Trump’s America, through the eyes of the French

The new issue of French magazine America. Courtesy photo.

When Donald Trump was elected president in the fall of 2016, French journalist François Busnel decided there was only one thing to do: start a magazine. America is a hefty publication with a hefty price. Each issue, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, averages close to 200 pages and sells for 19 euros. It promises “America like you have never read it.” Sixteen issues are planned, four per year for the duration of Trump’s presidency. If Trump is re-elected—well, we’ll cross that bridge if we must.

In France, this type of publication is referred to as a “mook”—a hybrid between a book and a magazine. (Not to be confused with the English definition which is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person.”) In the first issue, published in the spring of 2017, Busnel, the magazine’s editorial director, explains the mook’s mission:

America will describe to you, every quarter, America at the time of Donald Trump. Its beauty but also its faults and cracks. Margins. … One can say that, softened by comfort, worked by fear and anger, exhausted by the lack of solutions, America elected a clown we must go see. See what this country—which makes us dream and gives us nightmares—really looks like. The writers take us into another world; most likely the real.

For the French, America tries to understand the current political moment through the eyes of the country’s novelists. For readers in the US, especially on July 4, it can serve as a kaleidoscopic reading list of a divided nation. “It is often through fiction that we can understand reality,” Busnel says.

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The state of shock that many commentators and analysts seemed to find themselves in following Trump’s victory served as impetus for the project. “The experts—sociologists, political analysts—were in a vacuum. [Fiction] writers who are used to writing about individual destiny, stories that take place in invisible spaces, were capable of giving us another side of the story,” , Busnel tells me. That fiction includes interviews and work, both original and translated, from Chimamanda Adichie, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Joël Dicker, James Ellroy, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Laurent Gaudé, Siri Hustvedt, Laura Kasischke, Douglas Kennedy, Stephen King, Colum McCann, Yann Perreau, Annie Proulx, Ron Rash, Salman Rushdie, Eric Vuillard, and Callan Wink.

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Though the inaugural issue of America named Toni Morrison as the publication’s “godmother,” and the magazine aims to offer a diversity of voices, the majority of writers featured in America have been male and white. The latest, summer issue, “Ladies First,” attempts to rectify at least the male part of this. “Ladies First” is dedicated to female perspectives in the time of Trump, featuring  essays by prominent American female authors including Meg Wolitzer, Rachel Kushner, Jesmyn Ward, and Vendela Vida. There is a piece by Leïla Slimani about the evolving concept of consent in America, as well as a translation of Kristen Roupenian’s short story gone viral, “Cat Person,” which first appeared in The New Yorker last December.

“Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, including good, we must admit that we are in the presence of the most misogynistic of all American presidents,” Busnel writes in the editor’s note to the latest issue. “Certainly the challenges are always the same: equal pay, the right to abortion, poverty, among others … But things are moving. … And we say to ourselves that with a little will, a radical transformation as only the United States knows how to propose is not impossible. It would certainly leave a new world.”

Busnel is well-known in France as host of a popular television show about authors and books, La Grande Librairie, as well as for a 2011 documentary series, Les Carnets de Route, which took him across the US to interview novelists, including many who appear in the pages of America.

 

 

His vision for America is to show conflicting emotions in a vast range of topics: The magazine carries anger and despair mixed with compassion and optimism in everything from the legacy of the FBI to the country’s ever-shrinking acres of protected wilderness to the starkly titled, “Oil: State Religion,” a 13-page investigation by French journalist Philippe Coste about Oklahoma.

Each issue begins with a poem. vast  There is the anger of Allen Ginsberg’s America; the revolutionary spirit of Walt Whitman’s To the States; the resolute yet fragile optimism of Emily Dickinson’s Hope is the thing with feathers; and the ambiguity of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. The most recent summer issue opens with Sylvia Plath’s Mirror. As Busnel describes the US, it is a place of dreams and of crushed dreams, of hope and rejection. Above all, it is a landscape of extremes—a country in which the election of Trump, as well as the preceding election of Obama, inspired both extreme elation and extreme fury.

Busnel describes the blend of fiction and non-fiction as functioning like a kaleidoscope, in which “the mixture produces a clear image.” And while fiction and non-fiction are clearly delineated, there is sometimes overlap, he said, citing a short story in the winter 2016 issue by Chimamanda Adichie. The story, “The Arrangements,” originally appeared in The New York Times in June 2016 and describes a dinner seen through the eyes of Melania Trump. “Of course it’s not true—but it could be.”

The allure of fiction, according to Busnel, is a permeability, a rawness that some journalists lack: “An ability to describe pain, to bring a sensibility to subjects that journalists have a little bit lost.” Since its debut, America has been selling, as the saying goes, like hotcakes. In its first year alone, which comprised three issues, the mook sold over 100,000 copies. “We are very surprised by the success,” Busnel says. “Cleary the US continues to fascinate the French.”

This fascination, at times morbid, has only grown since Trump’s election. Éric Fottorino, founder of the French weekly newspaper Le 1 and co-founder and publishing director of America, considers what is happening in the U.S. a harbinger of what could come to France and to Europe. “It’s like seeing a mirror effect a little bit in the future,” he told French television last year, citing the controversies surrounding immigration, Trump’s wall with Mexico, and the influence of the secret service.

Much of the French fascination with the US stems from pop culture, of course, as well as from the concept of the American dream, says Busnel. “The idea of reinvention is part of this contemporary myth.” And while much of the myth surrounding the American dream may be just that, there is perhaps no better testament to the possibility of reinvention than the current U.S. president. As Busnel wrote in America’s inaugural issue, “We are living one of the greatest challenges to democracy: A country of 325 million people has just brought to power a man who conquered the White House just as one wins a big game in reality television.”

One thing is sure, however, on both sides of the pond: Distance brings with it a different perspective. Busnel likens it to James Joyce being able to write about his native Dublin only once he was in Switzerland. “America is a big fishbowl, and if you’re outside of the fishbowl you see a lot of things.”

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Marie Doezema is a Paris correspondent for various international publications. She also serves as the head of the languages department at the Sorbonne's journalism and communications school.