Partnership Defines Us Best: A Q&A with Sylvie Christophe

Article by annalia

Just as Houston aspires to be known as an international city, we at Brazos would like to think that we are the perfect complement to this ambition, a bookstore that specializes in literature from all around the world. From #Murakamania and #FerranteFever, to our international angle on this year’s Banned Books Week, we strive to host events and carry books that reflect the diversity within our city and beyond.

However, it’s important to remember that diversity is not just a party or an obligation. That’s why, in addition to supporting books in translation, we partnered with Albertine in New York to create The French Corner, a special area of our store dedicated to fiction and nonfiction in the original French. Since then, we joined forces with the Cultural Services of Houston’s French Embassy to host French-language authors Pierre Lemaitre and Fiston Mwanza Mujila (published by our Dallas friends, Deep Vellum).

The French Embassy’s Cultural Attaché, Sylvie Christophe, was kind enough to answer questions for us via email.


Brazos Bookstore: What can you tell me about the history of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy? What is its mission/vision?

Sylvie Christophe: The Cultural Services is a division of the French Embassy in the United States and was first imagined in the 1930's by French poet, dramatist and diplomat Paul Claudel. In 1945, General de Gaulle appointed Claude Lévi-Strauss as the first Cultural Counselor to the United States, with the mission of providing Americans—individuals and organizations—with access and resources to engage with French culture and promote it in their own communities.

Today, the French Cultural Services provide a platform for exchange and innovation between French and American artists, intellectuals, educators, students, the tech community, and the general public. Based in New York City, Washington D.C., and eight other cities across the U.S., including Houston, the Cultural Services’ mission is to promote and sustain high-spirited exchanges in six principal fields of action: the arts, literature, cinema, French language, higher education and the digital sphere. We are interested in supporting new and challenging ideas that will bring French and American people together in creative collaboration.

BB: Why Houston? How has the French community in Houston changed as the French Consulate has developed?

SC: The Cultural Service in Houston is located at the Consulate general of France and covers the same region: Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, and home to a large French community working in the energy field for major companies like Total, GDF-Suez, Schlumberger, Technip…The community has grown with the expansion of oil and gas exploration and production in Texas and I suppose it fluctuates according to the sector’s business cycles.

BB: Describe your position at the French Consulate. What goals do you have for the future—personally, in terms of programming, etc.?

SC: As Cultural Attaché, I am in charge of promoting French American cooperation in the arts and education. I am committed to building long-lasting and innovative collaborations between institutions, professionals and the public, sustaining a network of mutually interested and engaged cultural and educational partners and fostering their creative exchanges.

The projects we support will take various forms: artist residencies, exhibitions and performances; film screenings; professional trips for American curators and programmers to explore the contemporary art scene in France; invitations for French writers, critics or academics to take part in conferences; agreements between education authorities in France and in the U.S.; training sessions for American teachers of French…

My ultimate goal is to increase awareness of contemporary France through artistic, literary, and educational exchanges and to stimulate French-American debate. In the education field, my priorities will be to help create French-English bilingual programs in the public education system in Texas, to reinforce French presence in major universities, and to increase the quality of French language teaching.

Long-term artistic exchanges will be encouraged—like Fieldwork:Marfa, an international research and residency program for artists, students, and professors lead by the Schools of Fine Arts of Nantes and Geneva in Marfa. Fostering cooperation between French and American curators and programmers will also be part of my agenda, in order to bring more contemporary French artists to Texas and to create opportunities for stimulating conversations.

BB: Are there particular reasons you chose Pierre Lemaitre (author of THE GREAT SWINDLE) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila (author of TRAM 83)? What is the importance of reading authors in translation and doing events with them?

SC: We usually organize writers’ tours to coincide with the publication of the English translation of their work in order to introduce it to English-speaking audiences. Pierre Lemaitre won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, in 2013 with his novel AU REVOIR LÀ-HAUT. The book was published a few days ago in English by MacLehose press under the title THE GREAT SWINDLE, just on time for his U.S. trip.

We are also in constant conversation with universities about writers they would like to invite. Texas A&M university had expressed a year ago the desire to invite Pierre Lemaitre to conclude a series of conferences on the memory of war, with various French participants—historians, journalists and writers.

Because it is more difficult for a successful French author to be translated into English than the contrary [English into French], it is our duty to support and promote translation in the United States. In fact, more than a third of novels sold in France are translations but only three percent in the U.S. market; therefore we are striving to assist publishers who make these works available to the public.

To reinforce our commitment to translation and independent publishing, we have created the French Voices Grant in 2006, with the goal of expanding the selection of translated French fiction and nonfiction books in America. For the last eight years, this French Embassy program has supported the translation and publication of more than eighty French titles in the United States.

For Fiston Mwanza Mujila, we partnered with independent publisher Deep Vellum based in Dallas, who has become a close ally for the promotion of French and francophone voices in translation. Fiston’s first novel TRAM 83, translated by Roland Glasser and published by Deep Vellum, won a French Voices Award last year. This successful U.S. debut lead us to preparing an American tour for both Fiston and his translator, with about ten events—talks, readings and performances—taking place across Texas.

Also, the English translation of the novel comes with a foreword by Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (winner of the Renaudot prize in 2006), whom we also had the pleasure of inviting to Texas last year in collaboration with the University of Houston. Fiston’s visit enables us to continue this conversation while introducing a younger voice from the francophone world to various audiences in Texas.

BB: We are so happy to be partners with you and have enjoyed hosting our little French Corner! What role does partnership play for an organization like the French Embassy?

SC: Albertine Books in French and English opened at the French Embassy in New York in September 2014, as a reading room and bookshop with 14,000 titles from thirty French-speaking countries. An accompanying online shop was launched afterwards and now offers the most comprehensive selection of French-language books and English translations in the United States.

We also created "French Corners" sections in independent bookstores in order to offer a taste of French literature throughout the country. We hope that the “French corner” at Brazos Bookstore enables French-speakers in Houston to access books more easily and to read without restraint.

We would be delighted to collaborate more closely with schools, universities, and associations of teachers of French in order to host events on a regular basis—each time we have visiting writers, but also during the French Cultures Festival (month of “Francophonie”) in March and throughout the year.

Partnership is essential to our work and is actually what defines it best. The promotion of French artists and writers to larger American audiences always happens in cooperation with local institutions: museums, galleries, festivals, schools and universities, bookstores etc.

BB: What is something most people don’t know about the French Embassy that you would like to share?

SC: Did you know that a major discovery was made in the Payne Whitney mansion where the Cultural Services of the French Embassy has been located in Manhattan since 1952? As a matter of fact, it was revealed in 2009 that the statue located at the entrance of the building was….a Michelangelo! Currently on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is believed to be the only Michelangelo statue on American soil.

The Great Swindle Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9781623659035
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Maclehose Press Quercus - September 22nd, 2015

Tram 83 Cover Image
By Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Roland Glasser (Translator), Alain Mabanckou (Foreword by)
$14.95
ISBN: 9781941920046
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing - September 8th, 2015

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