Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to Curate Festival Celebrating French and American Culture

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is curating a festival that celebrates French and American culture. Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is curating a festival that celebrates French and American culture.
Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

When James Baldwin arrived in Paris in 1948, at the age of 24, he was a little-known writer with $40 in his pocket. When Ta-Nehisi Coates arrived there last fall, at the age of 40, he was the author of a huge best seller, “Between the World and Me,” which won comparisons to Baldwin and upended his plan for a quiet, exploratory year abroad.

“As a writer, I was prepared for failure but not for success,” Mr. Coates said of the frenzy around the book, which brought him back to the United States more than once during the year. “I definitely experienced the city, but I wish I had been able to get lost a bit more.”

Mr. Coates is now back home in New York. But next week he’ll return to Paris, in a sense, as curator of the third annual Festival Albertine, a free New York celebration of French and American culture. Running Wednesday through Nov. 6, the festival is organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Albertine bookshop in Manhattan.

This year’s installment, which will be streamed live online, brings well-known figures like the television creator David Simon, the poet Claudia Rankine, the painter Kehinde Wiley and the choreographer Benjamin Millepied, together with less familiar French counterparts to discuss issues of race, identity, citizenship and belonging.

“France is going through its own process of thinking about what it means to be French, about who is French,” Mr. Coates said. “It’s a moment where these two countries are really looking at similar things.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“Between the World and Me” came out in French while you were there. How was the reception there different from its reception in the United States?

I didn’t want to hustle anybody and pose as this big-time intellectual, which is something I’m uncomfortable with, even here. But the book became an organizing place for talking about their own issues, and I was happy to allow for that. Americans are always saying, “We need to have a national conversation about race!” But we have no idea — France doesn’t even acknowledge race.

The festival’s brochure cites as a jumping-off point a passage from Baldwin’s book “No Name in the Street,” in which he draws a comparison between himself and Algerians he met in Paris, who “spoke French and had been, in a sense, produced by France” and yet “were not at home in Paris, no more at home than I.” How did you build the festival up from that idea?

I got a lot of help, but thematically it was me. Given the influence of Baldwin on my work, given this being the year of Donald Trump, coming off the first black president, and Baldwin having a renaissance, I wanted to reach back and use him as a framing device. This is an arts festival, so then we went through all the different art forms and figured out how they would fit in.

There are panels on film, art, dance, literature and popular culture, as well as politics. Is there one you’re particularly excited about?

I’m maybe most excited about the dance panel, with Benjamin Millepied. I really don’t know anything about ballet. I do know about the flak that he got at the Paris Ballet, and that there’s debate around race in ballet, but I don’t know anything about the history. With the exception of two panels I’m moderating, I chose things I’m not an expert on. I just asked myself, what would I like to know?

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: The New York Times
Jennifer Schuessler