Letter to Jimmy
by Alain Mabanckou
Translated by Sara Meli Ansari
(Soft Skull Press, 2014)
Published on the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death, Letter to Jimmy (Soft Skull Press, December 9th, 2014) is African writer Alain Mabanckou’s ode to his literary hero and an effort to place Baldwin’s life in context within the greater African diaspora.
Beginning with a chance encounter with a beggar wandering along a Santa Monica beach—a man whose ragged clothes and unsteady gait remind the author of a character out of one of James Baldwin’s novels—Mabanckou uses his own experiences as an African living in the United States as a launching pad to take readers on a fascinating tour of James Baldwin’s life.
When Mabanckou reads Baldwin’s work, looks at pictures of him through the years, and explores Baldwin’s checkered publishing history, he is always probing for answers about what it must have been like for the young Baldwin to live abroad as an African-American, to write obliquely about his own homosexuality, and to seek out mentors like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison only to publicly reject them later.
As Mabanckou travels to Paris, reads about French history, and engages with contemporary readers, his letters to Baldwin grow more intimate and personal. He speaks to Baldwin as a peer—a writer who paved the way for his own work, and Mabanckou seems to believe, someone who might understand his experiences as an African expatriate.
“This short book is a touching and personal tribute to James Baldwin by Congolese- (Brazzaville-) born writer Mabanckou (Memoirs of a Porcupine, 2012). […] Mabanckou has written an odd, emotional, and quite beautiful homage to a writer who remains a major African American voice almost 27 years after his death.”—Booklist
"[S]ince he is an African, [Mabanckou] brings a different perspective to themes of literary exile, race relations and the African diaspora than have Baldwin's biographers... often insightful and inspiring."—Kirkus
Alain Mabanckou was born in Congo-Brazzavile in 1966. He is the author of Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine, and African Psycho, among others. Alain has been awarded the Prix Renaudot (one of the highest distinctions in French literature), the Sub-Saharan Africa Literary Prize, and the Prize of the Five Francophone Continents. He currently divides his time between Paris and California, where he teaches French literature at UCLA.
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