- Of Suffocated Hearts and Tortured Souls: Seeking Subjecthood through Madness in Francophone Women’s Writing of Africa and the Caribbean
In Of Suffocated Hearts and Tortured Souls Valérie Orlando develops her own notion of the Deleuzo-Guattarian theory of "becoming-woman" that she first proposed in Nomadic Voices of Exile: Feminine Identity in Francophone Literature of the Maghreb (1999). This valuable sequel investigates madness as a common theme chosen by female francophone authors when they invent protagonists who are marginalized by traditional hegemony, who live in an entre-deux between cultures, or who find themselves exiled from conventional support systems.
Orlando explains that clashes between modern and traditional spheres have triggered a host of psychological disorders in francophone men and women—ones to which authors are no more immune than their subjects. In order to expand the possibilities of Deuleuze and Guattari's Mille plateaux,she draws on psychoanalytic, philosophical, and contemporary literary theory developed primarily by women both to illustrate and to counter Freudian and Lacanian work that she believes has "retarded women's access to public agency" and that "[will] take women years to dismantle" (15). She notes that women theorists, in particular, have distinguished themselves [End Page 175] within the realms of social and literary criticism by investigating women's social conditions and bringing them to the attention of other women. For that reason, she draws heavily upon the work of such author/theorists as Fatima Mernissi, Evelyne Accad, Clarisse Zimra, Assia Djebar, Maryse Condé, and Gayatri Spivak, whose discourses provide a uniquely humanist and often "wumanist" approach to social critique.
In Of Suffocated Hearts and Tortured Souls Orlando explores the novels of a dozen francophone women authors—who themselves are not mad—but who create states of extradiegetic madness in their work for the purpose of studying "the female condition within the realm of fiction—one that perhaps will offer women authors the way to re-create a women's way, a new set of ethics for and about women" (18). Situated at the problematic point where otherness, exile, and marginality converge, the heroines in the novels studied deal with their insanity and tend to evolve in three distinct directions: a few succumb to the madness and are never again capable of escaping it; others survive temporary mental illness and learn to cope at least minimally with their exigent circumstances; the fortunate find a way to construct a positive space out of the confusion and tragedy of their lives and succeed in becoming free and productive citizens. These constructive survivors are no longer constrained to live on what Keith Walker calls "the hyphen of cultural identity." Instead of conceiving of the hyphen as a negative and divisive trait, they learn to see it as a link that integrates their past experiences into a fully realized "multicultureality."
The authors whose work Orlando examines are similar in many ways to the women they have written about. Their trajectories may explain why so many women francophone authors have chosen madness as a prevailing theme in their novels. The author quotes Werewere Liking, who states that "a lunatic language must be born to allow lunatics to express themselves in the face of an age of lunacy" (14). In addition, she also notes that "[s]peaking from exile, Assia Djebar attests that her existence depends on her writing and that she must always write as if tomorrow were her last day" (14). The personal biographies of these authors reflect the hyphens that connect their own cultural, linguistic, and national challenges and their own successes in becoming productive and proactive authors.
The novels Valérie Orlando chooses to examine are wide-ranging in terms of their geographic origins and the taxing historic and cultural situations they illustrate and include both the works of celebrated and lesser known women francophone novelists. Although the attention paid to each of the dozen novels varies to some extent, the author's reasoning is...