Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 203-204
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An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing
An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing, ed. Sam Haigh. New York: Berg, 1999. 224 pp. ISBN 1-85973-3 cloth.
This ambitious collection of essays is a timely addition to the growing canon of francophone literary criticism. The valuable introduction by editor Sam Haigh sets the tone by providing a cogent historical overview of the colonization of Guadeloupe and Martinique, highlighting the paradox that "they have been French for longer than Calais, Strasbourg, or Nice" (1). This is followed by a thematically driven literary analysis of the politics of francophone writing in the region, from négritude to antillanité and créolité, that accompanied colonization and the transition from colony to overseas department, or DOM.
The twelve essays that follow this introduction, written by a selection of French and francophone scholars based in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the US, and Australia, examine a number of key issues and authors that form the core of literary and cultural creativity in the contemporary French Caribbean. These range from chapters on seminal authors such as Césaire, Fanon, and Saint-John Perse to readings of more recent writers like Glissant, Chamoiseau, and Maximin. Here, for example, Mary Gallagher effectively problematizes the construction of a signifying context for Perse's work, pointing out his ambiguity on themes of race and cultural identity that ultimately overdetermines whether the Nobel Laureate is to be claimed by the Caribbean or Europe. Similarly, Angela Chambers links Césaire's oeuvre to the growth of a political and a theoretical context for [End Page 203] francophonie by showing how the Cahier, in particular, articulated the anticolonialist rhetoric of négritude that contested the very metropolitan poetic universalisms that arguably helped produce it. And Patrick Williams's assessment of the importance of Fanon situates him as a postcolonial theorist of the Black Atlantic whose search for "an anti-essentialist model of blackness" establishes him as a precursor to such postcolonial critics as Bhabha and Said. Through "his awareness of how colonial ideology constructs its meanings through a system of representations" (57), Fanon becomes a critical progenitor of both blackness and Caribbeanness.
The effectiveness of such worthwhile essays lies in their recognition of and insistence upon the distinctive nature of francophone Caribbean cultural difference and thus of the politics of identity implicit in its literary forms. These assumptions are then buttressed by placing contemporary authors within an incontestably postcolonial framework where Caribbean historical and cultural specificities interrogate the very validity of the relationship that grounds the DOM. Thus Britton's outstanding essay on Glissant--perhaps the most important and influential contemporary Caribbean thinker--highlights the importance in his work of "the dynamic, internally differentiated collective consciousness" (147) as a discursive re-presentation of the pluralism that links Caribbean identities, and Crosta's analyses of créoliste work by Chamoiseau and Confiant insists on "the need to break with colonial expectations of literature at the level of both form and content" (162). Analytically, the one caveat is the chapter entitled "Challenges to Writing Literature in Creole," where an increasingly prevalent perspective on the pernicious nature of French assimilationism predicts the imminent demise of creole, here the result of the proscription in schools, the complexity of its orthographic system, its textual invisibility in local bookstores, and the increasing modernization visible in patterns of daily life. Since each of these elements also informs the penetration of creole in the anglophone Caribbean, their transcultural presence renders such presumed specificities moot, while in real terms, creole's key role in the day-to-day life of so much of the region's population renders this risk of disappearance a veritable nonevent.
Importantly, the book also treats in depth the ways in which women writers and their discourses, from marginalized precursors like Mayotte Capécia through established writers like Simone Schwarz-Bart and Maryse Condé to more recent arrivals like Gisèle Pineau, have sought to reverse the traditional "double colonization" of women in the region and to articulate a...