In 1988 at age 22, novelist Alain Mabanckou (Broken Glass) left his native Republic of the Congo for Paris. Today he also makes his home in Santa Monica, Calif., and teaches French literature at UCLA. On a parallel path in 1948, the black, openly homosexual novelist and playwright James Baldwin left his native New York City at age 24, bound for Paris and an expatriate French life. Letter to Jimmy is Mabanckou's homage to his literary mentor, written in 2007 on the 20th anniversary of Baldwin's death.
While his reflections on Baldwin include many footnoted references to existing biographies as well as quotations from Baldwin himself, Mabanckou's focus is not biographical. Rather, it is on his own search within Baldwin's life and work for better understanding of the roles race, expatriation and social isolation play in the writing of a modern black man. In this exploration, he latches on to Baldwin's insistence that literature must be more than protest (in Baldwin's words: "all literature may be protest... but not all protest is literature") when he criticized the work of black intellectual giants like Richard Wright and Malcolm X. Mabanckou applies this conclusion to his own struggle with "child soldier" or "Rwandan genocide" literature where "an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing."
Among its many rewards, Letter to Jimmy enriches the conversations begun by notable African novelists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Camara Laye regarding the cultural and historical differences between black Americans and expatriate black Africans. In the cases of Mabanckou and Baldwin, for example, the French have been more accepting of blacks whose homeland is the United States than those from former French colonies. Mabanckou suggests that "black Americans and Africans are strangers to one another... Africans want to drive out the colonizers; black Americans are fighting simply to be recognized as full citizens."
The expatriate Baldwin, ostracized at home for his illegitimate birth, homosexuality and race, recognized that the nuances of racism and a globally diverse black diaspora made the "black literature of protest" written by his U.S contemporaries a shallow well. Mabanckou faces similar concerns and rejects the notion that "the black writer is expected to put the 'black issue' at the center of his work, expected to crowd his pages with characters of color, to adopt a confrontational tone, with the white man as his sole target." With great admiration, he praises Baldwin for the individuality of his work in the face of social and political headwinds (one chapter title sums up Baldwin's obstacles: "black, bastard, gay and a writer"). Mabanckou should likewise be praised for raising tough questions about race and art--and exploring the answers so fearlessly.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.