Letter To Jimmy- Alain Mabanckou


“People would argue for a long time about the real reasons behind your “exile” in France. But the truth is that there is nothing more disheartening than the imprisonment of a creative person, nothing worse than the feeling that the world collapsing before you will swallow your dreams in the end.”- Alain Mabanckou, Letter to Jimmy

I feel this book is many things at once: it’s a sort of biography, a homage to a great writer, and at the same time it’s a sort of guide to the search for one’s inner self through the works of someone who has clearly influenced us. It was a beautiful recapitulation of James Baldwin’s life by someone who is clearly a great admirer and knows a lot about him. At times Mabanckou is speaking to James Baldwin, at other times he is addressing us, the reader, filling the gaps in our knowledge and giving us interesting tidbits and interspersing the book with book reviews.

To me, the title of the book illustrates a closeness between the writer and James Baldwin, and it’s no surprise the admiration and reverence Mabanckou feels to Baldwin because I, and so many others, feel it too. An enigmatic individual, insightful, brave enough to take his life into his own hands, eloquent enough to dissect and present the race problem in an accessible and very incisive way.One of the chapters is entitled “black. bastard. gay and a writer”, I believe the first three words basically sum up the complexity of his identity, especially in the era in which he lived, and yet he managed to become one of the best writers of the 20th Century despite so many obstacles.

I also like that Mabanckou talks about how Baldwin’s words are needed, even now (or maybe especially now); he means so much to marginalized folk and also people searching for their own identities, and so many of his words are timeless and are still very relevant to this day. He has a lot to teach all of us:

“At a young age, we end up accepting what is said about us, especially when it comes from adults. It remains this way until something comes along to contradict those early notions, to make things right, even if only superficially.”

Since I recently reread Baldwin’s own essay on sentimentalism, I thought it was interesting that Mabanckou seems to have the same, or similar, ideas about African literature. It surprised me to see that parallel but Mabanckou makes a pretty good argument, I’d say:

“A variety of African literature known as “child soldier” literature– or as “Rwandan genocide” literature, when it was created more in protest than in an effort to truly understand the tragedies– convinced me definitively that we were not yet free of the vortex of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that the sentimentality and moralizing current that runs through some of these works does harm to African literature.”

All through this read I was thinking about how our  favourite author influences us and plays the role of guide in our journey. Regardless of the gender, ethnicity, era, country of origin, etc, writers can reach out to so many people, just like Baldwin clearly reached out to Mabanckou.


16 thoughts on “Letter To Jimmy- Alain Mabanckou

  1. That last quote is life. Its layered with so much to be discussed and I agree with it for the most part – the themes of a lot of books in African literature like ‘poverty porn’, child soldier stories, war, corruption etc. Basically, negative (but TRUE and ACCURATE, I know lol) stereotypes seem to be the foundation of African works and maybe moving away or highlighting other things/themes mother Africa has to offer wouldn’t be so bad

    (I don’t know if I’m making sense of the quote properly, as I haven’t read the book haha). This will be added to my TBR! Thanks for the review 🙂

    1. Yes! It’s really a great comment, isn’t it? When I read it I had mixed feelings because I realize the importance of representing actual African events and such, but like you said, these negative stereotypes then tend to become the foundation of our literature. That sort of stuff seems to sell in Western markets though; a lot of people don’t seem to be ready to perceive Africa as a unique and complex continent. And you are making perfect sense!

      1. whew! Good to know, I thought I was sounding crazy since the quote is taken out of context a bit. But yeah, I’m curious to know how African lit will evolve in the future, as the continent and its people continue to change. Its exciting 🙂

  2. I feel so terrible, because I have neither read James Baldwin or this book. But I will definitely, definitely get onto it ASAP. The quotes are so intriguing and beautifully written. I especially like the second one.

    1. Hi Kate, I’m glad you’re going to give Baldwin a go! My first Baldwin was “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and then I read his essay collection “Notes from a Native Son.” I think I prefer his essays to his fiction but everything he writes is gold. Have fun exploring his work!:)

      1. That’s interesting. So where did he get all of his information about Baldwin? I’m curious, because as I was reading your review, I almost got the weird feeling that the author was a sort of fanatic or stalker! (while stalking is bad, the narrative in my head was exciting).

      2. Haha! Now you mention it, it does sound like that:D I guess when I write reviews I’m always careful not to give too much away but that may lead to me not mentioning key points! Mabanckou read Baldwin’s books and did some research into his life when he became more interested in his work. Hope that makes sense:)

  3. I have yet to read any of Baldwin’s work, which upsets me but I have to remember that life is long and I will eventually read many incredible books.
    Should I start with Giovanni’s Room since I am partial to fiction?
    Before I read a work such as Letter to Jimmy, I would have to know “JImmy” first to appreciate it fully, I presume. Or do you think anyone can read Alain Mabanckou’s book without much knowledge of Baldwin’s work and life?

    1. I think “Go Tell it on the Mountain” might be a better start. It’s semi-autobiographical but if you didn’t know that it would read like fiction. The book helped me understand where Baldwin was coming from and it was very well-written. I think knowing some Baldwin would help you appreciate this book; then again, reading this book might push you to read more Baldwin!

  4. Great review. ANd about the negativity, I hope there were happier books around you know. Same with the case from India in terms of fiction. It is always the poverty and down trodden life that is highlighted. As much of a reality that is, there is an aspect called middle class life or other topics in the country that the writers need to write about and talk about, Focussing on only the negativity spreads a wrong image in the minds of readers who are exposed to that particular land only through the literature

    1. Thanks! I’d never thought of Indian books in that way but now I’m thinking of all the Indian literature I’ve read (and I think I’ve read a fair number) and poverty does seem to be a recurring theme. It would definitely be great if we could encounter other stories from these areas because, as you know, readers in the west often believe that the novels they read are representative of the entire area that’s featured!

      1. Exactly. Like the instances on Twitter where @Granthamaven talked of a random guy at a grocery store asking her if she meditates and @bookishthoughts being asked if she rides an elephant to school. It was too funny. How do you explain that we use the common modes of transport as everyone. Just because an elephant lives in India we wouldnt ride it to school in a city.

  5. Oh my, I’m not surprised @granthmaven has come across people like that, I think it’s hard for many people in the west to accept non-western nations as very intricate and complex; to so many it’s enough to have one story or image to cover the entire country.

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