May 27, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of “Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing”
Department of French, South Carolina State University
Suk, Jeannie. Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 206 pp
This work on postcolonial theory and literature represents a major undertaking. Situating her study in postcoloniality’s margins, Jeannie Suk endeavors to explore the paradoxes of Caribbean, francophone literature as well as to trace its evolution and supporting theories through various works by Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant and Maryse Condé.
Writers of the French Antilles, who inhabit a cultural mid-point between France and Africa, lend themselves, argues Suk, to Homi Bhabha’s emphasis on the liminal space of encounter between self and other. Suk thus focuses on three such spaces – geographical, tropological and psychic – as well as on the importance of allegory to postcolonial expressions of border crossing and nostalgic longing. According to Suk, allegory’s dual strategy of masking and revealing is harnessed to an effort to reconstruct the gaps and lost voices in postcolonial history. She thereby offers fresh and insightful alternatives for addressing the ‘crisis of representation’ of those who live and write in the in-between spaces of postcoloniality.
Suk begins her study by drawing connections between Baudelaire’s poetics of distance, difference and return and the interconnectedness of authenticity, alterity and anteriority in Antillean allegory. Basing her analysis on the seminal works of Césaire and Glissant and the Suk draws on the central themes of departure, crossing, and a return to origins. For example, in Césaire’s “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,” Suk examines the paradox of “retour” as a means of establishing identity and recovering history. The impossibility of return intersects with the necessity of border-crossings – both literal and metaphorical – and both engenders and hinders creativity in a space often characterized by failure, discontinuity and trauma. A thesis that Suk supports throughout the book is that the successful Antillean writer needs the alterity, externality–a perpsective from “a necessary elsewhere” offered by crossing and returning. That is, distance engenders nostalgia and fosters a notion of authenticity. Departure implies arrival elsewhere, providing a vantage point from which to contemplate. Crossing itself becomes the creative space in which identity is formed.
Suk goes on to examine the Antillean identity, drawing on Glissant’s Le Discours antillais for an epistemological model based on missing origins, indirect approaches and repeated departures. Glissant’s “antillanité” as an in-between space leads to reflections on the absences and discontinuties of Antillean history. Suk also follows the evolution of négritude to antillanitéby moving from the Retour of Césaire, to Glissant’s idea of “détour,” which shifts focus away from “origins” (or the loss thereof) to a “point d’intrication” where ancestry, languages and cultures have converged. That is, Glissant makes use of these historical gaps in a productive rather than negative way. Suk develops the idea of traumas a paradoxical model because horrific events are both suppressed and ever-present. Glissant’s notion of “détour” thus offers a process for the painful but necessary reconstruction of memory in the absence of a collective one. The détour is characterized not by arrival, but by the in-between space of repeated departures. The paradoxical rupture of departures leads to a connection with others, permitting Antilleans to learn of their history through referential relationships with the histories of other Caribbean peoples.
Moving from theoretical works to the creative expression of créolité, Suk focuses on archetypal returns in two works by Maryse Condé. Both novels offer scenarios of female travelers from Guadeloupe to Africa via France. Each feels alienated in African culture and disillusioned by the independence of the 60s. Suk thus examines division, distancing, and failed returns as well as the role of Africa as the (failed) space of “retour.” InHérémakhonon, for example, the protagonist, Véronica, seeks a pre-slavery people without traumatic history to remind her of her fragile identity and discontinuous history. Her return to Africa fails, however, because she cannot control the boundaries of time. Her return is haunted by both the present and past.
Marie-Hélène, the protagonist in Condé’s Une saison à Rihata, remains in Africa. Like Veronica’s painful memories constantly invading the present, Marie-Hélène’s past and present sins and tragedies plague her family and generate feelings of guilt and blame. Colonization emasculated men, but decolonisation brought the double result of freedom and a rupture with tradition. Suk argues that Condé’s Africa is the site of both a preoccupation with origins and an anxiety about discontinuity. She develops Derrida’s claim that trauma, followed by rupture, creates the necessity and possibility for writing and history.
In “Allegory, Sorcery, and Historical Rewriting: Moi, Tituba, sorcière…Noire de Salem,” Suk examines Condé’s historical novel about a Barbadian slave who was tried during the Salem witch trials. The novel attempts to fill in the gaps of history caused by the displacement of slavery and the biased accounts of the colonizer. Suk’s focus is again on the use of allegory as a means of approaching historical truth. The autobiographical style gives voice and power to Tituba, who was previously silenced from history. Condé’s self-erasure from the narrative effectively reverses the role of traditional historians who speak from an authoritative position; her use of allegory permits a rewriting the symbolic boundaries imposed by the colonizer.
In the last chapter, “Representing Caribbean Crossings: Traversée de la mangrove,” Suk studies the Antillean literary use of the individual to represent of the collectivity as well as Condé’s innovative themes, writing style and gender politics. Suk challenges Françoise Lionnet’s remark that Antillean writing is developing a ‘rootedness.’ Although the crossing in this novel is the mangrove with its twisting roots rich in metaphors, Suk illustrates that Condé’s work is filled with irony, distance and renewed departure. Suk also questions the logic of Chamoiseau’s Eloge de la créolité, which functions on the binary of male-female hierarchy and privileges the male: “We will always be the sons of Aimé Césaire.” If créolité is gendered masculine, Suk counters, then it confronts the feminine in the form of traumatic space. This unreadable space needs to be explored; the voices need to be heard to become a part of the Antillean historical narrative.
Suk’s provocative study moves between theory and literature with clarity and ease. Students of francophone, postcolonial, and African and Caribbean studies will appreciate her direct and systematic approach to the complexity of the paradoxes Suk examines. Experts in the field will find excellent notes and references as well as helpful suggestions for further study. The paradoxes identified by Suk will no doubt generate further scholarly interest in Antillean as well as postcolonial studies.