Ousmane Sembène Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The fiction of Ousmane Sembène (suhm-BEH-neh) treats the tensions in a society attempting to break with tradition and colonialism simultaneously. He was born at Ziguinchor, Casamance, in the south of Senegal, on January 1, 1923. (Some sources reverse the order of his given name and surname and indicate January 8 as his date of birth.) His family of fishermen spoke the Wolof language, but he would eventually begin to write in French. Therefore, the complex problems associated with tradition and colonialism arose early in his own life: French was the language of whites, but to write in Wolof would deprive his work of a significant audience. Sembène spent three years at a technical school at Marsassoum, near the place of his birth. He then worked at a variety of trades and was laying brick at Dakar when World War II began. He joined the Free French forces and participated in the invasion of Italy. He later served in France, working as a stevedore at the port of Marseilles, and in Germany. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Dakar to work as a fisherman but was soon back on the docks of Marseilles, working this time as a civilian stevedore. He read widely and became active in his trade union, soon rising to a position of authority. His years as a laborer and a union representative gave him a sympathy for the working people, which is evident throughout his fiction. Sembène’s first novel, Le Docker noir (the black docker), grew out of his waterfront years. It is the story of a black stevedore who writes a novel, only to have the manuscript stolen by a white woman who publishes it under her name. The problems of race, class, and expatriation are intermingled in the novel.{$S[A]Ousmane Sembène;Sembène, Ousmane}

Sembène’s next novel, Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (oh my country, my beautiful people), further explores these themes. A young expatriate Senegalese returns to his homeland with a white wife and ideas about modernized, cooperative farming. He is quickly estranged from both black and white societies, even from his own family, and is eventually murdered. Sembène traveled throughout Africa and Europe, and his proletarian sympathies and anticapitalist views soon led him to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba as well. He studied at Moscow’s Gorki Film Studios for a year. His third novel, God’s Bits of Wood, is larger in scope and more optimistic in tone than the first two. It is based on the successful strike of railroad workers on the Dakar-Niger line in 1947-1948.

Tribal Scars is a collection of twelve stories emphasizing the plight of the common man and, especially, the common woman. L’Harmattan, livre I (the storm, book 1) treats Charles de Gaulle’s referendum on French rule in colonial West Africa. The novel is the first in a projected trilogy. Sembène next published two novellas together under the title “The Money-Order,” with “White Genesis.” These won for Sembène the literature prize of the 1966 Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. In the early 1960’s, Sembène had embarked upon his second artistic career, that of filmmaker. His short films Borom-Sarret and La Noire d . . . (black girl) were followed by Mandabi, his first full-length film, an adaptation of The Money-Order. Mandabi portrays the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the poor, in the form of educated civil servants who cheat a simple Muslim out of the proceeds of a large money order he has received from Paris. The film was a significant turning point for Sembène. It employed his native language of Wolof in an attempt to reach an African audience never exposed to his written works. In addition, it was a great critical success, winning for Sembène the special jury prize at the 1968 Venice Film Festival and the award as the best foreign film at the 1970 Atlanta Film Festival.

From the 1970’s onward, Sembène concentrated primarily on filmmaking. The film Emitaï , set in his native Casamance, dramatizes the clash of tribal customs and colonial military power....

(The entire section is 1,896 words.)