- Postcolonial Francophone Autobiographies:From Africa to the Antilles by Edgard Sankara
Sankara’s volume in University of Virginia Press’s wide-ranging series aims to survey francophone life writing on both the African continent and in the Caribbean, an ambitious project on which he asserts there has been “a paucity of scholarship” (1). His reading of autobiographical writing through reception theory contrasts the audiences in France and the writers’ birthplaces that such narratives address, bringing it into conversation with postcolonial studies. This is a welcome aim, as African and Euro-American receptions can differ significantly.
Sankara’s understanding of autobiography as involving a first-person singular account “centered around the development of the author’s personality” (54) suggests his adherence to Lejeune’s traditional definition of 1971; notions of a fixed “self” have, however, been problematized by scholars (including Lejeune) since postmodernism. In addition, Sankara’s focus on six authors is selective rather than inclusive. In the case of Senegalese author Kesso Barry, a more prolific autobiographical writer such as Ken Bugul, Nafissatou Diallo, or Calixthe Beyala might have been chosen and could challenge his conclusion that “Caribbean writers bring more innovative elements to the autobiographical genre than their African counterparts” (163).
Each chapter identifies a particular problematic. For example, Sankara reads Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s late Amkoullel as self-theorizing about the unreliability of memory and argues that Bâ’s shift in old age from ethnographic tales to memoir signals “his ambiguity in constructing his Self out of the colonial encounter” (51). Sankara effectively elucidates how “a voice that would not challenge the ‘positive’ aspects” of colonialism in Bâ’s memoir has led to its curricular canonization in France, but also to its dismissal as outdated by some African writers (50). In contrast, he insightfully discusses Valentine Mudimbé’s philosophical autobiography as the essayistic story of an exceptional being employing a Western phenomenological lens to sketch his oblique relation to colonialism. While Sankara does not pursue his intriguing suggestion to read [End Page 205] Les Corps glorieux des mots et des êtres as an immigrant autobiography (73), his account of this complex text is probing.
Sankara’s method is most effective in the chapters on Martinician writers Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, whose autobiographical works he reads as defending and engaging Creole language and culture. While Sankara does not extensively discuss Chamoiseau’s three-volume Une Enfance créole, he explores the tripartite subject engaged through its three personal-singular pronouns, focusing on Chamoiseau’s address to his unstable memory as a theoretical intervention (if one shared by autobiographers from Augustine to Mary McCarthy). Similarly, Sankara reads Confiant’s autobiographical work to age nine, Ravines du devant jour, as subverting French-language hegemony through Creole usage and framing. His analysis of the paradoxes of its reception suggests how transnational theory can inform detailed comparison of reception in local and metropolitan contexts.
Sankara’s analysis is, however, less insightful on questions of gendered discourse in francophone autobiographical works, partly because it rarely references decades of rich scholarship by Lionnet, D’Almeida, Mortimer, Harrow, and others. Although he helpfully reads Kesso Barry’s Princesse Peulhe as an innovatively transgressive self-representation, his model depends on a binary model of gender that forecloses any “gender-neutral” ground of women’s assertion and treats Barry’s challenge to fixed racial and class boundaries as “merely” confessional. His reluctance to engage Barry’s prescient critique of female genital mutilation, a focus of recent human rights studies, seems surprising.
With Guadeloupe-born Maryse Condé, Sankara probes the fiction-autobiography boundary in three texts, including her 1999 life narrative, translated as Tales from the Heart. He focuses on “autobiographical space,” defined as “the rewriting of her Self through personal characters” (144). But in reading Condé’s texts as attempting rapprochement with a postcolonial African world alienated by her critical representation of it, Sankara treats them as transparently biographical. His dismissal of the narrative as “devoid of … humor” (155) differs from this reader’s sense of Condé’s...