“I Know Paris Better Than Any Other City in the World”

Eddy L. Harris was born in Indianapolis in 1956 and graduated from Stanford University. He has written seven books including Mississippi Solo, the story of how he canoed down the legendary river during the 1980s, Native Stranger, South of Haunted Dreams, and Still Life in Harlem. But since 1996, his books have only been released in his adoptive country, France, where Le Mississippi dans la peau, his return to the scene of his first adventure thirty years later, has just been published.
© Philippe Matsas/Leextra/Leemage

His friends tell him that he is more French than the French themselves. Having spent the last fifteen years living in Pranzac, a village of 900 souls in the Charente département, Eddy L. Harris enjoys duck confit and good wine, buys his food at the local market, and wears a beret, the ultimate symbol of France in the collective imagination. After spending years traveling with Paris as his base, he chose to settle here almost by chance. “I picked up a map of France, closed my eyes, and voilà! I left Paris to save money, but I’m still only two hours by train from the capital, and close to the Massif Central mountains and the sea. I rented my house before I’d even visited it. I love the village and the people who live here, even though I’m away a lot.”

More at home with movement and change than in a sedentary state, he first discovered France while on a summer vacation between high school and college. All he had was a bag over his shoulder and a rail pass that he used to travel across Europe. In the early 1980s, he decided to move to France permanently while continuing to regularly visit the United States “to earn money.” “I’d read Baldwin and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. That was the Paris I was looking for. The city had obviously changed, but I found my own Paris. I walked a lot and I lived in several different neighborhoods. Today I know Paris better than any other city in the world.”

Unlike James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Harris did not flee America for racial or political reasons. “I’m not a race refugee and I wasn’t oppressed in the United States. I had no reason to leave other than a desire to discover other places.” Raised in St. Louis in a “100% Black,” middle-class area, he later moved to the suburbs and went to a mixed school (“it was the first time I had met white people”), before joining an elitist Catholic establishment. “We were supposed to be the best; we didn’t have time to be obsessed with questions about race.”

This is where he met “Monsieur Cook,” an old-school French teacher complete with a cane and a hat, who, through spit-flecked speeches, passed on his “passion for Paris and the French language.” “He embodied my first encounter with a foreign language and a European culture in a truly frank and pure way, spared from the relativism of the American steamroller,” he writes in Paris en noir et black, an account of his life in France. At the age of twelve, he read Les Misérables in French followed by François Mauriac’s Le Nœud de vipères.

Eddy L. Harris en Louisiane lors de sa seconde aventure sur le Mississippi, en 2014.

Searching for Africanity

As a perfect Francophone – despite denying it – Harris now splits his linguistic time between French, his day-to-day language, and English, the language in which he writes. After starting in 1988 with Mississippi Solo, translated into French last year, his literary career is now based more in France than the United States. Following on from the success of his first book, which still sees him invited to speak at U.S. universities, he published Native Stranger, an account of his trip to Africa looking in vain for his “racial roots.” “My Africanity resides in the color of my skin and the texture of my hair, nothing more. People can call me tall, bald, or Black, but I’m not African.” Observing that “Black Americans have no other country except the United States,” he then set off on a motorbike trip throughout the Southern states, which he portrayed in South of Haunted Dreams.

When he found records in Virginia of his great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Harris a.k.a. Free Joe Harris, a slave freed in 1832, the writer decided to stop using the term “African American” and replace it with the neologism “Blackamerican.” “I had found proof that we were there before the country was even created,” he says. In Still Life in Harlem, written after two years spent living in the eponymous Black neighborhood of New York where he felt like an outsider, he once again realized that the color of his skin did not completely define him. “After that book, I stopped being published and read in the United States. As I’m not an angry Black man, it’s easy to push me aside.” His following books, Jupiter et moi, about his father, Paris en noir et black, and his latest work, Le Mississippi dans la peau, the sequel to Mississippi Solo, have only been published in France.

When asked where he feels at home, Harris replies “France,” even though he does not want to apply for French citizenship. “I’m here, I’ll die here, even if I’m constantly traveling.” As he discusses in Paris en noir et black, the French capital was where he became “wonderfully invisible.” “In the United States, a Black man is always Black before he is anything else, whether rich, a lawyer, or a doctor. In France, people see me as an American. If I’m pulled over by the police for speeding, something changes in their eyes as soon as I hand over my American passport. I know that racism exists in France, and the racial problem needs to be solved to include people of color in society, but it doesn’t weigh on me personally. Here is where I really feel like myself.”

Le Mississippi dans la peau
by Eddy L. Harris, translated from English by Pascale-Marie Deschamps, Editions Liana Levi, 2021.

Article published in the October 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.