#AtoZ Challenge, 7th April 2020, F is for French.

Welcome to my blog Life in Poetry.

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Everyday a quote. 

This a series of notes taken by an imaginary Keats when recording his reading of the Obiter Dicta , a Bildungsroman by Pursewarden. (source bibliographical notes at the end of The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell,  for the plot characters and style see here

” I know my prose is touched with plum pudding, but then all the prose belonging to the poetic continuum is; it is intended to give a stereoscopic effect to character. And events aren’t in serial form but collect here and there like quants, like real life. “

Welcome to the 2020 APRIL A to Z Challenge. Extracts from my Novel in Progress, a two-fold Bildungsroman of sorts.

if you would like to know more about the A to Z Challenge, founded 11 years ago by Arlee Bird at Tossing Out,  read here

for my theme revealed , go here on Blogger

On WordPress, read here 

Q will be a day to answer all your questions on my novel in progress, so feel free to write them down in your comment. On the 20th April, I will compile them and answer each one on my Q post.

This Sixth post on my novel in progress is a reflection post. How French comes into the writing.

Brief synopsis of plot and characters :

Mathilda, my first main character, is American and lives in New York City. She is a student at NYU where she is preparing a thesis on the origins and developments of African American Music. She is a first person narrator. Her timeframe is 2005.

Bartolomé, my second main character, is Cameroonian and lives in Yaoundé. He is a professor of Mathematics at the University there. I will be using a third-person omniscient narrator for this character but from his Point of View. His timeframe is the early ’90’s.

Aparté :

as I revealed yesterday, F will not be for Funeral and this is why :

Firstly because I have learnt through experience, having buried in the last 15 years my Father, my sister, my aunt, a close friend and two colleagues, that a funeral is lived in the moment in a bustle of activity and most often than not, under shock. The realisation and process of grief can take months even years, spanning the rest of your life in fact and impacting on your relationships with the still living. So my character Bartolomé is not consciously thinking yet of the loss of his grand-father as such, so the relating of the funeral doesn’t seem paramount for the moment in developing the novel.

Secondly, I am not yet in a position to write about the funeral itself as I have not attended a Cameroonian/Muslim funeral in the North and do not have the research at hand. My friend Joseph from Yaoundé, whom we brought back from Equatorial Guinea, in our luggage so to speak, has not hooked me up with his Muslim friend from the North, Mohammed, who also now lives in Paris, in the last 15 years when I first spoke to Joseph of my novel and the plot, and he offered to help. 

We met Joseph in Malabo, where he had fled from Cameroon, following the imprisonment of his father for political reasons by Paul Biya, the then and current President. He wished to come to France to study and get a job, so I gave him my parent’s address and he showed up on their doorstep when we were still touring East Africa in February 1989. I hadn’t even had time to give my parents the heads up, but my well-travelled father welcomed him without raising an eyebrow. 

Followed 30 years of a long-lasting friendship, Joseph calls me his little sister and my husband his brother, although he has 5 siblings of his own scattered in Cameroon, Africa and even Germany. Joseph has never been back to Africa. His father died in Yaoundé, after his release from prison; his mother still lives there with one of his siblings, his eldest sister passed away a few years ago and another one is married to a German. 

Joseph, fortunately, managed to make a life for himself in Paris, avoiding the ‘ rafle des sans-papiers ‘ led by Nicolas Sarkozy, then Ministre de l’Intérieur in the ’90s, thanks to the help of the Archevèque des Armées who took him in early on, giving him a roof and employing him in his household, and I like to think of ours too. My father used to give him odd jobs around the house, carpentry and painting, they became very close, and I wrote letters of references for the University and authorities, so he could study computer sciences in Paris. He eventually married a French girl, divorced since, and is now the computer-whizz, responsible for the payroll software at the Education Nationale. 

He came to our wedding in 1993; To parties in our house in the Dordogne in 1990, 2000 and 2005 and even visited us in Toulouse when he had a job-related meeting here. He spoke at both my father’s funeral, 2005, in our village Catholic Church and my sister’s, 2011,  at the Protestant one in a nearby town, ( Joseph is of Roman Catholic confession), but he hasn’t visited my mother since 2012. We write and speak regularly on the phone and should be seeing him in the Dordogne in June if we can maintain our 2020 party there.

F is for French

The French language and the French culture play a part in both my characters’ lives. So I thought that today I’d pause in the narrative to provide some insights into why this is so and how I use my knowledge of them in my writing.

Although my characters, Bartolomé (3rd person narrative, character’s POV) and Mathilda (1st person narrative and POV) live on two different continents and grew up in two completely different cultures and communities, they do have two things in common: their roots, Africa, and their contact with French.

For Bartolomé, French is along with English the official languages of Cameroon. Although Bartolomé grew up in the French-speaking part of the country, his mother is originally from the Bamiléké region, to the West, which was colonised by the English. At the time of Independence in 1960, the three areas Central, Western and Northern (German colony in 1884 before WWI, Kamerun) came together as one country, though, ever since, the English speaking population (federated in 1961,  unified in ’72 and 1984) has been fighting for separation. The resurgence of riots in 2019, severely repressed by Paul Biya , the president of nearly 40 years, (hundreds of dead, thousands imprisoned) prove it.

Bartolomé doesn’t share the same culture as the French who live in France. His upbringing was far more diverse as it includes his African heritage: Bantu and Fulani on his father’s side, Bantu and Bamiléké on his mother’s. Plus all the influences from neighbouring areas and ethnicities in language, traditions, legends, art and music. (over 250 native languages)

For Mathilda, French comes into her culture obliquely. Firstly from her upbringing in New York, cosmopolitan city if ever there was one, with all the distinct European influences still strong; secondly, further down the genealogical tree, as some of her ancestors originated from Louisiana and New Orleans, a French Crown colony between 1718 to 1803 with a brief episode of Spanish control in the middle.

Furthermore her research into the influences on Jazz will take her back to her roots and Louisiana. There and then she will be in direct contact with a ‘mutated’ form of the French language and culture.

So I have an issue that I have to think through and experiment with. How much French should  I actually use in my novel. At the onset, I wished to write a completely bi-lingual novel, and I still might some day. However for the moment I will concentrate on peppering the dialogues with French and include French words in the narrative when necessary.

This brings me to another issue, that of voice. For the dialogues to be authentic, I need to speak with Bartolomé’s and Mathilda’s voices, their words, their vocabulary and their references. This is a very tricky part of writing: getting inside your characters’ heads while leaving yours at the door … and I have not set myself an easy task … But that is what is interesting and motivating: do the research and get it right. 

So my faithful guinea-pigs, I am now counting on a little bit of help from my pen friends.


Here is a rant and rave poem by Leonard Cohen on the dichotomy English/French written in pre-independent Montreal and published in the French paper Le Monde, at the time.

It makes me holler with laughter, how about you ? 

For Leonard, it was his middle-class mind flirting with terrorism and at the time discredited him from any responsibilities of possible political leadership … We artists are always misunderstood …

not for sensitive souls, offensive language. (line breaks and no punctuation as written)

I think you are fools to speak French

It is a language which invites the mind

to rebel against itself causing inflamed ideas

grotesque postures and a theoretical approach

to common body functions. It ordains the soul                                        my example: déféquer

in a tacky priesthood devoted to the salvation

of a failed erection. It is the language

of cancer as it annexes the spirit and 

instals a tumour in every honeycomb

Between the rotten teeth of French are incubated

the pettiest notions of destiny and the shabbiest

versions of glory and the dreariest dogma of change

ever to pollute the simplicity of human action

french is a carnival mirror in which the

brachycephalic idiot is affirmed and encouraged

to compose a manifesto on the destruction of the


I think you are fools to speak English

I know what you are thinking when you speak


You are thinking piggy English thoughts

you sterilised swine of a language that has no


You are peepee and kaka and nothing else

and therefore lovers die in all your songs

You can’y fool me you cradle of urine

where Jesus Christ was finally put to sleep

and even the bowels of Satan cannot find

a decent place to stink in your flat rhythms

of ambition and disease

English, I know you, you are frightened by saliva

your adventure is the glass bricks of sociology

you are German with a licence to kill

I hate you but it is not in English

I love you but it is not in French

I speak to the devil but it is not about your


I speak to the table but it is not about your plan

I kneel between the legs of the moon

in a vehicle of perfect stuttering

and you dare to interview me on the matter

of your loathsome destinies

you poor boobies of the north

who have set out for a heaven with your mouths on fire

Surrender now surrender to each other

your loveliest useless aspects

and live with me in this and other voices

like the wind harps you were meant to be

come and sleep in mother tongue

and be awakened by a virgin

(o dead-hearted turds of particular speech)

be awakened by a virgin

into a sovereign state of common grace.


Having grown-up in a household with a constant atmosphere of Hundred Years War arguments and bantering and suffered discrimination after 18, when I left my International school in Paris, for being ‘English’ from colleagues in my studies, work,  and my in-laws; and for being ‘French’ in England, I fully relate to Cohen’s poem. Constricted, nationalistic minds, please, leave us the hell alone.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer/songwriter/actress ( English mother, French father, married to a Frenchman, Yvan Attal, born same date and year as my husband )

Deadly Valentine, 2018, video with her two daughters, listen and watch here

Ring-a-Ring o’Roses, 2017, video with her son,  here

Kate, 2017, tribute to her eldest sister, here

The Songs that we Sing, 2011, here

5. 55 am, 2011, here

Everything I Cannot See, 2010, here

Couleur Café, her father, Serge Gainsbourg’s song, here

Flight AF60715, 2010, here

la Chanson de Prévert, by Serge Gainsbourg, with her mother Jane Birkin, here

Lemon incest, 1984, video with Serge Gainsbourg, here

Lemon incest, bilingual lyrics,  here

Film, L’Éffrontée by Claude Miller with Bernadette Laffont, César du Meilleur Espoir Féminin for Charlotte, here

Charlotte Forever, 1986, here

My Femme est une Actrice, 2001, my wife is an actress, by and with Yvan Attal, film director and husband to Charlotte in life, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Terrence Stamp, here

News from my wild garden this week.

wild Strawberries 

type of clover, the only plant that grows under the cherry tree.

Belle de Onze Heures, same family as garlic.

tulips still blooming strong

first Spring roses

7 a.m. this morning

with the South-Easterly breeze, new blossom fly away each day

On the 7th day of Easter, our two Turtle Doves

Cypresses and Pin Parasol in the neighbour’s garden.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to like, dislike or comment. I will be replying shortly.

Take care and stay safe.

5 thoughts on “#AtoZ Challenge, 7th April 2020, F is for French.

  1. Susan I loved your post..Such a novel idea to give us a glimpse of your characters and of the entire process, your connection with France and why so…
    Actually I would like to know so much what makes an author write what they do. Ice missed two of your previous posts. Will be back!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sonia for reading. Such a Massive Master List and interesting contributions. Even having written half my extracts before mid-March, it’s going to be tricky visiting too many blogs regularly this month. If I miss a few days, please don’t take it personally, it will have nothing to do with appreciating a post … take care.


      1. Susan you just do not need to write such a long note. I know absolutely. I’m a zombie myself. So visit you on and off only. But I’m getting interested in you WIP. Love❤️❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That Leonard Cohen poem says it so well. Although I grew up in England, I was always aware of my Chilean ancestry – Spanish roots so to speak. French was my second language though, and I speak it better than Spanish – just.

    Liked by 1 person

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