Title: Letter to Jimmy
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Translator: Sara Meli Ansari
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6
There has long been a tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”. Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life). And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other). Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.
Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.
Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from his previous work. Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.
At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career. He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful. But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available. And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays). It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages. Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars. The two writers have geography in common. Mabanckou’s writes: “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors. I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.” Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer. Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work. His admiration and affection are apparent on every page. Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays: “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.
This, though, is not a collection of essays. Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence. And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans. When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.
On African immigrants in France –
However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their emergence. One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community. This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?
On the United States –
And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.
(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)
On race & racism –
Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”
And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –
“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **
This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English. She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice. But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life. What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.
Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre. It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized. It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.
*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo. Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.
**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”