Récits des Antilles: Le Bois de la Soufrière, suivis d'un choix de poèmes
This volume appears in the series Autrement Mêmes, conceived and directed by Roger Little, emeritus professor at Trinity College, Dublin. The series aims to bring to the public little-known but significant works concerning slavery, the black diaspora, and the post-colonial Francophone world, broadly defined as including all the former French colonies from the moment they were established. Fifteen titles have appeared so far, and at least twenty-eight more are planned, including Professor Paliyenko's edition of Mme A. Cashin's Amour et liberté: Abolition de l'esclavage.
Having begun her career by writing about the anxiety of influence in nineteenth and twentieth-century French poetry, Adrianna Paliyenko is now preparing a major reexamination of nineteenth-century French women's poetry, focusing on concepts of genius, in the tradition of Joan de Jean's study of the myth of Sappho in France. Paliyenko's feminocentric recuperation of neglected, underrated authors extends to those who treat "post-colonial" subjects in Little's sense. Among these women, Anaïs Ségalas (1814-1893) poses the special problem of being politically incorrect. Her mother was Creole, but she herself was born in Paris, and in her writings she only imagines the colonies, which she never visited. Before she married at 15, she made her future husband promise not to interfere with her poetic vocation, but she seems at times to consider both women and blacks as inferior. Paliyenko's forty-page introduction teases out the complexities of Ségalas's attitude.
The Récits des Antilles reveal progressive nineteenth-century French attitudes as they were, not as they ought to have been. The work therefore deserves study as a cultural document. Paliyenko explains that Ségalas sympathized with the blacks without considering them as equal (IX). Moreover, her collection of verse, Les Algériennes (1831), which appeared the year after the French conquest of Algiers, sharpened the debate over slavery by presenting it from the viewpoint of a captive French soldier ("L'Esclave"; we tend to forget that slavery was as common in the Muslim as in the Christian colonial world). Anticipating Assia Djebar's feminist L'Amour, la Fantasia, but from the colonizers' viewpoint, "Les Françaises à Alger" celebrates two women warriors decorated for valor. "Le Voyageur" from Les Oiseaux de passage (1836) clearly differentiates between skin color and moral value. "Le Sauvage" firmly refuses a white man's invitation to leave an idyllic existence to travel to sophisticated cities in the industrial world. [End Page 438]
Ségalas's conformist view of women's role as softening social injustice and blunting cruelty leads her to oppose the institution of slavery (XXII-XXIII), and proffer the "poor ignorant blacks" her civilizing assiduities. Her heroines' very kindness and gentleness preserve their hierarchical superiority. The grotesque figures of Jupiter and his son Coco underline this racist vision in the Récits des Antilles (1885). There, forty years after emancipation (1848), Ségalas seems to lament that the civilizing effects hoped for through abolishing slavery have not yet appeared, and might never do so. An aged former slave even complains that the old and the sick were better cared for by the whites during the era of slavery. The Congress of Berlin (1884-85), during which most of Africa was arbitrarily divided among the European powers, may have created a moral climate that encouraged this recrudescence of paternalistic thought (XXXV). Ségalas, "a novelist of imperialism" who nevertheless is sensitive to the feelings and outlook of the Other, illustrates the transitional period when France, having recently ended slavery, was preparing to plunge into new imperialistic adventures. Adrianna Paliyenko performs a valuable service by resurrecting Ségalas's competent depiction, in traditional odes and in prose tales, of the Métropole's equivocal attitudes toward "lesser races" during the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century.