In a gesture of support for independent black publishing in France, National Book Award–winner Ta-Nehesi Coates and his U.S. publisher, One World, have released the French edition of his bestselling We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy through Editions Présence Africaine, a historic French-African publishing house based in Paris.
The French edition was published on September 24, according to Gloria Loomis, Coates’s agent. In mid-October, Coates will arrive in Paris to begin a series of public events, including print and broadcast interviews in support of the EPA edition of We Were Eight Years in Power.
Coates says that his interest in publishing with EPA was inspired by a similar effort made by another popular black author. In 1996, bestselling novelist Walter Mosley offered Gone Fishin’, an installment in his Easy Rawlins crime series, to Black Classic Press, an independent house founded by Coates’s father, W. Paul Coates. The book sold more than 100,000 copies, making it one of the biggest books ever published by BCP. Paul has cited Mosley’s gesture as a key factor in the development of BCP, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. (To hear an interview with W. Paul Coates about BCP, go to publishersweekly.com/pwinsider.)
The younger Coates said Mosley’s support of BCP directly inspired his own writing career and led him to Loomis, who also represents Mosley. “Walter was pretty much responsible for all of my books that followed,” Coates said. “I was 25 hoping to be a writer, but no idea what that meant. It was Walter’s introduction that allowed any of this to happen. It was a big deal.”
Chris Jackson, publisher of One World (a Penguin Random House imprint), said that after Coates finished his NBA-winning Between the World and Me, the author expressed an interest in finding a black press in France to release his next book. Jackson told Coates that PRH would forego “a big advance” on French foreign rights for We Were Eight Years in Power in order to work with a small house.
Jackson said he explained to the PRH sub rights department the reasons why Coates wanted to go with a black press. “We have a great foreign right department,” he noted. “But in this case we asked them to not take the best financial deal, and they understood.”
After the discussions with One World, Coates and his father traveled to France in spring 2017 to meet the three generations of women who oversee EPA and Librairie Présence Africaine, its historic bookstore in Paris. He met with publisher Christiane Yandé Diop, the 92-year-old widow of the press’s founder, and her daughter Suzanne, who currently directs the press with Diop’s granddaughter Mari.
“To sit with Madame Diop, someone who ran a bookstore that served Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright… It’s been really fruitful,” Coates said. “I’m big on history and lineage, so when I was in position to work with a historic black press, it was a clear no-brainer for me.”
Jackson acknowledged that “EPA is a small house and Ta-Nehesi is a big writer,” and explained that “obviously we were concerned about publicity and printing, because indie presses can struggle with a big book.” He added, “We didn’t want to put them in a bad situation.”
Jackson said that PRH’s foreign rights department (along with Loomis, who speaks French) worked closely with EPA to structure the deal, and he was confident that the house had the capacity to deliver the book. He will travel to Paris this month with Coates on the French book tour.
EPA is a renowned literary press that was founded in 1947 as a literary quarterly by Alioune Diop, a Senegalese professor, along with a group of writers associated with négritude, a 1930s French-African critical theory focused on the value of black African diasporic culture in the West. Those writers include Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, and Leopold Senghor, as well as related Pan-Africanist writers such as Wright and historian Cheikh Anta Diop.
Loomis said that EPA has released “a modest printing,” and she praised the care it took to prepare the French translation. She emphasized that Coates wanted to make sure his latest work reached young black French readers as well as African disaporic communities in France.
As part of the tour, Rokhaya Diallo, a Paris-based journalist, will interview Coates on BET-Talk, a Black Entertainment TV talk show in France. She said that, though Coates is not quite as widely known in France as he is in the U.S., “he is very popular and respected in French book culture, French media, and among young people who know black issues.” She added that EPA will “do a good job” making his work available to black audiences in France, and French African and diasporic territories overseas.
Coates emphasized the intellectual and historical connections between his books and the writings on négritude, Pan-Africanism, and black liberation published by and celebrated at EPA. “Everything I do comes out of something,” he said. “I’ve been deeply lucky to have the kind of success I’ve had. I try my best to make the most out of it. You don’t want to get here and just forget where you came from.”