“The Future of the French Language Depends on its Creolization”

Is Francophonie the future of French language and culture? Philosopher, biographer, novelist, French professor, and director of the Maison Française at New York University, François Noudelmann applies a universalist vision of French in his teaching and his cultural programs, focusing on Haiti, Quebec, and the Congo as much as Paris. Born into a Jewish immigrant family, he now splits his time between Paris and New York. He thinks of himself as Creole, a blend of multiple perspectives inspired by his mentor and friend, Martinican poet Edouard Glissant, who invented the concept of Creolization.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: French language and culture seem to be taught less in American universities. Is this true? And if so, why?

François Noudelmann: This withdrawal has been observed in many universities, but not at NYU, which has retained a strong contingent of French-language doctoral students and majors. Many French departments in the United States have been absorbed by Romance Languages or European Studies departments in the last few decades. This trend is probably tied to a form of multilateralism that has changed perspectives of France and Europe as seen globally alongside Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

New York University is home to a unique institution, the Maison Française. What is its history, and its role? Can you tell us about Tom Bishop, its late director?

The Maison Française was founded in 1957. It organizes conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and film screenings designed to promote French culture beyond the university. Tom Bishop (1929-2022), its former director, made it internationally renowned by introducing the United States to the most important French writers and thinkers of the 20th century. We are now opening ourselves up to the cultures of the 21st century, to new theoretical questions such as sentience, the rights of non- humans, artificial intelligence, wars of law and order, neurosciences, medical ethics, soundscapes, and virtual worlds, while also focusing on the arts, literatures, and ideas of the Francophone worlds.

Tom Bishop introduced the United States to the Nouveau Roman literary movement through its figurehead Alain Robbe-Grillet, who taught at NYU. This was followed by French Theory with Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu. Have you observed a comparable groundswell in today’s French literary scene? Is autofiction a candidate?

Autofiction, a genre invented by the late Serge Doubrovsky, who was also a professor at NYU, was probably the most recent major French literary movement. However, today we are seeing a dialogue between literature, history, and sociology. Investigative narratives about human interest stories or familial and social environments have become very popular, and fiction is no longer a privilege reserved for novelists. By contrast, writers have shifted into the fields of politics and ethics, and have reaffirmed their ability to closely analyze moral and psychological questions and contemporary social phenomena.

Who are the students learning about French language and culture at NYU? What are they expecting from their studies?

The freedom to move between disciplines in American universities enables students with very different profiles to learn about French culture. It is wonderful to teach economists, chemists, and mathematicians in undergraduate classes on French thought. Meanwhile, graduate students specialize in specific works, centuries, and theoretical questions. This latter group has its eye on careers in culture, publishing, journalism, or academia.

There is a growing presence of Francophone authors from places other than mainland France in your programs. Is the vitality of French literature now driven by Africa, the French Caribbean, and Canada? And is the term Francophonie adequate?

In a reversal of history, Francophone authors and Creole languages may be the ones to save French language and culture in the United States! The word “Francophonie” remains ambiguous as it distinguishes between French speakers from the mainland and all the others, whether they are from Haiti, Quebec, Vietnam, Romania, or Senegal. Whether it is spoken as a native language or alongside other languages, French builds constantly reinvented creative worlds regardless of the region. It is part of multiple cultures. We claimed it was universal, yet it is actually rooted in diversity.

Two authors play a major role in your writing: existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Martinican poet and novelist Edouard Glissant. You seem to demystify Sartre and praise Glissant. Is this a fair observation?

Sartre’s political stances made people forget that he was a philosopher, a novelist, a playwright, a pianist, a lover, and a “troubadour,” as he secretly described himself. I try to reintroduce him by showing his astonishing and fertile contradictions. As for Edouard Glissant, who was a close friend, he was also a philosophical writer and developed an original school of thought which now goes beyond the traditional conflict between French republicanism and American multiculturalism. He offers a philosophy of relationships focused more on dialogue than identity.

With regard to Glissant, who is perhaps better known in the United States than in France, you highlight his idea of créolisation. How can we define it, and is there an English translation?

Créolisation is more than a mixing of cultures; it is the connection of differences and the unpredictable result of these encounters. This can lead to the very worst, such as cultural domination through the deportation of slaves to another continent, or the best, such as Creole languages, jazz, and cultures that mutually enrich each other through globalized exchange. In English, Creolization also refers to Caribbean history although not exclusively, as diasporas have all experienced this phenomenon. And thanks to the acceleration of migrations, we are now aware of both the hope and the resistance that it inspires.

Are you Creole yourself, through the multiple worlds created by your Parisian, New Yorker, and Central European Jewish backgrounds?

I am Creole through my family history and the people I have met, but I am still in the process of Creolization. And what better city than New York to live one’s Creole identity to the full?

In your novel Les enfants de Cadillac, published in France last July, you discover the history of your ancestors – a subject of little interest to you until later in life. Are you giving in to the identity-focused search for our roots, which is at odds with Creolization?

I inherited a refusal of heritage from an assimilated family who didn’t want to talk about their traumatic past: My grandfather, who immigrated to France and was interned in an asylum for twenty years after being exposed to a gas bomb during World War I. Or my father, who spent five years in a Polish prison camp during World War II. The older I get, the more I understand that we cannot escape the transmission of the stories that came before us. That being said, identifying ourselves through the pasts of others is an inverse illusion. We have a past; we are not our past. The future is always open.

Is identity versus diversity the new focus of philosophical debate, replacing the ideologies of the left and the right?

In current debates on the importance of race, the promotion of certain terroirs, and respect for religions and sexual categorizations, new divisions are indeed appearing between identity and nomadism, between preservation and transformation, deference and transgression, the anchor and the oar.


Interview published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.