Jake Lamar decided he wanted to live in Paris after reading James Baldwin's Go Tell It On a Mountain. Lamar, who grew up in a troubled family in the Bronx, identified strongly with Baldwin's retelling of his difficult early life in Harlem. When Lamar asked a teacher about Baldwin, he learned that the writer lived in Paris. Baldwin was following a tradition of African-American writers and artists, including Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet, who found that France allowed them an escape from the constant pressure of race in America.
Many years later, Lamar, 49, has followed in the footsteps of his first literary hero. After attending prep school on a scholarship, he graduated from Harvard College in 1983 and landed a job at Time magazine. After six months writing the Milestones column, he went to the weekly's national section where he stayed for five-and-a-half years. He quit to write a memoir, Bourgeois Blues. Favorable reviews earned him a three-year writer's fellowship, enough to move to Paris.
"I knew one person in France, a former classmate," recalls Lamar over coffee in a deserted bistro on the Place de Clichy, a busy, diverse hub in the north of the city. "I didn't speak a word of French," he says. He met beat poet and musician Ted Joans, once a roommate of Charlie Parker, who introduced him to the city. "I really trace a lot of my friendships through Ted."
He has lived in Paris since 1993 and carved out a successful career as a novelist whose books are published in both French and English. He calls his books "thriller-ish." Most have been translated to French and made him well-known in a city that reveres writers. He also teaches a writer's workshop in one of the troubled "banlieus"(suburbs), of Paris, where many black and Arab immigrants live.
This has kept Lamar closer to the troubling issues of race and class than most expatriate Americans. His books have always addressed issues of race and identity. "I wrote about race in the four books set in America," he told The Root. "Once I changed the setting to Paris, these questions just exploded because it's so much more complicated here. In America, everything is about color, what you look like. Racism is all a question of what you can see." Lamar says racial hierarchies in France are much more complex than in the United States. "Here it's so much more subtle and insidious." His first book set in Paris, Rendezvous Eighteenth, plunged right into the issue. "What is the thing that defines you," he asks. "Is it your race, your nationality, your religion, your sexuality, your political bent?"
Lamar lives in a country struggling to absorb a growing population of blacks and Arabs from its former colonies. Last fall, President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a divisive debate about the "French identity." Lamar calls it pure politics. "It's really about Islam and the presence of Muslims in European countries," says Lamar. "In 2007, Sarkozy found that the way for him to win was to get all the people that supported [Jean-Marie] Le Pen [head of the right-wing National Front]."
He has been stopped by the police in Paris for no apparent reason other than being black and asked for his papers. Once he shows his U.S. passport, everything is OK. "That's not the case for my friends from Africa or the Caribbean," he says. "I've met North Africans who feel they are more badly treated than West Africans or sub-Saharan Africans. I've met Algerians who feel they are more badly treated than Moroccans." Lamar says there's probably some truth in all of the complaint. "It's all connected to France's tortured history with its former colonies."
African Americans still enjoy favored status in France, says Lamar, because most of the contacts with the French have been artistic. "They've mainly celebrated our history and culture since World War I: the troops coming here, jazz being introduced to the country, Josephine Baker, people coming here seeking a refuge from American racism like Wright and Baldwin."
One difference from the United States in the predominantly minority Paris suburbs is a lower level of violence because guns are not easy to come by. He says another is a stronger sense of unity among the poor, even across racial lines, despite occasional confrontations. "There are tensions, but a kid of North African origin is more likely to be a friend of a kid of West Indian origins," he says. "Even a poor white kid is more likely to have rapport with poor black kids than in New York."
Lamar is a committed Parisian. He is working on his seventh novel, the first one without a racial theme. Like Baldwin, Richard Wright and other African-American artists who have fled to Europe, Lamar has found the distance from these issues for his art to flourish in Paris. "By the time I left the States, (this was a year after the Rodney King verdict) I was so angry it made my blood boil," says Lamar. "Racism exists here, but it's not my fight. The battle in America against the vestiges of slavery is one very specific story. The battle in Europe against the vestiges of colonialism is another story entirely."
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.