Bessora: A Writer with a Thirty-Eight Shoe Size

Bessora: A Writer with a Thirty-Eight Shoe Size

Volume 24, Issue 2 (2009)
pages 60-65
DOI: 10.1080/02690050902771779

Adele King

The character of literary criticism combined with pedagogical strategies tends to categorise, moving one accepted orthodoxy forward by pushing another out of the way. Early approaches to European literature were to treat it as a body of work by white Europeans and Americans. New classifications of it are, of course, more varied, but still include such undifferentiated general categories as black, immigrant, mixed race etc. The problem is that such comparlmentalisatlons not only ignore the actual diversity of people and their social contexts but, by imposing a presumed political or cultural vision on something quite different including writing against such categorisation—can also obscure what writers are actually doing. I am not going to review the history of postcolonial criticism and pedagogy here, but want to introduce a very good author writing in French who not onfy does not fit reductive categories, but who also seems to be writing against them. Bessora’s work has been well received; in 2000 she won the prestigious Prix Félix-Fénéon, for a literary work by an author under thirty-five (previously awarded to Robbe-Grillet among others) for Les Tachts d’Encre [Ink Stains], and Cueillez-Moi Joiis Messieurs [Pick Me Nice Gentlemen] won the Grand Prix Litteraire d’Afnque Notre in 2007. Bessora’s work has not yet, however, received any extended literary attention.

In contrast to the UK, where a number of writers of mixed African-European parentage were born and work, there are few part-sub-Saharan African, part-European writers in France. Bessora (her full name is Sandrine Bessora Nan Ngueaia), who was born in Belgium in 1968, is part Swiss, part Gabonese. To my knowledge, the only other writers in French born in Europe to mixed European and sub-Saharan African parentage and living outside Africa are: Sylvie Kandé, a poet and university professor of French-Senegalese parentage, who now teaches in the United States; Binéka Lissoumba, of French-Congolese parentage, who now teaches in Canada; and Véronique Tadjo of French-Côte d’Ivoire parentage, who has taught at universities in Africa and lived in the United States, England and South Africa. Like Bessora, these writers are from social elites and are well educated, holding advanced degrees. They are less likely to have faced direct racial prejudice than to have encountered more nuanced occlusions, which come from not being identified with either white or black communities. They are not really representative of immigrant communities, unlike second generation writers of part North African origin (the beurs), who are a different, larger group, sometimes from poor immigrant families.

Bessora’s fiction is part of a change from the overly serious treatment of political themes of much earlier African writing. Among her contemporaries in the francophone world, her work has similarities with a few other writers—a younger generation who never lived under colonialism and who came to France when they were in their early twenties. While of African parentage, they are cultural hybrids, who usually write about individual problems rather than the community. Such works include Abdourahman Waberi’s comic anthropological treatment of Djibouti in Cobier nomade (1996); Alain Mabanckou’s satiric tales of life in Congo in Memoires de porc-epic (2006); Kangni Alem’s Cola Cola Jazz (2002), a book that often playfully refers to itself and that mocks Togolese society; and, from the previous generation. Boubacar Boris Diop’s Le temps de Tomango (1981), with its science fiction tales of wildly differing historical periods, from the era of slavery to the mid-twenty-first century. Bessora, however, as the only métisse [mixed race woman] of this group, is more concerned with the paradoxes that result from classifying people by skin colour and with questions of identity in Europe. She is also more amusing.

Bessora’s life, places of abode and education have been international. Her father is a Gabonese diplomat. Her mother is Swiss, of German and Polish origin, the daughter of a pastry chef. Her father had four children by his first wife, as well as two children, Bessora and a brother, by his second. As a child she lived in Switzerland, France, Austria and Washington, D.C. during her father’s career as a diplomat, as well as in Gabon. She studied business management and applied economics at a prestigious HEC—Hautes Etudes Commerciales—in Switzerland. Later, when she came to France, she studied anthropology and wrote a doctoral thesis on the myths and legends of the oil business in Gabon. This…

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