restricted access Staging Diaspora: Memory, Writing, and Antagonism in Maryse Condé's Desirada
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Staging Diaspora:
Memory, Writing, and Antagonism in Maryse Condé's Desirada

Born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to a 15-year-old mother who first tries to kill herself and then abandons her daughter to find work in France, the child Marie-Noëlle is blissfully unaware of the history of abuse, rape, and violence embedded in her family. When she turns 10, however, Marie-Noëlle learns that she must leave her Caribbean island and travel to France to rejoin the mother who had abandoned her as a child and now reclaims her. Marie-Noëlle suffers violent convulsions and falls into a coma for one week. From this traumatic emotional and physical dislocation, Maryse Condé weaves a novel of Marie-Noëlle's travels from the Caribbean to France and the United States, and back to the Caribbean, in a quest for the "truth" of the story of her birth, mysteriously entwined in the history of violence, rape, and abuse that permeates not only her own family but also the history of her people. Marie-Noëlle's personal story produces echoes of the history of the Caribbean, that always-already hybrid place whose "origins" are long gone—a space repopulated by Africans torn from their own land to be unwillingly transported elsewhere. As Desirada unfolds, we follow Marie-Noëlle as she travels through the diaspora forging new networks of relations with other displaced people, a phenomenon that Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih have called "minor transnationalism." As Lionnet and Shih write, "minor transnationalism" focuses on lateral networks that exist among (minor) people of different nations, and differs from "postcolonial studies," which have tended to focus on vertical relations between colonizer and colonized (11). Maryse Condé saturates her novel with a multiplicity of these minor transnationalisms, ever-shifting and life-sustaining horizontal relations, even though the novel ostensibly presents itself as one character's quest for origin. It is the antagonism between this transnationalism, grounded in an ethics/aesthetics of relationality, and the quest for origin, grounded in a metaphysics of presence, that I will be exploring here.

Theoretically, with its focus on the always-already hybrid nature of culture, Minor Transnationalism continues the work of Edouard Glissant's Poétique de la relation as well as Deleuze and Guattari's work on the rhizome. Lionnet and Shih describe the transnational as "conceived as a space of exchange and participation [End Page 71] wherever processes of hybridization occur," and underscore its difference from the logic of globalization, which "assumes a universal core or norm, which spreads out across the world while pulling into its vortex other forms of culture to be tested by its norm" (5). To situate my reading of Desirada a bit more, I would like to turn to the introduction of The Black Atlantic, where Paul Gilroy explains his focus on "the rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation I call the black Atlantic" (4). Here, Gilroy introduces his project as a theoretical intervention into the work of scholars whose ideas remained grounded in unexamined concepts of nationalism, cultural nationalism, and ethnic particularism: "Marked by its European origins, modern black political culture has always been more interested in the relationship of identity to roots and rootedness than in seeing identity as a process of movement and mediation . . ." (19). In order to shift focus away from theories grounded in an assumed purity or integrity of modern nation states, and to move attention to a relationality, a movement between spaces, Gilroy chooses the image of ships traveling through the spaces between Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and America: "Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, . . . on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs" (4). The image of ships traveling, then, serves to call attention to the reality of cultural, artistic, and political diffusion, influence, and integration at the same time as it keeps in human memory the historical atrocity of slave ships.

Maryse Condé's Desirada performs and sustains that same tension between the ever-present reality of hybridity and the past reality of...