Le Monde est Son Langage

The newly published book by Alain Mabanckou, Le Monde est Mon Langage, is a tour of the French-speaking world in a series of essays. His travels take him all throughout the world meeting, occasionally by chance, French speakers and writers in the most unlikely of places, discussing literature, politics, francophonie, and the history of French literature as it appears in various places all over the world.

In his captivating introduction he explains how this autobiographie capricieuse came about.  He himself became a writer, not because he had to leave his native country, but because writing helped him to look at his world differently. Having lived on three continents, he says that he discovered this world through this point-of-view français. This is a book about the relationships that he has created with the people that he has met in his travels, calling them “ambassadors”, many of whom write in a language other than their native language, that same language that Mabanckou has adopted for his writing.  French does not belong only to the French, but is spoken the world over.  Many of the writers he will meet and write about are multi-national, multi-lingual and write in search of identity or on the theme of exile.


Chapter one begins in Paris where he meets the writer Le Clésio for a conference and remembers his relationship with him over the years.  Le Clésio, whose mother is from France, father from Mauritius but Breton by birth, now lives in New Mexico.  Their philosophical discussions on writing and language are fascinating and inspiring. These discussions set the tone for the book, and I especially enjoyed envisioning these two great men of literature strolling through the gardens of Paris while in deep discussion.   As the first and longest chapter, it seems to me that this one was indeed the most important.  His next stop is to my beloved New Orleans and a meeting with a man who claims to have roots with the Haitian hero Toussaint Louverture!


One of the many reasons why I find this book fascinating and captivating is, as I have said above, when he and his friends discuss topics such as the purpose of language, art, writing, poetry, whether poetry is dead, how poets are the guardians of the language and how a single language cannot define the world. These philosophical discussions are for me so thought-provoking and precious.  I read slowly and carefully, taking notes and occasionally putting it down just to contemplate.


Quite often the chapters in the book read like a biography with references to the most significant works produced by these writers and the impact their work has had on the literature of the region and the Francophone world. Some people may see them as dry, but to me they are always eye-opening, create great discussions and sometimes have sparked my interest in a certain writer or his work.  There are many chapters in which discussions will range from créolité, antillanité, the créolisation of Europe, to identity and exile, in the works of such authors as Edouard Glissant, Camara Laye, and Gary Victor, just to name a few.


Another of my favorite chapters is the one on Montreal with Dany Laferrière and his friend Rodney Saint-Éloi. It is partially a story,  partially an interview.  I have appreciated Dany’s humor and use of metaphor ever since I first discovered his work.  Even in this short chapter, his charm and humor come through.  Mabanckou, a long-time friend of Dany’s, clearly knows how to capture his essence.


It is clear through his writing that the French language is precious to him, and that writing this book is like a love letter to les lettres françaises, French literature, all of it from everywhere in the world.  For someone whose exposure to French literature outside of France is limited, this book is a great starting point.  For the great bibliophile, this is also an important work to add to your shelves.  Mabanckou’s defense of poetry, his pure belief in the importance of literature to move and inspire people will resonate with those passionate about language, as it has with me.


I have used it with students as a book club selection, with chapter by chapter discussion questions.

***Book available as a French Book Club Course, See my Services page***

In Honor of March as Le Mois de la Francophonie (Francophone month)

In honor of March as Le Mois de la Francophonie (Francophone month) where French culture and history are celebrated around the world, I decided to write about one of my favorite Francophone books La Civilisation, ma Mère!…from Driss Chraïbi. Chraïbi is a twentieth century Moroccan writer that I discovered in college during my graduate years.  It was one of the literally dozens of books that I read during that program that really stayed with me all this time, one that I still talk about and remember fondly. It is the touching story of a woman and her sons, who loved her so much that they risked everything to liberate her.

The whole novel is narrated in the first person, first by her youngest son in part one entitled Être (to be).  We assume this is Driss even though he is never named. Then part two, called Avoir (to have), is narrated by the older son Nagib, while the younger is in Paris to pursue his studies.  This is the part that is biographically true for Chraïbi, who did go to school in France and in fact never return to his native Morocco. In part one, we learn about the childhood of their mother, also biographically accurate, who was orphaned at a young age, raised by a family who make a maid out of her, and then married her to a much older man while she was just 13 years old.  She is a traditional Moroccan woman in the 1930s, whose sole purpose and joy in life is to serve her family and make a good home.  Her children go to school and her husband works, meanwhile she is more or less cloistered.  In fact, I lost count of how many times Chraïbi refers to the home as either her prison or her tomb.

But this is during the period of French control, and European “civilization” begins to change the lives of the people of Morocco, especially cities like Casablanca, where children go to French schools and learn French and other European subjects, and new technology begins to arrive. Here is where fiction takes a detour from the true story of Chraïbi’s mother.  Our two narrators begin to introduce, slowly at first, the newest products, like a radio, the telephone, the cinema, etc.  We begin to see, ever so slowly the evolution, the transformation of this woman, for better or for worse, sometimes even she does not know, due to the education her sons offer her, unbeknownst to their father.  At first she is frightened, but then she embraces it, and like a sponge, absorbs the information, and it empowers her.  So frightened was she the first time her sons tried to take her outside to a park, in a western dress and shoes they bought for her, that they had to carry her over the threshold.  Yet, in an absolutely endearing scene, she hugs all the trees, eats the grass and dangles her feet in a stream, like a child for the first time outside.  The world is finally open to her.  She can learn about the world from her living room via the radio, reach out of her cloistered space and talk to distanced family members via the telephone, and eventually find her own voice through her new discovery of politics and the education of her sons.

There is so much that can be said about this novel that there is just not time enough, like the scene where they install the radio, which I can only imagine from the description is a massive piece of furniture, causing so much damage during its installation in the house that they had to buy plaster to repair walls and ceiling.  Metaphorically, the damage here could represent the disruption of peace in this household with the arrival of the West in Morocco.  While having caused her stress in the beginning, she does not let it stop her.   Her education does not stop with simple objects of technology.  She takes her new empowered status on the road and tries to educate and empower other women of her country.  There is the burial of all the vestiges of her past, and looking only forward, she undertakes the complete makeover of her house, painting, furnishing with nothing but European imports.  Hers is a miraculous transformation in just a few short years.

It is an inspiring and moving story that has stuck with me for more than two decades. Reading it for the second time has only enhanced my original experience, making it even more endearing that it was the first time.  It is a story of rebirth, liberation, where she herself was a being “colonized” and was freed by the very persons to whom she gave life. They in turn, gave life back to her.  It is about the power of knowledge, having a voice, coming into being (être) and having a voice (avoir).

An enthusiastic 5 stars, if I could give it more, I would.