Did you know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has decamped for Paris for a year? Turns out he’s living in the Marais and dining out with a correspondent for the Financial Times. Excerpt:
There’s also a tradition of American writers who come to Paris to escape the US. Baldwin, one of Coates’s role models, said the city gave him the gift of ignoring him. For a black American, that felt like freedom. “I feel that, too,” Coates agrees, “which I think is different to saying there’s no racism here. But when I talk to people here, the first thing they sense is about [my] Americanness. That’s the mask I have on for them. It’s an incredible experience. This is the first place I’ve been where I felt people saw something different. It allows for greater comfort walking down the street.” The fragility of the black American teenage male’s body being a particular theme of his books, you can see another reason why Coates has brought his son to Paris. Piquantly, the boy, Samori, is named after a west-African military leader who resisted the French colonists.
“I think there’s something else, too,” he adds, as we eat the unadorned fresh seafood with little of the usual embarrassment of strangers sharing a plate of food. “There are a lot of guns in America. I’m not saying there’re no guns here, but significantly fewer. I think you feel that in the public space. When I walk down Canal Saint-Martin and I see people with open bottles of wine, sitting there, in my American eyes I think about that in a public space and I think about people getting shot. Somebody gets too drunk, bumps into somebody and then somebody pulls out a gun.”
Well now. First off, good for him. If I had hit the financial jackpot like TNC has done with his work in the past year, I would do the same thing. As you know, I did a much more modest thing with some of the advance money for Little Way, taking my family to Paris for a month in a rented apartment. A whole year? Wow. Fantastic!
That said, it’s funny that he is financing a year in a chic Paris neighborhood from the proceeds of a nihilistic bestseller denouncing America is a hellhole for black people. America made TNC rich! It’s even funnier, if you ask me, than a dude financing a month in Paris from an advance on a book about embracing the simplicity of small-town life — because of the radical chic element.
I think that TNC remark above about how unlike the French, Americans can’t have a bottle of wine in public without somebody pulling a gun, inadvertently reveals the parochial narrowness of TNC’s vision of his own country. In non-ghetto parts of America, it is generally the case that people can and do enjoy drinking in public without fear of gunfire. He’s generalizing the criminal pathologies of the kinds of neighborhood in which he was raised, and applying it to the entire country. This is the kind of thing that makes his writing about race and America so frustrating.
I’m on the record as judging his Between the World and Me a bad book, mostly because it is tendentious, and does not ring true. I am also on the record a couple of years ago saying that I wish somebody would pay TNC to go live in Paris for a year and write about that experience. So now it looks like it will happen. I hope he rediscovers what attracted me to him as a writer in the first place: his ability to look at old things with fresh eyes, and to convey the pleasure of discovery. For instance, I love in the FT interview how he owns his hokey passion for Paris (a hokey passion I share), and I love how he admits that he loves Paris in particular for the food. James Baldwin wrote beautifully about how he went to Paris to escape American racism, but found out that it’s impossible to escape human frailty. He was unjustly imprisoned in France for eight days, and discovered that even in his dream city, one has to face the reality of arbitrary power being brought to bear against one. I think that is what TNC has tried — with some success — to help white Americans understand about the black experience. I would add, though, that the state is not the only actor capable of using force arbitrarily against individuals. But that point is for another day.
Maybe TNC will come home from this incredible blessing of a year in Paris with the ability to see his own country more clearly.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that in this blog, I made several unwarranted assumptions about TNC and his year in Paris. Let me make this clear: I know that he is working while he’s in Paris, and I do not for a second believe that he didn’t earn this year in Paris from his work. I did not like BTWAM, but the man is a writer, and he earns his living fair and square. I regret the impression that I meant otherwise. I genuinely look forward to the book he writes out of this experience. As I said in this space a year or two ago, that’s a book I will want to read.