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Mohsin Hamid Is Working Through Literature, From the Top



“About five years ago, alongside my more contemporary reading, I decided to read from back to front, historically speaking,” says the author, whose new novel is “The Last White Man.” “I began with the Sumerian ‘Instructions of Shuruppak,’ first written in cuneiform on clay tablets around 4,600 years ago.”


Plagiarist or Master? The Tortured Legacy of Yambo Ouologuem



In 1968, a young Malian author living in Paris published his first book to the highest praise: Critics called it a “great African novel,” and awarded it one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes. But soon, his rise gave way to a devastating fall from grace.

The author, Yambo Ouologuem, was accused of plagiarism, but he denied any wrongdoing and refused to explain himself. His publishers in France and the United States withdrew the novel, “Le Devoir de Violence,” or “Bound to Violence.” After a crushing decade, Ouologuem returned to Mali, where he remained resolutely silent on the matter, responding to questions about his aborted literary career with digressions or outbursts of anger, refusing even to speak French.

He died in 2017, forgotten by most, his novel read by few — until recently, when another award-winning novel by a West African author helped bring new attention to Ouologuem and the tormented trajectory of his book. “The Most Secret Memory of Men,” by the Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, follows a mysterious writer who disappears from public life after being accused of plagiarism in Paris — a loose reference to Ouologuem. It won the Goncourt prize in 2021 and was published in the United States by Other Press this week, in a translation by Lara Vergnaud.

With Sarr’s book, Other Press is also republishing “Bound to Violence,” translated by Ralph Manheim. The reissue comes as fresh consideration of Ouologuem’s work by readers and academics is holding the old accusations up to new light: Should what Ouologuem did really be considered plagiarism? Or had hasty criticism, perhaps tinged with racism, destroyed one of the literary star of his generation?

There is no question that Ouologuem copied, adapted and rewrote phrases, sometimes entire paragraphs, from many sources.

The borrowings likely begin with the novel’s opening sentence, “Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears.” Critics have found it heavily inspired by another award-winning novel published years earlier, “The Last of the Just,” which begins with, “Our eyes register the light of dead stars.” Dozens of other similarities with “The Last of the Just” fill the pages of “Bound to Violence.”

But what if, academics are asking, those démarquages, as Ouologuem described the borrowings, were an artistic technique — a sort of anthology that poured the canon of Western literature into an African context, or an assemblage or collage, like that used by visuals artists like Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso, but using words?

“It’s not plagiarism, it’s something else,” said Christopher L. Miller, an emeritus professor of African American Studies and French at Yale University, who is working on a compilation of borrowings in the book. “I don’t think we have a word for what he did.”

Ouologuem was born in 1940, in central Mali, and moved to Paris when he was 20. He entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, as the poets and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinique, both champions of the anticolonial Négritude movement in literature, had done decades earlier.

He wrote at a frenzied pace. At 23, he sent his first manuscript to a publisher, Éditions du Seuil; within little more than a year, he sent two more. All were rejected. “Bound to Violence” was his fourth attempt.

When the book was first published in France, critics heaped praise on Ouologuem, then 28 years old. Released in the United States in 1971, the book was called a “skyscraper” by The New York Times — a work that deserved “many readings.”

The novel, composed of four parts, varies in style, drawing from West African oral tradition, ancient tales, theater and contemporary novels. It is a searing exposé of the centuries of violence that took place in parts of Africa, both before and during European colonization.

From its first pages, “Bound to Violence” is raw and sarcastic: Telling the story of the fictional Saif dynasty, which the reader follows from the 13th through the 20th centuries, would make for poor folklore, the narrator writes. Instead, readers encounter a world where “violence rivals with horror.” Children have their throats slit and pregnant women have their stomachs cut open after they are raped, under the helpless eyes of their husbands, who then kill themselves.

Sarr discovered “Bound to Violence” as a teenager in Senegal, thanks to a professor who lent him an old copy with pages missing. The book “sparkled,” Sarr said, even as it shed a harsh light on the continent, portrayed as rife with slavery, violence and eroticism.

“It’s an epic story of human cruelty set in Africa, just like it could have happened — and did — in the rest of the world,” Sarr said.

Even before accusations of plagiarism surfaced, Ouologuem’s portrayal of Africa caused outrage among African intellectuals. Among them were towering figures like Senghor, who described the novel as “appalling.”

Ouologuem shrugged off the criticism of his peers. “It is unfortunate that African writers have written only about folklore and legend,” he said in a 1971 interview with The Times.

The accusations of plagiarism came shortly after the book’s publication in English. In 1972, an anonymous article in The Times of London’s Literary Supplement pointed to multiple similarities between “Bound to Violence” and a novel by Graham Greene published in 1934, “It’s a Battlefield.”

Researchers and journalists spotted dozens of references and excerpts borrowed, plagiarized, rewritten — the appropriate words to use are still up for debate — from sources as varied as the Bible and The Thousand and One Nights, from James Baldwin to Guy de Maupassant.

“What Ouologuem did was fabulous, but at times he was borderline, and even crossed that red line,” said Jean-Pierre Orban, a Belgian academic and writer who studied Ouologuem’s correspondence with his publisher and interviewed his former Parisian classmates.

“He was infused with literature, quoting writers by heart as if he was making their work his,” Orban said. “He lived between reality and fiction.”

Some of the first revelations of Ouologuem’s borrowing drew pushback from readers. When Eric Sellin, a prominent professor of French and comparative literature, presented similarities between “Bound to Violence” and “The Last of the Just” at a colloquium in Vermont in 1971, a young attendant retorted, “Why are you white people and Europeans always doing this to us? Whenever we come up with something good in Africa, you say that we couldn’t have done it by ourselves.”

Further research by Orban and others found that Ouologuem’s French publishing house, Le Seuil, was aware of those similarities before publication. But the criticism grew as Ouologuem vehemently denied any wrongdoing, claiming for instance that he had sent the original manuscript with quotation marks, an excuse that most find dubious.

“He was hurt because he had been misunderstood, and he had a virulent and rather clumsy attitude toward those attacks,” said Sarr.

Academics and critics wonder if a Western author would have faced similar criticism.

“I don’t think that in France, a European or French author would have faced the same condemnation,” Orban said. Borrowings, pastiches and literary tricks were often considered a literary game, he argued. But it was one that Ouologuem wasn’t allowed to play.

Sarr believes that a white author would have faced a similar backlash, but one that would have been restricted to the literary field — while Ouologuem, he said, was castigated for who he was: an African author plagiarizing Western canons.

Miller, the emeritus professor from Yale, suggests that Ouologuem flouted the rules on purpose, not only attacking the concept of Négritude by offering a radical revision of African history, but also the Parisian literary establishment, in an act of artistic disobedience.

A bitter feud between Le Seuil and Ouologuem ensued, and the writer moved back to Mali in 1978, according to his son. Once flamboyant and talkative, Ouologuem went nearly silent upon his return, dedicating the rest of his life to Islam.

“He was a wounded man, who came back to curl up among his loved ones,” said Ismaila Samba Traoré, a Malian writer and journalist who interviewed Ouologuem in the 1980s.

His son, Ambibé Ouologuem, said that his father had spent time at a psychiatric hospital in France before moving back to Mali. Upon his return, Ouologuem struggled to walk, his son said, and was cured with traditional methods by his own father.

The feud around the book and the bitterness that ensued also deeply impacted the rest of the family: Ambibé Ouologuem said he had to go to school in secret, with the help of his grandmother, because his father wanted him to focus on studying the Quran.

“My father was proud of being African and Malian, and had always refused to apply for French citizenship,” Ouologuem said.

In Mali, Ouologuem’s book is taught in some high schools, but it remains little known beyond intellectual circles even in West Africa. Mali’s government has vowed to create a literary award dedicated to him, but it has yet to be announced. According to his son and those who have studied him, it is likely that the author left unpublished manuscripts in Mali or in France.

To Sarr, the Ouologuem affair is a literary tragedy.

“I would be happy,” he said, “If ‘Bound to Violence’ could be stripped of its maleficent aura, its dark legend. If we could read Ouologuem again and just consider his book for what it is — a great novel.”

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Wes Anderson Finally Found a Way Into His New Roald Dahl Film



Fifteen years ago, while the director Wes Anderson was adapting Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” into a stop-motion animated film, the author’s widow, Felicity, asked whether he saw cinematic potential in any of Dahl’s other tales. One came immediately to Anderson’s mind: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a short Dahl published in 1977 about a wealthy gambler who learns a secret meditation technique that allows him to see through playing cards.

Many filmmakers had inquired about adapting “Henry Sugar” over the years, but Dahl’s family was happy to set it aside for Anderson. There was just one problem.

“I never knew how to do it,” he said.

The 54-year-old filmmaker typically works at a prodigious pace, putting out distinctive comedies like the recent “Asteroid City” and “The French Dispatch” (2021) every two or three years. But he has spent nearly half his career trying to crack “Henry Sugar.” The breakthrough finally came when Anderson decided to use more than just Dahl’s dialogue and plotting: He would also lift the author’s descriptive prose and put it in the mouths of the characters, allowing them to narrate their own actions into the camera as they happen.

“I just didn’t see a way for me to do it that isn’t in his personal voice,” Anderson explained. “The way he tells the story is part of what I like about it.”

The result is a 40-minute short starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade, with a delicious assist from Ralph Fiennes as Dahl. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, “Henry Sugar” will be released Wednesday on Netflix, followed by three more Anderson-helmed Dahl shorts — “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — that employ the same actors and meta conceit of using Dahl’s prose in dialogue.

(That prose has been under a microscope of late because of a plan by Dahl’s publisher to edit out language that was deemed offensive, some of which reflected the author’s racist views. “I don’t want even the artist to modify their work,” Anderson said when asked about it at a Venice news conference. “I understand the motivation for it, but I sort of am in the school where when the piece of work is done and the audience participates in it, I sort of think what’s done is done. And certainly, no one besides the author should be modifying the work — he’s dead.”)

I spoke to Anderson about his Dahl projects in Venice. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

When you read Dahl as a child, you feel like he’s telling you things another adult wouldn’t. While watching your characters say Dahl’s prose directly into the camera, I felt that same conspiratorial connection again.

Oh, that’s good. And yeah, every kid who experiences it has that same thing. There’s mischief in every Dahl story, and the voice of the writer is very strong. Also, there was always a picture of him in these books, so I was very aware of him and the list of all his children: He lives in a place called Gipsy House, and he’s got Ophelia and Lucy and Theo. Do you know about his writing hut?

I didn’t until I watched “Henry Sugar,” but it looks like you recreated part of Dahl’s house for the scenes in which Ralph Fiennes plays him.

When I made “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and I was working on the script, we stayed at the house for some time. In those days, that writing hut was still filled with his things and left the way he had it. [Dahl died in 1990.] There was a table with all these sort of talismans, little items laid out, which I think he just liked to have next to him when he was writing. He had this ball that looks like a shot put, made of the foil wrappers of these chocolates he would eat every day. He’d had a hip replacement, and one of the talismans was his original hip bone. And there was a hole cut in the back of his armchair because he had a bad back. It is odd to have somebody write in a way that’s sort of cinematic.

You grew up imagining Dahl and the place he lived. How did it feel to stay there?

It was a dazzling thing. It’s the house of somebody who has a very strong sense of how he wants things to be.

Something I’m sure you can’t relate to it all as a director.

No. [Laughs] I remember the dinner table, a great big table with normal chairs, but at the end of it is an armchair — not a normal thing at a dinner table — with a telephone, a little cart with pencils and notebooks, some stacked books. Essentially, “You can all eat here, and this is where I sit and have everything I want.” Also, he bought art and he had a good eye. I remember there’s a portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon next to a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud. The place is filled with interesting things to look at.

It sounds like the kind of set I might expect to see in a Wes Anderson film, filled with these totems and details.

Things that are about a character. Yeah, and he’s quite a character.

As you thought about adapting “Henry Sugar” over the last decade and a half, did that give you time to figure out why you were so drawn to it?

I always loved the nested aspect of it. I do these nested things in my movies starting with “Grand Budapest,” but I think it possibly comes from “Henry Sugar.”

Another thing that you carry over from recent works is the idea of theatrical artifice: You want the viewer to see how this story is put together, and even the walls of the set are wheeled in and pulled apart. What draws you to that approach?

When you watch a movie, generally you’re seeing someone try to create an illusion of something happening, because in fact right off the frame is a light and a guy with a microphone. But for me, the theatrical devices really happen. So I think to some degree, I like the authenticity that a theatrical approach can bring. It’s a way to tell the story where there’s a little sliver of the documentary in it, even though most of what we’re doing is the exact opposite of a documentary.

And the viewer feels along for the ride, especially in some of the long takes that have a lot of choreography.

On the set there’s so much to wrangle, but when it all starts to happen, it is quite a great thing to sit down and say, “Wow, look at that, 90 seconds of the movie is happening right in front of us right now.” Every time with complicated shots that have tricky staging and lots of things for actors to do, there’s usually the feeling that this may not work, that what needs to happen here may never occur. So it’s always this great relief as you see it evolve and say, “No, we’re getting there and they’re going to do it.”

When they nail one of those tricky long shots, what feeling do you have?

“Next!” That’s usually what it is.

You don’t allow yourself even a moment to exult in the perfect take?

There’s a little moment of, “Ooh, that was a good one.” Then, “OK, so do we do lunch? Or we could set up [the next shot] and then eat.” That sort of thing.

In your recent movies, you’ve had very large ensemble casts. Why did you decide to tackle all these Dahl stories with such a small troupe?

I thought we’ll do just English actors, and I had people in mind who I already knew and some people who I wanted to work with, so it’s not an unfamiliar group. But the idea of doing it as a little theater company, in the writing part of it I started thinking, “Maybe we’ll do the thing they do on the stage sometimes, where someone’s playing this role, but also this and this.”

You’ve said that you tried to work with Dev Patel in the past, and this is the first time he said yes. What had you offered him before?

Well, I don’t like to say, because then the actor who was in it says, “Oh, I wasn’t the first choice?” But I love Dev, and in this thing, Dev is the youngest of them, so he has an advantage when it comes to paragraphs or pages of text. If you work with people at different ages and you’re giving them a lot to do, you can see how it really is so much easier when you’re young: On “Moonrise Kingdom,” we had a lot of people who were 12 and they knew every word of the whole script. It was like we had 11 script supervisors on set.

As a precocious American kid reading Dahl, you might wonder what it would be like to live overseas. Now that you’re based in Paris, have you become the person that you imagined in your mind’s eye?

My experience is you stay yourself and you realize, “Oh, I guess I will always be a foreigner.” Which is not a bad thing, but I can’t say I’ve ever felt like now I pass. I am a Texan. Even if I’m living in New York or in Los Angeles, where I’m from is Houston. It’s built into my identity. I think if you’re from a city where you might want to live, or near it, then you have a different thing: Like Noah Baumbach, he has a deep life in New York that goes back all the way to the beginning of his life and generations of family connections and all that stuff. For me, New York is just the friends I made.

Growing up within a small perimeter is probably quite different from growing up with a big, big view of the world. I hadn’t really spent much time outside of my little territory until I was in my 20s.

Is it gratifying to have your perimeter so much larger now?

Yes. It’s an adventure to be able to say, “Well, I’m going to have breakfast in the cafe over here that I just know from movies up until a certain age.” That is fun. It’s definitely entertaining to live abroad, even if it is a bit isolating.

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The Black and White Southerners Who Changed the North



HILLBILLY HIGHWAY: The Transappalachian Migration and the Making of a White Working Class, by Max Fraser

BLACK FOLK: The Roots of the Black Working Class, by Blair LM Kelley

Between 1900 and 1970, millions of Americans left the South for the North, West and Midwest. Max Fraser’s “Hillbilly Highway” traces the movement of about eight million of them, poor whites from the “Upper South” — states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky — to industrial parts of the Midwest, cities such as Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago. In “Black Folk, Blair LM Kelley ties the exodus of another six million or so to a moving memoir of Black family migration, as well as to the wider sweep of time from slavery to the present. Together, these two migrations have helped shape two sides of our current perilous political moment.

Fraser, a scholar of labor history at the University of Miami, corrects several misconceptions. The usual view is that Southern Black people moved north during the first half of the 20th century, but Southern whites stayed put or went west when the Dust Bowl came in the 1930s. Yet many poor white migrants left debt-burdened farms, dead-end jobs and shuttered mills and mines, and ventured north on the “hillbilly highway” to settle in poor white ghettos such as Chicago’s Uptown, Muncie’s Shedtown and Dayton’s East End. There, like Black migrants, most found better lives than those they left behind.

Fraser also challenges writers who blame poor white Southerners for the rise of the anti-union right in the North. “Transappalachian migrants were early and eager supporters of Midwestern industrial unions,” Fraser notes, “in both radical hotbeds like Detroit and provincial outposts like Muncie.” They initiated work stoppages and slowdowns with and without union leadership.

And the transplanted hillbilly did not always vote conservative. When the Alabama governor George Wallace, an arch-segregationist, ran for president in 1968, only 6 percent of Chicago’s hillbilly Uptown neighborhood voted for him — a much lower proportion than the citywide average of 12 percent or the second- and third-generation European immigrant turnout of 17 percent. White blue-collar workers have since moved farther to the right, Fraser says, but hillbillies were no more or less likely to do so than other groups of white voters.

Blair LM Kelley’s “Black Folk also has a bone to pick. When we think of “the American working class,” we think of whites, she notes. But much of that class is Black, and, compared with white laborers, a higher proportion of all Black people are part of it. Kelley, a professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship,” tells the poignant story of her grandfather John Dee, the son of a Georgia sharecropper.

Seated in a wagon with his four siblings and the family’s belongings, Dee left behind a familiar place, a can’t-get-ahead life and a mountain of debt. The family landed in North Carolina. Dee married in 1938 and pressed on to Philadelphia, where he sought work as a carpenter and his wife, Brunell, a high school graduate — rare for rural Southerners of any race at the time — aspired to an office job.

But while the North offered Black migrants freedom to vote and a far lower risk of lynching, it didn’t offer a fair crack at the factory or clerical jobs on offer to white workers. Brunell, unable to find office work, earned money as a housekeeper.

What Black migrants badly needed was access to well-paying jobs and to real union support, and for the most part, until the 1960s, both were denied to them. Dee did manage to join a local branch of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, but found himself assigned to jobs in areas hostile to Black workers. Other Black workers were barred entirely from white-dominated unions; the 1918 charter of the Order of Sleeping Car Conductors specified that workers should be white.

As Kelley shows, many Black workers formed their own unions. In 1905, a washerwoman’s union in Richmond, Va., boycotted streetcars with segregated seating, bankrupting the company. In the 1930s and ’40s, A. Philip Randolph won better pay and hours for Black workers through his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and pushed the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to desegregate all federal jobs.

Both white and Black migrants were used by Northern business interests toward their own ends. In the 1910s and ’20s, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, sent recruiters into Appalachia to urge poor white people to move north to nonexistent jobs. “They were laying off men instead of hiring them,” one migrant reported. With a labor surplus, the company could undercut union activism, at least for a time, and spark antagonism between new migrants and white old-timers, who accused hillbillies of stealing jobs and undermining wages.

Some corporations also actively recruited Southern Black workers to break Northern white strikes, a fact missing from both books. In the nationwide steel strike of 1919, as the historian Stephen H. Norwood has written, steel companies recruited 30,000 to 40,000 Black workers, including thousands of recent Southern migrants in Chicago, to undermine the steelworker unions. And what about those unions? Were such unions the same ones that Fraser’s poor white migrants could join but from which Kelley’s Black migrants were barred? Fraser does not discount the possibility.

By 1940, nearly 11 percent of Southern-born white people and more than 15 percent of Southern-born Black people had left the South. Though studded with obstacles, the migration of Black people out of the South infused Northern cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York with energy and talent, helped to galvanize the civil rights movement and created solid support for the modern Democratic Party.

As for the migration of white people from the Upper South to the Midwest, Fraser suggests that at least some hillbillies brought union activism and left-leaning votes with them when they traveled north, but his story ends around 1970. In “The Americanization of Dixie” (1974), the journalist John Egerton, generalizing about whites from all over the South, argued that white migration helped “Southernize” the North. More recently, a group of American economists has argued that “the Southern white diaspora played an important role in shaping” the modern conservative constituencies that gave us the presidency of Donald Trump.

Of course, much depended on what Southern white migrants did after they came north. If they become highly educated or live in a city, and happen to be young (say, the migrant’s children), they’re more likely to be liberal. But, as political scientists such as Katherine Cramer point out, the ones who stay on the farm often vote Republican because they strongly resent an “urban elite” that they feel both ignores and controls them.

According to a revealing 2020 Pew poll, 45 percent of Americans have stopped talking about politics with someone because of something their interlocutor said — 45 percent of conservative Republicans and 60 percent of liberal Democrats say they’ve done this. White people are more likely to cut off conversation than Black people: 50 percent versus 37 percent.

The 2024 election cycle has barely begun, and Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already made their way to Detroit to court working-class voters on the picket line. Some foresee a replay of the North-South civil war, with Donald Trump playing to the Southernization of the North and Joe Biden to the Northernization of the South. Race is again central, and we’re having a hard time talking about it. The very human stories in these two books could be just the thing to break the ice.

HILLBILLY HIGHWAY: The Transappalachian Migration and the Making of a White Working Class | By Max Fraser | Illustrated | 320 pp. | Princeton University Press | $32

BLACK FOLK: The Roots of the Black Working Class | By Blair LM Kelley | Illustrated | 338 pp. | Liveright Publishing | $30

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