Should we erase passages deemed racist in novels by dead authors like Agatha Christie? The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, is not against it, but believes that “there are bigger problems”.
In England, where the author of Farewell Zanzibar settled, and where he was naturalized British, several famous novelists were the subject of rewrites. This is the case of Agatha Christie, who died in 1976. Her rights holders undertook to republish the adventures of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple by removing descriptions of certain characters marked by stereotypes, even offensive ones. The author of James Bond, Ian Fleming, and one of the greatest children's novelists, Roald Dahl, suffered the same fate.
The question divides so much that two versions of Roald Dahl's books will coexist in bookstores: the original text, and the one revised and corrected by sensitivity readers, these readers who track down with their today's glasses considerations considered banal yesterday. The work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, 74, is shot through with the repercussions of colonialism, including racism. This is still the big theme in Les Vies d'après, published at the beginning of October in French, which he came to promote in Paris. Hailed by critics when it was published in Great Britain in 2020, Les Vies d'après recounts the First World War from the German colonies in eastern Africa, a very rare perspective in literature. “When a story is incomplete, because it only sees one side of things”, in this case the European point of view on the Great War, “we can make an addition (...) It is my idea,” explains the novelist to AFP.
Thus, this novel explores a complex question: why did colonized people, brutally subjected to the yoke of a European power, go to fight for it in a conflict that did not concern them, and where they exposed themselves to racism from their superiors in the military?
Abdulrazak Gurnah is not just a writer. He also had a career as a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent. As a researcher, how does he view the watering down of Agatha Christie's novels? “I think it’s a vain thing. But I guess one of the reasons we do it is that the publisher wants to make their product more respectable,” he replies.
He takes the example of the novel entitled Today They were ten, known until 2020 under the title Ten little niggers, in accordance with its original English title taking the title of an old song. In this 1939 detective novel, one of the best-selling in the world, the now-banned word came up several times. “If you’re a publisher and you have this product, why not turn it into Ten Little Black Children? If it makes it more acceptable... I don't think it matters too much,” said Abdulrazak Gurnah.
He says he has difficulty understanding those who cling to the text of the first edition, as if it were sacred, whereas in 1940 Agatha Christie had given her approval to another title in the United States (Then There Were None )."I think that the people who have a problem with it, who have objections to it, because they think it's 'cancel culture'... I think there are bigger problems in the world that we need to worry about, rather than changing the title of an Agatha Christie novel,” says the Tanzanian. The controversial word, he recalls, “really, really hurts people.” And putting it into context with footnotes is, according to him, far from enough: “How do you do that when it’s the title?”