NOT TO BE MISSED
"Icône Urbaine", a novel by Lauren EKUE
Paris: Anibwe, 2005. 160p. Novel written in French.
Ce compte rendu en français
Some novels are a real pleasure to read but it is often quite hard to explain the reason for this blissful experience. Is it due to the style of writing ? the story line ? the originality of the text ? Is it because it makes us dream, smile or think? Well, there is certainly a bit of all that in Lauren Ekué's Icône Urbaine, plus a touch of that ill-defined something that defies logic and would seduce even those readers who have moved outside their comfort zone.
The story tells of the life of twenty-five year old Flora d'Almeida. She has just secured a job with a trendy Black fashion magazine Afro International and takes her new working place by storm. She finds inspiration in her ego that is larger than life and bases her columns on the thoughts that cross her mind: her tumultuous romantic affairs and all the excitement of a busy social life that unfold against a backdrop of Hip-Hop and R&B.
Conveying the self-assertive and extroverted nature of someone like Flora d'Almeida is not an easy task and it is to Lauren Ekué's credit to have found a convincing voice for her character. This success relies on two elements: a first person narrative telling the world from Flora's point of view and a writing style that is brisk, provocative and at times hilarious. It matches the personality of the narrator and grabs the reader from the very beginning of the book. As the narrator says in the first few lines, "I landed here through pulling strings; my good looks and my cheek impressed the boss. On that account, I now have to dash off something 1403 characters to be precise and justify my presence to a bunch of colleagues from the editorial board who consider my appointment as fraudulent and unwelcome. How wrong they all are! [...] I've got far more talent than one would need for the job [...]. You are finding my conceit and impudence annoying ? Bad luck ! ..." (p.9)
A fine line sets apart the arrogant buffoon from the free-thinking maverick, but we soon realise that Flora belongs to the second category. Behind the cheeky young woman arguing that she sees her life just as though it was based on the proverbial "me, myself and I", one also discovers a far more engaging personality who longs for meaningful relationships, even if they are difficult to establish.
Her hope to find the ideal mate is a case in point. Her first love affair ends up in tears and leaves her devastated though somewhat wiser in the ways of the world: "Beware of glib smooth talkers, she says. Cover their voice with yours. Play their game." (p.22) But when the time comes to put theory into practice, it is another matter and Flora finds herself under the spell of a seductive basketball player . Unbeknown to her, he is already in another relationship that she discovers on the front page of a rival magazine. And the experiences of Flora's girlfriends only comfort her with the idea that Black males living in Europe are only clones of old American Hip-Hop celebrities, unreliable and contemptuous of women. As a matter of fact, Togo's young men do not fare any better: they are allergic to domestic chores, keen to get their wife repeatedly pregnant while passing the time of day with their pals. Not the kind of man with whom she would like to walk down the aisle.
Given the rigidity of social expectations, both in France and Togo, Flora's difficulty in establishing meaningful relationships broadens beyond her liaisons with the opposite sex. It also spreads to her extended family: to the well-meaning women who want her to put on weight, to the elders who con her into making gifts for "magic" that is highly ineffectual. The "old country" offers her the ideal environment to relax for a few weeks and to recover from her hectic lifestyle. But she is soon missing the hustle and bustle of Paris and its excitement. She is not interested in taking life as it comes and her hyperactivity drives every aspect of her life, including work.
Her magazine Afro International is selling dreams, Black beauty and the value of consumerism, and she rapidly becomes a consummate ambassador for her company. She is an indefatigable worker and, not without reason, considers herself as the driving force behind the editorial team. She is coveting the job of assistant editor and resents her boss praising her work but not rewarding her accordingly by raising her salary. Money is driving the world and rather than fighting the system, she wants to be part of the action. She embraces all the excesses of consumerism and expects to live her life to the fullest. The 1980s generation was not born to take issue with the sexism of American music, the distortion of African history and the besmirched image of Black women, so she says in her self-derisive way: "They wont upset anything, neither their image nor, even less, the world". (p.112) They want cash.
Yet, far from leaving the world unchanged, everything Flora does impacts directly on society. Her influence is in direct proportion to the vast number of young women of the same generation taking by storm all the spheres of human activity. In this respect it is interesting to read in an interview of Lauren Ekué who also worked as a journalist and identifies somewhat with her fictional character that she does not consider herself as an exception: "I do not believe that I belong to a minority. My case is not unusual.", she says. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAekue06.html (sighted 6 November 2008)]. Like many other Black women born in the "cités" the low socio-economic suburbs scorned by many French people, somewhat out of fear Flora does not see her future in joining mass protests and boycotts, but in cracking the glass ceiling that prevents her from doing whatever she wants to do.
This, of course, does not imply that she is devoid of critical thinking and ethical concerns. Rather it shows that she is more difficult to exploit and manipulate. She knows who is pulling the strings and reacts accordingly. For example, the narrator despises television: not so much because "Some things only exist on television" as Ekué says in her interview, but rather because television does not offer a useful and progressive image of Black women in France or in the world. Thus the opportunity offered to Laura to savage a plethora of useless channels feeding the entire world with the same old clichés. Her generation is abandoning television for new media that are not rehearsing ad nauseam the same images, fears, and stereotyped vision. (pp.124-125) It is thus not a coincidence that the novel ends with Flora being on the verge of taking on the television industry, though in the USA.
Old fogies like me tend to choke on the idea that competition and a bundle of dollars could be worth more than mateship and a good word, but one has to admit that the old wisdom is not eternal. In any case, Icône Urbaine leaves readers with a smile and a good feeling about tomorrow. With or without a dollar sign, the future definitely belongs to a new generation of people who, like Flora, are liberated from old prejudices, ready to conquer the world and are well equipped to create new opportunities for themselves.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities