Refocusing Le Retour: Three Franco-Senegalese Works

AiW Guest: Sebastian Boivin.

In an increasingly dynamic and interconnected geopolitical and socioeconomic landscape, so many of us think about the journey of migrants; fewer about their return. Work regarding the topic, including in francophone text from Africa, has focused more on narratives of journeys to than on returns home, a theme in francophone literature which is known as “Le Retour,” or “The Return,” in English.

The effect has resulted in authors, and thus their readers, becoming more accustomed to stories of migrants’ harrowing journeys to destination countries and, once they have arrived, their overcoming of the numerous obstacles they face there. While these stories are not to be discounted at all, this hyper-focus has left a gap in scholarship on the significance of “Le Retour” narratives in francophone fiction, despite the fact that it has long been a recurrent theme – perhaps starting at least with Martinican author Aimé Césaire‘s 1939 long poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, (Journal of a Homecoming) – and one that it is still prevalent in contemporary francophone African novels and films.

In my current research, I have been looking at representations of Le Retour in both literature and film from francophone African creators since the early years of the 21st century. Many of these works feature characters both leaving their home country for a European destination, usually France, and, of particular interest here, they also narrate their eventual return. Here, I will focus on three texts: the novel, Le ventre de l’Atlantique (2003) by Fatou Diome, and two feature-length films, L’Afrance (2002), directed by Alain Gomis, and Moussa Toure’s La Pirogue (2012), works all made by Senegalese or Franco-Senegalese creators. 

I decided to focus on texts with characters hailing from this former French colony where the use of French persists: not only is Senegal’s capital, Dakar, a literary, cinematic, and cultural hub, but the country of Senegal has a strong link of immigration to France due to political structures, and close diplomatic and economic ties. These links are pointed out by Erik Vickstrom in his book, Pathways and Consequences of Legal Irregularity: Senegalese Migrants in France, Italy and Spain, as being instrumental to the continued strong diplomacy between Senegal and France. The flow of migrants from Senegal to France has facilitated a necessary continuation of accords and agreements that has culminated in both countries maintaining strong relationships for over half a century since Senegal’s independence from France. The filmic and literary depictions, all of return narratives to Senegal, nuance our understanding of individuals’ experiences of migration, ideas of success and struggle, and that of the destination including the possibility of return “home”. 

One character that stands out in particular is Salie from Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique, translated as The Belly of the Atlanticthe only female main character in the three works I examine. Salie reiterates her financial struggles in France, while working as a maid and aspiring writer attending school, to her brother in Senegal through conversations over the phone. Her openness runs contrary to many from her hometown who view Europe as El Dorado and distinguishes Salie from the main characters of the two films I also look at here: Hadj, a student who deals with the complexity of French visa laws in L’Afrance by Gomis; and Baye Laye, the captain of a fishing boat transporting migrants from the Senegalese coast to Spain, in Toure’s La Pirogue. Salie voices a crucial message: that Europe is not the gleaming land of opportunity that migrants perceive it to be.

While some readers may point to Salie’s vulnerability as conformity with gender norms, it is actually her failure to fit into her home society’s normative expectations that fosters this vulnerability. Diome constructs Salie as an outsider, not just based on her living in France, but also because she was born illegitimately (Kistnareddy 64). Already viewed in a negative light by her home community, this is what influences her willingness to expose her weaknesses in the perceived “land of opportunity” because she feels as though she already has nothing left to lose regarding her home community’s respect of her. Salie succeeds in shedding light on her experience in Europe by admitting to her younger brother Madické that she has struggled in her day-to-day life working as a cleaner of different domiciles just to make ends meet and support her studies. She explains to readers that even though “He [Madické] persisted in imagining I wanted for nothing, living like the royalty at the court of Louis XIV … as a cleaning woman my survival depended on the number of floor cloths I got through” (Diome 26). Her willingness to show that she struggles socioeconomically and with assimilating in France makes Salie stand apart. In these stories of Le Retour, few migrants who return home are as able to admit the struggles they have faced usually, to prevent portraying their decision to leave as a mistake, or, more generally, to not appear weak.      

Salie’s outsider status, in all her locations and geographies, and her openness about the persistence of her struggle, very much contradicts the attitudes of the main characters in both L’Afrance and La PirogueL’Afrance’s main character, Hadj, is also a Senegalese student, but he stubbornly pushes through his life in Paris. When his student visa expires due to the strict, convoluted, and contradictory laws of the French immigration system, he is detained, only to be released but ineligible to work legally within France. The contradictions of his situation are made evident to the viewer, as when he ironically passes the Palais Bourbon, home of the National Assembly and a symbol of France’s ideals of equality and “des droits de l’homme” (“the rights of man”), on his way to a detention center.

When he runs low on money, he is forced to work as a construction worker and get paid under the table since he no longer has legal working papers. Quickly, it becomes apparent that he is unsuited for the job, but he must continue in order to survive and make money quickly in order to get his visa renewed in Senegal. Due to the flawed French immigration system, Hadj begins to self-destruct, such as when he unnecessarily instigates a fight at a bar after a long day of being overworked at his job. Gomis crafts the scenes masterfully to demonstrate how Hadj’s visa struggles influence his desperation to get back to Senegal, just so he can return to France with updated documentation, only for the pressure of his ordeal to cause him to mentally buckle. Unlike Salie’s vulnerable self-honesty, Hadj, in order to doggedly pursue what he wholeheartedly believes is in his best interests, wants to own everything that unfolds in his life as his, and attempts to hide, poorly, the difficulties behind the decisions he is instead forced to make. 

Similarly, La Pirogue’s main character, Baye Laye, tries to hide his failure as a captain of a pirogue, a massive dug-out canoe transporting migrants, that can hold at least 30 people. He views the passengers on his pirogue, attempting to start new lives in Europe through their voyage from Senegal to Spain, as his responsibility. This thought process effectively results in him taking personal culpability for the non-arrival of his passengers, and viewing many of the deaths that occur during their perilous voyage as his sole charge as well. Particularly, this concealment shields the brutal realities of his experiences from his family. This is cleverly depicted when he buys a FC Barcelona jersey, one of the most well-known clubs in Spain and all of Europe, as he had promised his son before he left for the trip. He purchases the jersey, however, just mere meters from his homestead in Senegal from a street vendor. Despite this fulfillment of his promise and outward show of success, that he is still a good father is put in doubt; La Pirogue makes it clear that his family are aware of his failed attempt to make it to Spain.

Where both Hadj and Baye Laye demonstrate a sense of pride in their desire to appear successful at great personal cost, Salie has no problem in admitting her difficulties and voicing them to her brother, Madické. Via her dialogue with Madické, Salie also breaks down one of the more common structures in Africa regarding immigration: the glorification of Europe. Simply put, though it takes weeks and months of persuasion, Salie eventually convinces Madické that Europe is not what it is cracked up to be and he ultimately stays in their hometown of Niodior. She is adamant, willing to contradict narratives like that of Hadj’s in L’Afrance, which, while conveying this point of view, expose his concealed struggles from his family and friends both in France and those back home in Senegal, the latter of whom are expecting him to come home after having successfully received his graduate degree to teach. Baye Laye’s narrative also complicates the finding of a “better life” elsewhere: he takes personal pride and externalised self-worth in facilitating people’s ability to leave Africa for Europe by sailing his pirogue from Senegal, but he is reluctant to leave in it himself, uninterested in starting over again in Europe 

As well as through her dialogue with her brother, Salie’s textual narrative contradicts another of the principal characters in Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, L’homme de Barbès. This otherwise unnamed man in the story, whose name comes from the Parisian neighborhood he resides in, Barbès, sings the praises of France on his return to Senegal. In order to continue the theme that Europe is a magnificent place filled with opportunity without poverty, L’homme de Barbès leaves out the aspects of his life in Paris when he likely lived in squalor and instead shows off to the locals of Salie’s village with luxury goods and a television set on his return. Barbès claims: 

“And everyone lives well. Nobody’s poor, because even those with no work are paid a salary by the state: they call it benefit. You spend the day snoozing in front of your TV, and you receive the same as one of our highest-paid engineers! So families have a good standard of living; the state gives them money according to how many children they have. Therefore, the more they procreate, the more money they make” (Diome 57).

Through this manipulation of an internal irony, readers realize that this description is exaggerated while the inhabitants of Salie’s island home of Niodior are entranced by this account. That it is told by L’homme de Barbès, the name itself a pun to demonstrate that the residents of Niodior are unaware that Barbès is one of Paris’s working-class neighborhoods, home to many immigrants and people of color, only strengthens the power of the textual conceit. (Haskell 60; Kistnareddy 247; Thomas 247). 

Many scholars have commented on the character of Barbès, how he is a personification of the mindset that Europe will bring success to anyone who ventures from Africa to start a new life (Thomas 247). Salie, breaks this trend. “In paradise,” she quips, “you don’t struggle, you don’t fall ill, you don’t ask questions: it’s enough to be alive, you can afford everything you desire, including the luxury of time” (Diome 25).

Salie’s openness in her vulnerability is what makes her such a standout character in the theme of Le Retour. Salie’s contrast from the main characters of L’Afrance and La Pirogue, and internally even from L’homme de Barbès, is striking. She is much more permanently fixed in Europe than Hadj and Baye Laye, and able to see both sides of a migrant’s experience, both in Africa and Europe. She is a female character and the rest of these characters are male, but it is not her gender that takes the major role in this contrast. Thanks to her willingness to admit her precarity through her outspokenness in deeming Europe, particularly France, as not being the opportunistic haven of migrants’ hope, in the multiple ironies opened up by the text’s address, she cuts directly through these established, pernicious perceptions. Salie’s stance is critical because by pointing the finger at Europe, she blames its systems and people for the perpetuation of the mirage of Europe being El Dorado. Diome’s novel, Le ventre de l’Atlantique, therefore demands change on the part of Europeans. Rather than just exposing the flaws of the migrant experience, as Hadj and Baye Laye do, through Salie, Diome calls for action, from both sides of the “belly of the Atlantic,” to be more aware and take ownership of the perpetual farce that sells Europe as a new beginning of undoubted success. 

Works Cited

Diome, Fatou and Lulu Norman (Trans.). The Belly of the Atlantic (Ann Arbor: Serpent’s Tail, 2006) 26.

Haskell, Rosemary. Senegal in France, France in Senegal: Successful and Failed Transnational Identities in Fatou Diome’s Novels (Atlanta: South Atlantic Review, vol. 82, 2017) 60. 

Kistnareddy, Ashwiny O. Migrant Masculinities in Women’s Writing: (In)Hopsitality, Community, Vulnerability (Cambridge, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) 64. 

Thomas, Dominic and Richard David. African Youth in the Global Economy: Fatou Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique (Durham, North Carolina: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 26, 2006) 247. 

Vickstrom, Erik R. Pathways and Consequences of Legal Irregularity: Senegalese Migrants in France, Italy and Spain (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Open, 2019).

Sebastian Boivin is a May 2022 Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where he majored in Political Science (Law & Politics) and French and was also an Environment & Society minor. He was also a member of the school’s Honors College, was Co-President of the French Club, a member of their Men’s Division 1 Lacrosse team as a goalkeeper, and a member of the university’s chapters for the National Political Science and French Honors Societies. In August of 2022 he will begin studying law at Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in White Plains, New York, where he aims to earn a JD and an Advanced Certificate in Environmental Law as he aspires to be an environmental lawyer.

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  1. ≫ Editores de revistas literarias africanas sobre curaduría para el continente

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