Isadora Hutcheson-Lovett is an MA candidate in Postcolonial studies at SOAS, University of London. Her current research examines memory and gendered legacies of trauma in Haitian literature. She is also interested in the politics of borders, gender theory and Francophone literature.

Isadora Hutcheson-Lovett
, SOAS University of London

Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme: legitimising collective memory in the face of legislative amnesia

The front cover, Image source

2003 saw the publishing of Malagasy and Comorian writers Jean-Luc Raharimanana and Soeuf Elbadawi’s Dernières nouvelles de la Françafrique. A collaborative work, the anthology showcases thirteen of Francophone Africa’s most treasured voices, each contributing a stylistically unique, yet narratively familiar perspective on the continual presence of the neo-colonial network known as Françafrique. Just three years later, Raharimanana launched a new volume, featuring four of the original contributors (Tanella Boni, Eugène Ébodé, Sayouba Traoré and Raharimanana himself) and thirteen others originating from both diverse and converging Francophone postcolonial settings. Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme was not, however, born solely in the image of its older sibling, but created in reaction to a specific piece of French educational legislation introduced in 2005. La loi du 23 février 2005 explicitly exhibited France’s institutional colonial nostalgia, calling for ‘school curricula [to] recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa.’[1] Patrice Ngnang, the collection’s opening contributor, identifies France’s ‘selective memory’[2] (8) when it comes to its colonial record. This collection is therefore an endeavour to remember; to form a transnational collective memory in the face of metropolitan amnesia, and to form a ‘collective voice’[3] (8) in the face of a law that seeks to silence.

Contributor Bessora. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Contributor Patrice Nganang. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Contributor Tanella Boni. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the contributions to Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme make continuous references to colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial events, the collective memories explored do not constitute a revised historiography. As Dominique Ranaivoson points out, the work ‘does not analyse any situation from a historical point of view, preferring snippets of fresh memories to distant approaches.’[4] Contributors constantly credit the pioneering writers that have influenced them, such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, Guy Tirolien, Cheikh Anta Diop, Kateb Yacine, Dany Laferrière, René Maran and Yambo Ouologuem to name but a few. By bringing to light the work of others, the collection is not an attempt to rewrite history, but to rewrite the hierarchy of memories and voices that dictate historiography. In referencing these voices, the seventeen contributors centre those who have already done the historiographical debunking, highlighting the continual erasure of marginalised memories under systems that constantly evade responsibility by deferring to the positive/negative binary of colonialism. References to these authors also circulate their work, and their perspectives, across the Francophone literary space. Thus, the contributors to Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme transgress national borders, creating a non-eurocentric piece of world literature in which to discuss a European problem: legislative erasure.

Part of the task of constructing a collective memory and voice must also work to counteract equivalencies between solidarity and homogeneity. In Je suis de ce pays où l’herbe ne pousse plus…, Marie-Célie Agnant highlights the continual undermining of colonised voices, due to the confusion between these two concepts: ‘it’s not by chance that they say our books all tell the same story’[5] (104). Solidarity and cohesion in memory does not mean that the voice cannot be multiplicitous in its expression. Ernest Pépin’s protagonist in Le 14 Juillet d’Isidore, simultaneously acknowledges the interconnectivity of these voices as well as their individuality:

For him, the colonised had only written one book. One big book that each author continued in their own way. One big book in which complaints, petitions, stories, tales, poems, songs, riddles were intertwined. One big book to demand the rights of colonised peoples. One big book that they left at the foot of the tree of colonisation.[6] (177)

Whilst the contributions to Pépin’s book are stylistically heterogeneous, the limitations of these contributions to one book alone reflect Agnant’s concerns surrounding the confinement of the colonised to not only a singular story, but also a singular space, controlled and contained by the metropole, in which to tell one’s story. Just like Pépin’s ‘one big book,’ Dernières Nouvelles du colonialisme is composed of a multitude of different styles and approaches: parables like Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Les intouchables (histoire vraie) and Koulsy Lamko’s Tous les voyants sont à l’arc-en-ciel; accounts of true stories such as Bejamine Sahene’s Ta race; Alain Mabanckou’s satire Propos abracadabrants d’un colonisé; Patrice Nganang’s letter to his grandfather La terre du café; Tanella Boni’s fable Le petit chien de Madame L’Œil; Bessora’s answer to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ study of mythology Le cru et le cuit.

Whilst the inclusion of such vast material can be thought of as a conscious form of resistance, the collection is also a physical manifestation of the limited space permitted to colonised voices. The inclusion of such heterogeneity speaks to the exclusion and silencing of these voices outside of their permitted literary space – within metropolitan legislative narratives, for example. The idea that Pépin’s book is left at ‘the foot of the tree of colonisation’ speaks to postcolonial literature’s hegemonic relationship with metropolitan structures; the deep-rooted tree is the source of paper and thus, the book is partly bound to it. Furthermore, the educational target of France’s 2005 law is key to the maintenance of the colonial tree. Legislation influences national epistemes that deepen the tree’s roots and extend its branches, colouring younger generations’ reading of postcolonial and world literatures with visions of colonial grandeur. .

Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme is then, part of a literary resistance to structural amnesia: to fill in memory lapses of dominant systems that work to absolve the beneficiaries of colonialism. In Comsère,an exchange between Sayouba Traoré’s protagonists Moustapha and Célestin points to the sad necessity of memory:

But Célestin, it’s the past!

The past? You don’t know what you’re talking about. The past is when you can forget.[7] (126)

The act of falsifying history’[8] by denying ‘not only […] memory; [but] also the truth’[9] (Nganang, 10) forces a revisiting and reliving of the past that this collection actively rejects; the contributors refuse to provide an alternative timeline to justify their omitted memories to their oppressor. They refuse to allow legislative erasure to dictate Francophone literature, whilst simultaneously alluding to the metropolitan issues that continue to hinder their literary production. In doing so, these seventeen authors opt to equalise the memorial hierarchy, superseding legislation and legitimising each other.

Read the Book

Dernières nouvelles du colonialisme, ed. by Jutta Hepke and Gilles Colleu (France: Vents d’ailleurs, 2006)

Further Reading

Dernières Nouvelles de Françafrique, ed. by Jutta Hepke (France : Vents d’ailleurs, 2003)

[1] Translated from the French: ‘Les programmes scolaires reconnaissent en particulier le rôle positif de la présence française outre-mer, notamment en Afrique du Nord’. The full legislation can be found here.

[2] ‘mémoire sélective’

[3] ‘voix collective’

[4] ‘[l’ouvrage] n’analyse aucune situation du point de vue historique, préférant les bribes de mémoires vives aux approches distanciées.’

[5] ‘ce n’est pas par hazard que l’on dit que nos histoires racontent tous la même histoire’

[6] ‘Selon lui, les colonisés n’avaient écrit qu’un seul livre. Un seul grand livre que chaque auteur continuait à sa manière. Un seul grand livre où s’emmêlaient plaintes, pétitions, récits, contes, poèmes, chansons, devinettes. Un seul grand livre pour réclamer les droits de l’homme colonisé. Un seul grand livre qu’ils déposaient au pied de l’arbre de la colonisation.’

[7] ‘– Mais Célestin, c’est le passé !
– Le passé ? Tu ne sais pas ce que tu dis. Le passé, c’est quand on peut oublier.’

[8] ‘falsifier l’histoire’

[9] ‘pas seulement […] mémoire ; [mais] aussi la vérité’