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Reading and Danger: The Emerging Writer in Maryse Condé’s and Gisèle Pineau’s Autofiction

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, 2012
pp. 248-264 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0039

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In Le Cœur à rire et à pleurer and L’Exil Selon Julia, Maryse Condé and Gisèle Pineau narrate the journeys of their semi-fictional younger selves from the dangers and pleasures of reading to those of writing.1 Their texts shed light on women’s ambiguous relationship to books, while suggesting that the postcolonial contexts the characters live in multiply the dangers of reading. According to feminist critics, reading for women is paradoxical: an alienating experience that “[requires them] to identify against [themselves]” (Fetterley 565), and yet one that helps them acquire self-awareness and freedom and initiates them into thinking that a different social order is thinkable and hence possible, thus making them dangerous to the established order (Adler 14–16). Condé and Pineau’s narratives reveal how the colonialist or racist ideologies that permeate the books they read and the contexts in which they read them complicate the equivocal nature of reading for young girls. Comparing Condé’s and Pineau’s portrayals of the reader allows us to analyze how the circumstances of each act of reading contribute to its outcome. In this article, I examine to what extent these circumstances affect the way the reader-protagonist situates herself vis-à-vis the texts she reads, how she identifies with or against certain characters, and to what degree these identifications in turn influence her development.

The dangers for children reading metropolitan texts in a (post)colonial context are similar to the dangers of reading for women in a patriarchal setting. Thus, Judith Fetterley’s argument that the patriarchal literary tradition “[asks the female reader] to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her” (Fetterley 565) parallels Frantz Fanon’s argument that the colonized identifies against himself when he makes the colonizer’s language and values his own (Fanon 14). The alienating effects of reading are well documented in Francophone and Anglophone postcolonial writers’ works that suggest that the alienation caused by reading colonialist texts is at least three-fold. First, these texts tend to alienate readers from their physical environments. Second, because the texts often set up cultural norms that debase the native culture, they lead to cultural alienation and third, the texts may also alienate readers from a positive sense of self. For instance, Doris Lessing poignantly illustrates the alienation from one’s environment when she conveys the estrangement of the English girl living in Rhodesia in the following terms:

a small girl whose eyes were sightless for anything but a pale willowed river, a pale gleaming castle … This child could not see a msasa tree, or the thorn, for what they were. Her books held tales of alien fairies, … and she knew ... the names of the little creatures that lived in English streams, when the words ‘the veld’ meant strangeness, though she could remember nothing else. Because of this, for many years, it was the veld that seemed unreal; the sun was a foreign sun, and the wind spoke a strange language.

Here, the authority embedded in books makes the fictitious world more real than the actual one, alienating her from it and delegitimizing her experiential knowledge and memories. The repetition of the word strange(ness) and its synonyms—“unreal,” “foreign”—, as well as the references to blindness underscore the power of books.2

In telling her story, Jamaica Kincaid portrays the imposition of a foreign landscape on colonized subjects via canonical texts—here William Wordsworth’s “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (a.k.a. “Daffodils”)—and highlights the link between the alienation from one’s landscape and culture and the imposition of the colonial power. As the protagonist Lucy tells her employer about Wordsworth’s poem: “do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn by heart a long poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?” (Lucy 30). She then links the gap between one’s environment and the natural scenes imposed in canonical texts to the imperial project: “I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene … of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes” (30). Kincaid...



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