, wishes to make heard those long ignored by the so-called peoples “first”. On this occasion, the festival welcomes a large delegation of writers from indigenous communities in Canada and the United States.
Francis Geffard, founding president of the America festival and director of the “Terre d’Amérique” collection at Albin Michel, explains to franceinfo Culture the capital importance of these voices in contemporary American literature, and how these voices can open up fields of exciting reflections on the major questions that cross our present.
Franceinfo Culture: Why this year’s spotlight on indigenous authors?
Francis Geffard: This question has always been present as a red thread in the festival. This 20th edition of América takes place just days before the 530th anniversary of the discovery of America, 1492/2022. In 2002 we decided to bring together writers from both Americas. This year, we decided to do something around the voices of America. The voice of a writer is used for many things, to tell, but also to signal his presence, to fight and to protest. It is in this main theme that comes the voice of Aboriginal authors. These are people who for a very long time have been reduced to silence, both victims of colonization and victims of acculturation. Their voices have been heard for only a few years. And these voices resonate on lots of themes related to the protection of the environment, global warming, and also to all the questions that revolve around nature, identity and culture. A large part of the festival will take place around these questions of ecology and the environment. We are at a time when we ask ourselves a lot of questions about “where we are going”. It’s quite easy to see that the challenges facing us are significant, and that we don’t really know how we’re going to get out of them. Of course, all this will be discussed in Vincennes during the festival and these so-called “first” peoples really have something to say.
“These peoples are not peoples who belong to the past. They are peoples of today and this is where we meet each other, because all the questions they raise concern us equally”Francis Geffard
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We invited authors but also native journalists, representatives of various tribes, environmental activists, people who campaign for the respect of treaties and against the exploitation of natural resources on Indian reserves.
Is there a specificity of this literature?
I think that in the same way that there are a thousand ways to be French, there are as many ways to be native. Afterwards, like the fact of being French, one is heir to a common past, a common culture. What we can say is that in their works resounds an ancient world. There really is this weight of the past, and there is the weight of trauma, which is extremely present. There is also, in my opinion, a relationship to time that is quite different. In a lot of works, we find a circular dimension to time, which is not as clear-cut as Westerners, time is more flexible. And that is felt in the construction of the novels, and there is, so to speak, no break, there is a kind of linearity of time. It is also a literature of orality, which plays a very, very important role.
“The first peoples were not peoples of writing but they had stories, stories, songs, prayers etc. And all this is reflected today in the works”.Francis Geffard
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What can also be noted is a particular relationship to the living. In many of these works, we will find a relationship to what lives, radically different from that of Europeans. For us, nature is something apart, while for the natives, man is one with nature. The concept of nature is, so to speak, foreign to them. And even today, even if acculturation has greatly reduced the originality of these cultures, it is no less true that the relationship to a landscape, to a mountain, to a river, to animals, to plants, is radically different from ours.
Why did this Native American literature take so long to come out of the shadows?
This literature took some time to earn its stripes in contemporary American literature. These authors have been victims of the image stuck to them. Not only were the Indians completely colonized, but throughout history, Westerners thought more of taking than giving and thus also lost real opportunities to meet others and share things in common. .
“The image of the Indians has been completely diverted, it has become an integral part of the American collective unconscious.”Francis Geffard
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Finally, the thing that there was in America and not elsewhere, was the Indians, who were sometimes seen as savages or sometimes as somewhat extraordinary beings, such as the noble savage dear to Rousseau. Either subhuman or superhuman. To sum up, it’s the image of the Indian in the western. So these are people who have been victims both in reality and in the imagination. It’s true that suddenly, for a long time, we limited them to that, to a somewhat nostalgic image, in sepia tones, and finally we completely missed the encounter because the Indian was confined to this area of childhood or late adolescence. While these cultures convey questions that are essential. The so-called “first” peoples“ are carriers of questions which are not questions of the past but eminently contemporary questions, identity, culture, relations with the environment, solidarity between generations, They question us in many ways.
What Indigenous authors would you recommend to enter into this literature?
There are two native authors who in the history of American literature have played a very special role, one is N. Scott Momaday. He is a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma, he is the first Indian to have received the Pulitzer Prize for a novel called A house made of Dawn which was republished in 2020 in a new translation (by Albin Michel, editor’s note). He is a poet essayist, he was a professor at the university, a specialist in Elizabethan poetry.
And the other indigenous author who, fifty years after N. Scott Momaday, received the Pulitzer Prize with his book The one who watches (Albin Michel, 2021), is Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwa Indian, originally from the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. In these two writers we find all the characteristics of this literature: echoes of the past, orality, the sense of the sacred – which is something very important -, the relationship to the world, the relationship to the living, the relationship to space, to the landscape.
Louise Erdrich produced a very important work, she wrote about twenty novels, poetry, short stories, and she is considered today as one of the major American writers, just like N. Scott Momaday, but this recognition does not did not go by itself.
“This Indian question is not easy to grasp, it is painful, it is not a question marked under the seal of lightness, but from my point of view it is absolutely capital.”Francis Geffard
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The fact that more than half a century elapsed between these two Pulitzer Prizes awarded to Aboriginal authors raises questions. But that may be because they represent original sin. As Faulkner said “the past is not dead”, which is very Indian because for Indians the past exists as much as the present, and Faulkner said that if we wanted to understand America we had to be interested in the Indian question : it was something on which he had thought a lot, something that also lived for a very long time with Jim Harrisson, one of the American writers who was very significant for French readers.
What can this Amerindian literature bring to us Westerners?
I would be tempted to say that for a long time Europeans and North Americans thought they had all the answers and were mainly concerned with development and with capitalism, which consisted among other things in plundering other continents. We see today where this logic has led us. The destruction of these peoples around the world has gone hand in hand with the destruction of the world of work, with the disregard for the lives of some of us. We can clearly see that we are coming a bit to the end of this materialist, consumerist logic, based on profit. We had a relationship with the world that obeyed only the law of profit, and today I would be tempted to say somewhat trivially that we are presented with the bill, when all these indigenous peoples had leads of development which were very different from this logic. So I think now these indigenous people are part of the conversation. And it’s exciting.
How does Indian literature shed light on America?
I was one of his main smugglers of this literature. At the time I started to work on this subject, these authors were left out because they were not considered worthy of interest for all the reasons I mentioned above. Whereas
I see a great closeness between African-American literature and Indigenous literature. But beware, just because you’re Indian doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a great writer. That goes for any population. Afterwards, when you have talent as an artist and you have a particular vision, of course it is from there that you reflect on your community something special. The most interesting thing about Toni Morrison isn’t that she’s black, it’s being the writer that she was, and that’s because she somehow accomplished that. that it shed light on what African-American experiences represented through time and all the issues related to slavery.
“I have been in contact with this world for more than forty years. It has not made me an Indian, but it has radically changed my intellectual vision of history, culture, relationship to others.”Francis Geffard
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All that is not very comfortable because there is a kind of mise en abyme, but we are also the heirs of that, and I think that we are now confronted more with questions than with answers. The Indian world is the heir of a history made of destruction, lies, duplicity, I believe that in the history of humanity there are few people who have been so mistreated. When you look a little at what American history has been, it’s incredible. But America is never so interesting as in its flaws and God knows if it has any, and it is perhaps this idea of the flaws of America, and beyond that the flaws of the Western world, that we want to highlight at the festival this year, and experience otherness.
Festival America, Vincennes from September 22 to 30, 2022
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Festival America: for its president Francis Geffard, “indigenous peoples are now part of the conversation”