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Dans la Peau d'un Immigré Review


Note: This is a republished version of an article I had posted here and then deleted, and added back with some edits.

Do books have multiple personalities too, just like people? When I try to summarize Joseph Diémé's book Dans la Peau d'un Immigré (In an Immigrant's Shoes), what leaps out to me is the sheer degree of difference between the first and second half of the book, almost like they were written by different authors. Not that I think that the book was - but rather that Diémé must have drawn on very different experiences and mentalities in writing his novel.

The contrast is really quite remarkable. The first part of the book is defined by:

  • Extensive dialogue
  • A point of view from the female character, Fatou
  • An explicitly heavy political bent for discussions by the characters, and active political action by them
  • A general lack of strong emotions or passions
  • Significant stylistic differences, with a more languid and slow writing style
  • Generally highly positive group of characters
  • Relative disengagement with traditional African customs other than physical representations, such as eating with the hands
  • Communal life in New York

By contrast, the second part of the book completely changes the tone:

  • Limited, mostly short dialogue
  • A point of view from the male character, Madou
  • Limited overt political discussion, with only a few paragraphs mentioning explicitly political themes, even if there is a clear undercurrent
  • Extremely marked by heavy emotional battles, anger, jealousy, and passion
  • A much more quickly moving, rushed, writing style
  • A group of characters whose flaws are very heavily put in the spotlight
  • Extensive focus of themes on traditional African mentalities and perspectives
  • Private life in Broadway, Iowa, with a more limited oversight by community figures

It is a fascinating distinction, and one which seems to be marked somewhere around page 124, when the character perspective shifts decisively in favor of Madou, rather than Fatou.

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I know Joseph Diémé and so some of the themes which he mentioned in the bookw are ones which I have personally heard him speak of, in the first part of the book, such as clandestine immigration in New York consisting both of white and non-white populations, but only the latter facing significant immigration controls (with a notable distinction between the treatment meted out to French people who often work in New York's restaurants, vis-à-vis Africans in New York), or the way that changing one's accent can lead to black people receiving significantly different treatment and images, so that Madou would choose to speak in an American accented French to a French tourist couple in order to get a better reception than the negative prejudice which the French have against French blacks.

This however, also contains what I think is one of the oddities of the book, and possibly a severe drawback: its temporal errors of the book's mise en scène. 2001, in New York, and Yves, an immigrant, speaks of watching a documentary on Youtube, not founded until 2005, and computer usage seems nearly universal - this from immigrants from Senegal, in 2001, to a the United States which in this era which had just barely attained 50% computer penetration. Various little things like this make it seem as if the book passes perhaps a decade later, drawing on the author's personal experience, rather than in 2001, and that 2001 was chosen for chronological reasons for the 9/11 attacks, but that the content relies upon the author's personal experience, pushed several years into the past. Not that these would have been difficult to fix: simply speak of the Youtube documentary which Yves saw as a newspaper article for one. But others would have been more difficult to fix: the characters which Diémé populates the first part of the book with are entirely too polished and analytical. Fatou herself is deeply surprised by the level of general knowledge and worldliness of her husband, a trait shared with all of the other immigrants. I don't think at that the opinions and views they express about the negative impact of Western colonialism and imperialism in Africa are in any way out of character for them, and that these political views are entirely natural, and Senegal in particular has a strong tradition of public debate and discussion over a whole range of topics: but when even the characters express surprise about the erudite nature of their companions, that they read like university professors makes it seem as if the author was putting his words directly into their mouths! But it could be that this is the first time I have read a book written by someone I know so therefor I can see whence stem the thoughts.

A picture of Little Senegal, in New York, where much of the story takes place at first

A picture of Little Senegal, in New York, where much of the story takes place at first

It leads me to suspect that Diémé must have drawn substantially from his public life and his political views for the first part of the book, while the second represents his personal, private, and much more explicitly African heritage. It makes some of the themes more difficult to easily understand as an outsider: a key component of the second part is the negative role of Fatou's mother in law, Khady who sows dissension, discord, and ultimately contributes mightily to ripping apart the marriage of Fatou and Madou. Although Euro-American culture does hold some negative perception of step mothers, it seems remarkably less potent than that found in West Africa: thus at least some of the cultural meaning is lost to me, relatively uninitiated. Another element which is distinct is the extensive age gap between Madou, significantly older, and Fatou, his younger wife: this is a much more common pairing in Senegal and West Africa as a whole. Madou, to my perspective, still clearly stands out as the victim, and Fatou as the villain; even if Fatou was much younger, she still agreed to the marriage and benefitted mightily from it, and her betrayal of Madou represents a profound evil. But whether this is more justified in Senegalese culture in light of the accusations of impotence raised against Madou is more of an open question.

When I first sat down to think about what I would say about the book, after reading the first part but before really starting on the second, what came to my mind was that it was almost like a work of Soviet socialist realism - that the immigrants were portrayed as perfect individuals, without flaws, who nobly confronted the issues of both their own culture and the backlash against them in American society. Thus, they spoke frankly and openly about the need to reform their way of life to provide for a greater equality for women, to help with household tasks, and they did just that with assisting Fatou with her cooking and cleaning. They are all model employees, none of them have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, social isolationism, crime, hooliganism, and although the book speaks about the common tendency for domestic violence towards women in the Senegalese community of New York, they are all staunchly progressive. They mobilize as faultless victims against the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, sentiment which pervades New York and America as a whole after 9/11: it all feels entirely too perfect, too formal, too rote. The second part of the book does quite a lot to rectify this. It shows an entirely different side to the characters, one which transforms them and showcases an emotionally charged, dark, world, and which elevates the story greatly.

If anything, one could see the second part of the book as extremely critical of immigrants! Of the five immigrants present in it - Fatou, Madou, El Hadj (a good friend of Madou); Khady, and Omar, three out of five are presented in a highly negative light - Khady, Omar, and Fatou, a clear majority. But what is even more distinct is the way in which the book speaks of the media appearance of immigrants: Fatou is fêted as an example of the model immigrant, entrepreneurial, independent, successful, who overcomes adversity and her arranged marriage - while Madou is presented in court and public as an abuser, as cruel, as evil. Of course, the reader knows very well that Madou is innocent of these accusations, and that it is Fatou who has cruelly abused Madou. not only warns against the normal tendency of the media to create dichotomies, in this case purposefully chosen in an effort to create a model "good immigrant" against which "bad immigrants" could be compared, but also the very danger inherent in the creation of such artificial stereotypes.

A strong book for a look at the life of Senegalese in America, their feelings of fear and exclusion after 9/11, and the way in which their life and existence are torn apart both by factors of the old society, but also the individualistic and materialistic culture of the United States which removes Madou in particular from his support structures and institutions which support him, leaving him vulnerable to malicious figures like Fatou. This is part of what makes the character El Hadj into the strongest one in the book - a traditionalist, much abused, man, strongly devoted to his community and friends. He shows that a meaningful and worthwhile existence is only possible in the company of frameworks such as himself, who preserve community and collective life, watching over others - that we are all our brothers' keepers. If only it had managed to better develop the rest of the characters and better place the book into its setting, it would have been superb. In any case it is a fascinating tale into the life of Senegalese immigrants and a dramatic story of their human emotional tragedy.

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