Rouge Impératrice

Imagining a utopian, unified African federation not divided by colonial era borders or neocolonial interventions.

Boulevard Krim Belkacem, Algiers, 2010. Image credit John Perivolaris via Flickr CC.

Franco-Cameroonian writer Léonora Miano published Rouge Impératrice in August 2019 (literal translation: Red Empress). Part romance novel and part geopolitical essay set in the year 2124, Rouge Impératrice envisions a prosperous and united African federation no longer divided by colonial-era borders or neocolonial interventions: the unified Katiopa (Katiopa unifié). The novel is largely driven by the passionate and controversial relationship between Ilunga, Katiopa’s head of state, and Boya, an academic—a relationship that brings to light cracks in the Katiopian project as Boya encourages Ilunga to diverge politically from the Alliance that governs Katiopa.

Shortlisted for a French literary prize (the Prix Goncourt), Miano’s novel received quiet acclaim in France. But it has yet to make its mark in global circles—perhaps due to its current unavailability in other languages. Yet the cultural, social, and political projects at the heart of the unified Katiopa resonate with current pan-African debates and social movements, making Rouge Impératrice a timely contribution by a francophone Afropean writer.

The utopian ideal of a unified Katiopa is challenged by the minority presence of the Fulasi (French) population, known as “the Stricken” (Sinistrés). The Sinistrés are descendants of French immigrants who, troubled by the rise in immigration and the shifting cultural and racial landscape in Pongo (Europe) in the early 2000s, left their home country and settled in Katiopa, hoping to connect with an imagined lingering colonial influence. As the unified Katiopa came into being—as colonial borders were destroyed, international presence expelled, and a pan-African federation constructed—these Sinistrés were permitted to remain.

The presence of the Sinistrés is complex. They have failed to integrate themselves but have not caused any active harm to the unified Katiopa. Yet the key debate punctuating the novel is whether their very presence is harmful. As the unified Katiopa has built itself as a proud, diverse, pluralistic, and nationalist entity, is the very existence of a minority white population a threat to Katiopa’s identity?

Rouge Impératrice is a novel about imaginaries—about the possibility of imagining a future African continent and a future pan-African identity. It is not a novel about neocolonial forces retreating, but about Katiopans ejecting these forces and claiming territorial, cultural, and political sovereignty. Rouge Impératrice challenges us to ask: can Africa ever fully move away from the legacies of colonialism, and if so, through what mechanisms? What might it take to create a unified pan-African structure, freed from foreign interventions and influence, financially independent and prosperous?

In a video interview with independent French news outlet Médiapart, Miano explains that “the great challenge of sub-Saharan Africa today is really to reinvent itself, and to accept perhaps to not have a model anywhere. And I find that very exciting—maybe because I am an artist—to tell ourselves that maybe, after all, the world is unfinished and that we can bring something to it, that the world as it is is not static forever, that we can create something new. We can propose a different civilization.” Rouge Impératrice embodies these ideas, this desire to craft a vision for an innovative space (both physical and ideological) and to put that vision into practice.

Rouge Impératrice is also a novel about France.

Like all utopian inventions, it is rooted in the present while challenging us to look beyond it. Implicit throughout the novel is the reality of present-day French nationalism, obsessed with the idea of an “African invasion.” Miano challenges French audiences to flip their gaze and reflect upon an alternative scenario, one where white French populations in a future Africa are perceived as invasive, where they become the problem to a unified African federation and identity.

Perhaps the novel is also hinting to the increasing rise of anti-French sentiment in francophone West Africa, a response to France’s neocolonial interventions, particularly military and financial. Are these movements the beginning of the end of France’s neocolonial presence in Africa—and could they be setting the stage for a future Katiopa?

In the aforementioned video interview with Médiapart, Miano explains how her novel aims to go beyond decolonial and postcolonial logic, breaking away from the expectation that writing about Africa must always respond to colonialism and its legacies. The novel seeks a space where identities and politics are liberated from the divisive legacies of colonialism and the constant backdrop of neocolonialism. Yet the very identity of a unified Katiopa is challenged by the Fulasi presence, which allows colonial legacies to nonetheless seep into a political imaginary supposedly entirely freed from the colonial ills it initially sought to eradicate.

I want to conclude by briefly emphasizing the importance of the love story at the center of Rouge Impératrice. Ilunga and Boya are not just vehicles through which Miano explores complex social and political questions. Sensual and romantic scenes are at the novel’s core. Miano emphasizes that “Africa, too, has the right to embody love.” Committed to exploring intimacy among sub-Saharan and afro-descendant populations throughout her literary career, Miano makes clear that a unified Katiopa is defined not solely by a flourishing political and social vision. Love and intimacy are just as integral to the Katiopan imaginary.

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