The Revolutionary Frantz Fanon

John Edgar Wideman leads readers into a twisting, fantastical novel
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This “novel” is novel indeed; a variform narrative incorporating, among other things, letters to a dead man and a tentative tale of a severed head. It’s a curious brew, heavily laced with impressions, observations and fantastic, almost hallucinatory images. (How else would one describe the author’s elderly mother giving birth to a full-​grown man,who emerges “munching the barbecued afterbirth”?). Not the recipe for a bestseller, perhaps, but then Wideman isn’t interested in pandering to a popular audience.

This is much stronger, stranger stuff than the more accessible works that formed his celebrated Homewood trilogy. Fanon is something altogether different, more voodoo than vogue, a potent potion concocted to conjure the spirit of Wideman’s hero, the late West Indian intellectual, Frantz Fanon.

Fanon, a psychiatrist and revolutionary theorist, was born of mixed ancestry in the French colony of Martinique in 1925. He fought with the Free French in WWII, only to be “bleached out” of service,and later opposed France in the war of Algerianliberation. The discrimination he endured in Europe as a man of color, along with his observations in Algeria and Martinique, combined to form his theories of racism, colonization andcultural trauma, which he expressed in three powerful books: Black Skin, White Masks; A Dying Colonialism; and The Wretched of the Earth.

These existential works analyze the human condition, plead for justice and call for the violent overthrow of oppressors as a requirement for the establishment of an egalitarian new world order. Fanon’s compelling writings express sorrow and disappointment as well as frustration and rage, and reveal the sensitivity of a wounded idealist. They inspired a generation of leaders of anti-​colonial and civil-​rights movements throughout the world in the turbulent 1960s, including Stephen Biko in South Africa, Che Guevara in Latin America and Black Panther Huey Newton in the U.S. Even the Canadian separatists of the Front de Liberation Quebecois identified with Fanon’s rhetoric, describing themselves as “America’s white niggers… among ‘the wretched of the earth’.” Fanon’s historical influence was cemented by his earlydeath from leukemia, when, ironically, he was killed by a surfeit of white cells.

Fanon’s ideas also had a lasting impact on the youthful John Edgar Wideman, who, at the time of Fanon’s death in 1961, was one of the few students of color at the University of Pennsylvania. Having left the self-​contained African-​American community of Homewood for the ivory-​tower Ivy League, he found himself, like Fanon, a black intellectual in a whitened world.

For decades Wideman strove to honor Fanon through his work, addressing the theme of racial injustice in his writings in the hope of igniting a revolution of his own. Although highly acclaimed, Wideman’s stories failed to produce the sought-​for social upheaval, and subsequent attempts at a Fanon biography, novelization and screenplay each proved inadequate to the expression of Fanon’s complex ideas. The desire to create a worthy Fanon tribute “continued to simmer… never forgotten, never achieved, often lamented… a source of anxiety and unfulfilled ambition.” Now Wideman is at it again, this time applying Fanon’s insurgent theories directly to his own literary technique; challenging readers to confront and overcome the prejudices of their expectations.

In Fanon, the Rules for Writing a Novel (a course which Wideman himself once taught) have been overthrown, andestablished literary constructs cast off as just so many “masks” worn by writers to assimilate to a cultural norm. In doing this, Wideman has liberated his novel from the strictures of traditional linear narrative, allowing for the inclusion of multiple styles and perspectives; admitting biography, screenplay and fiction all at once; and eliminating the hierarchy of creative expression, as Fanon sought to destroy racial and societal hierarchies. The result is a radical, freeform (some might say rambling) text comparable to a Romare Bearden collage, in which, according to Wideman, “each detail counts equally, every part matters as much as any grand design… size and placement don’t highlight forever some items at the expense of others… [and] meaning equals point of view.”

The collateral damage resulting from this stylistic revolution is of course the shell-​shocked reader, who, accustomed to being led down a well-​lighted path, is left to grope in the darkness of this unfamiliar construction. But the darkness of Fanon is not a vacuum, not the despairing, fearful void that prevails in western literary tradition. Quite the opposite. It is so packed with ideas and images that the reader can scarcely make it through a single page without bumping into half a dozen metaphors of every description: motherhood, brotherhood, prisons, terrorism, islands, tsunamis, nakedness, baldness, fire, snow, chickens, ghosts, mythological tail-​swallowing serpents, language, stones, abstract art, jazz and decapitation. The seeming chaos of Fanon isn’t meaninglessat all, but endlessly meaningful. The reader has only to choose.

Intentionally or unintentionally, Fanon also serves as a tribute to the author’s mother, Bette Wideman, whose death in February coincided with the release ofthe book.

In the author’s portrait she presides over the intersection of Homewood and Frankstown Avenues, at the navel of Wideman’s world, the reference point from which all comparative experiences derive their meaning. From her balcony at the K. Leroy Irvis senior-​citizen high-​rise, she watches the planes overhead and the gangbangers below, like a medium between Heaven and Hell, observing without judging, serene in her abiding religious faith.

Her son praises her distinctive manner of storytelling as intimate, immediate and inclusive; a style he emulates in Fanon. “Her stories flatten and fatten perspective,” he writes. “She crams everything, everyone and everywhere into the present… fills space to the brim… makes the moment present and large enough, thank goodness, to include everybody listening.”

Bette Wideman’s stories are interwoven with Fanon’s biography in an imaginary New-​Wave film scenario to illustrate the parallels that Wideman perceives between his two idols. “Fanon is not about stepping back, standing apart, analyzing and instructing others,” he claims, “but about identifying with others, plunging into the vexing, mysterious otherness of them, taking risks of heart and mind…. At least I think that’s what my mother understands about Frantz Fanon, what she shares with him.”

John Edgar Wideman, now in his mid-​sixties, has clearly mellowed. Where once he heard only a call for violent rebellion in Fanon’s message, the mature Wideman now heeds the plea forunderstanding and acceptance. “Nothing stands still, does it,” he observes, “including meaning.”

Shifting perspectives also make the difference in evaluating the success of Fanon. If, as Wideman states, “meaning equals point of view,” then students of literary theory will love it. Active, analytical readers who delight in making their own connections will be exhilarated by theexperience, but casual or passive readers will more likely be exhausted. Fanon sets an arduous task, requiring no small amount of imagination and intellectual stamina. Read it, by all means, but only after you’ve rested up on that vacation.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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