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The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature by Valérie Loichot (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 157-159 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0041

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Valérie Loichot’s The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature attributes the centrality of the food metaphor in Caribbean literatures to Columbus’s “linguistic error,” which translated an Amerindian tribal name “into an explorer’s warning: canìbal” (vii). With the discourse of cannibalism arising out of European colonization, Loichot emphasizes that this stereotype of indigenous and enslaved Caribbean peoples was the result of a psychic displacement, a projection of Europe’s material and discursive violence onto the Other America it colonized and exploited. Caribbean culture is therefore responsive to the foundational imagining of the Caribbean’s relationship to food as pathological. The primary concern of The Tropics Bite Back is to show how Caribbean writers adopt a strategy of literary cannibalism to reclaim the trope of food pathology and reinvigorate it as a symbolically rich mode of discursive resistance.

In her introductory chapter, Loichot identifies three phases of cultural resistance present within what she calls the “tropical” or “cannibal” zone of the Caribbean, which “is marked by a common agriculture of cash crops, plantation economy, a history of slavery (as origin or destination), and colonial exploitation” (xi). With folktales as emblematic of the first stage that revises the cannibal imaginary, Caribbean cultural production upsets the association of Europeans with civilization by depicting them as cannibalistic. Rather than reversing the pathology equation, the second phase reclaims the image of the cannibal as a productive metaphor for outlining the unique relationship of the Caribbean to European culture. Suzanne Césaire is one writer that Loichot cites as a model for this cannibalistic second stage. The post-cannibalistic third phase, which is heralded by the work of Maryse Condé, no longer identifies the “colonizing nation” as an “essential cultural reference” (xiii). Loichot provides a more in-depth distinction between “literary colonialism” and “literary cannibalism” in chapter 5, which places Césaire and Condé in dialogue. This concluding chapter emphasizes how literary colonialism narrates the Caribbean through an exoticizing lens that subjugates “landscape, flora, fauna, humans, and texts to an imperial gaze and desire” (141). Meanwhile, the ethical drive of Caribbean literary cannibalism highlights the “fallacy of legitimacy” that rationalizes European colonialism (144) and turns the consuming gaze back onto European literature, “devour[ing] fragments of text” (141).

The rhizomatic structure of The Tropics Bite Back is very much indebted to Édouard Glissant, whose theoretical frameworks were center-stage in Loichot’s previous monograph, Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse (2007). Each chapter in Loichot’s new book features an instructive detour that illuminates the analysis of the primary subject by providing a broader vision of relevant cultural and historical contexts. For example, chapter 1 offers an intriguing analysis of the symbolic significance behind Glissant’s choice of the Indo-Caribbean dish masala to ground his theories of Caribbean culture. This chapter routes the unique imaginative potential of masala through the historical context of Martinique’s food-import dependency upon France and through the trope of “Creole Stew” as a form of pan-Caribbean creative production (14). Chapter 2 focuses on the pathological dichotomy of hunger and gluttony within the work of Patrick Chamoiseau and Aimé Césaire, with a detour into the fascinating colonial context of talking birds in the writing of Georges-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon), Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, Jean-Baptiste Labat, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Chapter 3 consciously deploys an innovative braiding methodology, looping back and forth between the “kitchen narratives” of Edwidge Danticat and Gisèle Pineau while also engaging a critical context on the intersection (and conflict) between domesticity and creativity in Maryse Condé, Myriam Chancy, and Paule Marshall. Chapter 4 makes the provocative case that Dany Laferrière and Gisèle Pineau write “fake pornography” (104), which depicts eating and sexuality as twin pathological appetites (107). In order to explain how these works play with the expectations of a “touristic reader” (104), Loichot offers Frantz Fanon as a useful intertextual reference for interpreting the significance of the Banania commercial figure for Laferrière, while also excavating the culinary, sexual, and folkloric significance of pimiento as symbol in Pineau. The monograph closes by initiating an...

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