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Page 4 American Book Review French Caribbean Lit in Translation Introduction to Focus: Nicole Simek, Focus Editor To write of French Caribbean literature in translation is at once to recognize a trend—the growing audience for French Caribbean texts in the US, matched by a growing number of English editions available to an American public—and to hint at a problem of audience at the very heart of the French Caribbean literary tradition, a problem that goes beyond that of the concrete linguistic barriers that limit access to literary texts. To speak of French Caribbean literature in translation is to presuppose an identifiable “original” available for translation, a body of “French Caribbean” whose coherence has in fact been questioned by the very writers who have shaped this literary field. Martinican theorist and writer Édouard Glissant raised such a question in a 1984 interview, stating (fifty years after the inception of what has arguably become today a full-fledged French Caribbean canon): “I don’t believe that West Indian literature exists yet since literature supposes an action and a reaction between a public and an audience .” Five years later, the Creolist writers Raphaël Confiant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Jean Bernabé made a similar assertion in their manifesto, In Praise of Creoleness (1989): “Ours is a written production without an audience at home, deprived of the interaction between writers/readers which is necessary for any literature to exist.” Responding to comments like these in her 1993 essay, “Order, Disorder, Freedom, and the West Indian Writer,” Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé concurs: “Although it seems difficult to state seriously that West Indian literature does not exist, we agree easily that there is a crisis, a malaise,” she writes, further commenting in a 1995 interview: “Nobody reads on Guadeloupe…. So it is very frustrating to be a West Indian writer. When you go abroad, people know you and pay more attention to you. But at the same time, they are foreigners, and they don’t completely understand what you wanted to put in your book, what matters for you.” Scholar Mireille Rosello has pointed out that assertions like “French Caribbean literature does not exist” are not descriptive statements, but rhetorical gestures intended to call into question the terms “French Caribbean” and “literature,” the dominant frameworks within which Antillean writers must work in order to gain recognition. What is the Caribbean ? How does the qualifier “French” inflect the meaning of the term?At what point does a collection of texts become a “literature”? If the geographic borders of the Caribbean have been disputed—the term generally refers to the West Indies islands, but many invisible network of alienating forces and a sense of lack that is difficult to identify and combat. Yet, for writers such as Chamoiseau and Glissant, a crucial part of this process of alienation has been the political and cultural separation of the French Caribbean from its neighbors, the obscuring of historical ties and the inhibition of new forms of transnational, Caribbean political and economic relations that assimilation into France has produced. The writer’s task, as a number of contemporary authors see it, is double: to account for the specificity of the French Caribbean experience while also unearthing what assimilation has obscured, going beyond the confines of the French islands today to explore their Creoleness, their Americanness, and their place in a globalized world, to re-imagine their history and their futures. French Caribbean authors have insisted on the complexity of their collective history and on the dangers of assuming familiarity. The reviews that follow sample this trend in French Caribbean literature and criticism, outlining some of the specific approaches to this double task adopted by authors and critics—who seek to resituate the French Caribbean within a broader framework— as well their publishers, who have taken on the challenge of expanding access through translation to works too often considered too minor to market. Availability does not of course translate directly into comprehension, nor should it; French Caribbean authors, aware of a long tradition of colonial claims to mastery through ethnographic knowledge, have insisted, through both formal innovation and the content of their works, on the complexity of their collective history and...


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