A philosopher, psychiatrist, and political activist, Frantz Fanon was a fierce, acute critic of racism and oppression. Born of African descent in Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought in defense of France during World War II but later against France in Algeria’s war for independence. His last book, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, inspired leaders of diverse liberation movements: Steve Biko in South Africa, Che Guevara in Latin America, the Black Panthers in the States.
Wideman’s novel is disguised as the project of a contemporary African American novelist, Thomas, who undertakes writing a life of Fanon. The result is an electrifying mix of perspectives, traveling from Manhattan to Paris to Algeria to Pittsburgh. Part whodunit, part screenplay, part love story, Fanon introduces the French film director Jean-Luc Godard to the ailing Mrs. Wideman in Homewood and chases the meaning of Fanon’s legacy through our violent, post-9/11 world, which seems determined to perpetuate the evils Fanon sought to rectify.
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JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and most recently the story collection God’s Gym. He is the recipient of two PEN/ Faulkner Awards and has been nominated for the National Book Award. He teaches at Brown University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’m sitting with the last of a glass of red wine in the small garden of a small house in Brittany. I spent the morning of this day as I’ve spent most mornings this summer, trying to save a life, adding a few words, a few sentences to the long letter I’m addressing to you, Frantz Fanon, dead almost half a century before I begin writing to you, writing just about every day, outdoors when weather permits, sitting each morning in the garden of a house in France, the country you claimed, Fanon, as your nation, fought and bled for, wounded near Lyon in 1944, and then fought against during the war for Algerian independence until you died of leukemia, they say, in 1961, in a hospital in America, the country I claim as mine. France your country, French your language, though you were born in Martinique, a Caribbean island thousands of miles away from where I sit this evening thinking about you, Fanon, about your short, more than full life, about the fact that sixty-five years of my very full life have passed no less swiftly than the thought of them that just now passed through my mind. Though your story’s extraordinary, it’s also like mine, like anybody’s, just another story, but since I’ve chosen to tell it or it’s chosen me, for reasons I’m still attempting to figure out as I proceed, reasons that may be why I proceed, I know a life’s at stake. Whose life and why are other things I’m trying to figure out. I intend to say more about this particular evening, Fanon, but first I need to speak to you about the project that’s been on my mind for many years, forty years at least, ever since I read your final book, The Wretched of the Earth, for the first time. Although the worrisomeness I’m calling a Fanon project has assumed various forms, it began clearly enough as a determination to be like you, that is, to become a writer committed to telling the truth about color and oppression, a writer who exposes the lies of race and reveals how the concept of race is used as a weapon to destroy people. I wanted to be somebody, an unflinchingly honest, scary somebody like Frantz Fanon whose words and deeds just might ignite a revolution, just might help cleanse the world of the plague of racism. Over the years I gradually resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t measure up to your example, and my Fanon project shifted to writing about disappointment with myself and my country, about shame and guilt and lost opportunities, about the price of not measuring up to announced ideals. Of course my perceptions of you changed as I changed and the world changed around me. The Fanon project continued to simmer, however, never forgotten, never achieved, often lamented, less a model for guiding my actions than a source of anxiety and unfulfilled ambition, deep dread that someday my nation and I must endure a shattering reckoning. I published numerous books during this period, always hoping they didn’t dishonor Frantz Fanon nor compromise unforgivably my original project. Then about six years ago, the Fanon project took another turn if I couldn’t live Fanon’s life, maybe I could write it. On Martinique I encountered your stenciled, spray-painted image, an image like my project, almost effaced, so I didn’t recognize you until two days after you popped up in the middle of nowhere, a field where cows grazed near the beach, your face on a concrete minibunker belonging to an energy company supplying electricity to the section of the island, Sainte-Anne’s Parish, where I was staying in a resort hotel, on holiday with a Frenchwoman I’d recently met, rapidly fallen in love with, and would eventually marry. The rest of the story of catching up with my Fanon project may or may not be in the following pages. I’m hoping it will be. Hoping there’s still time to connect with you. My sense of urgency about connecting would require many books to express, and I realize time’s running out. I won’t be writing many more books, if any. The plague of race continues to blight people’s lives, becoming more virulent as it mutates and spreads over the globe. When I ask myself if your example made any difference, Fanon, ask if your words and deeds alleviate one iota the present catastrophe of hate, murder, theft, and greed, where else should I start looking besides the mirror. Where should I search if not in faces of people I love. Will I find an answer in your eyes, behind me in the mirror, gazing into the face I see seeing yours. Once upon a time I believed fiction writing was a privileged, not a suspect, activity. I thought writing fiction could establish a stable identity for me in the everyday world where people need to eat, wear clothes, work, etc., and at the same time free me to entertain myself and others, maybe, by creating alternative lives in my fiction. Real worlds and imaginary worlds weren’t necessarily antagonistic, I ttttthought. They could complement each other, engage in open-minded, open-ended conversation and exchange. Fact and fiction need each other, don’t they. You can’t have one without the other. I wasn’t wrong. Just naive. Writing fiction marginalized me as much as I was marginalized by the so-called fact of my race. Your witness, Fanon, of the separate domains of settler and native, black and white, your understanding of how that separation exploits the native, appropriates the native’s land, and stultifies the being of both settler and native, taught me how divided from myself and others I’ve become. Stipulating differences that matter between fact and fiction between black and white, male and female, good and evil imposes order in a society. Keeps people on the same page. Reading from the same script. In the society I know best, mine, fact and fiction are absolutely divided, one set above the other to rule and pillage, or, worse, fact and fiction blend into a tangled, hyper-mediated mess, grounding being in a no-exit maze of consuming: people as a consuming medium, people consumed by the medium. Fiction writing and art in general are scorned, stripped of relevance to people’s daily lives, dependent on charity, mere playthings of power, privilege, buying and selling. My society polices its boundaries with more and more self- destructive manichean violence now that its boundaries are exposed not as naturally or supernaturally ordained but organized through various sorts of coercion by some members of the society to benefit themselves and disadvantage others. Under what rock, whose skirts have I been hiding, you might be wondering, not to have learned those truths before I began zipping up my own trousers. A good question, Fanon. A more difficult question: if I truly understand all the above, why am I still writing. You feared, Fanon, that winning a war of independence in Algeria, no matter how protracted and bloody the struggle, would be less difficult than maintaining a clear vision of the goals that had made declaring war against France a necessity for colonized Algerians and eventually for you. You realized that oppressed people could be convinced to sacrifice their lives for the promise of freedom, dignity, and self-determination and also that it’s easier to die for such ideals than to live them, live with them embedded, uncompromised, in place day by day, choice by choice in the institutions of society, in the consciousness of individuals and the spirit of a culture. Ratcheting down many degrees from a colonial war for national independence but also always ratcheting up in the sense of keeping in mind the aspirations that justify risking all, my small struggle is to write your life, word by word, sentence by sentence, and not lose sight of why I’ve set myself an impossible task. I want to be free. I want to write a life for myself, fact and fiction, to open possibilities of connecting with your life, other lives. When I was a kid I owned a magic slate. The magic of it, I understood back then, being you could lift the blue-gray plastic sheet you drew upon with your plastic stylus and every mark you’d etched on the slate would disappear. A magically clean page each time, any time you wished. A man named Thomas, who lives only in his stalled novel which doesn’t have a name, also possessed a magic slate when he was a boy. Yesterday Thomas was reminded of his slate and his old habit of drawing nasty pictures and writing obscene words on it, a memory I inserted in his thoughts when a UPS guy delivered a severed human head (maybe) to Thomas’s New York apartment door, a memory triggered specifically by an electronic pad Thomas had to sign to indicate he received a package. Attached by a curly cord to an electronic pen, just as my slate was attached to a plastic stylus, the UPS man’s pad was a bit smaller but exactly the same color and shape as Thomas’s slate and mine. And like the slate, the deliveryman’s toy performs a rather impressive trick. Before Thomas completes the second letter of his signature, the first letter registers in a databank in Bombay. On the other hand not the hand signing an electronic receipt for a package that might contain a head, nor the hand busy writing Thomas’s story, nor the hand composing this letter, and not exactly the hand that would hurt me a lot if somebody whacked it with a hammer on the other hand, the one both astounded and dismayed by the marvels of modern communication, I wonder what could be more magical than a clean slate. More intimidating. More devastating. I don’t introduce Thomas simply to erase him. He’s crucial to my project. Thomas leads as often as he follows. Writes as much as he’s written. Since you’re a writer, Fanon, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that inventing Thomas helps invent the person who’s able to write what you’re reading. And though I wish to grant Thomas all due credit, I must also admit that Thomas is a fiction, that I’m responsible for any Fanon portrait this project paints, not Thomas or anybody else, that Thomas intends to write a book about Fanon and never will, nor will he ever write his own life into a fiction, try, try as he might. I depend on you and any serious reader to remember this without forgetting, on the other hand, that I would absolutely welcome Thomas, would be grateful for his participation if he performed no function beyond reminding me and anyone reading these words not to ignore the fictive nature of any and all enterprises we undertake. Opening a novel, opening our eyes, opening our minds, hearts, legs, wallets, we are opening ourselves to a reality not unlike a magic slate where one unvarying condition of our appearance is that we are condemned, sooner or later, to disappear and never be seen or heard again. The Igbo of Nigeria, a people you no doubt encountered during your frequent diplomatic missions on behalf of Algeria, say a person doesn’t die until the living stop remembering, stop telling stories about the person. Also, in Igbo tradition the age-mates or age-set of a freshly deceased peer scour their village, rushing hither and thither, searching for their missing comrade everywhere he once would be sure to have been found, the search increasingly intense and frantic as the age-mates run disappointed, back and forth from one familiar, intimate place to another, and their entreaties, their lamentations fail to coax the missing one from hiding. I’m not suggesting I consciously mine Igbo lore to organize my project. I cite the Igbo to acknowledge my unanticipated good fortune, my gratitude for the presence of what might be called ancestors (like you) waiting to be discovered. Ancestors who speak, not on demand, but if and when they choose. The simultaneous loss and discovery of their presence defines a space I might inhabit if I learn how, a vast solitude, a space less alone, less silent perhaps because others once occupied it and I’ve been expected. Think of me, of Thomas, as your age-mates, Fanon, playing a deadly serious game of chasing your spirit. Think of us hurrying along real streets, knocking on real doors, peeking in real windows, asking real people if they’ve seen our friend, our brother, visible now only in our search, our hunger for him. Imagine a gang of us, a posse of the bereaved, each person making separate forays or the whole bunch driven by a single thought or stalled, huddling together for mutual comfort, some hopeful, some resigned, some frayed, some disbelieving, others intoxicated by the effort, every one of us so full of pain, fear, longing, memories that our bodies droop and collapse in a heap like shed costumes or skins at the end of a night of seeking since dawn our lost companion. The one we won’t save. Won’t let go. Can’t. Imagine how deeply we might sleep, how sealed in darkness, oppressed by the weight of our sorrow, how weightless our dreams, as weightless, bodiless, remote and close as we seem to our fellow villagers or a curious stranger passing by who witnesses us, grown men behaving like spooked chickens or a band of orphaned children, noisy phantoms slipping, gliding through the compound’s paths and shadows, then fading into the bush, ghosts in pursuit of a ghost, wailing, crying out in tongues, marking our trail with wet, glistening tears, real and far away as stars.
Copyright (c) 2007 by John Wideman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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