Monday, 7 April 2014

A reflection on Alice Cherki's Frantz Fanon: A Portrait

by Ntombizikhona Valela
Alice Cherki's Frantz Fanon: A Portrait is a biography on Frantz Fanon that focusses on his work as a psychiatrist, his writing and his activism, and contribution to Algeria's independence. It also documents Fanon's interest in Africa's independence and Africa's future going forward.
This biography started off as quite challenging for me because it is a departure from the conventional structure of biographies I have read such as Xolela Mangcu's Biko: A Biography and Winnie Mandela: A life by Anné Marié du Preez Bezdrop. Such biographies tend to go deep into the personal life of the subject while Cherki's biography does not focus on this with Cherki explaining that Fanon was a deeply private man. What I enjoy about biographies is their ability to break down the larger-than-life image that is associated with the subject of the biography to show a more human and thus relatable character. This is something that I find ironic about this book because Fanon's work was devoted to humanizing the oppressed people of the colonized world, while not much about his personal life is revealed. On the other side of the coin, though, I find that his concern for the colonized brought out his humaneness. As I was reading this and comparing the biographies I have read while also reflecting on the death of Nelson Mandela and the documentaries that were broadcast on television during the days leading to his funeral, I found that Alice Cherki writes so simply about Fanon revealing how ordinary he was. The reason this struck me so much was because biographies of people like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela create this idea that in order to achieve something great or to be regarded as a revolutionary one ought to be extraordinary from birth. For example Winnie Mandela: A life opens with a tracing of Madikizela-Mandela's ancestry to the Mpondo royal family; Mandela is known to be born out of Thembu royalty. There's this idea that is created (whether deliberately or not, I do not know) that it takes some sort of anointing to make history and I think this closes the space for participation in revolution. However what I find in Cherki's book is that Fanon was an ordinary man born from an ordinary family, yet became one of the greatest thinkers of his generation. For me this book, in a way (whether intentional or not) acted as a response to the way some biographers write and thus create the impression that revolution, political thought and activism is reserved for the chosen few.

I admit that prior to reading this book, I had not been exposed to Fanon's work as a psychiatrist. I think this book succeeds in detailing this aspect of his life which we see as having had a great influence on his political work and vice versa.  I found it quite interesting how psychiatry and society are intimately linked. The notion that the way we relate to people who are mentally ill is linked to racism and classism is something that never occurred to me until I read this book. When we think of mentally ill people as crazy we strip them of any chance of ever leading lives that are the same as ours and we also elevate ourselves from them and deny them of their humanity. It may as well be the same as racism.
The most striking thing about Fanon is how connected he was with the society in which he lived. There are many intellectuals and political commentators who have a lot to say about society yet are out of touch with realities of people on the ground. When Cherki talks about Fanon's interest in Sub-Saharan Africa's independence she points out that Fanon focused deeply on countries that he knew very well like Cameroon and so could make a valid analysis as a result. His travels to other African countries also allowed him to make an informed analysis of what Africa could look like after independence from both a positive and negative angle hence he was able to warn against neo-colonialism because of what he saw.
Many "Fanonians" enjoy quoting Fanon's interest in violence. Prior to reading this book and his other work, what I gathered from these people was that Fanon was pro-violence. Cherki exposes the fact that violence was not something Fanon championed but saw as a necessary response in certain situations. It reminded of an interview Nelson Mandela once gave in the 1960s where he says (and I am paraphrasing) that passive resistance cannot continue to be a method that the ANC uses when the apartheid government responds with violence. This made me understand what Fanon's thoughts were on violence- that it is not an ideal method, but sometimes when people are pushed into a corner there is no option but violence.
An exciting thing about this biography is that it is written by a woman and I noticed that women had quite a significant role in Fanon's life: There is his wife and his assistant who helped write Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Whenever the life of a great man is documented, women's roles are often relegated to that of the mother, wife or mistress. It is very rarely the case that women have a role outside of these categories. There is this sense of interdependence between Fanon and the women in his life. He was not this man who existed outside the existence of other men and especially other women. Although Cherki explains that Fanon's writing on the role women played in Algeria's liberation war was not published in his work, the fact that he acknowledged women was refreshing to me.
I enjoyed how Cherki writes about Fanon in the context of other great leaders and thinkers- the fact that he studied with people like Senghor and the fact that he attended conferences for African intellectuals reinforced this idea that Fanon was an ordinary man who just took the time to look around him just like every other great individual that existed during this time. I admit that he shines a little brighter than the others, but at the same time his life inspires people to not isolate their work from their responsibility to be active and concerned citizens.

Cherki, A., 2006, Fanon: A Portrait, New York: Cornell University Press.