Jean Genet (1910 – 1986) is perhaps best remembered for his extraordinary series of novels which fused fact, fiction and fantasy in a daring and often censored celebration of criminality and homosexuality.
Genet himself spent much of his early life in and out of penal colonies and prison for theft and other petty crimes before becoming a famous literary figure and celebrated playwright.
The admiration of French cultural heavyweights, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, eventually led the French government to overule Genet’s sentence, leaving him free to write for the rest of his life.
After the events of May 1968 in France, however, Genet began to turn his attention to analysis of, and active opposition to, systematic forms of oppression in different parts of the world.
From the late 1960s until his death, Genet became a tireless militant, dedicating his time, money and celebrity status to defending the right to self-determination of some of the most marginalised members of society, not merely in the France that had imprisoned him, but around the world.
Some of his earliest campaigning focussed on the situation of immigrants and prisoners in France, and for a time Genet worked alongside Michel Foucault and the GIP (the Group for Information on the Prisons). But it was outside France that Genet would make the most impact.
Genet was particularly drawn to the causes of those he felt lacked an adequate “home”, both politically and geographically. His biographer, Edmund White, describes him as “the apostle of the wretched of the earth”.
He began his political career by illegally entering the US in 1970 to campaign on behalf of the Black Panthers, many of who had been killed and imprisoned by the time Genet arrived to declare his support for them.
Genet travelled to 15 US universities, appealing for the release of the Panthers’ leader Bobby Seale and demanding an end to “white hatred”.
Angela Davis, Black Panther, philosophy lecturer and Communist, recalls Genet’s address to American University students, “When the large audience, however, realised that Genet was speaking only about the Panthers, they began to whisper and someone interrupted him with a question about fiction.
“Genet said, ‘I didn’t come here to speak about literature but about the Panthers,’ and half the audience walked out.’”
Genet’s dedication to the Panthers led him to reflect upon other forms of oppression and colonisation.
At around the same time as he acted as a spokesperson for the Panthers, he became involved in the cause of the Palestinians, at that time a far less internationally recognised campaign.
In the early 1970s, Genet spent time in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, publishing articles and interviewing revolutionaries.
Writing several years later about the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, Genet commented, “I am French, but I defend the Palestinians entirely, without judgement.”
No doubt part of Genet’s fascination with the Palestinians was romantic, but he was a fiercely loyal supporter. He asked the Western media relentless and uncomfortable questions about their involvement and complicity in the oppression of the Palestinians.
After his death following a fall in a Paris hotel room in 1986, Genet’s final half-novel half-political memoir of his time in the camps at Jordan, Prisoner of Love, was published. Its relevance to the situation in Palestine today remains remarkable.
Genet is perhaps the archetypal literary outsider, on the run from the state and bourgeois morality. But it is only when the recognition of his own oppression became systematic that he used his literary influence to effect change.
He remains a striking example of a committed writer from whom we can learn much about both style and action.