Immigration and its Representation in Contemporary France

R1B (section 1) :  English Composition through French Literature in Translation
Fall 2020
Class No: 21793
remote, synchronous
P. Lyons


Leila Sebbar – The Seine Was Red (1999)

Alain Mabanckou – Blue White Red (1998)

Fatou Dimoe – The Belly of the Atlantic (2003)

Mati Diop – Atlantics (2019)

Plus an e-reader (available in print upon request) of secondary materials.

Course Description:

In this course we will examine a series of artworks and cultural artifacts that explore various figurations of ‘illegality’ in France. Set in part against the backdrop of French immigration politics from the 1990’s forward, we will investigate how and why certain individuals become ensnared within frameworks of illegality, the practical and material effects it takes upon the quality of their lives, and various resistant practices that allow them to work against the law to carve out provisional spaces of endurance and persistence. In part, this course will question whether being ‘illegal’ is the same as being ‘outside of the law,’ and what types of racial, moral, or national presuppositions determine how we imagine ‘illegality’ as a concept.

We will begin in the immediate present by considering the work and writings of the activist group, the ‘Black Vests,’ a radical collective agitating for the rights of the undocumented in France under the shadow of COVID-19. The words of the Black Vests on race, exclusion and heightened exposure to violence and contagion will provide us with indispensable vocabulary as we begin to think about what it means for persons to be decreed illegal. From here, we turn back in time to Leila Sebbar’s The Seine was Red: October 1961 (1999), which explores the police massacre of several hundred Algerians during an illegal protest in Paris, breaking a police-curfew. Sebbar’s novel poses important questions about the limits of legality, martial, and colonial law.

We will then turn forward historically to the sans-papiers movements of the 1990’s, and the immigration law developments that precipitated them. Our first novel will be Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red (1998), which deals with the lives of undocumented immigrants working in Paris. Mabanckou’s depiction of the legal frameworks surrounding immigration, clandestine life, and expulsion will provide us with a first occasion to reflect on literature as a mode of critically staging the production of illegality. Our final novel will be The Belly of the Atlantic (2003) by Fatou Diome, which will invite us to consider stories of both successful and failed clandestine immigration to France from Senegal. It will be accompanied by a screening of Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019), which confronts the same issue, by means of a ghost story.

We will conclude the course by going on a virtual tour of the recent art exposition When Home Won’t Let You Stay (2020), whose artworks confront themes of immigration, illegality, and expulsion. Each student will be asked to pick an artwork to research further and present to the class.

Additional information: 

French R1B fulfills the second half of the Reading and Composition Requirement in the College of Letters and Science. Classes conducted in ENGLISH.