What a joy to read a book by an academic free of self-regarding jargon! Manthia Diawara, a Mali-born professor at New York University, embarked on a sabbatical year in Paris to write a book on decolonisation. He experienced a couple of disturbing encounters with the authorities that made him instead plan an exposé of French racism. Coincidentally, he was laid low by malaria, legacy of a visit to Bamako, and it was through the fever that he revisited the experiences he and his friends had shared a quarter-century earlier, as well as exploring the present predicament of sans-papiers African immigrants. He has come up with what is, by turns, insightful memoir and provocative social commentary - a very readable antidote to many stereotypes.
Diawara's own story is partially told. We learn that he had left Mali in 1972 on a well-worn student path to Paris. Enrolled at Vincennes, he also became a factory worker. Assuming a third identity, that of enigmatic writer, he haunted cafés and bookstores, acquired a Swedish girlfriend, and had a landmark meeting with African-American poet Ted Jonas, who advised, "Don't stay here unless you want to end up like all those Africans you meet in bars, running after women on Saint-Germain... They can't get a job here, and they can't go home... They like Africans better in the States than they do black Americans." He adds, "That's why I am here. I can't stand it there. Go there, and you'll have a chance of succeeding." The book abounds with such conundrums.
Diawara took heed. Based in Washington DC as a student, he and his Malian mates share an apartment, supporting themselves with illegal jobs. One day he is caught in a raid by immigration officers. Others try to flee and are rounded up; the poignant story of Johnny, expelled from America, haunts the book. Diawara freezes with terror, miraculously escaping deportation, as a letter from his uncle in Bamako echoes in his mind: "Remember our proverb: 'No matter how long a piece of wood stays in the river, it will not change into a crocodile'. So remember that you will always remain a Soninké from Mali. When you are successful in America, you belong to Mali. But when you also fail, you will still belong to your fatherland."
We Won't Budge, its title a tribute to Salif Keita's anthemic protest song "Nou Pas Bouger", could have been about a certain fix on identity. Yet Diawara's is a tale of confounding expectations, and not in an ironic "post-black" sort of way - about belonging and exile, assimilation, integration and isolation, and not least about music, a constant thread. He outs himself as a youthful rocker with a penchant for Led Zeppelin. He is honest enough to admit to retaining surprising tastes, describing astonished stares from white Parisians as he and a Bamako homeboy listen at traffic-stopping volume to such "kitschy white boys" as Rod Stewart, when Miles Davis or Salif Keita might have been more predictable.
We Won't Budge takes as its starting-point the violent killing of Amadou Diallo by New York City police in 1999, but delivers a personal and nuanced exploration of "African immigration in today's global world". It highlights the reasons that lead many Africans to leave the continent and admirably achieves its aim of making visible their predicament in Europe and America, "caught between tradition and modernity". Anyone who was taken by surprise by last year's riots in Paris, which exposed such deep race and class faultlines, would be well advised to read this book.
Margaret Busby edited Daughters of Africa (Ballantine)Reuse content