The 2014 debut novel Debout-Payé by Ivoirian writer Patrick Armand-Gbaka Brede, who writes under the pen name GauZ’, was published in English a year ago in the U.K. as Standing Heavy, and was short-listed in 2023 for the International Booker Prize. Ably translated by Frank Wynne, the semi-autobiographical novel, set against the backdrop of real-world events, is a very human and realistic examination, with more than a modicum of self-deprecating humor, of the lives in France of three undocumented men from the Côte d’Ivoire.
Ferdinand, who arrives in France in 1973, is the first to be chronicled. He finds work guarding flour mills. Unlike most migrants, he makes it work for him, eventually opening his own security company. Ossiri and Kassoum make their way to France in the 1990s, just as the author did, and begin working for Ferdinand. GauZ’ explains why becoming a security guard, who is required to stand heavily on his feet all day, is what whites expect Africans to do: “Black men are tall; Black men are strong; Black men are deferential; Black men are scary.”
While neither Ossiri or Kassoum have it as easy as Ferdinand did, mainly due to increased hostile policies in France to immigrants, they manage to keep it together. But 9/11 changes all that. The already tough scrutiny on migrants becomes even more intense. Although in place before, the government becomes far more vigilant about enforcing residency permits and methodically begins searching for and detaining the undocumented.
A minor character, whose moniker is simply MiB (Man in Black) works as a security guard at Sephora on the Champs-Élysées. One day, in the midst of chasing a shoplifter, MiB suddenly stops in his tracks, realizing, that just like the “flokos” who did the bidding of the French Colonials in the Côte d’Ivoire, he is attempting to protect the property of one of the richest men in Europe.
Wrought with irony and poignancy, Standing Heavy is a riveting account of the plight of marginalized migrants in France. Although it didn’t win, it deserved a place on the International Booker Prize short list. The book also needs a U.S. publisher.
GauZ’ studied biochemistry before moving, without papers, to Paris in 1999 to continue his studies. To support himself, he worked as a security guard. He is also the author of Camarade Papa, which won the 2019 Prix Éthiophile, Black Manoo and Cocoaïans. He lives in the Côte d’Ivoire, where he is editor-in-chief of a satirical economic newspaper and a documentary filmmaker.
— Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno
GauZ’, Standing Heavy, translated by Frank Wynne, Quercus Publishing/MacLehose Press (UK) £12, 252 pages