“I was lucky that my French and Senegalese families both acted very warmly toward my parents. I received a lot of love from both sides,” he said. “I didn’t experience my two cultural identities as a source of conflict.”
Diop moved back to Paris after finishing high school to study literature. While his mother, a devoted reader, had nurtured his love of a wide range of French and African authors, at university he became fixated with the 18th-century “Lumières,” the humanist Enlightenment movement led by the likes of Voltaire and Denis Diderot. “I was drawn to their activism and commitment to human rights. I won’t say I lost them, but at the time I had political ideals,” Diop said with a laugh.
Raised on France’s universalist values, Diop said he didn’t experience racism as an academic of color, and he is careful to distance his writing from activism. He finds notions such as cultural appropriation, he said, “oppressive” — “Flaubert created a Madame Bovary even though he wasn’t a woman” — and prefers to think of literature as “freedom.”
“We shouldn’t lock ourselves up in mental prisons,” he said. (At one point during our conversation, Diop gently asked: “Don’t you think these questions around race are being imported into countries where issues weren’t being addressed in those terms?”)
Still, “At Night All Blood Is Black” alludes in no uncertain terms to the racial dynamics at play in the trenches of World War I. African soldiers from colonized countries were outfitted with machetes to inspire greater fear. Alfa, Diop’s main character, picks up on the performance of savagery that is expected of him, and he takes it to another level by venturing out every night to murder a German soldier and bring back his severed hand.
Diop and Zeniter both drew from the work of historians to fill in the blanks. “I read them the way an academic shouldn’t: without taking notes. I wanted what had really made an impression on me to re-emerge when I started writing,” Diop said.
When it came to the Algerian War, Zeniter found “a colossal amount of scholarship,” she said. “It makes it much easier to move forward without being scared of making a huge mistake.”