The infamous French mission civilisatrice did not end with the colonial empire. In St. Paul, Minnesota where I grew up, the Alliance Française civilized us with Saturday morning language classes for children, to which grateful parents sent my sister and me for several years. These classes failed remarkably well in teaching me to speak French. The grammar exercises in the very limited homework stumped me entirely, despite my mother’s efforts to show me how to imitate the sample conjugations. But then there were crêpes, and since it was the late seventies, at least one quiche lorraine. From those classes, mostly I remember a song that went
Une fourmi de dix-huit mètres
Avec un chapeau sur la tête
Ça n’existe pas
Une fourmi traînant un char
Plein de pingouins et de canards
Ça n’existe pas ça n’existe pas
Une fourmi parlant français
Parlant latin et javanais
Ça n’existe pas ça n’existe pas
Et pourquoi pas !
A parental promoter obtained a roll of paper sufficiently long for us to draw and color an 18-meter ant (and presumably the cart with the penguins and ducks). For the hat of course we drew a beret. I did not know that the song was a wartime poem by the surrealist Robert Desnos, who would die in a concentration camp following deportation in a train pulled by a locomotive and tender measuring just about 18 meters.
The summer of the long roll of paper, I overheard the Francophile mother of one of my fellow students talking about her terror when caught in the Paris streets between demonstrators and riot police; in my memory from the age of eight, the demonstration had to do with Algeria. Years later I thought she must have been talking about the night of 17 October 1961 when police infamously killed several hundred North Africans in the center of Paris, but the timing is almost certainly wrong.
I eventually stopped going to Saturday morning classes, but when in eighth grade I had to choose among French, German, Latin, and Spanish, the choice was obvious: the Alliance had at the very least given me a handle on pronunciation, the usual stumbling block of the beginning French student. With grammar, my high school French teachers, mesdames Barlow, Cummins, and Bergren, succeeded where the Alliance had not, and I am very grateful. From that time on, whenever a choice has arisen I have simply continued, with small diversions via German, Russian, Swedish, and Spanish, and lately a larger one via Arabic. I add to the list of recipients of gratitude my French professors at Gustavus Adolphus College: Laurent Déchery, Anne-Marie Gronhovd, and Pascal Kyoore who first taught me African literature.
There came a time in college, despite the best efforts of exemplary professors, when I was more or less “done” with France. This happened during a semester at the Université de Haute Bretagne in Rennes, probably not the most welcoming city in France, when I was 20, probably not the most socially adaptable age in life, or at least, not among the French. After months of social drought, I was thoroughly sick of the French, and seriously considering switching to another language. In Rennes, I lived in a somewhat shabby suburban dorm. To my naive surprise, the building mostly emptied every weekend as all the French students (who didn’t really want to talk to foreigners anyway) went home, leaving a small handful of Americans and Germans, and a larger one of Moroccans characteristically generous with their tea and pictures of home. As Christmas break neared and I was disinclined to spend the holiday alone in a French hotel, I signed on for a very cheap two-week trip to Morocco.
We travelled from Rennes to Marrakesh by bus: a 44 hour trip, assuming no delay boarding a ferry at Algeciras. Nothing situates places in one’s mind like overland travel, and I heartily recommend this particular trip. From Brittany, a place as unlike North Africa as any, a mere 24-hour drive will arrive somewhere (Tarifa, in Spain) from the “other” continent appears tantalizingly close across the strait. Then, of course, there was the destination. Getting off the bus at the Place Jamaa el-Fna in Marrakesh was a revelation that determined much of the rest of my life. Descriptions of the square usually end up sounding orientalist, so I recommend Juan Goytisolo’s, or a simple panning video shot from the surrounding terraces. The civility of the Marrakshis impressed me: in the weeks building up to the American attack in the Gulf War, they wished me Merry Christmas on their way to evening prayers. They and their city gave me a reason to stay with French, and later to learn Arabic. For better or worse, the legacy of the French colonial empire saved my interest in Francophone cultures, and in France itself.
Of the following ten years I spent a total of three in France, three in Morocco, and the remaining four in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mostly in Widener Library. I have never lost the joy of working on a fresh research project in a truly huge library collection, whether of Harvard, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Library of Congress, or virtually any other institution that gathers several million volumes under one roof.
In this period, punctuated by many visits to Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia, I learned the basics of cultural studies research at the hands of Jann Matlock and under the slightly bemused but highly effective direction of Susan Suleiman. This apprenticeship taught that to claim to do interdisciplinary work, one had to learn the methods and theories of the “other” discipline (in my case, history) well enough to produce original research that passes muster with its specialist practitioners. At a certain point in my thesis research on Algerian literature in French spanning about 1900 to 1980, I realized that I myself had to become a competent historian of Algeria, because no one else would or should do this for me. This insight and later analogous realizations have greatly influenced my work, not least by slowing its production and widening its focus. It also gave me great respect for the work in the same vein of my present colleagues. Cultural history is time-consuming, but there is no other interdiscipline in which I’d rather work.
Since that time, more mature rediscovery of France (and a shift in my principal locale from Rennes to Paris) has shown that I was mistaken, that I will never be “done” with France or even the French. I will never aspire to be French, but I might some day aspire to be Parisian, if only for months at a time. The diversity of the eastern neighborhoods impresses me almost as much as did the center of Marrakesh, and I remain grateful to a city that continues to draw me to French. I also remain committed to helping students discover the other cultures and literatures of the Francophone world, because who knows: it might just “save” their interest in the language and literature we teach.