Barbara Burns interviews Jane Hiddleston, whose book Frantz Fanon: Literature and Invention was recently published in the Legenda series Research Monographs in French Studies.
BB. Your study concerns one of the most important intellects in the field of postcolonial writing. Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique under French colonial rule. He became a psychiatrist by profession, but was also a political philosopher and theorist, a cultured figure whose work abounds with references to literary works. Can you tell us in a nutshell why Fanon is such a key figure?
JH. I think one of the reasons why Fanon has such widespread appeal and significance is his interdisciplinarity. He was, as you say, a psychiatrist by profession, and he was committed to finding new treatment methods for patients suffering in the colonial situation. But he was also an incendiary political thinker. His version of anticolonialism was revolutionary and inspired many subsequent anti-racist movements. His vision for freedom was uncompromising and this is perhaps what makes his writing so aspirational. At the same time, though, Fanon was a philosopher, and he produced acerbic critical responses to major European philosophers such as Hegel, Freud, Adler, and Sartre. And as you say, his work is steeped in literary references too, and his thinking on language and representation in racist and colonial discourse means that his work is highly informative for literary writers and critics.
BB. What awakened your interest in postcolonial literature?
JH. When I was doing my MA at UCL many years ago, there was a course on ‘Francophone Literature’ which I took without knowing much about it, but I quickly saw that this was an area where there was some very exciting work going on. My PhD was on notions of community in French philosophy and immigrant literature in French, and this allowed me to think about really important and topical questions of equality and justice in modern France as well as about how literature might adequately respond to these questions. I then started reading francophone literature from North Africa and the Caribbean, which tackled what seemed to me to be the key issues of our time: colonialism, racism, cultural difference, migration, etc. I’ve stayed with this area of research because of its continuing relevance and because this writing keeps bringing new insights.
BB. Fanon seems to have been an extraordinary and inspirational person whose passionate struggle for the cause of justice and humanity was expressed in an intense, even visceral writing style. What can you tell us about his use of language?
JH. This is another reason why Fanon is so influential. His writing is extraordinarily powerful. It has a spontaneous and dynamic quality to it – he actually dictated his most famous works, first to his wife Josie and then to the secretary at the clinic in Tunis, and you can feel this oral quality in it. It’s full of imagery, and his arguments often aren’t fully worked through or concluded, so there’s always space for the reader to keep thinking about what he’s saying. It’s also full of quotation, so you get the impression of an active dialogue with other writers and thinkers. The Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire called him a ‘guerrier silex’ or ‘flint warrior’, as if he uses words to fight. This seems to be an apt evocation of his incendiary writing style.
BB. What did Fanon say about colonialism? Is there a memorable quotation that encapsulates his conviction? And is there one of his works in English translation that a non-specialist might find interesting as an introduction to his thought?
JH. Fanon argued that colonialism was a form of dehumanisation. It was built on a stark binary opposition between coloniser and colonised, or between black and white, and objectified the colonised as inferior to the coloniser. It’s for this reason that decolonisation had to involve the complete eradication of the colonial system, it had to be a tabula rasa and to involve ‘la véritable création d’hommes nouveaux’ or ‘the veritable creation of new men’.
At the same time, the racist gaze as Fanon portrays it in Black Skin, White Masks actually infiltrates the unconscious of the black subject. The ‘mask’ he refers to in the title of the book is deeply internalised, leading to a profound alienation from the self. This makes the recovery of some kind of authentic black being problematic in his work, and this has provoked some controversy among readers. At times, it seems possible to reclaim black identity, at others the mask covers only a void. At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, he seems to want to transcend race and history and to argue instead for a form of existentialist ongoing self-invention.
BB. Fanon appears to have an ambitious vision for the transformative role of literary works in imagining a different future and promoting the struggle for cultural and political change. To what extent is this vision problematic, do you think, or in what ways does this vision challenge literary writers today?
JH. Fanon says different things about the power of literature at different times in his works. In ‘On national culture’ in The Wretched of the Earth, he argues that it should be fully embedded in its historical moment. When writing about national culture and the Algerian War, he insists that culture should reflect that struggle and should be born out of that struggle. In the same essay, he criticises works that reflect the experience of oppression rather than actively demanding change. His comments on negritude poetry, however, indicate more ambivalence about the power of poetry to effect change. He condemned the use of stereotypes in the work of poets such as the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor but kept on quoting Césaire as a poet of revolt.
BB. Fanon’s life was cut short by leukemia at the age of 36. How influential was his legacy on anticolonial and liberation movements across the world?
JH. Fanon was very influential in anticolonial movements in various parts of the world, in particular in the Black Power movement in the US in the 1960s. And he’s still frequently quoted today. It’s interesting that the slogan ‘I can’t breathe’ that was used by Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd is actually also a reference to Fanon. He famously said at the end of Black Skin, White Masks precisely that revolt is inevitable at the very moment when it is ‘impossible à respirer’, ‘impossible to breathe’. The oppression created by the racist or colonialist order is compared with suffocation. So Fanon’s words are there behind that BLM slogan even if he’s not named.
BB. How did the process of writing this book affect your view of Fanon?
JH. It was fascinating to read more carefully his readings of literary works. People often quote his comments on Mayotte Capécia and René Maran, for example, and object to the fact that he’s more tolerant of Maran’s depiction of the black man’s desire for whiteness in Un homme pareil aux autres than he is of the black woman’s desire for whiteness in Capécia’s Je suis martiniquaise. But if you read those chapters closely, you see he actually shifts his position as he writes, and it’s clear that he’s wrestling with contradictions and trying to make up his mind about what he expects from literary texts. I also mentioned earlier his engagement with negritude, and here again it was revealing to chart the evolution of his comments on negritude poetry, and to read his work alongside that of Senghor and Césaire, to appreciate the complexity in his thinking about black identity.
BB. How do non-specialists respond when you tell them what you’re working on? Has the Black Lives Matter movement helped increase public understanding of some of the aspects you’re interrogating?
JH. Not everyone has heard of Fanon, but people tend to appreciate the importance of a study of an anti-racist thinker. Black Lives Matter has certainly drawn people’s attention to questions of racism and racial justice, which are crucial, though my book is not so much about activism. I wanted to write quite a scholarly study that worked with the nitty-gritty of Fanon’s reading, to correct some misunderstandings and provide a proper account of the nuances in his literary thinking.
The book is also more broadly about the relationship between literature and politics, which is something we need to keep thinking about. Fanon wanted literature to be thoroughly engaged in the political, but I think today literature isn’t always associated with activism in this way, and certainly literary study is seen by some people not to be so relevant to society. A thinker like Fanon helps us think again about what literature can do in the face of ongoing inequality and injustice.