Celebrated writer and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou
A French news crew followed Alain Mabanckou on his first day of teaching at UCLA in 2006.
Later that year the Congolese author, a UCLA professor of French and Francophone studies, won the French equivalent of the National Book Award.
And then last spring, France’s cultural commissioner presented him with the country’s highest decoration: a Legion of Honor.
Yet on campus, the youthful professor, given to wearing flat caps, disappears among the college students for whom he could almost be mistaken.
The literary sensation, who was recently called “the African Samuel Beckett” by the Economist magazine, doesn’t just keep a low profile on campus. When asked to characterize his celebrity in the U.S., he pinches his index finger and thumb together into a circle.
“Zero,” Mabanckou admitted with his characteristically hearty laugh, despite the fact that he has produced nine novels, six collections of poetry and one biography in French.
But that may change with the April 24 publication of the English translation of his fourth — and most celebrated novel —“Memoirs of a Porcupine” (Soft Skull, 2012). In 2006, the tale of a porcupine, who acts as the alter ego of a murderer, won the Prix Renaudot, one of France’s two top literary prizes.
Following on the heels of his bestselling third novel, “Verre Cassé” (“Broken Glass”) and a collection of poetry that captured the top literary prize for Afro-French literature, “Memoirs” firmly establishes the author as a force to be reckoned with in the French-speaking world.
"Winning one of these awards in France makes an author a mega-star overnight," explained Dominic Thomas, a fellow professor in the UCLA French and Francophone Department.
And now, after five years, the novel that brims with traditional African wisdom and quirky customs is going to be available in translation in a country where, according to the 2000 Census, English speakers outnumber French speakers 134 to 1. The long-awaited American debut of this, his third English translation with American distribution, is being marked with fanfare, including a May 1 reading at the Hammer Museum by Mabanckou. It will be part of the popular “Some of Our Favorite Writers” series led by UCLA English Professor and novelist Mona Simpson.
"We're thrilled to introduce this fabulous Franco African writer to young American readers and writers, who too seldom read outside their known world,” Simpson said.
The surreal and outlandish tale of the porcupine immerses readers in the traditional Bembe culture of Mabanckou’s mother, who regaled him with stories of village life while he was growing up in the bustling port city of Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic coast. In particular, Mabanckou remembers being captivated by her descriptions of a mystical relationship between humans and their animal doubles.
“‘The day you die, that animal is going to die,’” Mabanckou recalled his mother admonishing him. “‘If that animal is sick, you’re going to be sick.’ I was so scared!”
In a witty twist on his mother’s bedtime story, “Memoirs of a Porcupine” is written from the perspective of a porcupine double. In defiance of Bembe tradition, the animal double has outlived his master, who, it turns out, forced the porcupine to settle all kinds of petty scores by killing fellow villagers. Wise-cracking and perceptive, the porcupine uses the memoir as an opportunity to set the record straight and enumerate the many follies of human beings that he has observed — albeit with idiosyncrasies in punctuation and capitalization that might be expected of, well, a rodent with extremely sharp quills.
A critic in the Los Angeles Magazine found it “mesmerizing … (Mabanckou) somehow manages to make a book about killers in a remote African village eerily charming.”
U.S. distribution of “Memoirs” comes at a pivotal time in Mabanckou’s career.
He recently swapped his prestigious French publisher, Le Seuil, for the even more prestigious Gallimard. In 2010, Gallimard published his latest novel, "Demain j’aurais vingt ans" (“Tomorrow I’ll be 20”), a fictionalized memoir of childhood, under its vaunted La Blanche imprint, which has published the works of such literary luminaries as Proust and Albert Camus. Publication under the imprint has long been regarded as a ticket to canonical status in French literature. Mabanckou is the first francophone black African author to be so recognized.
Then came France’s Légion d’Honneur. In presenting the honor last spring, French Cultural Commissioner Frédéric Mitterand called Mabanckou, who didn't speak French until age 6, “a shining ambassador for the French language.”
“His career has gained a lot of momentum since his last book” — “Broken Glass” — was issued in translation in the U.S in 2010, said Laura Mazer, Mabanckou’s editor at Softskull.
She should know. The Berkeley-based publishing house has served as Mabanckou’s champion in the U.S., publishing two other English translations of his books so far for U.S. distribution. Between 2007 and 2010, it published “African Psycho,” a morbid parody of the serial-killer genre, and “Broken Glass,” a novel about a philosophical Congolese barfly who ends up figuring into “Memoirs.” Still, neither resulted in the kind of American acclaim for the writer, so beloved by the French media that they have dubbed him, “Mabancool.”
Not that he’s complaining, mind you. “If I’m in France, I need to control myself because I don’t know who is looking at me,” said Mabanckou, who spends eight months in Los Angeles and the rest of the year in Paris and his native Congo-Brazzaville. “I walk down the street, and all the people say, ‘Yesterday, I saw you on TV! Have a drink!’ I cannot work quietly. In Africa, it’s the same thing.”
But on L.A.’s Westside where he lives in a one-bedroom Santa Monica apartment that he took over from a graduate student, he has found the peace and quiet needed to maintain the prodigious pace that has been the hallmark of his literary career.
Interestingly, Mabanckou dedicates all of his books to his late mother, a flea market vendor who could neither read nor write. “My friends say she’s the most known mother in African literatures because she’s everywhere,” Mabanckou said.
Mabanckou’s mother may get credit for the writer’s love of storytelling, but he attributes his interest in writing to his stepfather, a hotel desk clerk, who used to haul home novels abandoned by parting guests.
“He used to say, ‘Don’t touch my books! The day I retire, I’m going to read them all!’” Mabanckou said, smiling as he recalled devouring their contents and then carefully replacing them so his father wouldn't know. He thought his father must be hiding something in those books. "So I kept checking to figure out what he was keeping from me.”
Living up to his mother’s fondest wish, Mabanckou studied law, a career he ended up pursuing for a decade in Paris. Late at night and into early morning, he labored over novels and poetry — a discipline he continues to this day. By day, he filed briefs and argued in court. It, he recalled, “was a kind of calvary for me.” The 1995 death of his mother provided bittersweet relief.
“I told myself, ‘She’s no longer here, so she won’t see what I want to become,’” he recalled. Riding on the success of “Broken Glass,” he left law to dedicate himself fulltime to writing and teaching. Hs works have since translated into 15 languages.
So what’s it going to take for Americans to discover what the Francophone world already knows?
If “Memoirs” doesn’t do the trick, a long line of other Mabanckou books in English wait in the wings. Serpent’s Tail, his U.K. publisher, is translating his latest novel – “Demain j’aurais vingt ans” (“Tomorrow I Will Be 20”). And in May for the U.K., it's issuing an English translation of “Black Bazaar,” a 2009 novel that explores racism among West and Central Africans living in Paris. Also, Softskull is working on a translation of Mabanckou’s homage to the early 20th century African American author and activist James Baldwin, “Lettre à Jimmy” (“Letter to Jimmy”), originally published on the 20th anniversary of Baldwin’s death. In addition, Thomas, his UCLA colleague, is translating Mabanckou’s first novel, “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” (Blue, White, Red) into English for publication by University of Indiana Press.
Fortunately, Mabanckou acknowledges he’s a patient man and in no hurry to gain fame.
“I am going to take my time,” he said. “It’s not so easy, you know. You have a lot of writers in the United States and not so many readers.”