- Writing from the Hearth: Public, Domestic, and Imaginative Space in Francophone Women's Fiction of Africa and the Caribbean
In her book Writing from the Hearth: Public, Domestic, and Imaginative Space in Francophone Women's Fiction of Africa and the Caribbean, Mildred Mortimer incisively explores women's journeys toward empowerment and self-realization. Beginning where her 1990 work, Journeys through the Francophone African Novel, ended, she examines women's transformation of constraining, silencing, imprisoning, and confining patriarchal structures into a liberating "alternative" space, one that both "embodies the sense of change—an "altered" space—and . . . expresses choice—resistance to the status quo" (24–25). As Mortimer deftly demonstrates, the alternative space is "open, flexible, and multipurpose"; it "can function as a refuge (for meditation, memory, or dream)" or it can be "a preparatory ante-chamber for future activity, a site of resistance, a place of performance—where writing, orality, and art in varied forms convey woman's sense of self" (24–25). Throughout this work, she leads scholars on a transatlantic journey that delves into the realities of migration and diasporic space, traversing national, cultural, geographic (West Africa, the Caribbean, New York), linguistic (English, French, and Creole), temporal (1692–present), and socioeconomic ("rural and urban poor to the bourgeoisie") spaces, and linking women's experiences throughout Africa and the Caribbean (187). [End Page 238]
Through close readings of nine texts, Mortimer explores the relationship "between the female subject and the space(s) she inhabits or moves through–with ease or discomfort" and the journey toward empowerment (2). In her chapter on women and public space, she shows the importance of Aoua Kéita's autobiography, Femme d'Afrique, la vie d'Aoua Kéita racontée par ellemême, and Maryse Condé's fictional autobiography, Moi Tituba sorcière . . . noire de Salem, texts that "secure women's place in history," "chart a woman's journey into public space," and detail their "struggle against patriarchal oppression" (53). In her next chapter she examines the warm, nurturing hearth as a potential locus of woman's empowerment through Mariama Bâ's Une si longue letter and Simone Schwartz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Télumée-Miracle. Home ownership is central to the eventual empowerment of the protagonists in each novel. Indeed, "both texts conclude with a woman speaking from a domestic space she calls her home" (112). Mortimer's chapter concerning the cold hearth reminds us that "domestic space is not immune from verbal or physical violence" (118). Indeed, Calixthe Beyala's novel C'est le soleil qui m'a brûlée and her heavily autobiographical work La petite fille du réverbère, along with Marie Chauvet's novel Amour, all portray home as unsafe, a prison, oppressive, violent, and claustrophobic. Their protagonists struggle for empowerment and self-realization by "imagining the protective hearth that exists in memory, dream, and imagination" (119). Finally, her chapter on mobile homes studies Aminata Sow Fall's Douceurs du bercail, and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory. While quite different in focus and scope, both works "affirm that when journeys are successful . . . the understanding, clarity of vision, and empowerment occurs in whatever space—or multiple spaces—individuals and communities choose to call home" (184).
The breadth and depth of this work's theoretical foundation makes it a must read for scholars across a wide array of disciplines. Its importance also lies in the richness and diversity of the chosen texts and is underscored by the quality of Mortimer's close textual readings. Finally, it is her insightful and adept crossing of the boundaries that continue to divide scholars and scholarship of francophone literature today that makes it a journey worth taking. [End Page 239]