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Book of the Day:
Rendezvous Eighteenth by Jake Lamar
As Black History Month draws to a close, let us take a moment to consider the black authors whose works have
become classics--authors such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright--who left the United States
and traveled the globe.
One such contemporary author is Jake Lamar, a young black man born and raised in the Bronx, who graduated
from Harvard, wrote for Time magazine, and has authored four books, including If 6 Were 9 and Bourgeois Blues.
After winning the Lyndhurst Prize in 1993, Lamar went to Paris, intending to stay for a year... and has never
returned. His most recent book is Rendezvous Eighteenth, a crime novel rich with lovingly detailed scenes of Paris's
18th Arrondissement, Lamar's current 'hood. PW's review called it a "well-constructed novel, set in Paris's 18th
Arrondissement between Montmartre and Pigalle, with its whores, pimps and transvestites.... Mainstream readers
fond of Paris should feel fully satisfied."
Do they celebrate Black History Month in Paris? PW Daily wanted to take a little trip there to find out, but for some
reason we couldn't expense it. So we settled for a quick telephonic hello to Lamar, who graciously e-mailed his
PW Daily: What inspired you to write a mystery, set in Paris's 18th Arrondissement, with black characters?
Jake Lamar: I'd wanted to write a novel set in this part of Paris for a long time, but it took a while for me to come up
with a good story. Rendezvous Eighteenth is my fifth book, but only my second mystery. I like the form because it
allows me to deal with all the subjects I'm interested in--race, ethnicity, religion, nationality--without getting too
heavy. The reader is carried along by the suspense of the plot while all the complex ideas about the human
condition are bubbling beneath the surface. In all of my books, I've tried to write about difficult issues in an
entertaining way. Paris's Eighteenth Arrondissement was an irresistible setting. I've lived here for nine of my 10
years in Paris, and I absolutely love the area. It's really a city within a city, encompassing bohemian Montmartre,
Barbes--the biggest African-Arab section of Paris--and the red light district of Pigalle. It's got more of an edge to it
than a lot of Paris. The Eighteenth is where tourist kitsch meets underworld sleaze.
I also wanted very much to write about Paris's African-American community. There's such a rich history of black
Americans--Henry Ossawa Tanner, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright--coming here to make a new life for
themselves. I wanted to open a window on the community today. As an African-American expatriate, the process of
getting to know other Americans, French natives and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean raises all sorts of
questions about cultural identity. It's fascinating to examine how people define themselves in this very multicultural
environment. But, again, I wanted to write about all this in the context of a suspenseful, engaging and accessible
PWD: How would such a story have been different if you had written it while living in the Bronx?
JL: Hard to say. I don't think the book would have had quite the same texture if I'd written it from the Bronx. Here,
after my workday was over, I'd step out my door and be right in the world I was writing about. Readers who have
never been to Paris or never visited this arrondissement have told me that they can really "see and feel" the
neighborhood as I describe it. I'm sure that's because I was living here every day that I worked on the book.
PWD: Why have you not returned to the U.S.?
JL: I never planned to stay here. I came to Paris after winning a grant for my writing and thought I would stay one
year. But I immediately fell in love with the city. I was lucky enough to meet some older black American writers--Ted
Joans, James Emanuel, Hart Leroy Bibbs--who took me under their wing and inspired me to make a life for myself
here. One of the characters in Rendezvous Eighteenth, the black expat Marva Dobbs, says that she loves America
the way she loves her family. You don't choose the country of your birth any more than you choose your family. It's
a deeply rooted kind of love. But Marva describes her feeling for Paris as being more like romantic love. It's
passionate and sensual. She quotes the Josephine Baker song: "I have two loves, my country and Paris." That's
exactly how I feel.
PWD: What effect does living in Paris have on your writing?
JL: I've certainly been prolific since moving here. I've published four novels since 1996. But I think that probably
would have been the case if I'd stayed in America, too. One of the things that makes Paris, and France in general,
so pleasant for an author is that the French people have such an enormous respect for writers. I often get the
feeling that in America, only rich and famous writers or the designated literary "stars" are really respected. But the
French value writing in and of itself. That's very nice for a writer like me, a dedicated professional who isn't a big
PWD: After you won a grant to write in Paris for a year, you wanted to see if that city would have the same effect on
you as it did on Richard Wright and James Baldwin. So, what's the verdict?
JL: The big difference between me and someone like Wright or Baldwin is that I've never felt in exile here. I never
felt that I had to escape American racism. Times have changed, and France, as Baldwin pointed out, has plenty of
racial problems of its own. But I have definitely felt the spirit of artistic freedom that just seems to be in the air here.
In that sense, I'm a walking cliche, the expat writer in love with Paris.
PWD: You have said that in setting the story in the 18th Arrondissement you wanted to "get away from the yuppified
vision of Paris Americans usually get and give the city back to the riff-raff." What makes you passionate about that?
JL: The Paris I know is an incredibly vibrant and multicultural place where people of different classes and
convictions live in eccentric coexistence. This is not a Paris that I think American readers get to see very often.
There are white American "Paris correspondents" who seem never to have met a black person in this town. That's
just not the Paris I know. I wanted to capture the diversity, the grittiness, the tough yet tender quality of the city
beyond the posh districts that most American tourists know and love so well.
PWD: So: how are you celebrating Black History Month in Paris?
JL: I feel like I've been celebrating Black History Month since October! That's when I began teaching a course on
the History of African-American Music and Culture at the Ecole Polytechnique, the MIT of France. We've covered
everything from Negro spirituals to gangsta rap. The course is now coming to an end. It's been a great experience.