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Bilguissa Diallo 2 crop squ interviewI am French and I write in French, in France, about people who are French, in France. For me, this is purely French literature. However, my books are categorized as “African literature.”

French author Bilguissa Diallo was born in France in 1975 to parents of Guinean descent. She holds degrees in languages (English/Spanish) and business and has worked in the French publishing industry for over a decade. Her first novel, Diasporama, provides an engaging account of the daily lives and familial expectations of the children of African immigrants living in France. In July 2006 and again in May 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Diallo[i]. We discussed the often incongruent categorization of female and immigrant writers in the realm of French literature, the authorial and editorial challenges associated with these restrictions, and the myriad ways in which Diallo’s creative literary process is informed by her everyday experiences as a second generation immigrant living in Paris.

Diallo worked full-time as a journalist specializing in social and cultural issues until 2012, when she followed another passion and launched a hair-care line focused on enhancing the natural beauty of curly/kinky hair: Leydi Beauty www.leydibeauty.com. She continues to write, and is enjoying the journey of parenting her five-year-old son.

This interview was conducted by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard, writer, editor and translator.

JWB: I’d like to start with a question on the title of your novel, Diasporama. Is this a play on words between “diaspora” and “diarama?”

BD: Yes, exactly. In fact, it is a pun on “diaspora” and “diaporama.”[ii]. But what you say gives it yet another meaning: “diarama” means “hello” in my native language. I chose the word “slideshow” because, in fact, this is the structure of the novel. The chapters are fairly short, and they are numerous. It reminds me of a family album that one can leaf through. There is a third-person narrator who recounts the story of the people we see in the album. So, it’s a sort of “slideshow.”  I chose the term “diaspora” simply because the novel is about diasporic Guineans living in France. However, the topics discussed could be transferred to people of any nationality, any diaspora… The Maghrebis, even the Italians. We see the same themes and the same complications in regards to the opposition between culture of origin and adopted culture and the identitarian issues that follow. Diasporic individuals do not all self-identity the same way; there are so many ways to identify ourselves as humans.

JWB : Is your novel autobiographical?

BD: Not at all. It’s pure fiction. It’s not true, but it seems true. In the story I tell, nothing is true, but all of it could be. The narrative was fed by my lived experiences, as well as those of my friends and the entire Guinean community around me. However, chronologically and historically speaking, none of these girls exist. In fact, many people who have read the book thought that I had written it about one of their friends [laughs]. So, it seems like a true story, but it’s fiction. It could have been autobiographical, but it’s not.

JWB: One of the major themes of the book is mixed or hybrid identities. Throughout the novel, the principle characters are constantly negotiating the borders between French and Guinean identities. Is your writing inspired by theories or literature on hybridity and identity, or are these representations the result of lived experiences?

BD: For the most part, these hybrid identities are inspired by my lived experiences and those I’ve observed. Issues of identity are extremely present in my family. For example, my father was a member of the French military in Africa. When he and my mother came to France, they were truly Guinean, and they carried that identity with them. However, they were also quite attached to France and, to a certain extent, felt French. They taught me their native language and we spoke it at home. However, all the while I was growing up in France, attending French schools and forming my own identity. So, it was necessarily a process of negotiation, but more a process of discovery and forging my own identity. As for postcolonial theory, well, I guess you could say my father lived those experiences, (French colonization, Guinean independence, etc.) so his interpretations were passed down to me, but it is primarily my lived experiences that have informed my writing, not so much my reading or studies.

JWB: Do you spend much time in Guinea?

BD: Not that much. I went there for the first time as a teenager and now I go there every 4 or 5 years. However, I am in close contact with my family members who live there—we write and speak often. Even in the years I didn’t go to Guinea for political or personal reasons, I always felt very connected to the country and to my family there. Most of my family—aunts, uncles, cousins—are all there. Most of the Guineans in France came here during a period of political immigration in the 1960s (like I describe in the novel). When they arrived, they tried to recreate their families in France by forming close Guinean communities. Perhaps they knew each other previously from their villages in Guinea or perhaps they met in France and felt close because they had experienced the same sort of trajectory. So, even if there aren’t necessarily biological relatives who are here, we create them. For example, my mom always introduces her friend as her sister. Most of the people I call “aunt” and “uncle” in France really aren’t my true relatives. At the same time, I consider them family and know them better than I do my biological relatives in Guinea. We all live in different cities here in France, but we gather often for weddings, baptisms, holidays, etc.

JWB: What are your thoughts on the French government’s recent attempts to address the history of immigration and France’s current immigrant population?

BD: I think that they are taking about it now because they have to: the problems are so present. These are issues I’ve been thinking about for my entire life, along with many others. I think there was an assumption that the integration of North and West Africans in France would happen naturally, like it did for the Italians or Portuguese who have come to this country. However, the reality is that we are not soluble with French culture like other European cultures are. We are neither Christian nor white, and we are visible because our origin is obviously non-European.

France is a mélange of cultures, to be sure, but mostly of European cultures. Of course there were problems with the Italians and Portuguese when they first immigrated in the 1960s, but these things were resolved naturally, because at their core these cultures were not really that different from French culture. So, our parents who came over during les trentes glorieuses[iii] to work in the factories expected that they would be accepted into French culture as well (which they were, to a certain extent, because they were viewed as useful to France as a nation) and that their children would grow up with the same opportunities as those of European immigrant populations, but this hasn’t exactly happened for us. It’s really my generation that is “causing problems,” knocking at the door. In the 1980s when the Marche des Beurs[iv] happened, that was really when the discussion started, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.

Here we are in the 2000s and we’re still talking about the same issues. So, with the problems in the banlieues[v] getting worse every day, the problems associated with professional integration, the problems with how immigrants are represented politically and in the media, they have to address it. But again, I don’t have the impression that these talks are going anywhere. One of the things they’ve done to try to appease us is to create another position in the government, Ministre de l’égalité des chances[vi], and I have nothing against [Azouz Begag[vii]] but not much has changed since he’s been in this position. Throughout the history of colonization (and afterward), France has done similar things, given titles to non-whites to make us feel like we are represented (Senghor, Diallo who was in the parliament, for example). They were given these official titles even before there were many Africans in France. However, now that there are millions of us here, we have practically no representation. We have Azouz Begag who says “we must do something,” yet nothing happens. They’ve given a name to a problem that existed before without a name, which is better than nothing, but we can’t go another 20 years without solving these problems. Recognizing problems is good, but solving them is better.

JWB: Could you talk a bit about your process as a writer? What is your impetus for writing? Where do your ideas come from?

BD: In general, situations in everyday life motivate me to write. Social, human, relational problems, situations in life that encourage readers to reflect and ask themselves personal questions, all of this interests me. My inspiration, you could say, is born of my exasperation. I am often struck by media representations or images of Africans who were born in France or born in Africa and come to France… I am struck by images of any minority for that matter. When we see a television report on “us,” it is not us. Frequently, a spotlight is shone on a single issue or a limited view of a very complex issue is presented, which makes it seem like all minorities in France share the same problems. For example, you see a report on citizenship papers and it makes you believe that all Africans in France have problems with this. Of course, we can’t deny that the problems that exist, but we must speak about them correctly and in all their complexity. Regarding issues of female circumcision, yes, I am the first to say that we should discuss this, but we must speak about it correctly. We can’t just assume that this is the case for everyone, as if it were something automatic.

 As a result of these frustrations, I decided that I would do something instead of brooding alone. If others talk about “me” in my place, I shouldn’t complain and do nothing—I must speak for myself. I have to fight. Nobody will talk about my position and describe my reality better than myself. All of this brought me to writing. Another thing that inspired me to write was that all throughout my time reading as a child and as an adult, I could never find myself in literature. It is true that one can find elements of oneself in any type of fiction, but sometimes we like to read something and say “look, it’s me, this one is my cousin, this one, she looks like me.” I never find myself in French literature. I thought it was a pity, and I saw this whole generation around me and I realized that nobody spoke to us. Well yes, there are French writers who had tried to represent our reality, but when they write about us, they imagine the problems that don’t really exist and they never imagine the ones that actually do. So, I decided to talk about girls, who are now the women of my generation, and try to describe their lives, our lives.

JWB: What elements inform your style?

BD: In terms of style, mine is pretty personal. I use quotidian contemporary language, and humor and irony play a large role in my narrative. I want the reader to be able to enter my head while reading. So, I write like I think and sometimes like I speak. The writing must be fluid and rhythmic. I’m not a fan of long chapters. Generally speaking, text comes to me intuitively, and the difficulty is then to rework it to edit out the heaviness and repetition. I believe I still have a lot of work to do in this area.

JWB: During your career, you have worked (and currently work) as a novelist, a journalist, and a writer of children’s books. How do the processes associated with each of these genres relate to one another?

BD: In fact, one’s posture changes because the purpose of each genre is different. As a journalist, the goal is to make the text more understandable and the information as clear as possible, precise, sometimes synthesized or elaborated, depending on the length of the text. One must constantly remain aware of constraints in regards to time, the length of article, the audience, etc.

As an author of children’s books, I must put myself at the same level as the children who will read them. The sentences are so simple that it’s pretty hard to deliver all the messages you want without falling into the complexity of language and subtleties that are not accessible to the intended audience. This is a very rewarding exercise.

As the author of a novel, I experience total freedom. There is no deadline, no constraints except that of being satisfied with the outcome and feeling that it is interesting enough to urge others to read it. The only limit is one’s imagination and creativity. It is important to choose a topic that is fascinating (at least to the author) and on which one is prolific. That way, even if the project does not move, at least one is happy to have written, to have pursued the challenge.

JWB: As a second generation immigrant writer living in France, where do you situate yourself in the realm of Francophone literature?

BD: I am “an outsider” [laughs]. Nowhere in fact. Unfortunately in the literary world there is a large category that is missing. There is a sort of split between the French and Francophone literature. There is “noble” French literature and then there’s the rest of la Francophonie.[viii] And it’s a pity that this distinction is made, since there are many North Africans, Canadians, and West Africans who have a lot of interesting things to say. I shouldn’t even be included in the category of Francophone literature because I am French and I write in French, in France, and I write about people who are French, in France. For me, this is purely French literature. However, my books are categorized as “African literature,” i.e. “ethnic literature” written by minorities in France. There are some books that address these same issues, those by Faiza Guène, for example, and other writers of my generation.

There are not very many of us in this “category,” and I don’t think this is because of a lack of ideas. In fact, I’m sure there are many people who write quality work, but it has not been received precisely because it was rejected by publishers of classic French and Parisian literature who refuse to imagine that authors like me could have a readership. In their imagination, our readership is restricted to minorities like us. In reality, our readership is the entire world, just like any other author. And then you have authors like Shan Sa who is Chinese and writes in French about China, but is classified as a French writer. I am French and I write in French about France, but I am considered an outsider to French literature. And this is just one of the great contradictions of the French literary world.

JWB: In general, what opportunities or challenges do you experience as a female second generation immigrant writer in France?

BD: The major challenge is to just be published! We are still at the stage where we think a book written by a minority should only include certain themes, preferably with main characters who are victims of their origins and trying to escape “conditions of blackness,” for example. When this pattern is not followed, publishers wonder if their audience, i.e. the French lambda[ix], will be interested. They do not see us as classic French citizens whose stories may therefore be of interest to their compatriots. To have the chance of being published, either one is a militant and preferably against a traditional practice on one’s continent of origin, or one writes about the situation in the banlieues… but there is no option outside of that. This is what we are facing as French writers, having the distinction of being “born of” (believing that others can come from nothing!). So the challenge is to be published and then to have one’s work promoted as it deserves to be. In short, there is still a lot of work to be done!

Books by Bilguissa Diallo:

Diallo, Bilguissa. Diasporama. Paris: Editions Anibwe, 2005.

Diallo, Bilguissa. N’Deye, Oury et Jean-Pierre vivent au Sénégal. Paris: De La Martinière Jeunesse, 2007.

[i] Both the 2006 and the 2009 interviews were conducted in French.This is comprised of my translations of the interview transcripts. My sincere thanks to Bilguissa Diallo for her participation in this project.

[ii] “Diaporama” means “slideshow” in French.

[iii] Les trentes glorieuses (the thirty glorious years) was a period of economic and industrial growth in France after WWII (1945-1975).

[iv] The first official anti-racism protest among immigrants in France (1983). “Beur” is the term appropriated by second generation North African immigrants in France.

[v] The banlieues refers to the suburbs of major cities in France, namely Paris, where large populations of immigrants reside.

[vi] Minister for equal opportunity.

[vii] In addition to serving as Ministre de l’égalité des chances from 2005-2007, Azouz Begag is a well-known French political researcher and novelist of Algerian descent.

[viii] La Francophonie is a term used to refer to the entire French-speaking world (including France’s former colonies and overseas territories).

[ix] The average French reader.

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard holds a B.A. in French and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Fine Arts from St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minnesota) and a M.A. in French and Francophone Studies from University of California-Los Angeles. She is a faculty member in the World Languages Department at Normandale Community College (Bloomington, Minnesota) where she teaches courses on French language and culture. Bouchard is the owner of a boutique translation, writing, and editing agency, Lucidité Writing, LLC (www.luciditewriting.com). Her newest venture, Litany Jewelry Designs (http://www.facebook.com/litanyjewelry) (www.litanyjewelry.com) keeps her busy designing and handcrafting jewelry with vintage and antique medals.

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A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre

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Text copyright ©2013 Jen Westmoreland Bouchard. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.