New book explores the life of psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon
Since the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of Frantz Fanon has been felt in fields as distinct as psychiatry and postcolonial studies. A new book explores the "revolutionary lives" of the psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial rebel, whose understanding of identity evolved through his travel and experiences, including confronting colonial hierarchies as a person of color in postwar France, and eventually joining the Algerian War of Independence. Host Marco Werman learned more from Adam Shatz, author of "The Rebel's Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon."
Frantz Fanon is a name that we hear periodically, often in the context of conflict between the haves and have nots. Fanon was born in the Caribbean in 1925. He went on to be a psychiatrist and author, and an anti-colonial revolutionary who inspired generations of thinkers and activists.
"Frantz Fanon was, first of all, a psychiatrist," he explained. "He was a psychiatrist who was an anti-colonial militant. He was a theorist of racism, and he was a participant in one of the 20th century's great national liberation struggles, the Algerian struggle for independence from France. But what I meant to emphasize with that remark was that Fanon was a West Indian, and his West Indian roots permeated his thinking about colonialism."
Marco Werman: What difference did that make? Especially coming from Martinique, a French colony that remains still a French territory to this day?
Adam Shatz: It made quite a difference because Fanon grew up in a place where, essentially he was taught that he was just like any other Frenchman, that he was a French person of color, that his color really had no significance whatsoever. And he believed fiercely in France. He believed in liberty, equality and fraternity. And he joined the Free French forces to fight against fascism. But when he was fighting in this army, he realized that, first of all, it was a colonial army with racial hierarchies. And after the war, he found that he couldn't attract a white French woman to dance with him, even though he'd just helped to liberate her country. So, coming from a place like Martinique shaped him. There was also the fact that these enslaved people of Martinique had been granted their freedom in 1848, with the abolition that was presided over by a man named Victor Schœlcher. And for Fanon, it was kind of a source of shame that Martinique had been, quote unquote, "granted its freedom," that it hadn't struggled for its freedom in the manner of Toussaint Louverture and the enslaved people of Haiti. And he thought that no freedom that wasn't fought for was worthy of a name.
Once Fanon left Martinique, he was a man on the move. You mentioned Algeria, which is one place he ended up. Why Algeria? And what was happening there at the time that really engaged him?
They ended up in Algeria because he was offered a very good job. It was a plum post for a man who was only 28 years old at the time. He was given this job, is appointed as director of the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital on the outskirts of Algiers. And it was an opportunity and he went there. But once he got there, he became increasingly interested in the predicament of his Muslim patients and of the Algerian colonies more generally. And 11 months after his arrival, the independence struggle broke out, and Fanon immediately wanted to join it. In fact, originally he wanted to join it as a fighter, since, after all, he fought in the Second World War and had fighting skills. But in the end, he ended up providing, kind of, sanctuary in a clandestine clinic for wounded rebels.
How important was it that Fanon was a psychiatrist? I mean, I don't know if there's a typical profile of a revolutionary, but psychiatrist doesn't really come to the top of my list.
I think the significance of his work as a psychiatrist can't be underestimated, because psychiatry was critical to Fanon's understanding of the colonial condition, of the kind of passivity and self-hatred and sense of futility and despair that form in the hearts and even the bodies of colonized people who have been deprived of independence, of the right to self-governance, the right to their language and culture. And his insights as a psychiatrist infused all of his writing on anti-colonial liberation. His psychiatry and his politics, for the most part, went hand in hand, although there were also tensions between them.
A sign of Frantz Fanon at a protest in France in 2008.
So, Adam, as you cast your eyes across the world today, where do you see Fanon's impact most clearly?
I think Fanon has had an enormous impact on culture, on African cinema, on postcolonial literature. But he's also had important influence on radical psychiatry in places like Italy, where psychiatrists influenced by Fanon have been working with refugees and migrants. And he's also had quite a significant impact on political movements like the Palestinian movement, although he never really wrote about Israel-Palestine. He's always been read very closely by Palestinian politicians and by Palestinian critics and writers. He was an important influence on the early PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] because he was read by Abu Iyad, known as Salah Khalaf, who declared “The Wretched of the Earth” one of his favorite books, and then later Edward Said wrote extensively and quite brilliantly about Fanon.
The Palestinian critic [Edward Said].
Yeah, the Palestinian American literary critic. And he's also been adopted by Palestinian psychiatrists who work on cases of torture and are interested in the effects of oppression on the psyches of their victims.
Why did you want to write this book, Adam, why did you want to focus on on the life of Frantz Fanon?
I knew of him in my teens because my father had old copies of the original Grove Press editions of “Black Skin, White Masks” and “The Wretched of the Earth.” And I also ended up doing a fair amount of reporting in Algeria, a country that had an immense impact on me. I mean, I didn't become a revolutionary. I was not there during an insurgency against the colonial power, but I was deeply affected by my travels there. And I also became aware that Fanon had a different meaning for Algerians today than he had during the time of the independence struggle. He was meaningful to young Algerians precisely because he addressed himself to the failures, the corruption, the autocracy that existed in post-independence states. He predicted this with startling prescience, and so he was looked to by young Algerians. And so, the roads in my reporting kept leading to Fanon. And then in 2017, when I wrote a long piece on Fanon's work, this was the height of the Trump era. This was the period in which we were seeing the resurgence of white nationalism and the most brazen, flagrant racism. France was caught up in these very contentious arguments about integration, about Islam, about laicité. And in these arguments, the name Fanon was often invoked. I just thought this was a time to revisit the life and legend of this person, who has often been reduced to a kind of cartoon figure, a kind of violent and bloodthirsty advocate of armed struggle. And it seemed to me always that Fanon was much more complicated.
Parts of this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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