- Writing from the Hearth: Public, Domestic, and Imaginative Space in Francophone Women’s Fiction of Africa and the Caribbean
Writing from the Hearth explores African and Afro-Caribbean women’s transient identities via spatial imagery. Using a pluridisciplinary theoretical framework, Mildred Mortimer distinguishes between space and place: space representing openness and freedom, and place security and stability. This distinction shapes the spatial rubric that both organizes and accounts for how the novels explore women’s social positions, the colonial impact, and the importance of hearth. Mortimer assays eight benchmark novels whose authors, according to her, act as custodians who articulate the quest of colonized peoples in appropriating their history, geography, and collective memory. She analyzes the ambivalent nature of the hearth by focusing on four main categories of spaces: public space, the nurturing hearth, the cold hearth, and the mobility of home. She pairs the novels according to this distinction, and analyzes how female characters navigate their surroundings (Aoua Kéita and Maryse Condé, Mariama Bâ and Simone Schwarz-Bart, Calixthe Beyala and Marie Chauvet, Aminata Sow Fall and Edwige Danticat).
The preface exposes women’s struggle for empowerment and how they link “the search of place to the search of self.” Women encounter difficulties when trying to control physical and social spaces, and their interior journeys are crucial, as women often perceive home as a place of alienation and confinement. Mortimer uses imaginative spaces as a point of departure for her analysis, examining “the protagonist’s movement through and transformation of the spaces she inhabits: her body, her home, her city.”
The first chapter addresses the theoretical underpinnings of space, place, and gender. Mortimer establishes the necessity of using disciplines beyond literature and beyond the Francophone field to grasp the polysemous concept of space, using “these concepts as coordinates of a map that will guide us in our journey through the texts.” To that end, she skillfully synthesizes various approaches to space, using works of historians, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, phenomenologists, and (post)colonial theorists, including Michel Foucault, Gillian Rose, Yi-Fu Tuan, Gaston Bachelard, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha. Drawing on these different theoretical frameworks, Mortimer defines the salient concept of home, dissects “the affective bond between people and place or setting,” and establishes the existence of alternative spaces that can help women redefine and control their domestic space.
In the four following chapters, Mortimer delivers a close textual analysis informed by the framework she develops in the preface and the first chapter. Through her different categories of hearth and home, Mortimer analyzes how women develop a sense of self by transforming constrained spaces and opening them. She demonstrates how, by using imaginative, “alternative” spaces, women not only turn the hearth into a space of performance and a site of resistance against patriarchy and colonialism, but also move beyond gendered and racial social boundaries. Mortimer’s analytical strategy mirrors the selected novels, an international and multidisciplinary framework that draws on multiple socioeconomic, geographical and migration factors over several generations. This approach transcends the boundaries that have typically compartmentalized Francophone postcolonialism studies. Mortimer’s foray off a well-worn academic path may well redefine it. [End Page 133]