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Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/Colonial Literature
Theory And Cultural Studies
Chris Bongie. Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/Colonial Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. vi + 527 pp.
In this ambitious book, Chris Bongie juxtaposes and interweaves a number of colonial and postcolonial texts. Many are by writers from the French Caribbean, but he also includes a range of Anglophone writers, including J.M. Coetzee, Kamau Brathwaite, William Faulkner and Keri Hulme (whose novel The Bone People, of course, includes Maori). In so doing, Bongie hopes to establish "a pattern of (un)likenesses" in colonial and post/colonial texts that will disrupt the notion of a linear (literary) historical narrative wherein colonial and postcolonial literatures are confined to their own particular historical periods and geographies and thus appear to be disconnected from one another. Perhaps more importantly, Bongie coins the term "post/colonial," with the slash indicating a relationality "in which two words and worlds appear uneasily as one, joined together and yet also divided in a relation of (dis)continuity." He distinguishes his term from "postcolonial," which he uses as "simply an historical marker" and "post-colonial," which he argues indicates a [End Page 1047] wholly liberating break from colonialism that can never be.
Indeed, Bongie argues that creolization necessarily embodies both a hearkening back to pure identity while at the same time it pushes toward a multiplicity of identities that cross-culturalism makes possible. We must keep both of these poles in mind when theorizing creolization, as the tension between them produces both deconstructive and reconstructive strategies that are necessary for conveying the complexities of a creolized world. Bongie's analysis reveals the difficulties that even theorists as sophisticated as Kamau Brathwaite and Edouard Glissant have in negotiating this tension; many often fall into the trap of emphasizing one over the other, "pure" identity rooted in a past that is only a fiction or a multiplicity that often leads to the homogenization that creolization should subvert. Bongie critiques Brathwaite, for example, to show that while Brathwaite's vision of a creolized society appears to celebrate the creative potential of diverse identities intermingling with one another, he ultimately keeps fixed notions of identity in place by turning to an essentialist ancestral past. Creolization may be a process of "mutation and adaptation," as Paul Gilroy explains it, but it is a process that mutates and adapts a distinguishable and originary identity. On the other hand, Glissant (who receives more attention than Brathwaite and whose novel Mahagony is central to the book) recognizes the need for deconstructing racial identity in his theory of metissage. Yet Glissant's commitment to a form of "relationality" also at times reverts to binarisms and even collective subjectivity that manage to both particularize and homogenize creolized identities. What Bongie shows in his analysis of these two figures is that the tension between a unitary foundational identity and an anti-essentialist multiplicity of identities must constantly be recognized, deconstructed, and reconstructed in order to avoid reducing identity to the idea of "origins" or naively celebrating the radical newness of a creolized identity that is in fact, not radical or new at all.
In his analysis of fiction, Bongie displays an impressive breadth as well as depth. In chapter 5, for instance, he traces various representations of Haiti and the Haitian revolution to show how a variety of writers reveal anxieties while they also question the fixity of identity by confronting the possibility of a creolized society. Moving from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! through Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of this World, Jules Levilloux's Les Creoles, Henrich von Kleist's "The Betrothal in San [End Page 1048] Domingo" and Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal, Bongie reads Haiti as a sign and site of the contradictions that animate both creolization itself and these writers' responses to it.
Bongie concludes his wide-ranging analysis with a chapter on Keri Hulme's The Bone People, offering it as a map of the kind of...