Francophone African literary representations of the Paris Metro

Francophone African literary representations of the Paris Metro


Written by:

Anna-Leena Toivanen

First Published:

08 Nov 2021, 9:43 am


Francophone African literary representations of the Paris Metro



Since the mid-twentieth century, Francophone African literatures have produced narrativisations of Africans’ encounters with the (former) colonial metropolis of Paris – and its metro. Despite their sometimes ostensibly fragmented or marginal character, African literary portrayals of the Paris Metro form rich material for studying the mobile meanings of urbanity from a postcolonial perspective. Literature is a privileged source for conveying intensified, even defamiliarised understandings of public transport that challenge the triviality of everyday experiences of urban mobility.

While Paris has been studied in diverse literary contexts – African literatures included –, apart from flâneurism, not that much attention has been given to the representation of the genuinely mobile aspects of metropolitan life. Recent scholarship sees public transport as a mobile public space. As such, public transport enables ephemeral encounters with strangers. These encounters may turn public transport into a site that produces differences and exclusion but also instances of boundary-transgressive dialogue and expressions of conviviality. African literary portrayals also suggest that the Paris Metro is not only a place for encounters between passengers but, on a metaphorical level, between the colonised subject and the ‘modernity’ of the metropolis; unrealistic expectations and the reality; and the official society and its racialised outcasts. 

My text corpus covers a wide range of Francophone African and Afrodiasporic fiction. It includes works by first-generation African authors – e.g. Ousmane Socé, Bernard Dadié, Camara Laye – published in the mid-twentieth century but also more recent texts written by contemporary Afrodiasporic authors such as Alain Mabanckou, Michèle Rakotoson, and Wilfried N’Sondé. My article discusses the meanings of the Paris Metro through four thematic categories. The first category explores the texts’ ways of associating the Metro with the modernity of the colonial metropolis. The tones of the narratives vary from naïve enthusiasm to reserve and even parody, and the Metro is far from being a banal, everyday element of urban life. In the second category, the Metro stands for the African characters’ experiences of alienation and disorientation as well as their disillusionment with Paris. The texts articulate the shock of modernity, racialisation, and assimilationist pressures of African metro passengers. The third category underlines the role of the Metro as a site for showcasing and producing social inequalities as observed or personally experienced by Africans in Paris. Here, the Metro features as the ugly underside of the metropolis and serves to criticise naïve conceptions of Paris as an Eldorado. And finally, the fourth category draws attention to the more positive meanings of the Paris Metro not only as a place for convivial encounters between strangers but also as a site for claims of agency by African migrants who try to make Paris their home.

Recurring imagery in African literary portrayals of the Paris Metro include the claustrophobic idea of the Metro as a ‘hole’, the harsh brightness of the lights, useless advice of how to use the Metro offered by experienced urbanites, and feelings of corporeal unease. It is through such imagery that the texts manage to convey so tangibly the perspective of the disoriented, alienated, or marginalised characters and invest public transport with complex meanings that move beyond sociological understandings. 


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.