His 1921 book “Batouala: a True Black Novel” talked about life in a Central African village as seen through the eyes of a tribal chief. The book took the literary world by storm, making René Maran one of the world’s most widely recognized and praised writers. One of the greatest works of literature, Batouala made Maran the first Black author to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt, one of France’s highest literary honors.
The man born on a boat en route from Guyana to Martinique in 1887 was however criticized by some thanks to the preface to the novel that condemned racial inequalities in the colonial system. Maran nevertheless continued to write some of his best works, inspiring authors such as Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sedar Senghor.
Being the son of a French colonial official, Maran spent his early childhood in Gabon where his father was serving in a colonial post. He went back to France in 1894 where he attended the lycée and later completed his baccalaureate at Bordeaux. Following in his father’s footsteps, Maran worked for the French government, serving as an administrator in Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic). He learned the Bantu language while serving there and included the local culture in his writing.
But it was also while there that he came face to face with the unbearable conditions of Africans under colonization. That inspired him to start writing his powerful work of fiction Batouala.
In the preface to Batouala, which criticized abuses of the colonial administration, the young Guyanese wrote: “Civilization, civilization, the pride of Europeans, and their mass grave of innocent people. You build your kingdom on corpses. (…) You are the force that takes precedence over law. You are not a torch, but a fire.”
Colonizers hated those comments. Batoula was banned in Africa and some historians say it also caused a scandal in France. Amid the criticism, Maran resigned from his government position and moved to Paris, where he focused more on literature and journalism. In the 1920s and 30, he began socializing with African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Maran is also said to be one of the precursors of Negritude, a literary movement of the 1930s to 50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation. Maran met some key members of the Negritude movement such as Senegalese Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire from Martinique, and Guyanese Léon Gontran Damas. Google, which celebrated Maran’s 132nd Birthday in 2019 with a doodle, wrote that “his success gave inspiration to the 1930s movement of francophone intellectuals in the African diaspora.”
Before his death in Paris in 1960, Maran wrote for prominent periodicals in France and America and authored novels and short stories mostly about Africa. The prolific author received many awards for his works, such as the prix des Gens de Lettres, the prix Broguette-Gonin of the Académie Française, the prix de l’Outre-mer and the prix de la Poésie of the Académie Française.
The literary pioneer, who spent more than 10 years reworking Batoula, reportedly said of the novel: “When I wrote ‘Batouala’, I wanted to show Africa as I saw it. Everything I had said was fiercely and maliciously contested and, to show that I was wrong, they studied what I had seen. They were forced to say I was telling the truth (…)”